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Where’s semantic search going?

That’s a question that will be explored at the upcoming Semantic Web Summit – and here’s a preview of how one expert in the space plans to answer it. (The title of this blog, apologies to James Carville, is a hint.) Drawing both on his reading of the story, “The Web is Dead, Long Live the Internet” in the September issue of Wired</a, and personal experience watching his own kids interacting in cyberspace, Expert System USA CEO J. Brooke Aker thinks that semantic search lies within applications.

The two threads come together like this: The Internet as a means of exchanging information is fine, but the Web itself is messy and chaotic and dead-ending as the volume of information grows and keyword searches as a means of navigating it becomes ever more frustrating. And today’s younger generation is already blazing a different interaction trail – for them, the Internet typically is less about Googling things and more about living in its premier application, aka Facebook. There was an ah-ha moment in that for Aker: Where once (and quite often still) we think of applications as limiting compared to the freedom and potential connectedness of the Web, that equation is changing thanks to big pipes with rich bandwidth and no latency, the inexpensive and always-on capacity of the cloud, the openness and configurability of APIs for building Internet apps, and polished UIs that bring the desktop experience to Internet and mobile platforms.


The result: It’s easier and cheaper than ever for anyone – not just those with $10 million in VC backing – to create new and powerful Internet apps that can leverage all these capabilities – among them those where searching of ‘semantified’ content can deliver incredible new power to users. “I think you will see an explosion from the semantic web perspective but not in the way we typically have imagined it,” says Aker. “It might be search hiding in the application.”

As an example, he points to the idea of an app that supports meaning-based processing to search, extract and classify news around a company or brand, including understanding the sentiment expressed in language about that news, to determine whether it is likely to have an impact on stock price. That could help a user to make decisions about selling in advance of bad tidings getting traction, or holding off buying until prices are expected to dip as a result of word going viral. “What I would be doing is turning all the news into a graph that says buy or sell, but behind the scenes you could go one better than just making that decision on broad-based good or bad news,” he says. For instance, news that a top exec got caught with his hand in the cookie jar could be factored as having twice the negative power of a delay in the debut of a beta product, which would factor into the buy/sell recommendations.

So, are we to take this idea that the future of semantic search lies within an application as meaning that the semantic version of search, as we’ve come to know that idea on the Web, will never work? No – or put another way, yes. “I’m not going to lob a big hand grenade and say semantic search for the entire Internet will never work,” says Aker. “But you could make the case that that is likely to be true for the medium term. I say that because, I think as someone who knows a good deal about the technology, the problem is so large and overwhelming. To make the entire web semantified, if you will, might require multiple approaches and I don’t see that happening.” Even at Expert System, he readily admits. “So that every approach to the Semantic Web has some level of shortfall that my guess is could be better by using more than one approach, by knowing enough about where each approach falls down and then supplementing that so you can click over to use a different approach.”

But wait, what about Google and what it’s been up to, including the recent acquisition of Metaweb, for Web-scale search? Still too much reliance on by-hand-curation and mark-up of data, he thinks, and curiously enough coming from the giant that otherwise has always been about automation. Facebook? Aker senses some more opportunity there, for reasons that could include that it’s still a young company and companies at such a stage are still more about building than about the investment they’ve already sunk into their infrastructure. “And of course Facebook is organizing all the world’s people and their information, so that’s a natural affinity to semantic technology because it’s about connections,” says Aker. “And Google is not, at least in the first phase of its life, about connections. It’s about directories.”

• To find out more about the upcoming Semantic Web Summit, click here.

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