Surfacing at Semtech San Francisco

San Francisco So where have I been?   I announce that I am now working as a Technology Evangelist for the the library behemoth OCLC, and then promptly disappear.  The only excuse I have for deserting my followers is that I have been kind of busy getting my feet under the OCLC table, getting to know my new colleagues, the initiatives and projects they are engaged with, the longer term ambitions of the organisation, and of course the more mundane issues of getting my head around the IT, video conferencing, and expense claim procedures.

It was therefore great to find myself in San Francisco once again for the Semantic Tech & Business Conference (#SemTechBiz) for what promises to be a great program this year.  Apart from meeting old and new friends amongst those interested in the potential and benefits of the Semantic Web and Linked Data, I am hoping for a further step forward in the general understanding of how this potential can be realised to address real world challenges and opportunities.

As Paul Miller reported, the opening session contained an audience with 75% first time visitors.  Just like the cityscape vista presented to those attending the speakers reception yesterday on the 45th floor of the conference hotel, I hope these new visitors get a stunningly clear view of the landscape around them.

Of course I am doing my bit to help on this front by trying to cut through some of the more technical geek-speak. Tuesday 8:00am will find me in Imperial Room B presenting The Simple Power of the Link – a 30 minute introduction to Linked Data, it’s benefits and potential without the need to get you head around the more esoteric concepts of Linked Data such as triple stores, inference, ontology management etc.  I would not only recommend this session for an introduction for those new to the topic, but also for those well versed in the technology as a reminder that we sometimes miss the simple benefits when trying to promote our baby.

For those interested in the importance of these techniques and technologies to the world of Libraries Archives and Museums I would also recommend a panel that I am moderating on Wednesday at 3:30pm in Imperial B – Linked Data for Libraries Archives and Museums.  I will be joined by LOD-LAM community driver Jon Voss, Stanford Linked Data Workshop Report co-author Jerry Persons, and  Sung Hyuk Kim from the National Library of Korea.  As moderator I will, not only let the four of us make small presentations about what is happening in our worlds, I will be insistent that at least half the time will be there for questions from the floor, so bring them along!

I am not only surfacing at Semtech, I am beginning to see, at last, the technologies being discussed surfacing as mainstream.  We in the Semantic Web/Linked world are very good at frightening off those new to it.  However, driven by pragmatism in search of a business model and initiatives such as Schema.org, it is starting to become mainstream buy default.  One very small example being Yahoo’!s Peter Mika telling us, in the Semantic Search workshop, that RDFa is the predominant format for embedding structured data within web pages.

Looking forward to a great week, and soon more time to get back to blogging!

Google SEO RDFa and Semantic Search

GoogleBlueBalls Today’s Wall Street Journal gives us an insight in to the makeover underway in the Google search department.

Over the next few months, Google’s search engine will begin spitting out more than a list of blue Web links. It will also present more facts and direct answers to queries at the top of the search-results page.

They are going about this by developing the search engine [that] will better match search queries with a database containing hundreds of millions of “entities”—people, places and things—which the company has quietly amassed in the past two years.

The ‘amassing’ got a kick start in 2010 with the Metaweb acquisition that brought Freebase and it’s 12 Million entities into the Google fold.  This is now continuing with harvesting of html embedded, schema.org encoded, structured data that is starting to spread across the web.

The encouragement for webmasters and SEO folks to go to the trouble of inserting this information in to their html is the prospect of a better result display for their page – Rich Snippets.  A nice trade-off from Google – you embed the information we want/need for a better search and we will give you  better results.

The premise of what Google are are up to is that it will deliver better search.  Yes this should be true, however I would suggest that the major benefit to us mortal Googlers will be better results.  The search engine should appear to have greater intuition as to what we are looking for, but what we also should get is more information about the things that it finds for us.  This is the step-change.  We will be getting, in addition to web page links, information about things – the location, altitude, average temperature or salt content of a lake. Whereas today you would only get links to the lake’s visitors centre or a Wikipedia page.

Another example quoted in the article:

…people who search for a particular novelist like Ernest Hemingway could, under the new system, find a list of the author’s books they could browse through and information pages about other related authors or books, according to people familiar with the company’s plans. Presumably Google could suggest books to buy, too.

Many in the library community may note this with scepticism, and as being a too simplistic approach to something that they have been striving towards for for many years with only limited success.  I would say that they should be helping the search engine supplier(s) do this right and be part of the process.  There is great danger that, for better or worse, whatever Google does will make the library search interface irrelevant.

As an advocate for linked data, it is great to see the benefits of defining entities and describing the relationships between them being taken seriously.   I’m not sure I buy into the term ‘Semantic Search’ as a name for what will result.  I tend more towards ‘Semantic Discovery’ which is more descriptive of where the semantics kick in – in the relationship between a searched for thing and it’s attributes and other entities.  However I’ve been around far too long to get hung up about labels.

Whilst we are on the topic of labels, I am in danger of stepping in to the almost religious debate about the relative merits of microdata and RDFa as the encoding method for embedding the schema.org.  Google recognises both, both are ugly for humans to hand code, and web masters should not have to care.  Once the CMS suppliers get up to speed in supplying the modules to automatically embed this stuff, as per this Drupal module, they won’t have to care.

I welcome this.  Yet it is only a symptom of something much bigger and game-changing as I postulated last month A Data 7th Wave is Approaching.