The Semantic Web.
This blog concerns advanced Web technology, in particular,Web 2.0/3.0 and the Semantic Web. Each blog entry should be fully understandable on its own, but the blog as a whole tells a continuing story.
Very roughly, we’ve defined the Web 2.0/3.0 as the class of emerging web applications that are highly responsive, to the point of being competitive with desktop apps. Another characteristic is that they can manage large volumes of very complex media, like images, sound, and animation, as well as interconnected forms of media. We’ve looked at some specific advanced web applications.
Our concern here, in this blog entry, is the Semantic Web, which we have also roughly defined. The Semantic Web is something that does not yet exist, but would meet the very aggressive goal of supporting largely automatic web searches, freeing us from excruciatingly interactive, manual Google and Yahoo sessions. And we’ve seen that we would use such things as shared namespaces, intelligent full text searching, and XML-based markup languages to embed information in websites that could be used by smart browsers to perform far more accurate searches.
Web services would help a lot, too, by taking humans out of the loop when providing powerful web-based capabilities; one website can now provide a vast amount of information, for example, by silently using web services to collect information from many other web-based sources.
(By the way, we have also looked at precisely what we mean by “semantic” in the Semantic Web.)
The way we pay.
This all sounds very good. The Web would be far more useful, with automatically searchable Semantic Web-sites. But there’s a bad side to all of this, and it has to do with how we often pay for Web use.
The problem is that we often do not pay at all. At least not directly, with money. We pay by putting up with ads. Free email services, such as those hustled by Yahoo, Hotmail, AOL, and Mail.com, are generally accessed via web browsers, and we find the main pages of these email accounts stuffed with ads.
Some free email accounts even stick ads in your outgoing mail!
Often, the only way to get the ads stripped from a web mail interface is to pay a fee. We might also get more than just ad-free web mail pages; paying sometimes allows users to access their email with POP or IMAP protocols, via desktop clients (like Outlook and Apple Mail), thus avoiding ads in another way.
(As an aside, there are free email sites that either have no ads in them, or only very subtle ones. Try Gmail.com and Inbox.com. My favorite, with its clean interface and growing set of accompanying capabilities, is GMX.com.)
As it turns out, folks looking to buy ad space online find that they have a vast array of choices, and this drives down the cost of ad space. But these two things, an ever-growing list of free online services and cheap ad space, are related. This is because it is all too easy to build useful web applications. Like browsers, bulletin boards, calendar apps, blogging services, and stickies applications, email servers are cheap to build and maintain. Venders can use canned, largely free software components.
And, transmission costs on the Internet are effectively free, and the bandwidth is huge. Free email accounts often offer a gigabyte or several gigabytes of storage, because disk space is dirt cheap, too.
There is a lot of rebranding going on, too, where someone seems to be offering free email (or some other service), but it is actually being provided by a large email provider.
So, the way things have shaken out, is that free web apps like email servers look like NASCAR racing cars, covered with colorful ads. Many of these ads consist of video, and so we have to battle distracting, flashing colors so we can focus on our mail.
The trick behind online ads.
There is something happening in the online ad world: folks who provide these free, pay-for-it-with-ads services are learning to carefully target ads. There is specialized software available for this, and by plugging in some smarts, folks can make the ads that appear on your screen far more likely to be of interest to you.
How is this done? By watching what you type into search engines, by taking advantage of personal information you supply when you sign up for free email accounts and other services, and by carefully examining the content of the messages you send and receive, that’s how it’s done.
It’s important to point out that this works. The “click through” rate on ads can be radically improved, just by using some simple heuristics in choosing your ads. Folks who pay for ads love this, and it has allowed individuals who don’t even provide free web applications turn themselves in to ad space sellers. Your blog, your specialized website, can now host ads carefully targeted toward the visitors to your blog or your website.
But just wait for the Semantic Web.
But it will really kick in when the semantic web is here. The same technology that would make browsers far, far smarter about finding good URLs for you will make the targeting of ads at you extremely precise.
This slowly-emerging technology is badly needed by the folks who sell ad space and by the people who buy that ad space. That’s because you and I are starting to get used to this world of NASCAR websites. We are looking through or past or around the ads. They need to be made a lot smarter, is order to get our attention back.
But by using Semantic Web technology to radically increase click-through rates, by getting us interested in ads again, impulse shopping on the Web might skyrocket. It’s very easy to go from seeing an ad for a product you have never heard of before to having bought it.
Like little kids watching commercials for sugar-heavy cereals on Saturday cartoon shows, we will be manipulated like we have never imagined before. That’s the bad side to the Semantic Web.