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.

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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."

Resolving language ambiguities ensures that a shopper who does a search using the phrase "used red cars" will also get results from Web sites that use slightly different terms with similar meanings, such as "pre-owned red automobiles," for example.

It also makes it possible for a user to, say, type in a complex query like "progressive rock songs from the 1970s with odd time signatures and atmospheric feels" at a music Web site like iTunes or and get back Pink Floyd, says Simon.

Once defined, content is tagged with descriptive metadata or "markups" and is mapped into an ontology. (See diagram.) Ontologies are schema that describe data objects and their relationships. Developing them is typically a collaborative effort involving technicians who understand semantic schema and subject matter experts who understand business language.

Semantic Web
A semantic network is a complex map of associations and meanings of words. It includes all definitions of all words, as well as relationships among all words. Source: Expert System SPA, Modena, Italy.

Semantic Web technology refers to products and architectures that support semantic searches, queries, publishing and retrieval based on W3C standards. These include Web Ontology Language (otherwise known as OWL), the Resource Description Framework (RDF) and Simple Protocol And RDF Query Language (SPARQL), as well as existing Web protocols like XML and HTTP.

The hidden helper's Cummings admits that he's not all that familiar with semantic technology. However, he is very aware that Endeca's semantic-based online retail platform has played a major role in increasing Ebags' sales. "Since it was deployed, our conversion rates have doubled," he reports. (Conversion is the term used to describe what happens when a shopper who clicks on a link to an e-commerce site actually buys something.)

Indeed, business users, and even some IT executives, don't always realize that their e-commerce or enterprise software platforms are using semantic technology. However, they definitely appreciate the paybacks.

In addition to stronger sales numbers, other benefits of semantic technology can include more clicks from Web search engines, higher customer satisfaction rankings and, internally, more timely and effective decision-making and faster responses to competitors and market changes.

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