Semantic Search Means ….?

We’re in the year of the Semantic Web. Or maybe it’s the year when the semantic stack starts to add value to real users experiences. Or maybe it’s the year before the year when ….

We’ve all been to the conferences, we’ve all had the meetings, whether we’re builders or consumers – it’s clear that something is in the air around this topic.

We’re also impatient. The Semantic Web (stack, apps, whatever) has been right around the corner for a little while now. That impatience is causing us to spend an inordinate amount of time casting around for the application that’s going to prove the naysayers wrong, change the game, change the world.

And because we’re humans, tool users and pattern matchers – we end up landing at an answer that feels safe, that we know works, that people understand, that’s generated a bunch of billions of dollars: Search. And then we tie a bow on it so it feels new and ….. we have Semantic Search.

Let’s put aside the whole issue of whether semantic search is the killer app for the moment.  I personally think it may be one of the functions that see dramatic improvement through semantic technologies – but it doesn’t feel, today, like the application that’s going to knock our socks off.

I’d also like to take off the table the applicability of semantic search to tightly constrained, well defined, rigidly controlled knowledge domains. We all know it can do some great stuff when applied to questions about gene expression in the nasal epithelial cells of the South African Tree Frog under ultraviolet stimulation – but I think it might be a little more interesting to concentrate on searches that the other 99% of the bell curve care about.

Part of the problem may be that we’re using the term Semantic Search. I have no idea what it means. When I’m talking with someone about it we have no shared understanding. I absolutely cannot explain it to non semantageeks. So, let’s deconstruct semantic search into it’s constituent components and talk a bit about how and whether semantic technologies might actually make it better.  The results of the dissection are here on the table….

  1. What kinds of questions can we ask? Can we embed logic in our questions? Do we expect inference in our results?
  2. How can we ask them – keywords, natural language and all that jazz.
  3. Generating the “right” result set for the query.
  4. Displaying the result set in the most effective manner
  5. Making money from doing all that

So – my challenge to myself is to write a brief (well, maybe not too brief) post about each of these subtopics and talk about how semantics can – or cannot – make it better. Until we get down to this level of granularity “semantic search” is just a catchphrase without, well … semantics.

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