gs1usnewGS1, the standards organization responsible for barcodes and the Global Data Synchronization Network (GDSN), among other things, is working to extend the standards used for the identification of goods in the brick and mortar retail world into the web realm. As part of an overall conversation with its retail industry members about focusing more broadly on the digital space, it’s exploring how GS1 systems and standards fit into the semantic web.

What we call the UPC code in North America – and the GTIN (Global Trade Identification Network) code elsewhere – is a key part of the discussion. “The interesting thing is that the schema.org folks did some work to show how the GS1 system could be represented in their schemas,” says Bernie Hogan, Senior Vice President, Emerging Capabilities and Industries, who is spearheading GS1 US’s work in the online space. The schema.org/Product properties include quantitative values based on GTIN codes . “We started looking at that and started asking how we can build upon it.”  (Barbara Starr’s recent SearchEngineLand column provides insight into the benefits today of using GS1 identifiers and structured data, including semantic markup on websites, for e-commerce.)

Today, GS1 US’s B2C Alliance now is working with its community to test some of the concepts around embedding the GS1 system in the web, and how that may positively or negatively impact how retailers’ and brand owners’ products are seen by search engines, says Hogan. “Everything with a unique identifier on the web is merging with Linked Open Data, and that gets pretty interesting, so we are working on a strategy to learn how we can fit into this whole thing,” he says, with the help of the GS1 Auto ID Labs research arm. “We ultimately want to make some standards recommendations, but first we are going through the process of testing and getting consensus and doing some research on how that might be done. But it is all about improving search and relevance for identifying products and finding related information.”

In total there are four digital initiatives underway at GS1, independent but interrelated. Digital identification, or GTIN on the web, is about embedding GS1 identification in HTML; it is a consumer-friendly product classification venture around developing a prototype standard for online search, so that various search engines will draw upon the same semantics for consumer searches. “We are working with eBay and @walmartlabs and other organizations around developing what will ultimately be a standard for consumer-friendly product search,” says Hogan. The idea is to deliver a consistent experience to help a consumer find what he’s looking for when the same items might be differently labeled at different sites – as an example, the same product might be called sneakers, athletic footwear, or running shoes. In mid-December Amit Menipaz, general manager of structured data, eBay was appointed to the GS1 US Board of Governors.

Another of the digital efforts is GS1 Source, or Trusted Source of Data, which revolves around getting one source of information controlled by the brand owner consistent across all web sites. “When you go to a comparative shopping engine and get different information, the problems underneath that are greater than you think,” says Hogan. “GS1 Source is all about creating that trusted source of data, but the only way that will work is if you have a consistent product ID. You can spend a lot of money on data quality, but if you don’t get the ‘license plate’ correct, it all deteriorates from there.” The tie to the standards body’s semantic work, he explains, is as follows: “So schema.org [provides a value for] the product on the web, and now you embed the GTIN in HTML, and when I have that, where do I get the rich content for it? That’s what the GS1 Source is about.”

There also is exploration into extending the GDSN product information sharing mechanism for synchronizing product information based on the GTIN to the digital world. GS1 has set up a test environment where trading partners can publish product data in GDSN for easy conversion into schema.org. “GDSN supports the B2B processes, like order to cash and supply chain management and logistics, but how do you extend that forward to B2C? We are trying to take the B2B world and reach that ultimate consumer,” Hogan says.

Driving Ahead

Best Buy, with Jay Myers as its emerging digital platforms product manager, has been instrumental in working with GS1 to lead the semantic charge for the retail sector. “Best Buy is one retailer really leading this effort and has been truly innovative. They have seen an impact to their business as a result,” Hogan notes. (See this story for some of the electronics giant’s latest semantic efforts.) Myers is helping other retailers understand why moving in this direction is important, says Hogan – it’s got the “show me” results that others in retail want to see.

Indeed, a big challenge is getting the business at every level to buy-in to the digital and semantic efforts: “You need to get the supply chain people on board, IT and now the sales and marketing people too, because they all have a vested interest in this,” says Hogan. “We talk to some very large companies and there is a lot of internal debate about this.”

Some of the people who have to be convinced have reservations about being more transparent with their data, for instance.  “Some retailers would rather just have the consumer just come to their site and they would like to control that dialogue,” says Hogan. “They feel they have a unique value proposition for their consumer and don’t want to share more broadly. But on the flip side, if you are not visible you won’t drive consumers to your web site. Our goal is to make the individuals aware about how they can leverage their investment in GS1 identification on the web, or not. That’s their choice but at least we want to make them aware that this capability is there.”

Embracing all this is something of a leap of faith, Hogan says, but “I don’t think anyone in the broader-term ‘retail’ can afford to sit back. No one has all the answers yet but we are trying to help people in that migration.”