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The Semantic Web: What's in it for journalists?

While you're sitting at your desk, trying to out-think Google by inserting tags and keywords into your news story, a handful of smart companies are reorganizing the web as we know it. They're working on something called the semantic web - and it'll forever change how we publish journalism online.

While the semantic web isn't an entirely new concept, it is finally starting to materialize. Last August, I posted a short entry about semantic web developments and a video with a pretty good explanation of just what the thing is.

Since then, there have been some significant developments. For one, Radar Networks has recently launched Twine (currently in private beta only). Speaking of radar, just slightly under it is Yahoo, which is expected to quietly launch a semantic search beta in a matter of weeks.

What is it?
What we have right now are some darn good algorithms that search and rank information based on a number of things - how many times we search on a specific term and select a webpage based on its description, relevance of content within a site, etc. But as the web grows, and as we continue to add content, it's becoming more difficult to seek and actually find what we're looking for.

More importantly, search technology is developing into a more sophisticated form of what we know now. The semantic web searches and learns information as we use it. It processes the intended meaning of our words and phrases and pieces different strings together.

To wit: let's say that I was headed to Sweden (I am, for a presentation this June) and wanted to learn both information about the region and simultaneously coordinate with other folks who are going to be there. Via the semantic web, I could search through maps, restaurant reviews, museums - your standard stuff. Using Radar Network's Twine, all of this information would be automatically tagged and indexed for that trip. Then, it might also look through my contacts' stored information - calendars, for example - and connect me with people who will be in or near the region at the same time as I've designated on my own stored calendar At the end, I'll have created a pretty thorough dossier with everything I'll need - even dinner companions - for my trip.

In a sense, having access to the semantic web is like have access to a hyper-organized, blazing fast secretary who also happens to be the best research librarian on the planet.

How does the semantic web impact journalism?
One thing online publishers have wrestled with for years is how to get content seen. That's only getting more difficult, as more people add content via blogs, personal sites, etc. And since wire copy is also being indexed separately from traditional newspapers or magazines, it's not always easy to get people from a search engine to your particular website.

At journalism and other conferences, there always seems to be a panel on metrics. Search Engine Optimization 101. Drive Traffic Using Search.

But pretty soon, we're going to see a paradigm shift. Those great SEO tricks you paid to learn aren't necessarily going to work. And at some point in the future, Google may not be the big kahuna of search anymore.

I think that people will start to think in specifics but aggregate by topic area. They'll want some assistance as they search the web, and they'll learn to love being fed suggested content based on what they preference. This means that news publishers ought to start thinking more about their core competencies...local news, sports, regional politics...and devote resources to building up their newsrooms again so that they'll be armed with high-quality reporting and contextual information on their sites. Online publishers will have to start thinking about how a story's content relates to other content, to people, to ideas in what will become Web 3.0.

And it'd be a good idea to get someone on your staff soon who understands all this stuff.

More s semantic web resources: Blue Organizer, Freebase, Hakia.



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