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part four: semantic web

Accessing the Semantic Web is easy. In fact, many people use semantic technologies on a daily basis without ever knowing it.

Though they're not specifically branded as such, services such as Apple's Siri , the Wolfram Alpha answer engine, and Google's new Knowledge Graph all use semantics under the hood.

The Semantic Web is a movement that aims to add value and utility to online information by structuring data in a way that both computers and humans can understand. The goal: computer systems that can understand and infer meaning – for instance, a computer system that knows the difference between an "organ" that is a musical instrument, and an "organ" that lives inside your body.

Services like Siri, Wolfram Alpha, and Knowledge Graph have shown us what it's like to consume content on the Semantic Web.

But what if your business wants to create Semantic Web content?

Unfortunately, that part's hard. Adding semantics to your data can be a daunting process that often requires diving into a large pool of acronym soup: RDF, OWL, and SPARQL, to name just a few.

Semantic Web authoring tools exist, but are often difficult for non-technical users.

"They suck. They totally suck," says Aaron Bradley, a Vancouver-based search marketer who is active in the Semantic Web community. Mr. Bradley says that when it comes to user-friendly authoring tools, "hardly anything exists. There aren't even very accessible examples or support out there."

Frédérick Giasson agrees. "The experience is really not good," says Mr. Giasson, a Quebec City-based computer scientist and co-founder of Structured Dynamics.

He says that for many people, Semantic Web creation tools can be arcane."You see references everywhere, you see tables of attributes, values. And you just go, 'What the hell? What am I supposed to do with this?'"

But an Amsterdam-based startup called Silk wants to change that. On its surface, Silk looks like a simple tool for building Web pages. But behind the scenes, something deeper is going on.

"When you create a site in Silk, you'll be able to express the meaning of your words," explains Sander Koppelaar, Silk's head of operations.

"In the background, Silk builds a data model of the information in your site. It still looks very much like text. It looks a bit like Google Docs. But in the background, you're silently building a data model. And that means that Silk understands the information on a deeper level."

The tool is specifically designed to be easy for non-technical users.

"We don't use formatting codes or any of that kind of stuff. Anybody who can make text bold or italic can also use Silk to apply tags and give meaning to their text."

To a human being, a Web page built in Silk looks pretty ordinary. But to a computer (like a search engine or review aggregator), the underlying data model means that the page contains additional layers of meaning.

That additional information – metadata, or information about information – also allows humans to make better use of their content.

You can search, filter and cross-reference information in ways that would be impossible with a regular Web page.

Mr. Koppelaar sees several practical small business applications for this technology. He says companies could use Silk to build an employee list that tracks individuals' expertise and skills ("Show me everyone who works here who knows how to drive a forklift," for instance). Or a Silk page could be used to track customer feedback ("Show me a list of the top feature requests from the past six months").

Silk is part of a larger trend – making semantic technologies easier to use – that Mr. Giasson believes will continue.

He suspects that as Semantic Web authorship tools mature, their technical complexities will start to disappear into the background.

Users won't ever have to see a line of RDF or OWL code unless they want to.

"You won't see that crap," he says. "You will think, 'Well, this is a website just like any other website.'"

As Siri, Wolfram Alpha, and Knowledge Engine have shown, semantic technologies can add value and utility to information, even if their users never hear the term "Semantic Web."

Says Mr. Giasson: "A successful Semantic Web project will be successful if people don't know they're using the Semantic Web."

Special to The Globe and Mail

Other stories can be found on the Web Strategy section of the Report on Small Business website .

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