[WARNING: THIS POST IS FOR NERDS-ONLY – IT IS LONG AND SEMI-TECHNICAL!]
The Semantic Web has long been considered the Holy Grail – or to some, the White Whale – of web technologists. Now, however, this elusive vision is may soon become a reality due to an unlikely force – Facebook. Facebook’s Open Graph Protocol, along with the massive distribution value of their platform to online publishers are resulting in the rapid ‘structuring of the web.’ The result for end users will be truly personalized experiences.
Web technologists have long theorized about the benefits of moving away from ‘dumb’ text web pages to a web of well-defined objects. Today, for example, a lyrics page can be read by a human. However, this same page is simply a morass of text strings to a machine. There are no ‘mark-up’ or ‘description’ letting the machine know that the page is about music, contains information about songs, and so on. This concept of a web of machine-readable objects is referred to as the Semantic Web. In this version of the web, applications like Google search no longer have to guess what a given page, or part of a page is about. But rather, the objects – or chunks of data – that compose that web page will be defined in such a way that the search engine can intelligently parse through them.
Today Google uses sophisticated algorithms to guess that a page is contains information about a product, event, or song. Using those educated guesses, they serve you results. If the objects in that page were tagged, the Google algorithm would no longer have to guess, it could unmistakably understand the page. Pushing this concept further, it is now possible for Google to potentially create web pages on the fly using content, or widgets, from different web sites. In other words, Google would not just point you to the ‘best page’ that answers your query, but rather it would actually provide you with a customized answer. This is just the beginning.
In addition to improving search, semantics would enable a whole new breed of context-aware applications. Just as your cell phone provides one context – your current location – to applications to help deliver the right weather, or enable applications like Foursquare to show your friends nearby, other contexts can be used to further personalize your experience. For example, an application could leverage your current interests (one context), along with understanding what each news story is about (another context), to deliver personalized news results.
Sounds like magic, right? The problem is, until recent years, it mostly has been. Although the algorithms to leverage and guess contexts have dramatically improved, the semantic tagging of web objects – essential to the whole system – has been lacking. Now with Facebook, the world is changing.
In order for an object like a web page, product, or event, to be properly shared into the Facebook Feed it must be marked up with the Open Graph Protocol (OGP). That protocol defines the metadata tags necessary for Facebook to ‘understand’ that object and make sure it is displayed as the publisher desires in the feed. This is critical for publishers, as they want their feed items to be properly displayed in order to maximize traffic back to their sites from Facebook.
This is the necessary force-function necessary to drive the Semantic Web. When Tim Berners-Lee first proposed an open mark-up for semantics – RDF, there was never any monetary incentive for publishers to adopt the standard. Not only did publishers not gain any immediate benefit from tagging their pages, but – for the visionaries out there who were willing to try – there was no killer app demonstrating the value of actually using contexts, or semantics, to improve a user application. Facebook has now not only provided the incentive for publishers to mark-up pages, but also, a tagging approach that will enable machines to parse tagged pages.
Moreover, Facebook has also proven that leveraging context is valuable. The Social Graph is one of the most powerful contexts being used to personalize web apps today. It has been so explosive that Facebook is leveraging this context, to build another context, the Interest Graph – via the Open Graph Protocol.
Facebook has gained notoriety for its massive impact on communications. But now, the company has become the driving force ‘structuring’ the web. They have proven the value of contextual computing to applications with the social graph, and are now on to building the interest graph. Their push is happening at the same time as other application providers are making other ‘structured data’ available via APIs such as location, etc. As the web becomes more machine-understandable, it will be interesting to see how existing applications and sites such as Google Search, CNN News, Amazon shopping and more leverage this information to drive better experiences.