What the Semantic Web -- or Web 3.0 -- Can Do for Marketers

Whatever You Call It, Get Ready for Greater Relevance

By Published on .

Marta Strickland
Marta Strickland
It's been nearly 10 years since Tim Berners-Lee, who is credited with inventing the worldwide web, expressed his vision of a "semantic web," in which all web data -- and the meaning of that data -- could be read by machines. Since then, much of the slow-moving progress toward this smarter and more powerful web has been courtesy of academics and data librarians.

Recently, however, the semantic web has been enjoying a commercial revival of sorts and is often referred to by the new buzzword "Web 3.0." Given how insane the pace of life is these days, I thought I'd offer a few thoughts on what I've been learning about it.

Since I can already feel the rising tide of negative comments as that version number graces the screen, bear with me for a second. Semantic web is just one of a few things often referred to as Web 3.0 -- others include topics like data portability or mobile web. But I think entrepreneur Nova Spivack offered the most useful definition by simply calling it the third decade of the web (2010 to 2020) and referring to the technology trends that will hit maturity during that time. Most importantly, the next generation of the web will bring us out of information overload and be more relevant and meaningful.

But Web 3.0 is not just about improving the consumer experience. And it isn't some industry ploy to sell you more services. The next-generation web -- the semantic web -- aims to solve some of today's biggest problems in marketing.

So what is it? Well, semantics refers to the meaning behind data. Right now, computers are good at sending data back and forth but not great at discerning the meaning of that data. Semantic web aims to change that. Perhaps it's best explained in describing what marketers can hope to gain from it.

Improving Ads
Has your contextual advertising turned into a contextual nightmare? Current contextual advertising depends heavily on keywords. Sure, it seems safe to buy a word like "feet" -- until your ad comes up right next to a story about severed feet. What if there were a technology that could analyze what is really being said on the page?

By using natural language processing and artificial intelligence, semantic advertising solutions, like Peer39, can look at the structure of a sentence and interpret word meaning and sentiment. Semantic text analysis relies on synonyms and relationships between concepts, rather than rudimentary keyword scanning. Identifying sentiment is becoming invaluable for advertising on user-generated sites such as blogs, where you wouldn't want to place ads on a negative post.

Online advertising has another obstacle to overcome: information overload. We live in a world where information evolves at an alarming rate and, let's face it, consumers trust each other far more than they trust advertising messaging. So how do we dynamically pull smarter and more relevant content into ads?

That's where the efforts like Dapper MashupAds come into play. In addition to pulling from a brand site database, the dynamically generated ads can scan social content sites like Yelp and Flickr for the newest (positive) reviews and photos of your restaurant. It's the power of your brand message only promoted by your consumers.

Improving Measurement
One of the toughest marketing challenges of recent times has been in measuring the success of social media. How do you measure the success of a human conversation? We can measure reach (visits, views, clicks, downloads). We can also measure exposure or buzz (what people are saying about our brand). But it's inside those walled gardens that everything interesting is happening: How strong is the community? Are members active? Are we changing their minds? Changing their actions?

It's the tough nut of the new marketing conversation, but Web 3.0 might be the key to cracking it.

Semantic technology is able to pull together connections between words and phrases. How often is concept "X" said in the same breath as concept "Y"? Measurement tools will be moving away from the tag cloud, and we'll be able to immerse ourselves in the trends of the real conversation, not just the keyword of the day.

Next, there is the dilemma of message velocity; i.e., how far is my message traveling and how fast? Sure, that's an easy thing to do when you are measuring a viral video or widget but what about a conversation? Semantic technology builds on meaning, not keywords. And so it doesn't matter if your followers say, "The new Batman movie is going to be awesome" or "You have to see the 'Dark Knight' trailer"; semantic buzz tools will tie the conversation together.

Sentiment analysis is an increasingly popular tool in the marketer toolbox. And its next generation will look at the entirety of a comment or an article, from whom it came and to whom it was directed. It will use natural language processing and analysis of meaningful relationships to distinguish the "good" comments from "bad."

And what about building a community of loyal enthusiasts? What about creating a relationship with your customers? Companies like Chat Mine measure the connections between members of the community and between people and concepts. By looking at both friending and popular dialogue, it can tell you if your brand brought a community together in passionate conversation.

When O'Reilly coined the term Web 2.0, the marketing world divided into skeptics and enthusiasts. And a wave of start-ups began rolling out under the 2.0 moniker. It's only wise to fear the same for semantic web or Web 3.0. As nightmares of books and white papers race through your mind, it's important to separate the reality from the hype.

The successful technologist won't approach the marketer with buzzwords. He won't throw out phrases like "dynamic ontologies" or "semantic triples." Because good semantic technology is like movie editing -- you aren't supposed to notice it's there but it fundamentally changes the experience. So when someone approaches you about a "smarter" semantic solution, make sure they can answer this:

How will this make my ads more relevant and my metrics more meaningful?

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Marta Strickland is manager of social-media strategy at Organic, Detroit, where she defines best practices on emerging technology trends and discovers new ways to use social media to connect with consumers for brands including Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, Bank of America and Geek Squad. She voices her mind and evangelizes the power of social media as editor in chief of the Organic blog ThreeMinds. Prior to Organic, she was interactive strategist for Q LTD, a strategic design consultancy in Ann Arbor, Mich.
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