Needed: Semantic Web

Once fully deployed, the Semantic Web could change the way we do things and open up entirely new fields of opportunity.

Ive been writing about the Semantic Web since I first read about it in the late 1990s in World Wide Web creator Tim Berners-Lees book "Weaving the Web: The Original Design and Ultimate Destiny of the World Wide Web." So for several years, I have been eagerly waiting for it to arrive and transform the Web.

It has been a long and sometimes-frustrating vigil, although it may finally be close to ending, thanks to the recent release of two key standards by the World Wide Web Consortium. Recently, RDF (Resource Description Framework) and OWL (Web Ontology Language) became W3C Recommendations, which means they are official standards. However, there are still many hurdles to overcome before the dream of the Semantic Web becomes reality.

Why should you care about the Semantic Web? The Web is the biggest database ever created, with content spanning all disciplines, languages and fields of knowledge, but it is extremely difficult to tap into. Search engines might help you find material containing specific words, but this content may not actually be what youre looking for. If the content is about the topic you have in mind but uses different terms or is written in a different language, you can forget about finding it.

The Semantic Web would provide the ability to tag all content on the Web, describing what it is about and giving it semantic meaning. Once fully deployed, the Semantic Web could change the way we do things and could open up entirely new fields of opportunity.

To start with, search engines would become far more effective than they are now. In addition, personal Web-based software agents could build dynamic lists of anything you might need. New applications would be limited only by your imagination. How about an application that could, on the fly, find on the Web the right parts and materials from anywhere in the world no matter what acronyms, terminology or languages were used on the resulting Web sites?

The big obstacle to reaching the Semantic Web is that the semantic tags need to be added to give meaning to all the content. Content providers need to start using RDF and OWL when creating their content. As of now, few do because few are aware of the benefits.

Part of the problem is that there have been few reasons to use RDF in Web content outside of specific academic and research areas. I did have some hope when a version of the popular RSS (RDF Site Summary) syndication format, which was based on RDF, was released a few years ago. RSS is used widely by blogs and other Web sites to syndicate content and define headlines and other areas of content.

Finally, I thought, heres something that will get RDF into a lot of Web sites. Unfortunately, RSS degenerated into one of those classic religious technology wars where competing standards are very close and could easily be rolled into one true standard. But the standards continue to remain separate because no one is willing to give in. There is some hope now that this stalemate will change and that we will end up with one RSS that is RDF-compliant, which right now isnt the case.

My main hope for getting the Semantic Web going lies with tool vendors. If Web-authoring vendors such as Adobe, Macromedia and Microsoft started to add Semantic Web tools to their products, it would make it a lot easier for content producers to enable their sites for the Semantic Web.

Id also like to see vendors of content management systems and portals enable users to mark up the content on their sites for the Semantic Web.

My other hope is that influential sites such as will start to use Semantic Web technology and that others will follow suit. Many people have probably forgotten that in the early days, Web usage spread slowly. As late as 1995 I still heard from companies that didnt think the Web had anything to do with business or corporate enterprises.

However it happens, the sooner we can get the Semantic Web to take root and grow, the better.

eWEEK Labs Director Jim Rapoza can be reached at