AI-Powered Semantic Search: Everything You Need to Know

JD Prater

September 25, 2023

Table of Contents

Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you're craving something specific, but your search engine just doesn't get it? That was me the other day. I had a hankering for authentic Italian cuisine—think homemade pasta and a wine list that transports you straight to Tuscany.

I eagerly typed 'best Italian restaurants near me' into my search engine, fully expecting to uncover some hidden local gems with rave reviews. Instead, what I got was a list of popular Italian chain restaurants, none of which were even in my neighborhood. It felt like my search engine and I were speaking different languages.

If you've ever shared a similar frustration, you're in the right place.

This blog post dives deep into the transformative world of semantic search—a technology that promises to make such misunderstandings a thing of the past. We'll explore its groundbreaking use cases and understand its far-reaching impact across various fields, from internal knowledge management to e-commerce and chatbots and beyond.

What is Semantic Search?

Before we explore the myriad of ways semantic search is revolutionizing our digital lives, let's demystify what it actually means. Trust me, it's not as complex as it sounds!

What is semantic search?
Semantic search analyzes the intent and context behind search queries, rather than just the keywords.

The Magic Behind the Search Bar

Ever typed a query into Google and marveled at how it seemed to read your mind? That's semantic search in action. Unlike traditional search methods that focus solely on keywords, semantic search goes a step further. It considers the intent and context behind your search terms to deliver results that are truly relevant to you.

Four Pillars of Semantic Search AI

Here's what sets semantic search apart and improves the way employees interact with their company's internal knowledge base.

  1. User Intent Recognition: Have you ever searched for "Java" and found that the search engine somehow knew you were looking for programming tutorials rather than information about the Indonesian island? That's semantic search at work, understanding your intent based on your search behavior and context.
  2. Contextual Understanding: Imagine searching for "how to tie a tie." A semantic search engine won't just throw text-based results at you; it'll show you videos and step-by-step guides because it understands that you're likely looking for a visual tutorial.
  3. Personalized Results: The more you search, the smarter it gets. Semantic search uses your search history to tailor results specifically for you, making each search more relevant and efficient than the last.
  4. Enhanced Collaboration: By making internal documents more easily accessible, semantic search fosters better collaboration among departments. Team members can find what they need without having to disrupt a colleague's workflow to ask for it.
Lexical vs semantic search

What's the Difference between Semantic Search and Keyword Search?

Gone are the days when finding the right information online felt like a game of keyword bingo. Semantic search has ushered in a new era where your search engine understands you almost as well as you understand yourself.

Ready to find out more about the benefits of semantic search and how it's transforming the way we search online?

How Semantic Search Improves Online Discovery

Okay, we've already seen how semantic search is better than exact match keyword search. It's like having a conversation with your search engine, and who wouldn't want that? But the benefits of semantic search go way beyond our Google searches, so let's dive into that.

First off, semantic search brings about enhanced accuracy. By understanding the context and intent behind a search, semantic search can provide more accurate and relevant results. No more sifting through pages of irrelevant search results. It's like your search engine has become your personal assistant!

keyword vs semantic search
Keyword vs semantic search

Next up, we have personalized search results. Remember how semantic search takes into account your search history? Well, that means it can tailor the search results to you specifically. If you're a vegetarian and you search for "best restaurants'', you won't have to scroll past all the steakhouses to find a suitable option. How's that for convenience?

Another key benefit is time efficiency. With more accurate and personalized results, you'll find what you're looking for faster. That means more time to binge-watch your favorite shows or finish that side project you've been working on. At the very least, you'll get frustration savings.

And let's not forget improved user experience. With semantic search, your interactions with a search engine become more intuitive and satisfying. It's like the difference between using a map and asking a local for directions—they both get you there, but one is definitely a more pleasant journey.

  1. Enhanced accuracy? Check.
  2. Personalized results? Check.
  3. Time efficiency? Check.
  4. Improved user experience? You bet.

