DEC 14th 2010

What is the Semantic Web?

Published 13 years ago by David Siegel

There's a lot of confusion about what the semantic web is, exactly. There are so many definitions that I can't possibly unify everything in one article. Some people say it's all about linked data, RDF, and ontologies. Some people call it "Web 3.0." (I recently gave a keynote speech at a "Web 3.0" conference, where many of the people had confused "Web 3.0" with "Web in 3D." I'm sure many people in the audience wondered why I wasn't talking about the future 3D web and, instead, was talking about information.) Some people say it will lead us to the singularity. Rather than try to define these terms, I propose we abandon them. I propose we stop talking about complicated solutions and start talking about problems.

  • One of the most vexing aspects of today's web is that we have to do so much of the work ourselves. We type in keywords, then we see a list of web sites that have those keywords on them. In this way, it can take hours to get answers to our questions.
  • When searching for products and services, we can't make apples-to-apples comparisons. Think about it - how often do you make apples-to-apples comparisons of products side by side? Can you do that with pocket cameras, large-screen TVs, mobile phones, tampons, mortgages, or all-in-one vacations? In general, you can't. Go to Google Squared or Google Refine, and you can see how hard it is, because the data isn't easy to compare. So any comparison engine either has to do a lot of work by hand or do a lot of guessing, and neither of those solutions scales to meet the challenges of today.
  • Another problem is that it's difficult to find things, especially something specific that isn't everywhere available. Have you ever searched for hours, thinking up new keyword combinations, trying to find a part or a piece of furniture or an item of clothing that you know is out there, somewhere, but you can't seem to dial it in? Studies show that about 1/3 of searches result in no clicks and another 1/3 result in clicks that are soon abandoned. That means 2/3 of all searches fail to produce a satisfactory result.
  • Another problem is that we are used to all the false positives and false negatives. We sort and sift data by hand, because so many things have the same name but are different, and there can be several different names for exactly the same thing.
  • Today, we seem to be in a rush to re-create all our old-fashioned paperwork in the cloud, and that keeps us working with our information by hand. Google docs aren't connected to the rest of the web, they have no idea what you mean to communicate, and there's no helpful scaffolding for building structured documents. We use the same tool to write a contract as we use to write a poem. That keeps us from reaping the benefits of an always-on network that spans the entire human enterprise.
  • Somehow, we've all managed to join a number of social networks, which force us to re-create a new profile and re-establish all our connections all over again inside each one. How many times do we need to do that, and how maintainable is this?

I could go on, but I think you get the idea. The web as we've built it isn't scaling very well, and even Google (which, it must be remembered, is in the advertising business, same as Facebook) can't easily make sense of it all. We're trying to make sense of something that is fundamentally broken and scaling badly. The semantic web is not the answer. Semantic technology will only help us when we know exactly what problem we're trying to solve and what it will take to solve the entire problem, not just the data problem. That's why I propose talking about the switch from pushing information to pulling it. Much of it involves making our information unambiguous, and that, I think is a better term than the semantic web. Let's call it the unambiguous web. Let's watch for the business shift from pushing information to pulling it and apply the appropriate technology to get us there. You can learn more from my writings on this subject:

  1. Start here: What is the Semantic Web?
  2. Read my blog: The Power of Pull
  3. Buy the book: Pull: The Power of the Semantic Web to Transform Your Business
  4. Follow me on Twitter: @PullNews and @_dsiegel

It doesn't matter what we call it. And if we focus too much on linked data, RDF, and ontologies, we'll miss the big opportunity. I hope to change the way you think about the web. There's no time to lose. Dive in and join me.

About the author

David Siegel

David Siegel is an author, consultant, and investor focusing on the future of technology, the Internet, and business. Always on the cutting edge, David is credited with being one of the first entrepreneurs and designers in the emerging web site design business, designing his first site in 1993.

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