Business Software

The Semantic Web Gets Down to Business

Despite the recession, luggage retailer Ebags.com enjoyed phenomenal 2010 holiday sales -- some 33% higher than the previous year. (The online retail sector as a whole reported a 15% gain this past holiday season.) Both Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales set all-time records, according to Ebags Inc. co-founder Peter Cobb.

Cobb credits much of these gains to his company's deployment of Endeca Technologies Inc.'s online retail platform, which uses semantic technology to analyze shoppers' keyword choices and clicks, and then winnows down results from categories to subcategories and microcategories. The end result? "Guiding the shopper to the perfect bag very quickly," Cobb says.

Endeca's Web site navigation software allows shoppers to use type, brand, price and size filters to get to relevant choices, Cobb explains. "With over 500 brands and 40,000 bags, we recognized a few years ago how important semantic search and guidance was to the shopping experience."

By providing highly detailed descriptions of products and their attributes, and linkages between categories, the semantic technology has also enabled Ebags to attain higher placement on Web search engine results pages, according to the e-retailer's chief technology officer, Chris Cummings.

In the late 1990s, Tim Berners-Lee, now widely known as the father of the World Wide Web, announced his vision of a "semantic Web" that would help people find exactly the information, answer or product they were looking for. This would happen, he hoped, without users having to design complex queries or try dozens of different keyword combinations or sort through thousands of irrelevant URLs.

To help make this happen, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), under Berners-Lee's direction, has developed standards that allow computer platforms and software agents to identify, access and integrate information from disparate Web sites and domains, as well as from various information silos within an enterprise.

Using the W3C standard Resource Description Framework (RDF), for example, retailers and manufacturers could pass detailed product information back and forth, says Jay Myers, lead Web development engineer at BestBuy.com. "Right now, a lot of our vendors provide product information in spreadsheets, which makes it hard to distill."

BestBuy.com isn't currently taking full advantage of the W3C RDF's capabilities; that's still a future goal, according to Myers. Indeed, Berners-Lee's dream is still a long way from reality, although it's getting closer. Many business decision-makers remain skeptical that the paybacks of adopting semantic technology will make up for the costs and risks. What's needed is a killer app that will persuade a critical mass of business users to invest in semantic Web software, says Phil Simon, a consultant and the author of The Next Wave of Technologies.

About this story

This is first part of a two-part series about the semantic Web. This installment explains various semantic Web technologies, including search. It explores their potential uses and paybacks, illustrated with real business cases, including ones involving the use of sentiment analysis. It also provides some best practices and tips from the trenches for anyone planning, or at least considering, a deployment.

Part 2 will provide an overview of commercial and open-source products, frameworks and services that support semantic technology and will discuss how they can be used as building blocks to develop a successful semantic Web infrastructure. It will also delve into the implications of growing industry support for W3C semantic standards.

Slowly but surely, however, semantic Web technology is catching on. Business users in industry sectors ranging from e-commerce, e-publishing and healthcare to marketing and financial services are reaping its benefits, even if they don't always understand how it works and even though hard ROI numbers have been hard to come by. An established practice like sentiment analysis -- the art of figuring out what customers and others really think of your company and product -- is getting a boost from semantic technology. (See related story.)

Moreover, enterprise software vendors like IBM, Oracle, SAS and Microsoft have started to incorporate semantic search and W3C standards into their platforms, as have Web search engines like Google, Microsoft's Bing and Yahoo.

BestBuy.com's Myers can attest to this: Soon after his team began adding semantic metadata to product pages on store blogs, he reports, they saw an increase of about 30% in "organic" search traffic -- meaning traffic that results from user searches rather than clicks on Web ads.

What it's all about

Semantic software uses a variety of techniques to analyze and describe the meaning of data objects and their inter-relationships. These include a dictionary of generic and, often, industry-specific definitions of terms, as well as analysis of grammar and context to resolve language ambiguities such as words with multiple meanings.

For example, the phrase "there are 40 rows in the table" uses rows as a noun, whereas "she rows five times a week" uses rows as a verb. Likewise, the word stock has one meaning in the phrase "I used beef bones for my soup stock," another in "the supermarket keeps a lot of stock on hand" and yet another in "analysts are bearish on the stock."

Next page: How to go semantic

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