In essence, the benefits of semantic search make our online interactions more human-like. And in a world that's increasingly digital, that's a breath of fresh air.

But wait, there's more to this introduction to semantic search in machine learning. Now that we've got the benefits down, let's see how you can implement semantic search in your own machine learning project. 

Ready to get hands-on? Let's do this! Modern AI transforming marketplaces is a perfect example of semantic search benefits in action. Don't you want to see how it works up-close?

5 Dynamic Uses of Semantic Search in the Real World

Semantic search has a wide range of applications across various industries and functions. 

Here are five real-world applications:

1. Internal Knowledge Management

Semantic search can make company knowledge more accessible by understanding employees' informational needs. For instance, when a customer service rep searches for "international shipping refund policy," the semantic engine recognizes this intent and surfaces the relevant return guidelines page. This saves the rep time hunting through policy manuals and helps ensure customers get accurate information.

Semantic search transforms disjointed corporate information into an intelligent knowledge base for the company. By analyzing context, it delivers fast and precise results for employee questions. This boosts productivity through easier access to institutional knowledge.

semantic search with text embeddings

2. E-commerce Personalization

Semantic search plays a crucial role in enhancing the online shopping experience. When customers search for products, semantic algorithms analyze the intent and context behind the search queries to display the most relevant results. This not only improves customer satisfaction but also increases the likelihood of conversions. For example, if someone searches for "running shoes for marathons," the semantic search engine will show options specifically designed for long-distance running.

3. Research

Lawyers and legal researchers often have to go through extensive databases to find case laws, statutes, or articles that are relevant to their work. Semantic search helps by understanding the context of the legal query, thereby filtering out irrelevant information. This can be particularly useful in complex cases that involve multiple areas of law, as the search engine can understand the nuances and provide more targeted results.

4. Customer Service Automation

Many companies use chatbots to handle customer service inquiries. Semantic search enables these chatbots to understand the context and intent of customer queries, allowing for more accurate and helpful responses. For instance, if a customer asks, "What is your return policy for electronics?", the chatbot can provide a specific answer by understanding that the query is about the return policy for a particular category of products.

5. News and Media Discovery

Semantic search is also used in news aggregation platforms to provide users with the most relevant articles based on their interests and past behavior. When a user searches for a term like "climate change," the semantic search engine can provide a range of articles that not only include the keyword but also match the user's interest in specific aspects of climate change, such as policy, science, or activism.

These applications showcase the versatility and effectiveness of semantic search in delivering more accurate, personalized, and context-aware results across different sectors.

Modern AI and Its Role in Semantic Search

Semantic search has come a long way from just matching keywords to understanding meaning and intent behind queries. This quantum leap is enabled by advanced machine learning technologies that allow search algorithms to comprehend queries in a more human-like manner. I'll explore some of the key machine learning innovations powering modern semantic search systems.

two-stage semantic search pipeline
Semantic search engine with Graft

Foundation Models

Foundation models like BERT (Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers) and GPT (Generative Pre-trained Transformer) are having a profound impact on natural language processing applications, including semantic search.

BERT is a groundbreaking model developed by Google in 2018. It uses an encoder mechanism to "pre-train" on vast amounts of text data, allowing it to deeply understand the context of words based on their relationship to other words in a sentence or passage. This contextual understanding enables BERT-powered semantic search engines to discern the intent behind queries with far greater accuracy.

For example, if a user searches "Tesla model 3", BERT comprehends that they are likely interested in the electric vehicle rather than the scientist Nikola Tesla or model mathematics. The rich bidirectional context provided by BERT is a quantum leap ahead of previous unidirectional models.

Image source: PLM Papers

GPT, created by OpenAI in 2020, showcases the generative capabilities of foundation models. GPT can not only understand text but can also generate nuanced, human-like text in response to prompts. This allows semantic search systems powered by GPT to synthesize query auto-completions, search recommendations, and abstracts or summaries of results.

