Triple bypass – What does the death of the semantic web mean for publishers?

web-2.0, web-3.0, RDF, Semantic-Web Job Trends graph
Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to mark the end of an era. I’m talking about the passing of Web 3.0 – ostensibly the era of the next great revolution in the information industry.

In its short life the semantic web we knew so little passed through the peak of inflated expectation, went round the cape of unrealistic ambition and finally found a resting place in the great junkyard of unwanted technology in the virtual cloud. At one time our information industry seemed to have the most to gain (or lose) from the threats and opportunities presented by our recently lost friend. So, what went wrong?

The era passed with the recent announcement by Google, Yahoo and Microsoft of the launch of schema.org. Schema.org provides technical documentation on the ways in which the major search engines will recognize structured data in your web pages. It shows how to get rich snippets of content and data from your site directly into search engine results pages. Rich snippets are the next step in the evolution of search, because they allow search engines to read meaningful semantics into content on the web.

If rich snippets sound surprisingly like an application of the semantic web, then it’s for good reason. A huge amount of time and effort has gone into researching how to add layers of machine-readable information to the human-readable web, with the grand view that the machine-readable web would always underpin a new wave of disruptive innovation. Web 3.0 would be the next big thing.

However, Google et al. have chosen not to base the next big thing in search, rich snippets, or semantic web technology. Schema.org eschews RDFa in favor of simpler HTML5 markup.

For years semantic web purists have been preaching that the future is all about RDF and triples. Yet, in the 12 years that theorists have been working on the semantic web, we’ve yet to see many convincing practical uses for the technology. The graph I’ve included above shows the rise and fall of Web 2.0 job postings compared to job posts requiring semantic web technologies. This makes a pretty clear case that the semantic web simply never took off.

Certainly there are niche applications, in taxonomy design for example, but there is no tidal wave of change. Search is the application with most to gain from semantics (because it enables rich snippets), but the major search engines have abandoned RDF in favor of simpler, easier to use technology.

So, what does this mean for publishers? Firstly, semantics are still vitally important – it’s still critical to produce high quality content and metadata. There is no substitute for building a carefully designed XML workflow. This will ensure that semantic markup and metadata can be delivered to search engines and other downstream partners effectively. This also ensures you have the necessary foundation for maximum usability and discoverability for users within your site.

But it also means that we can lay to rest many of the technical questions around RDF, triples, inference engines, OWL and other esoterica. There are some parts of the semantic technology stack that I think are still very interesting and I’ll be talking about these more in a future post. But for now it clear that XML workflows will deliver what you need to participate fully in the the ecology of search. And henceforth we can lay to rest the Web 3.0 which never happened.

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13 Responses to “Triple bypass – What does the death of the semantic web mean for publishers?”

  1. Dan Brickley

    Didn’t XML on the Web die too, according to HTML5ism?

    Reply
    • Richard Padley

      XHTML on the web certainly died (did it ever really live?). Arguably that was a classic case of the W3C creating standards which flied in the face of practicality.

      Reply
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  3. Rob

    I’m not even sure it’s worth responding to this trolling, but here goes.

    For web-based offerings you should check out the exponential growth of the Linked Data Cloud. Schema.org and the Open Graph from Facebook are all steps in the right direction. Structure and metadata is they key. What you obviously fail to recognize about RDF is that it’s not an interchange format like XML or something; it’s a data model. It can be very accepting of data of all kinds. More structure is good, and in the right direction.

    Also, on the enterprise level my company has grown it’s headcount by about 40% this year, and we sell semantic web-based solutions to the enterprise. The technology gives more flexibility and more rapid time to solution than traditional tools based on relational databases or OLAP cubes.

    Just because you personally don’t see growth doesn’t mean it’s not there.

    Reply
    • Richard Padley

      Hi Rob,

      Whilst I agree that the linked data cloud is growing, this does not prove that RDF and triple stores are viable and generally applicable technologies, particularly for publishing.

      Although Facebook pay lip-service to RDF via their so called “Open” Graph, I am sure you’re aware this is spurious in terms of the Semantic Web. They don’t use RDF internally and they don’t share their data as RDF with anyone. Its a closed system which might as well use HTML5 microdata.

      Similarly, you cite schema.org as evidence for the growth of the semantic web. I have to assume you’re unaware that schema.org does not use RDF, which is the key underpinning semantic web technology. Hence your argument is specious.

      By pointing to these patently non-semantic web applications (Facebook, Schema.org) you are blurring an established clear definition. If, in your view, the semantic web does not require RDF, then you can claim anything you like in terms of the success (or otherwise) of the semantic web, with artistic licence. This would, however, be misleading.

      Whilst I agree that structure in metadata is important, the complexity of RDF/OWL and triple stores severely limit their utility. The challenges of handling big data have created market opportunities and growth for new breeds of NoSQL data stores. Like triple stores these technologies offer structured, accepting, flexible data models. Unlike triple stores these technologies have practical utility and are easy to implement.

      You’re quite mistaken in characterising XML as just an interchange format – it is a data model capable of more expressiveness (think full text/mixed content) than RDF. You must realise this is true since RDF itself can be encoded in XML.

      Thanks for your comment.

      Reply
  4. Thad McIlroy

    Provocative, Richard, and hence a valuable insight. Like Eric, I also saw schema.org as more of a validation of the whole semantic web. But I think now that one can just as logically see it as the end of the semantic web. The idealist in me wants the semantic web’s ever-cooling heart to keep on beating a while longer. The pragmatist admits that the situation may be terminal.

    Thanks for challenging assumptions!

    Reply
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  6. stevo

    Hi,
    I’d say that schema.org gave birth to a reasonable semantic web. To me, all the OWL / RDF stuff never made much sense as it would mean, that there exists a second internet containing data made for machines, which I considered weird / complicated / useless.
    Now, there’s a real benefit for webmasters when they add semantics to their pages. Think of a price comparision service! How easy got to retrieve information about a product from an HTML page with schema.org Microdata.
    The semantic web is dead – long live the semantic web I’d say!

    Reply
    • Richard Padley

      Hi Stevo,

      I agree: semantics on the web are alive and well in works such as schema.org. Also wolfram alpha remains very interesting, although I am less convinced of the sustainability of their business model.

      RDF and triple stores are still research projects. Without production ready solutions to authentication, provenance, access control, etc these systems are not ready for the big time yet. And the astronaut-grade musings on inference, OWL, description logics etc will mean that these technologies will not gain easy acceptance amongst the majority of developers.

      Schema.org in the meantime will provide an easily implemented route to semantics which plays well with both Google and Bing.

      Reply
      • stevo

        I think that RDF will never extend the web (HTML pages) as it was supposed to. It might be a good thing for certain applications though (but actually I don’t know one).
        Which blogger (not being a computer scientist) would ever try to add semantics to his blog entry using RDF?
        I think research should spend more time in trying to understand the semantics of natural language, since this is what we are going to use always and forever. And some special tags / attributes surely help machines understanding what’s written on a webpage. Maybe they should have added some semantic tags to HTML5

        Reply
        • Richard Padley

          The big thing about schema.org is that the semantics are encoded in HTML5, using tagging which Google et al. believe will be easy enough for web developers to implement. The benefits are easy to see in this case, in terms of better search results and driving traffic more accurately.

          Reply
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