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Semantic Web — the “Found Engine” comes of age

Monday, 17 March 2008 — by

As an academic concept, the semantic web is seen as the panacea for a range of web ills. However, as a commercial exercise, whoever moves first spends the most — well that’s the theory, anyway…

For the purposes of this article, I’ll be writing from the assumption that you’re familiar with the concepts surrounding the semantic web.

If you’re not but still want to be able to read this article anyway, a summary of what the semantic web is might help.

In search of the Found Engine

As web technology trends go, the semantic web is a culmination of things, which is now something of a holy grail.

The semantic web brings with it a number of wonderful possibilities, most of which revolve around the re-use and the combining of disparate, seemingly unrelated data types to create new and interesting informational systems.

And it’s on that subject that Sir Tim Berners-Lee is oft heard extolling the virtues of the semantic web:

“Imagine if two completely separate things — your bank statements and your calendar — spoke the same language and could share information with one another. You could drag one on top of the other and a whole bunch of dots would appear showing you when you spent your money.”

If you imagine all of your stuff sporting semantic smarts, connections start to form in ways that build possibly unimagined relationships.

You effectively see things become visible that were previously hidden in the detail.

Those familiar with my previous thoughts in & around these concepts will recall my ruminations on what I call the Found Engine:

“Right now, if we want something, we must employ a search engine to find those things.

But there’s every chance that what we call search engines will soon have no real meaning. Since all the things we would need in our lives would aggregate around a need, a job, a task, a function or a theme.”

As a name, I feel Found Engine is a better more illustrative way of imagining something like the semantic web, which for the most part doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue, being quite academically dry.

The semantic web gamble — Yahoo! blinks

Over on ReadWriteWeb, news broke of Yahoo! and there intentions to embrace & extend the semantic web through their own search technologies, which I commented on:

“I’m a big fan of the semantic web, the benefits are just too many to ignore.

However, as for Google getting caught short by Yahoo!, well that’s just wishful thinking.

The only way that’s going to happen is if the entire workforce of Google simply doesn’t turn up for work — for the next 3 years.

And that’s no disrespect to Yahoo! either.

A misconception I often read when people are trying to articulate the concepts of the semantic web is that it will do away with the search engine.

This is of course nonsense.

As I’ve discussed before, we’re going to see things like the Found Engine, but that’s another topic.

The key strength of the semantic web is in how it plays to the specific searches — where you know precisely what you’re looking for.

This is where the “long tail” becomes the final frontier for search marketing and monetization.

But the fact of the matter is, the moment you tap in the words “iPod” or “Paris Hilton” into Yahoo! Semantic, you’re still going to get a zillion entries.

The difference is, there’ll be some proximity filtering in place, in addition to their own version of PageRank…”

I have admission to make; I contradicted myself in that comment. Previously, I’ve talked about how the search engines would probably come under threat from Found Engine technologies.

They’re still not going to just vanish in a theatrical puff of smoke. Instead, they’ll gracefully evolve.

So ignore that part where I say: “This is of course nonsense.” OK?

Some could argue it’s just too early for the semantic web, but I disagree. And who better to back me up than ReadWriteWeb, who highlighted 10 semantic web applications to look out for.

So despite the lack of underlying semantic mechanics, work is underway to make this stuff work by leveraging the power of micro-formats, which are in many ways so unusually specific in their coverage of one topic, they’re semantic by default.

And this is exactly what Yahoo! are working towards. Question is, will they get a chance to differentiate themselves?

And then there was Google

Right now, Google are going through what I see as growing pains, but I still don’t think Yahoo! have the potential to exploit that.

Ironically, the reason for this is Yahoo! are simply too big and too visible, if you like. No, the biggest threat to Google will come from the little guys, coming in under the industry radar.

I’m certain Google have various in-house “Labs” projects underway, exploring the best ways of massaging semantic concepts into their search and the massed ranks of applications they have these days without people seeing the seams.

Given the situation Yahoo! currently find themselves in, they’re more likely to pave the way for bigger & better things, but fail to make substantial in-roads themselves, which is a shame.

But despite the relative paucity of the search market pie that Yahoo! have these days, they’re no less innovative for it.

Their endeavors will probably legitimize the semantic web as a genuine and genuinely useful web technology, helped along by the wealth of developer materials Yahoo! will spew out in due course.

It’s at that point we’ll see other people and other businesses step a little closer to see how their interests and those of their clients will be better served by the semantic web.

So if it’s a question of innovation — and we know Yahoo! are pretty adept in that regard — I’ve often wondered what might happen if Yahoo! took a leaf out of Google’s play book and created their own Sitelinks.

Yahoo! Sitelinks?

We’ve all seen the much fabled Google Sitelinks. We also now have a better understanding of how Sitelinks work. But what if Yahoo! had their own technology similar to Sitelinks?

OK, so we know that Yahoo! intend using micro-formats to help lift their search technology into the semantic stratosphere.

For some of these micro-formats to offer up meaningful data & information, websites have to be making use of them.

In most cases, this meaningfulness is offered up in XML format — which is pretty much the lingua franca of the web these days.

If we can accept those things as being true, then Yahoo! have the chance of going beyond the mere Sitelink and combining things like advertising and widgets right into the search results themselves.

Obviously, this kind of thing would be subject to a lot of testing, but think about it — why just stock prices or video clips?

Say you’re looking for someone, a public figure, for example. You know he / she is out there somewhere.

So you do a search and up pops a search result that contains a Yahoo! Map that’s based on the location-aware data coming out of their Twitter feed.

Not stopping there, you bookmark this person. Yes, you bookmarked a person! Not a web page, but an actual person.

Instantly, an invite is fired out of your LinkedIn and Facebook profiles to theirs and their details are then added to your address book, which is then synced to your iPhone.

But this is all tentatively done, awaiting confirmation from the person you’re following. If they don’t want to connect with you, you just keep your bookmark and the rest expires.

Don’t look now

Momentum is an incremental process. Yahoo! might well get the semantic web on the lips and in the minds of the mainstream media in ways the academics couldn’t, but then fail to benefit from their efforts commercially.

In five years from now, we’ll look back and wonder how we got by before such things. After all, with the semantic web, things are no longer searched for, but found instead…

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Neuman → Wednesday, 19 March 2008 @ 0:11 BDT

The semantic web may still be theory, but something similar is already under way. Big players like Facebook are putting out API’s for applications to be created with, which is cool. The thing that makes it REALLY cool is that when everyone has an API, hackers like me can just slap them together to make mashups!

tech plus → Wednesday, 19 March 2008 @ 8:35 BDT

Thanks for the interesting article.
Well, I am waiting for the day where I am not dependent on Google for my web search (to find the most relevant and useful content).

Wayne Smallman → Wednesday, 19 March 2008 @ 9:39 BDT

Hi Neuman, that’s happening right now! In the absence of the semantic web, people are working in the spirit of things.

“… by leveraging the power of micro-formats … they’re semantic by default.”

Hi TP, I think a lot of people are becoming more & more wary of Google these days, what with the amount of data they’re storing up about us.

Options are always good, for everyone.

Guys, thanks for the comments!

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