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SemTech 2011 Coverage: Paypal Discusses Social Commerce and the Semantic Web

By   /  June 13, 2011  /  No Comments

Paypal’s Praveen Alavilli presented at SemTech 2011, San Francisco, on Social Commerce and the Semantic Web. Alavilli explained that “ecommerce involves much more than just buying and selling.”  There are many aspects involved with ecommerce and many online retailers are focused only on the transactional part of an online sale. For example, the point where a consumer is on a website making a purchase within a shopping cart. And, as Alavilli explained, “the buying cycle of a consumer is much larger than the point at which a transaction occurs.”  In each step of the buying cycle, there is an opportunity to influence the consumer. Online consumers may go through one, or all, of the following steps in an ecommerce buying cycle:

  • Inspiration: A consumer “wants to do something” like become a writer, for example.
  • Investigation:  A consumer looks for products that help accomplish a task(s).
  • Research:  A consumer does research on products and solutions.
  • Search:  The consumer searches the web for product.
  • Transaction: The experience the consumer has when they purchase online.
  • Use: Determine how the product is used.
  • End of Life: What happens when the consumer is finished using the product.

Alavilli  went on to provide a definition for Social commerce. Social commerce can be defined as:

“A subset of ecommerce that involves using Social Media, online media that supports social interaction and user contributions to assist in the online buying and selling of products and services.”

Together, ecommerce, Social Commerce, and Semantic technologies provide an opportunity to influence consumers at each stage in the buying cycle by enhancing the customers’ experience at each phase.

Alavilli discussed triples and RDFa and how “the semantic world” on the web can be described as:

“One giant labeled, directed multi-graph of people, things, and relationships”

Semantic information and RDFa are being used by many companies to influence the ecommerce buying cycle. For example, display ad algorithms inside Facebook use data in the form of RDFa to determine the best ads to display to a user.

There are many vocabularies and data formats that enable semantics on the web including:

  • Open Graph and RDFa
  • Good relations
  • Friend of A Friend (FOAF)
  • vCard, vEvent, Geolocation

Some of the companies currently using these technologies include the major search engines, Facebook, Best Buy, O’Reilly, and major news publishers.

Alavilli cited many examples of companies using social media in conjunction with semantic data to influence consumers at various points in the buying cycle.  Figure 1.1, below, shows how Facebook likes can provide inspiration to consumers in the buying cycle:


Figure 1.1 – Facebook likes can provide inspiration during the buying cycle


Comparison shopping on Google is another example where, during the research phase, online retailers can influence the decision of a consumer. Through data feeds, Google accepts data feeds in RDFa formats. Google merchant center feeds also includes support for the Good Relations Vocabulary and Microformats.  An example of this data being displayed in Google is shown in Figure 1.2 below:

Figure 1.2 – Shopping page on Google showing use of structured data.

Alavilli gave another example of how the company Diesel is using Social Media in their offline stores to connect people during the buying cycle with their social networks.  Consumers can try on clothing and use Diesel’s booth, Fig. 1.3, to get real-time feedback from friends about their purchase.

Figure 1.3 – Retailer, Deisel, Using Facbook to Influence Consumers


Alavilli’s presentation was well organized and nicely balanced with semantic web concepts and real-world examples.  With semantically enhanced information and real-time social networks, it’s possible to take small amounts of information from user profiles and user-generated content, enhance it, and create a rich experience at any point in the consumer buying cycle and influence consumer behavior.


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