Semantics in Practice

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Staying Focused on Answers
All these approaches and acronyms have had the unfortunate tendency of helping to keep semantics shrouded in mystery. Steven Kludt, EVP of marketing at Cambridge Semantics, which provides semantic middleware and application development tools, says, “If semantics is going to live up to its promise, we need to stop talking technology and start talking business benefits.”

Tague says that OpenCalais had an eye-opening client meeting last year where this became apparent. “The client put a hat in the middle of the table and said that anyone who used the word ‘ontology’ would have to put a dollar into it,” Tague recalls. “He said, ‘I just want to understand how it solves my business problems.’” Tague believes that steering the conversation away from the technical aspects of semantics and toward the real business applications is what has helped OpenCalais start gaining significant ground in the enterprise world over the past year.

One of the most obvious “real” applications of semantic technologies is in search. Seth Grimes, analytics strategist at Alta Plana Corp., says, “Semantics enables search engines to extract information from sources and combine it on-the-fly to provide complete answers—not just hit lists—to the questions that are implicit in most searches.” Vendors such as Cognition Technologies have painstakingly mapped the English language to enable the use of natural language processing (NLP) so that users can enter searches in plain English to achieve meaningful search results.

However, it is important to note that semantic search isn’t just for unstructured searches; it can also help users get at data buried deep in structured applications. Semantifi is one vendor touting the benefits of semantics for getting at structured data sets. Shree Pragada, founder and CEO of Semantifi, says, “When it comes to government transparency, it’s not enough to just make it available. It has to be searchable as well.” The company creates vertical semantic search applications such as Government Spending, which allows users to search government spending with historical information dating from 1996.

Making Sites Stickier
According to 2009 figures from the Newspaper Association of America, only 10% of newspaper revenues come from online advertising, and that percentage had dropped from both 2008 and 2007 figures. In order to maximize ad revenues, publishers are doing whatever they can to keep readers engaged for longer. One means of doing so is through the display of “related content,” showing a reader who has already tipped his hand about a specific interest to other content that may engage him and keep him on the site longer.

The New Republic, one of the oldest magazines in the country, uses OpenPublish, an OpenCalais-enabled Drupal-powered content management system developed by Phase2 Technology, to drive reader engagement by offering faceted search and recommended reading sidebars. “When New Republic deployed OpenPublish they saw a 150% increase in unique visits, and a 300% increase in pages per visit,” according to Tague.

Semantics can clearly apply to much more than text-based media, of course. At SemTech 2010 Hannah Eaves, the director of new media at Link TV, a nonprofit media company that focuses on presenting news from outside the U.S., talked about how critical semantics has been in the creation of the company’s new video platform ViewChange. The site, which was slated to go live in September, presents videos from and about the developing world with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. It utilizes several third-party application programming interfaces (APIs) to perform semantic content analysis and related content aggregation of video transcripts.

Creating Topic Hubs
“It allows us to create topic buckets dynamically and to bring in external articles as well,” Eaves said. With ViewChange developed in only 6 months, she said, “Without semantics we couldn’t have done it. The technology makes connections between videos that we wouldn’t even have thought of.” For publishers, semantics can be an automated means of making a deep content archive remain relevant for readers.
The “topic buckets” to which Eaves alludes are also known as microsites or topic hubs, which have become increasingly common in the publishing world. While Google pulled the plug on one of the better-known experiments of this type, its “Living Stories” microsites that ran from December 2009 through February 2010, other publishing companies are using the model successfully.

Sacramento Connect from The Sacramento Bee brings together content from local and state bloggers and news providers under topics such as Business, Education, and Entertainment. Seán McMahon, digital product development manager for The Sacramento Bee, says that the trigger for creating topic hubs was to give people a place to go online as stories developed over time. “It allows us to leverage our existing content and drives page views of related content,” says McMahon of the project, which utilizes semantic software solutions from Lingospot, Inc.

McMahon says instituting the automation of editorial work has required a culture shift and a level of trust from editors. “We’re seeing the shift occur over time as editors see that they can make adjustments easily,” he says. The aim is not to remove human intervention completely. “We find it’s more effective when we add some editorial control,” McMahon says, citing an instance when editors did some upfront work to set up an Olympic topic hub, but then let the process run automatically.

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