Semantic Tech for the Real World

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Stories about semantic technology are a bit like owning a flying car: We keep hearing about how great it could be and one day will be, but do you actually know anyone who has done it?


While there's a lot of pontificating about what semantic tech could do, until now, the answer has been, "No." Oh, sure Google and Facebook, but those aren't exactly good models for the rest of us. But this week, ReadWriteWeb published a story about how Best Buy is using semantic technology, finally giving us an example of how a more "ordinary" company is applying semantic tools to real business problems.


Even better, it sounds like it wasn't that hard. I was surprised to learn it involved giving each individual store a blog that uses an online form, which then outputs RDFa, which ReadWriteWeb describes as sort of light-weight version of the semantic Web's primary language, RDF (resource description framework).

Basically, RDFa adds metadata to existing HTML or XHTML Web pages, which makes it easier to deploy.


The company also uses Good Relations, a semantic Web ontology for e-commerce. In layman's terms, it's basically a common playbook for describing products, price and company data.


The real goal of Best Buy's deployment was to make its main website easier to search. Customers were having a hard time finding things like when individual stores opened and product information. It's worked for that, but another unexpected, tangible result has been better search engine optimization, leading to a 30 percent bump in search traffic.


Best Buy shared its story at the recent SemTech conference. Frankly, I'm disappointed at how few stories came out of that conference, and wish more tech publications had covered it. I think the fact that The New York Times republished the article about Best Buy shows it was certainly newsworthy. Kudos to ReadWriteWeb for covering it.


While the Best Buy story doesn't mention integration specifically, this definitely has potential for integration projects involving sharing online data.


If you want to understand how, I've found a great free resource for you. Ivan Herman is the W3C's lead on semantic Web activity. Of course, he attended the SemTech conference, where he conducted session on semantic Web technologies, with a focus on explaining the core technologies and how they can help break down data silos and help with integration.


His presentation slides are available online. I'll grant you that it's not the same as being there, but unlike most slideshows, these can be read as a stand-alone document and still make sense.


Those of you involved with business intelligence should also check out Information Management's recent article about how semantics can help with unstructured content.


It looks like we're turning a corner with semantic technologies, moving from the realm of theoretical to solutions for the rest of us. I have to admit, I'm pretty excited about it.


Now if someone would just get on that flying car thing.