While companies struggle with keeping costs down during the recession, programmers tired of being bound by social networks and other walled destination sites will have their heads down building tools to make our Web browsing experience more intuitive and efficient.
Welcome to the contextual Web, a world in which technologies sit in, bolt on or plug into the browser or Web site, monitor a Web surfer’s activity and make recommendations or draw connections for a user who might otherwise be oblivious to them.
This is a world where Yahoo is already dabbling with efforts such as SearchMonkey, and it is an area Google may look to play in through its Chrome Web browser. Yet Google has been strangely hush-hush about its Web browser extension plans.
Cutting-edge startups have not been so quiet. Programmers such as Alex Iskold, founder and CEO of Adaptive Blue, are helping to foster this vision of the contextual Web. Iskold told eWEEK that in the contextual Web, users will do a Google search once and receive additional information from a browser or Web site. Iskold explained:
“After search, the computer would understand what you’re looking at and what you’re intent might be. Let’s say I’m searching for a book. A lot of people will just Google the book name and they would end up on Amazon. Once you end up on Amazon, what if you wanted to do more? Look at the book, find more books by the author, comparison shop, share with friends, there is a limited set of actions to what you would do. At some point in the future, we will do less searching. The circumstance when you’ve arrived at the page and then you said now I have to go to Google and do more searching — that use case is going to be reduced.“
There are some enormous challenges in front of the contextual Web. Today’s Web sites are geared to keep you locked in to do one particular function, and they want you to do that in their context. Web sites, such as Facebook’s famous walled garden of 150 million users, are silos.
Say you find a movie on Amazon’s IMDB.com movie database. You can watch trailers sanctioned by that site, but what if you wanted to see related clips about that movie on YouTube? IMDB.com does not allow this. Or, say you find a DVD on Amazon.com. There isn’t a button for you to rent that selection from Netflix.com.
But what if you could, without waiting for the cross-licensing deals to kick in? Browser technologies, aided by technologies such as Greasemonkey, which lets programmers manipulate the HTML code of Web pages, help make this happen.
Contextual Web Players Help Users Personalize the Browser
Iskold’s vision is one of a contextual Web where you as the user can mash up the Web your way and personalize it within the context of your actions. That’s why he and his team have created Glue, a Mozilla Firefox add-on that sits in the browser and recognizes books, music, movies, restaurants and other items users search for around the Web.
Once Glue identifies the thing it connects you with friends and other Glue users who visit the same thing around the Web. Glue creates a common bond between users within a Web browser without forcing users to, for example, log into Facebook and share behind a walled garden. Iskold and Adaptive Blue are not alone.
eWEEK spoke to Andraz Tori, CTO of Zemanta, a browser add-on for Firefox and Internet Explorer that lets publishers add relevant content to augment their blog posts.
As bloggers write their post, the Zemanta semantic engine gauges user’s intent and suggests related stories (links). Using Zemanta, bloggers are able to instantly add relevant content to their blog posts, in turn creating a relevant Web experience for their users.
Tori, like Iskold, believes such contextual technologies are the future of Internet browsing. As more and more of these tools are deployed in browsers, users could be doing fewer Web searches because their browser will, to borrow Iskold’s idea, “glue” everything together for users. Tori explained:
“Contextual technologies are trying to make search unnecessary. If they succeed, there will be more situations where search can be avoided because agents can see what user is doing in advance and offer results. Contextual technologies are not entirely different from search, but a different way of delivering results to users.“
Adaptive Blue and Zemanta are joined by Zentact whose Firefox add-on lets users import e-mail contacts and apply different tags that reflect their interests. Zentact co-browse the Web with users, offering in the browser to contact a person if it deems the page relevant based on the tags, explained Zentact co-founder Jared Brandt.
Another contextual Web warrior is Lijit, a search technology that lets Web surfers search your blog or Web site, or simply, you in your Web context. The company also makes Re-search, a widget that piggybacks on Google searches to provide additional results.
So you’re now aware of startups innovating on the contextual Web. What about big players? Mozilla is arguably the contextual Web king, with efforts such as Ubiquity, which lets nontechnical Web users create mashups.
Yahoo and Google, as premier Web services providers, are uniquely positioned to create contextual Web experiences for users. Yahoo has gotten quite a jump here with SearchMonkey, which lets developers overlay contextual information on search results. The company has also opened up its Yahoo Mail platform to let programmers spruce up the Web app’s social and collaboration features.
What Is Googles Place in the Contextual Web?
Google is a head-scratcher. For starters, it hosts the world’s largest search engine, so its programmers know how to make connections between Web services and users. Google also now makes a Web browser, Chrome, making it a natural entity for contextual technologies.
Moreover, the man who created GreaseMonkey, Aaron Boodman, is a Google programmer working on Chrome and Google Gears. eWEEK asked Google about its plans for the contextual Web and was told there was nothing new to announce, “but we are still working hard on our extensions platform for Chrome.”
Web watchers can track Google Chrome extensions progress here on the Chromium site.
While Google may have yet to make Chrome contextual, the contextual Web players eWEEK spoke to said Google is already there in Gmail. For example, Tori pointed to a Google’s Gmail Lab feature that lets users add any gadget by pasting in the URL of its XML spec file.
So Google clearly is aware of the value of contextual Web technologies. The real question is when the search giant will leverage its resources to create contextual value in Chrome. By owning a browser, Google has free rein to enrich Chrome as it sees fit.
Meanwhile, there are stumbling blocks to contextual Web technologies. Most businesses aren’t just going to sit there while users create Greasemonkey scripts that alter their Web pages, Iskold noted.
Anything that alters the original page, scrapes it and replaces what’s there can be questioned, though no one has been too vocal about it yet. It’s good for the user, but certain lawyers will argue it hurts publishers’ content. I’m sure there could be battles around that.
Even so, Iskold, Tori and others say contextual Web tools are unstoppable and that Google is very much aware of them because it has to be. “Google is experimenting with stuff like this,” claimed Iskold, who recently elaborated on his contextual Web ideas for ReadWriteWeb. “It doesn’t want Microsoft eating up into its home page.”
Iskold’s big bet is that the social Web will be where context plays the most in 2009. Services such as Glue will enable contextual social networks within the browser.
Perhaps some combination of Google Friend Connect within Chrome can help Google challenge Facebook Connect.