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Semantic Web Clears the 'Danger Point'

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- The good new for proponents of the Semantic Web: "We're at that inflection point where innovation is exploding," said Tom Tague, who heads the OpenCalais initiative at Thomson Reuters.

OpenCalais is a high profile Semantic Web project that uses natural language processing to make content easier to find. Rather than a search engine, Tague calls OpenCalais a kind of Semantic plumbing that is a foundational resource for content providers.

The bad news? Tague wasn't afraid to share some of that, too, in his opening keynote here at the Semantic Web conference Tuesday. He said some ideas for implanting Semantic Web may sound good, but there's no sure revenue model. Also the companies that are providing tools to help sites implement semantic features are overly complex.

"In eighty percent of the discussions I have with tools vendors, I'm not able to understand what they do," said Tague. "They need to simplify their story. We need simple tools that work. If I can't understand it, the enterprise IT guys aren't going to be interested."

Semantic technology could also, in theory, help better aggregate content collected in a social networking site, which Tague conceded would be "cool." But he also warned that "applying frosting on top where this is no revenue model" is a bad idea. "I wouldn't place a bet there," he told developers in the audience.

Warning the audience he was going to be "a bit harsh," he said Semantic search has some growing up to do, calling it "brilliant, but an under-achieving child."

The problem, in Tague's view, is that Semantic search isn't offering enough value to get most consumers to switch from popular search engines like Google and Yahoo. "For most people, the current model is fine, they don't need change," said Tague.

In a later interview, Guidewire Group analyst Carla Thompson disagreed with Tague's comments on search. "On a daily basis consumers type something in and don't find what they are looking for," Thomson told InternetNews.com. "I am constantly getting calls from my Mom and friends saying 'I can't find this.'"

She thinks Semantic technology can offer some revolutionary changes, but agrees with Tague that developers have to focus on practical applications that work. "There's still an aura of geekery around much of the Semantic Web," she said.

The promise of impact

On the plus side, Tague said there are many areas Semantic search is already having an impact and shows great potential for more.

"We've reached a point of innovation over the danger point," he said. "We're beyond this becoming the next AI and 'Wow isn't this cool?' We have people experimenting and even people with money to fund the innovation. When the kettle is boiling good things happen and we're clearly there at this point."

He mentioned online advertising as one area ripe for Semantic innovation. "Right now there aren't many documented cases, but what's important there is that the marginal costs to deploy are low. You can semanticize your site at quite a modest entry price." Specifically, he said Semantic technology could help publishers better match ad placements with users interests and drive them to the right landing pages.

Tague also said Semantic Web technology has great potential to improve the Web experience in vertical industries like pharmaceuticals and real estate, where a specific set of terms and content can be cataloged and leveraged.

"I believe the next big set of innovations are tools that stay with the user wherever they go," said Teague. "If you want to deliver a compelling experience, go where the people are in the browser and in their mobile devices."