Whatever Happened To The Semantic Web?

Semantic web is a term that many of us have become used to turning a blind eye to, since its over-hyped early days at the start of this century. But perhaps it's time to think again...

17 July 2012 - Paul Bolton

432_a577a.jpgSemantic web is a term that many of us have become used to turning a blind eye to, since its over-hyped early days at the start of this century. But perhaps it's time to think again as it seems to be at last coming down from its ivory tower (with its talk of ontologies and taxonomies) and into the real world of the retailer.

A lot of the focus is on improving searching and the richness and relevance of search results that users receive.

This resurgence of interest is being led by some of the "big hitters" of the search industry such as Google, Yahoo and Microsoft.

Google are working on creating a store of knowledge about data: Google Knowledge Graph so that search can finally go beyond simple text matching and start to understand the meaning of the things being searched for.

If this seems like too much of a “search holy grail”, perhaps of more immediate interest and benefit is the work that has been going on to embed semantic information within existing HTML web pages. The new HTML5 web page standard supports this semantic mark-up and there are also other embedded mark-up standards around such as RDFa.

To quote


”Many sites are generated from structured data, which is often stored in databases. When this data is formatted into HTML, it becomes very difficult to recover the original structured data. Many applications, especially search engines, can benefit greatly from direct access to this structured data. On-page markup enables search engines to understand the information on web pages and provide richer search results in order to make it easier for users to find relevant information on the web. Markup can also enable new tools and applications that make use of the structure.”


All the big web search companies are now making use of the semantic content supported by HTML5, RDFa as well as other "micro formats", for example Google with their "Rich Snippets" search results feature.

This is a way to get structured data from your web page to appear in search results, rather than just a selection of text from the page. For example: star ratings, prices and even special offers, could be extracted from the page and displayed in the results.

These companies have developed a series of common vocabularies defining things such as: Products, Events, Reviews etc. and these can be used to add semantic information to your web pages.

This is starting to have real benefit for retailers in terms of attracting customer interest.

For example Best Buy in the US have used this semantic mark-up to improve their search engine results.

To quote Jay Myers, Lead Development Engineer for Best Buy:


”Within 3 months of our initial deployment [of RDFa] we saw a surge in our organic search engine traffic. That eventually reached 30% and held it.”


How Can You Make This Work For You?

The big challenge is that this currently still seems to be seen as largely a web site development issue, something that is only in the domain of developers and not business users.

In order to enhance the shopping experience of an ever more demanding consumer semantic content should be controlled by the business users, not IT departments.

Whether it is to improve product recommendation capabilities associated with trends or lifestyle, or control product availability across the business as well as individual stores you must have a good PIM solution to support semantic data formats.