Why Publishers of Digital Content Need to Know About the Semantic Web

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Magazine stack - flickr photo by bravenewtravelerI know “semantic web” probably sounds like something the Chief Technology Officer should worry about, as opposed to the people who create and manage the content of a site. But for traditional content publishers, the realm of digital is such a vastly different landscape that understanding the unique opportunities – as well as the challenges – will offer a real advantage to content professionals who prepare themselves today.

For the first couple decades of digital content distribution, media companies primarily focused on how the digitization of their product made it harder for them to control the distribution channels. Initial technological developments attempted to recreate the controls and restrictions of traditional media distribution, keeping conditions as close as possible to the familiar expectations of content producers, advertisers, and consumers. But these attempts to slow the march of progress have been, at best, only partially successful.

In more recent years, people have finally begun to glimpse the potential that digital content offers. Media design and innovation have shifted towards optimizing the creation and experience of digital content. Now, even my grandmother can start blogging, tweeting, or posting videos online in minutes. We have devices that we can use to access content anytime and anywhere. We can click “share it” to instantly email a link to our friends, or post it to one of dozens of social networking sites or content aggregators. And “Google” has become a verb. But, amidst all of these innovations, one thing we have not yet done is optimize the content itself for this new environment.

So what do the semantic web and other semantic technologies have to offer in this scenario? From some perspectives, this represents the next iteration of the web – Web 3.0 is considered by many to be the integration of semantics (meaning & context) with the “Social Web” (Web 2.0). But, more to the point, just as the original web allowed content to be freed from the printed page, the semantic web makes it possible for information to be freed from pages that were inflexibly designed for specific digital platforms (like the web or mobile).

There’s no great mystery to how this works. Content is marked up with tags that don’t just indicate formatting instructions; they also describe what the information is and what it means. Consider the following example:

<b>Madonna</b> Indicates that the text within the tags should be bold.
<H1>Madonna</H1> Indicates that the text within the tags is a headline.
<foaf:name>Madonna</foaf:name> Indicates that the text within the tags is a name, as defined in the “Friend of a Friend” vocabulary.
<allmusicID=64565>Madonna</allmusicID> Indicates that the text within the tags refers to the recording artist Madonna, as described on AllMusic.

By the same means, we can add more descriptive metadata to our content that helps put it in context – where it came from, who created it, what it’s about, and how it fits into a larger body of information.

The semantic web is enabled by a series of emerging vocabularies and tools that allow us to better describe the nature and meaning of content. Sounds like a simple thing, but this allows us to enrich the experience of digital content in ways that we have barely begun to explore.

For example, let’s look at how people find your content in the first place. As an Associate Content Strategy Director at Razorfish, I’ve had the opportunity to work with a wide range of clients who produce content. In some cases, these are publishing companies and content is their business. In other cases, they are companies that produce content to help share information about their products and services. Or perhaps a main concern is how to capture and share knowledge internally, within different branches of an organization. In all cases, one of the most common complaints we hear is, “We have all this content, but our readers/customers/prospects/employees aren’t finding what they’re looking for.”

This is often followed by the question, “Can’t we just get a better search engine?” But the trick with search engines is that they perform better when they have more information to work with. Google is a powerhouse on the Web because it has massive amounts of data on which to work its magic algorithms – traffic patterns, link backs, clicks – many factors beyond just the content of the page itself.  If you have a smaller amount of content, you will need additional information to work with to get results with that kind of accuracy. Your internal search will have a better chance of presenting results that are meaningful and relevant if you put more context around your content.  Semantic markup can be used to structure the information and describe the content so that the things people want to find are right at their fingertips.

Rachel will expand upon how semantic technology can benefit publishers during her talk, “Structure Sets the Content Free,” at the Semantic Web Summit  on Wednesday, November 17th – as well as in future articles here on

Opening Photo Credit: Courtesy Flickr/bravenewtraveler

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