The semantic Web gets down to business

It's still early going, but e-commerce and other sites are finding the investment well worth their time, money and effort.

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.

Chris Cummings
Ebags.com CTO Chris Cummings says that the online retailer's use of semantic-based software has played a major role in increasing sales. "Since it was deployed, our conversion rates have doubled," he reports.

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.

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.

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