A quiet technology revolution—one that will radically change the way the internet works—is likely to catch much of the world off guard.
It involves the “semantic web”—a way of organizing and presenting web content not as documents but as items of data that are linked by both meaning and relationship. A shockingly high percentage of businesspeople have never even heard of the semantic web, which bodes ill for their ability to position their organizations to cope with its implications or exploit its opportunities.
The pieces of data that make up a present-day HTML-based document are not, for lack of a better term, aware of their relationships with the document’s other pieces of data (or data in other documents). The semantic web, however, is built on standards and protocols that clearly define the relationship of each data item to others—not just within the document but wherever those other data may be on the entire web. At present, people must wade through and make sense of search results. The semantic web would enable computers to interact with other computers to assemble data items that are precisely responsive to highly specific queries.
Suppose you’re interested in Shakespeare’s many references to adultery. Whereas a conventional search would return thousands of separate documents, which you would then have to ransack for the exact material you want, a semantic web query would extract data from those thousands of documents and assemble a single, convenient collection of all the relevant references.
This means, among other things, that today’s search engines (and the business models they sustain) would have to be retooled or replaced in order to work in a semantic web. In the retooled world, users could easily replicate the full functionality and flexibility of Facebook, MySpace, or LinkedIn using an open, standards-based RDF approach. Thus the semantic web would cut out the intermediary and restore control of personal information to the individuals who are its true owners.
Online retailers, music stores, travel agents, game sites, media publishers, and myriad others need to absorb the implications of living in a rapidly emerging world of open, linked data. Business leaders must first understand what is going on and make sure that someone in their organization is immersed in semantic web issues and considering their implications. If you ask your CTO about the semantic web and he or she looks at you blankly, you’ve got a problem. Your technology team will have to devise an architectural road map for the semantic web over the next three to five years and to undertake the difficult work of transition.
Perhaps most important, try to see the semantic web from your customers’ perspective. They won’t care what it’s called, only what it does. The enhanced customer experience resulting from services that draw on a global web of highly relevant data will render obsolete many websites that are considered today’s best in class.