Google's Knowledge Graph Is No Ugly Duckling

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I’m a fan of the waterfowl model of semantic technology. Clever semantics — as well as ‘advanced’ search boxes, arcane query syntax, and consumer interfaces that require user training — can paddle away as frantically as they like, but only while hidden well below the waterline. SPARQL, SKOS and SQL really shouldn’t be visible to most users of a web site. Ontologies and XML are enabling technologies, not user interface features.

With this week’s unveiling of the Knowledge Graph, Google has taken another step toward realising the potential of their Metaweb acquisition. The company has also clearly demonstrated its continued enthusiasm for delivering additional user value without requiring changes in user behaviour (well, except that those of us outside the US have to remember to use and not our local version, if we want to try this out).

For those who don’t remember, Metaweb was one of those companies that got people excited about the potential for semantic technologies to hit the big time. Founded way back in 2005, Metaweb attracted almost $60Million in investment for their “open, shared database of the world’s knowledge” (Freebase) before disappearing inside Google in 2010.

There’s plenty of coverage for the Knowledge Graph launch amongst the tech blogs, all of which offer slight variations on Google’s own blog post. If you’ve not already seen them, check out GigaOM, VentureBeat, ReadWriteWeb, TechCrunch, AllThingsD, ZDNet and the rest.

Google, of course, has been offering up more than a page of blue links for some time. As I wrote recently,

“Even Google, the home of brute force computation across the unstructured mess of the Web, recognises the power of meaning and structure, and is doing something about it.

Enter some maths into a Google search box, and you don’t get a list of web pages containing calculators. You get the answer.

Enter a flight code into a Google search box, and you don’t get a list of airline or airport web pages. You get the time the flight is expected to land.

Enter a stock market code into a Google search box, and you don’t get a list of stock exchanges or companies. You get the share price, and a graph showing how it’s changing.

Type ‘showtimes’ into a Google search box, and you get a list of films showing at cinemas near you.”

Knowledge Graph is a — small — step up to the next level, and there’s probably plenty more to follow. In many ways it could be seen as part of a natural progression, from links (10 hits on a page), to answers (the time my flight on Saturday will land), to context (location, peers, basic characteristics, etc).

In its current form, the Knowledge Graph disambiguates (Tesla the man rather than Tesla the band, but with no mention of the car maker that I expected to find). That’s useful, but the provision of context is even more valuable. Google describes it thus;

“How do we know which facts are most likely to be needed for each item? For that, we go back to our users and study in aggregate what they’ve been asking Google about each item. For example, people are interested in knowing what books Charles Dickens wrote, whereas they’re less interested in what books Frank Lloyd Wright wrote, and more in what buildings he designed.

The Knowledge Graph also helps us understand the relationships between things. Marie Curie is a person in the Knowledge Graph, and she had two children, one of whom also won a Nobel Prize, as well as a husband, Pierre Curie, who claimed a third Nobel Prize for the family. All of these are linked in our graph. It’s not just a catalog of objects; it also models all these inter-relationships. It’s the intelligence between these different entities that’s the key.”

I, for example, am travelling to Los Angeles at the weekend. Knowledge Graph offers a quick way to gain some appreciation of the city and its context. It’s quite different from the place I’ll be leaving behind, and those differences would be even more apparent if ‘Local Weather’ were displayed alongside ‘Local Time.’

The opportunities to extend and enrich the Knowledge Graph are almost limitless. Google already draws upon a wealth of structured data through Freebase, and the company’s investment in WikiData will help to improve the robustness of the data it already pulls from Wikipedia., too, is gradually improving the structure of facts, assertions and relationships out on the open web, and the Knowledge Graph is well placed to begin hoovering up that added value.

Many of the pieces that make the Knowledge Graph today — and many of the things it might become tomorrow — already exist. The world is full of companies doing very clever things with semantics, structure, and connections. Some of them are technically superior to Google’s effort. Some have more data than Google’s effort. Some have whizzier functionality. But the Knowledge Graph has the advantage of appearing right there in the search results of millions of users. It’s going to get seen, without those users having to do anything different. And Google is going to monitor the clicks and the eyeballs with its usual thoroughness. As Stefano Bertolo remarked on Twitter,

Connections will get stronger, structure will get cleaner, semantics will get refined, and all of it will just happen whilst web users go about their regular business online. That’s good, that’s powerful, that’s useful, and it’s also just a little bit scary. And once people are comfortable with the Knowledge Graph’s panel appearing alongside their Google searches, I have to assume that it will very quickly become an embeddable widget that can be saved for re-use elsewhere. Every one of the screenshots in this piece really could — and should — have been functioning widgets that push the graph out even further. I can’t help believing that Google have already thought of that…

What scope is there for the Knowledge Graph to tap current enthusiasm for Real Time? It’s certainly not there yet, with François Hollande still described as ‘President-Elect’ (and Sarkozy as ‘President’) more than 48 hours after Hollande’s inauguration in Paris.

Also surprising — at least for now — is the total lack of company information. Basic facts and figures on CEO, headquarters, year of foundation, parents, subsidiaries, and stock price seem ripe for the Knowledge Graph treatment, but I haven’t managed to find a single corporate example that works.

So, this week’s Knowledge Graph is certainly not a finished product. It’s the start of something, and it’s going to do more and more, in more and more places, as Google refines both code and ideas.

How long, I wonder, before the Knowledge Graph pops up in GMail and offers to tell you all about the person you’re emailing with, the company they work for, the city you’re discussing travelling to, or the product you’ve asked for advice on?

Not too long, I bet. And that’s a little scary, too. But at least there’s no ‘Advanced Search’ interface.

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