The natural language mastery of foundation models like BERT and GPT provides the bedrock for the contextual and generative capabilities that define state-of-the-art semantic search today.

Be sure to check out the Data-Centric AI with Foundation Models: A Practical Guide

Vector Databases

Searching through endless text documents is like trying to find a needle in a haystack. Vector databases make this process lightning fast by converting text into mathematical vectors based on word meaning and relationships.

Word2vec, developed by Google, utilizes neural networks to map words to vectors or numeric representations. Words with similar meanings are mapped closer together in vector space. This allows for highly accurate semantic matching - queries can be mapped to results based on vector proximity rather than just keyword matching.

Vector similarity forms the basis for blazingly fast semantic search across huge corpora. It also powers functionality like "search by example", where a user can submit a document snippet and find similar results.

By encoding semantic meaning in mathematical vectors, vector databases enable rapid and accurate discovery of relevant content from massive text collections.

Review the 13 Best Vector Databases For AI Projects

Re-ranking Models

The raw search results returned by semantic matching using foundation models and vector databases are just the starting point. Re-ranking algorithms further refine and personalize these results for each user.

one click reranking in Graft
One-click reranking in Graft

Algorithms like BART (Bidirectional and Auto-Regressive Transformers) analyze search behavior of individual users over time. They learn to rank results based on nuanced factors like dwell time, clicks, searches before and after, etc. This allows the search engine to customize result order based on implicit relevance to each unique user.

Other re-ranking models may consider the searcher's location, time of day, previous subject interests, and more contextual signals. The relevance of a query for "best restaurants" changes if you're in Paris versus Pittsburgh.

By incorporating external context and user behavior, re-ranking models deliver dynamic, personalized results catered to each searcher.

Integration and Challenges

AI-powered semantic search pipelines artfully integrate embedding models, vector databases, re-ranking models, and more. Together, they enable next-generation semantic experiences like conversing with a search engine in natural language or getting delightful serendipitous discoveries.

However, some challenges remain. Semantic ambiguity, parsing complex questions, scaling to billions of documents, and bias in algorithms require ongoing research and innovation. User privacy and data transparency are also top-of-mind, especially when using personalization.

Despite these open challenges, the synergistic use of advanced machine learning places semantic search firmly on the path to even more intelligent search experiences.

Modern AI Improved Semantic Search

From decoding human intent to generating helpful search interactions, Modern AI is transforming semantic search. Advanced machine learning delivers the deep language mastery and versatility needed for next-generation search systems.

As AI capabilities grow with advances like few-shot learning, cross-modal understanding, and causal reasoning, so will the possibilities for semantic search. In a future of exponentially growing information, semantic search coupled with modern AI may just prove to be our guide of choice for navigating complexity with ease.

Learn how to build a semantic search engine without code

It’s Just Semantics . . .

We've come a long way from the days of frustrating keyword searches, haven't we? Just like my quest for that perfect Italian restaurant, we all yearn for a search experience that truly 'gets' us. That's where the magic of semantic search comes in. It's not just a technological advancement; it's a paradigm shift in how we interact with digital information.

From healthcare and legal research to e-commerce and customer service, the applications of semantic search are as diverse as they are impactful. It's making our digital experiences more human, more intuitive, and let's face it—more enjoyable.

So, what's next? As Modern AI continues to evolve, semantic search will only get smarter, more accurate, and more personalized. It's not just a trend; it's the future. And the future is not something that's just going to happen; it's something we're actively building. 

Whether you're a developer looking to implement semantic search in your next project, a business leader aiming to enhance customer experience, or simply a curious individual, now is the time to embrace this transformative technology.

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Last Updated

February 2, 2024

Further reading

JD Prater

Head of Marketing

JD writes about his experience using and building AI solutions. Outside of work, you'll find him spending time with his family, cycling the backroads of the Santa Cruz mountains, and surfing the local sandbars. Say hi on LinkedIn.

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