What Pinterest brings to the semantic web

What Pinterest brings to the semantic web

In July 2013, I found myself mind-blown by the amount of referral traffic my wife’s fitness & recipe website was getting from Pinterest.


I mentioned this in a comment on Google+, and from there, my friend and social media strategist +Peg Fitzpatrick hooked me on using Pinterest for business. Plain and simple.


Fast-forward through the balance of this year, and I have found myself geeking out on the various ways Pinterest can benefit you from a search, strategic, and traffic standpoint. My affinity for the developments in search, and the semantic web, have helped me look at Pinterest in a way that really opened my eyes to its potential for companies looking to tell their story online. Pinterest has also done its part, making some big improvements this year to the way it is handling data. We’ll talk about that below.

But, this article isn’t about me, it’s about you, and how you could use Pinterest in your marketing strategy. So let’s get started.

What the Pinterest platform brings to online marketing

Before we dive into the specifics of Pinterest and the semantic web, let’s talk about what the platform offers its users.


It’s billed as a “social network” but there aren’t many “social” features on Pinterest. You cannot organize the boards or people you follow into themes or groups, like you can on Twitter (lists), Facebook (lists), or Google+ (circles). There is also no way at this time to do this with a third party tool. So, we’re left sifting through an endless stream of pins from the people and boards we follow, which is essentially removing the user from the pin. In other words, you follow someone not because you care about them, rather, you are interested in the things they have on their Pinterest board.

But you can also search for what interests you (which reinforces my previous point). And Pinterest does a good job with search. It supports hashtags and has a number of categories that will help people find what they’re looking for.

More on search below, in the Structured Data section.


Pinterest is probably one of the most anti-social of the social networks. It wasn’t built as one, it was built as a way to scrapbook and catalog things that interest you. Your boards are yours, targeted to your interests, for your consumption. We marketers kind of took over and tried to bring the social networking and “content marketing” culture to it. I mean, face it, if I find one of your boards on, say, landscape lighting, and am totally amazed by all your pins, we have something in common, so why wouldn’t I want to spark up a relationship?

Hopefully Pinterest gets better at the social networking and interaction features on their platform, but until then, we play with the hand we’re dealt. If you are interested in building a relationship with the people you follow, leave comments on pins when you can, and consider connecting with them on other platforms (like their blog, email list, Twitter, Facebook, Google+, etc.) so you can interact with them and continue to share ideas.

Content Curation

Curating content is the whole point of Pinterest. On the personal side, you would curate things that are of interest to you. On the business side, you can curate your own content into a single, easy-to-find place that you can promote. More on that later, but as an example, here’s a board I set up to show all the Hangouts On Air I’m appearing on each week. Since pins can exist on several boards at once, you can also get very specific and targeted with the type of board you create.

Structured Data

If there’s one thing that made me realize the impact Pinterest was making on the search and online marketing world, it was its continuous adoption of structured data.

What is structured data? It’s a way to mark up your web page into sections that tell search engines and applications what kind of content is on the page. By example, let’s take a recipe for Buffalo Cauliflower Bites (these are so good by the way). On one hand, the web page with this recipe is a single page with lots of words and a picture. On the other hand, it is also:

  • An ingredients list
  • A photo
  • Reviews
  • Directions
  • Commentary

Now, if the web page contains structured data markup that defines each of those sections as parts of a whole, a search engine can store the entire web page, and the sections within, more efficiently.

Why does this matter? Watch: let’s say you searched for “healthy alternative to buffalo wings”, the structured data in the recipe above would actually help the search engine recommend your recipe, as follows:

  • It knows hot sauce is an ingredient in buffalo wings, and your recipe has hot sauce listed as an ingredient
  • You said at some point in your commentary that this is a healthy alternative to buffalo wings
  • The directions reference a light dredging in flour, so the hot sauce wasn’t part of a dip or anything, and the prep is similar to buffalo wings
  • Lots of people gave this recipe a good review

In a non-structured search environment, you would have to rely on your web page having lots of traditional search engine optimization techniques, like tons of references to buffalo wings on the page. But, this is a recipe for buffalo cauliflower bites, not wings.

