How polyculture is feeding the development of the Semantic Web

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My 8th grade science teacher, Mr. Jensen, had a lawn riddled with weeds. Not because he was too lazy to pull them, but because he didn’t believe in monoculture. Nowhere in nature, he would argue, does a plant species live the way we keep our lawns, sequestered from other plants.

I think Mr. Jensen would be pleased with what’s happening in the evolution of the Semantic Web. The outcome will impact PR pros interested in monitoring and measuring news coverage and social media as much as it impacts computer scientists.

The Semantic Web refers to a variety of efforts to tag or extract words and ideas on Web pages on a grand scale, and infer relationships between ideas to provide relevant content, not just in search but in all sorts of Web experiences.

Among other advancements, Semantic Web applications apply a variety of techniques to “know” that Kobe Bryant plays for the Lakers, or that Vancouver is in Canada. Importantly for PR pros, these tools are getting better at determining whether a particular instance of a word refers to a brand (“Let’s drink some Fuller’s London Pride“) or something more general (“What happened to that good old London pride?”) For PR pros, that could mean greater relevance when searching the vast and growing quantity of news coverage and social content.

While the Semantic Web is in its infancy, tech firms large and small are hard at work on developing methods for achieving relevance for users through semantic technology. One example is Facebook’s Open Graph intiative, which aims to provide Facebook users with more relevant search results based on where on the Web a particular user has clicked the Facebook “Like” button. Open Graph identifies topics from those Web pages using a standard tagging structure called RDFa, which many Semantic Web apps utilize, such as DBpedia, a Semantic search tool for Wikipedia that we profiled last yearGoogle has adopted RDFa for product reviews, as have Microsoft Bing and Yahoo for various topic areas.

RDFa has begun to serve as a standard framework (though it’s still possible that other tag structures will usurp it, particularly if they are tightly integrated into HTML5). But the question of what types of content to use this for is being approached differently in each organization. The possibilities are endless. Thinking again of Mr. Jensen, how many plant species will flourish in the lawn?

With the news last week that Wikipedia intends to develop its own Semantic Web technology, DBpedia collaborator Kingsley Idehen responded with a more-the-merrier tweet:


Will the Semantic Web deliver more refined content in ways as yet unforseen? Certainly the more companies compete in this arena, the more likely we all are to see the benefit. Some have lamented that these technologies haven’t come further, faster. But I think we’re just now starting to see them flourish.

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