The Semantic Web, The Internet Enabled Fridge, and the Car that Drives Itself

Tim Berners-Lee at TED

Tech industry pundits have been prophesying the imminent arrival and importance of the semantic web since the days, and if you mention it in meetings you tend to get a lot of head shaking and eye-rolling. The semantic web has often seemed more like a Powerpoint perpetuated myth rather than a real tangible next step in digital communications.

However, like its close relatives from the realms of tech industry myth the internet-enabled fridge that buys your shopping, and  the car that drives itself using GPS, the semantic web is already with us, albeit on a small scale. Google estimates that around 5% of web pages are currently 'semantic', however, they want this to rise to over 50% in the near future. And Google tends to get what it wants, after all, all it has to do is tweak its search algorithms to reward pages with semantic content and context, and it won't be long before the SEO and design and build communities respond accordingly. 

And Google is already using and promoting semantic markup in its search results.  Rich snippets are built using RDF(a) and are used to show things like restaurant ratings reviews in search results (see screenshot on left).

While Google's backing of RDF(a) is undoubtedly significant, perhaps the most developed implementations of semantic approaches to date comes from the US and UK Governments, both of which have used RDF(a) in their open data/open Government websites - in the US in the UK. In the UK, the project was lead by the inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, who explains the rationale behind his approach in this excellent 15 minute long TED talk (though it's worth noting that there's some  debate about the relationship between the linked data approach that Tim Berners-Lee talks about, and the more established notion of the semantic web, however, for the purposes of this introduction it's perhaps best to assume that they're virtually synonymous.)

The adoption of RDF(a) by organisations as powerful as Google and Government will definitely have a big impact on those organizations that deal with them. But it's not just Google and Governments that are using RDF(a) and other semantic approaches and technologies. BestBuy is now publishing product data using RDF(a), uses it for product categorization, and O-Reilly is also using RDF(a) and GoodRelations.

So it's clear that the semantic web is with us, even if on a relatively small scale. And while, like the Google driveless car, it might be some time before we see mass uptake, it's clearly something we need to think about now, because it will have profound impacts on the way organisations share and use data on the web. Those organisations who most successfully manage and analyse data in the future will have a significant competitive advantage.


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