This distinction is why search engines are starting to encourage more use of structured data; so they can piece together the parts of your web page more efficiently, and analyze them in a way that will deliver the best answer to the question being asked in their search box. The more times that happens with success, the more the user trusts the search engine, and the more time they spend on the site.

So, how does Pinterest use structured data?

Easy, to better categorize the things being pinned on their site, so their search function can be more reliable. If you are searching for recipes, or travel destinations, or products, or simply articles about a certain topic, Pinterest will do a better job at returning those web pages that have been pinned. Even if the image in the pin wasn’t the best representation of the search.

Now here’s where it really gets juicy…

Pinterest and the Semantic Web

pinterest-semantic-searchBest-selling author, David Amerland, describes the semantic web as being able to understand the intent of a search, and deliver the best personalized answer instead of a list of choices. How a search engine arrives at the best answer is due in large part to the reputation of the various websites it indexes for those keywords, but also to the relationship and interest graphs it has created around you.

Interest graph. Pinterest. Has the lightbulb gone off yet?

That’s right, Pinterest users are building an interest graph for themselves with every. single. pin. And that’s why Pinterest wants to incorporate more structured data. Obviously, the more specific and reliable the data about a web page, the easier it is for them to understand the intent of the user when they pinned it…to a specific board, with a title and description that tells Pinterest what the board is about.

Oh but it gets better…

Pinterest is built as a scrapbooking site, right? Perfect for building wish-lists, and other boards that ultimately display intent to buy. Stats are coming out about this every day, from big brands and even B2B products. People ultimately buy most of the things they pin. Even if they don’t, the more you know about your buyer’s interest, the easier it is to develop products and services that they will buy.

And better still…

Pinterest and Online Marketing

You were waiting for this part, right? Thanks for being patient, I needed to lay the foundation for why the platform brings so much value to a company looking to put its products or services in the hands of buyers.

To recap, here’s what we know Pinterest offers its users:

  • Search for what interests you
  • Curate and cull those things into boards
  • Pin from anywhere on the web, or even upload yourself
  • Structured data features like mappable pins (a travel board), wish lists (products with self-adjusting prices) recipes and more
  • Connected social accounts

The connected social accounts part plays into the semantic web and interest graph section above. You see, in the semantic web, people will be more influenced by personal recommendations than those from complete strangers. So, by encouraging users to connect their accounts to Twitter, Facebook, and Google+, Pinterest can map users’ relationships and analyze them in tandem with search results.

In a way, Pinterest is very similar to Google+. It’s built on interests, not relationships, uses reputation signals as part of its search algorithm, and is publicly indexed by search engines (to use each of the platforms, you obviously have to have an account, but the pins, profiles, and boards are all indexed in search).

By using structured data with its pins, Pinterest is helping Google build the semantic web faster. Even as structured data adoption grows (this is still relatively new stuff), Pinterest is helping Google build interest graphs and map relationships.

For marketers, Pinterest offers you a way, in the public domain, to appeal to people at a level that isn’t social, but has commercial intent. You really couldn’t ask for anything better…no need to spend hours socializing and responding to negative mentions of your brand. You control your own boards, which means you can make them as marketing-oriented as you want. Create temporary boards around contests, events, news, and more.

Every repin from your company’s boards tell Pinterest, and search engines like Google, that those people are interested in that topic. When those people are logged into their Google account, chances are they’ll see ads across Google properties and the Google Display Network (GDN) that relate to those topics. This isn’t creepy by the way, it’s relevant, targeted advertising. Everybody wins when this happens.

Here’s the bottom line: if your business becomes active on Pinterest, the semantic reach of your pins goes far beyond just the network itself. You have the ability to tell your story, and put pieces of content out there that could have a direct impact on your target customer’s decision to buy, click, or sign up.

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About Stephan Hovnanian

I own Shovi Websites, a website design and email marketing company located outside Boston. I spend my days managing websites and staying up to speed with all the latest trends across the web so you don't have to.

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