The Awesome Potential of the Semantic Web

I just listened to the most amazing podcast about the future of the web and semantic analysis. It was an interview with BYU Phd student Yihong Ding, a researcher in what my ReadWriteWeb co-author Alex Iskold calls “the top-down semantic web.” The first 15 minutes of the hour long show are about Yihong Ding’s personal background, the next 15 about his research and the last 30 about his very compelling view of the future.

This interview shows just how much untapped potential remains in the world of web applications. Once our software is capable of deriving meaning from web pages it looks at for us, there’s a whole lot of work that will already be done, allowing our human, creative minds to reach new heights.

Download MP3 [50 mins, 23Mb]

Ding’s research combines the application of a manually supplied ontology (set of terms with connections for meaning), automated analysis of the structure of a web page (what’s in h2 tags? that’s probably a section title) and learned meaning after repeated application of the above and correction by the user. It’s fascinating and a prototype should be available in the first half of next year. I hope to get an early look at it so I can write about it on ReadWriteWeb just before public launch.

The vision of the future described in the interview is beautiful. It’s one of the most clear explanations of the semantic web and what some people call web 3.0 that I’ve heard yet. I’m just starting to dive deep into this, so forgive any excess enthusiasm, but I’m telling you – it’s good stuff.

Ding’s vision of a future web not of sites and pages but of “educated agents of meaning” (smart software applications is what I’m seeing), driven by human beings to serve our needs, is a really interesting one.

His conclusion makes me think of Google Custom Search, Lijit (which I must spend some time with) and I don’t know what else. It’s got me on fire, though.

I found the interview through a path you might find of interest. It was highlighted in the blog of Talis, a vendor in the semantic space, in their This Weeks Semantic Web round up. It’s a very rich resource, not to mention a great marketing asset for the company. I found that via the blog of semantic web rock star Danny Ayers. I was reminded of Ayers’ blog and have picked it back up with a renewed interest after seeing it in a list of 60+ Semantic Web Blogs at Semantic Focus, a fascinating looking group blog where, co-incidentally interview subject Yihong Ding is a regular contributor. So we come full circle and have found a whole lot of valuable resources along the way.

How (and Why) to Create an OPML File

I’ve been asking PR people lately to send me an OPML file of their clients’ blog feeds. One person sent me a list of links to their clients’ blogs in an email tonight, but other than that no one has been brave enough to try. This is something that everyone could benefit from knowing how to do. That big blue icon is the proposed icon for OPML, which stands for Outline Processor Markup Language (stay with me here, non technical people!).

An OPML file is an outline. In this case, it’s a bundle of RSS feeds that can be moved into and out of any RSS reader as a group. No matter what RSS reader you use, it can import and export OPML files. It’s real handy. If PR people, for example, would send me one OPML file of all their clients’ blogs and a news search feed for each of those clients’ company names – I would throw it into my reader and have a long term connection with all their news. It would build name recognition if nothing else, but I’d likely find something in there someday to write about too. There’s a billion other reasons to use OPML – just ask yourself in what circumstances you can imagine sending someone else one link or file that contains a collection of dynamic sources on any topic. I know these are the sorts of questions that keep me up at night.

Here’s how you do it…
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Making OpenID Easy

I’ve been an outspoken advocate of OpenID implementation for some time. It’s a real joy when I go to a new website and can use an existing account I have with a trusted vendor to start personalizing my experience on the new site immediately. I’m happy to return to the site later because I know I’ll remember my username and password!

The following are some thoughts and opinions on the subject that I’ve been wanting to share publicly. I’ve been sharing them with consulting clients but I want to broaden the conversation and give the real experts in this field a chance to respond. Through casual but consistent observation of the OpenID landscape, things look like a real mess. It’s discouraging and I’ve got some ideas for how it could be made better. Hopefully we’ll get some comments here from Scott Kveton, Chris Messina, Kevin Fox and others. To read some thoughts both pro and con on OpenID, check out this critical post on Lifehacker. Update: Two weeks after this post, OpenID 2.0 is ready to launch and I’ve written a long, very critical post on Read/WriteWeb.

Reducing friction in the account creation process is very important. OpenID support could be a great way accomplish this, but almost no one is doing it right. Most sites you see that offer OpenID support have little more than a field to enter your OpenID URL and maybe a link explaining what it is. This is almost worthless and our standards need to be raised beyond the point that this is all it takes for OpenID advocates to applaud a website.
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Your Site Shouldn’t Have a Social Network

I had a great time this afternoon doing an hour long consulting session with some young European entrepreneurs who were considering adding a social network to a popular local niche content site they had recently acquired. I advised them not to do so, but that advice was tongue in cheek.

I suggested that instead of adding a social network to their site, they should just add rich user profile pages, site-mail (user-to-user messaging) and the ability for users to track each other’s content. Add personal publishing to this list (their site already offered this) and what have you got? All the useful traits of a social network, without the Yet Another Social Network baggage.

Social networks have caught on for a reason – they offer functionality that’s very useful for a lot of people in many different communities of interest. That said, everyone is wary of copy-cat, roach-motel, me-too social networks. Why not have your cake and eat it too? By framing the extension of your existing site as just that, an extension of your existing users’ profile capabilities, instead of as a social network launch – you can make everyone happy and maintain your dignity.
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