Are semantic technologies ready to help organisations online?

Every single day we add new content and functionality to our many websites in a seemingly never-ending flow. Despite our best efforts, this has the unfortunate tendency over time to gradually deplete the overall value of our websites as your customers can no longer find their way through the chaos.

Behind the scenes a content management system (CMS) has become the de facto standard digital platform for managing websites, but just like websites are becoming chaotic, the underlying platform eventually deteriorates from being flexible and useable to being clunky and slow. Can the addition of semantic technologies to the underlying platform pave a new path to a fundamentally better digital future?

Enter: Semantic technologies

It was back in 1999 at the WWW8 conference in Toronto, Canada where I first heard Tim Berners-Lee talk about the semantic web and his idea of “a web of data that can be processed directly and indirectly by machines”, but the idea is much older.  I was working for a CMS vendor at the time, and ‘semantic requirements’ were never really requested by customers. Actually it all disappeared off the radar, at least for me, until our own cmf2005 conference, where I heard a talk by Brendan Quinn from the BBC on real-world experience with implementing interactive metadata.

Metadata has been around since the WWW was developed. Hidden for the usual website visitor this “data about data” enables machines to interpret web content and make informed decisions e.g. figure out who the author is and in which language the content was created. A bit like mash-ups which combine data sources in new and innovative ways, the semantic web would allow machines to find, share and combine information more easily.

Though there will still not be a machine which can guarantee to answer arbitrary questions, the power to answer real questions which are the stuff of our daily lives and especially of commerce may be quite remarkable

Tim BL, Semantic Web Roadmap

Fast forward to 2011, and today several semantic technologies exist, most notably Resource Description Framework (RDF), Web Ontology Language (OWL) and Extensible Markup Language (XML). All three languages are specifically designed for structuring and describing data and are recognized standards. The shortcoming in the CMS market today is that these semantic web solutions are neither well suited nor very mature with regards to building operational, complex content management systems.

Using semantic technologies to work smarter

A key potential within these emerging semantic technologies is that they should enable us to deliver more focused digital experiences by intelligently extracting and linking content.

This is valuable from several perspectives as the below examples illustrate:

  • identifying related content, such as when trying to complete a task on the website for your local city council and getting (only) relevant and related content presented
  • enabling third-parties to automatically identify and classify information on your website for their usage. A black-box example of this is what Google is doing with data from around the WWW, e.g. when they utilize currency conversion rates, enhanced map details and weather forecasts all from different sources
  • discover relationships between people, places, images and other content types

The IKS (Interactive Knowledge Stack) community is hosting a Paris workshop in early July to demonstrate progress so far with content management systems that are enhanced with semantic technologies, including how you can handle and merge content from different sources.

At the technical workshop, I’ll also launch a Semantic CMS user experience competition, where CMS developers can submit proposals and get funding to build the next semantic killer application.

Semantic technologies have still a long way to go, so why not join me in Paris to find out how you can take advantage of some of the early adopter progress that is being made – today.

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