Posts Tagged ‘Intelligence’

Hakia – First Meaning-based Search Engine

Written by Alex Iskold / December 7, 2006 12:08 PM / 43 Comments

Written by Alex Iskold and edited by Richard MacManus. There has been a lot of talk lately about 2007 being the year when we will see companies roll out Semantic Web technologies. The wave started with John Markoff’s article in NY Times and got picked up by Dan Farber of ZDNet and in other media. For background on the Semantic Web in this era, check out our post entitled The Road to the Semantic Web. Also for a lengthy, but very insightful, primer on Semantic Web see Nova Spivak’s recent article.

The media attention is not accidental. Because Semantic Web promises to help solve information overload problems and deliver major productivity gains, there is a huge amount of resources, engineering and creativity that is being thrown at the Semantic Web. 

What is also interesting is that there are different problems that need to be solved, in order for things to fall into place. There needs to be a way to turn data into metadata, either at time of creation or via natural language processing. Then there needs to be a set of intelligence, particularly inside the browser, to take advantage of the generated metadata. There are many other interesting nuances and sub-problems that need to be solved, so the Semantic Web marketplace is going to have a rich variety of companies going after different pieces of the puzzle. We are planning to cover some of these companies working in the Semantic Web space, so watch out for more coverage here on Read/WriteWeb.

Hakia: how is it different from Google?

The first company we’ll cover is Hakia, which is a “meaning-based” search engine startup getting a bit of buzz. It is a venture-backed, multi-national team company headquartered in New York – and curiously has former US senator Bill Bradley as a board member. It launched its beta in early November this year, but already ranks around 33K on Alexa – which is impressive. They are scheduled to go live in 2007.

The user interface is similar to Google, but the engine prompts you to enter not just keywords – but a question, a phrase, or a sentence. My first question was: What is the population of China?

As you can see the results were spot on. I ran the same query on Google and got very similar results, but sans flag. Looking carefully over the results in Hakia, I noticed the message:

“Your query produced the Hakia gallery for China. What else do you want to know about China?”

At first this seems like a value add. However, after some thinking about it – I am not sure. What seems to have happened is that instead of performing the search, Hakia classified my question and pulled the results out of a particular cluster – i.e. China. To verify this hypothesis, I ran another query: What is the capital of china?. The results again suggested a gallery for China, but did not produce the right answer. Now to Hakia’s credit, it recovered nicely when I typed in:

Hakia experiments

Next I decided to try out some of the examples that the Hakia team suggests on its homepage, along with some of my own. The first one was Why did the chicken cross the road?, which is a Hakia example. The answers were fine, focusing on the ironic nature of the question. Particularly funny was Hakia’s pick:

My next query was more pragmatic: Where is the Apple store in Soho? (another example from Hakia). The answer was perfect. I then performed the same search on Google and got a perfect result there too. 

Then I searched for Why did Enron collapse?. Again Hakia did well, but not noticeably better than Google. However, I did see one very impressive thing in Hakia. In its results was this statement: Enron’s collapse was not caused by overstated resource reserves, but by another kind of overstatement. This is pretty witty…. but I am still not convinced that it is doing semantic analysis. Here is why: that reply is not constructed out of words because Hakia understands the semantics of the question. Instead, it pulled this sentence out of one of the documents which had a high rank, that matches the Why did Enron collapse? query.

In my final experiment, Hakia beat Google hands down. I asked Why did Martha Stewart go to jail? – which is not one of Hakia’s homebrewed examples, but it is fairly similar to their Enron example. Hakia produced perfect results for the Martha question:

Hakia is impressive, but does it really understand meaning?

I have to say that Hakia leaves me intrigued. Despite the fact that it could not answer What does Hakia mean? and despite the fact that there isn’t sufficient evidence yet that it really understands meaning. 

It’s intriguing to think about the old idea of being able to type a question into a computer and always getting a meaningful answer (a la the Turing test). But right now I am mainly interested in Hakia’s method for picking the top answer. That seems to be Hakia’s secret sauce at this point, which is unique and works quite well for them. Whatever heuristic they are using, it gives back meaningful results based on analysis of strings – and it is impressive, at least at first.

Hakia and Google

Perhaps the more important question is: Will Hakia beat Google? Hakia itself has no answer, but my answer at this point is no. This current version is not exciting enough and the resulting search set is not obviously better. So it’s a long shot that they’ll beat Google in search. I think if Hakia presented one single answer for each query, with the ability to drill down, it might catch more attention. But again, this is a long shot.

The final question is: Is semantical search fundamentally better than text search?. This is a complex question and requires deep theoretical expertise to answer it definitively. Here are a few hints…. 

Google’s string algorithm is very powerful – this is an undeniable fact. A narrow focused vertical search engine, that makes a lot of assumptions about the underlying search domain (e.g. Retrevo) does a great job in finding relevant stuff. So the difficulty that Hakia has to overcome is to quickly determine the domain and then to do a great job searching inside the domain. This is an old and difficult problem related to the understanding of natural language and AI. We know it’s hard, but we also know that it is possible. 

While we are waiting for all the answers, please give Hakia a try and let us know what you think.

Leave a comment or trackback on ReadWriteWeb and be in to win a $30 Amazon voucher – courtesy of our competition sponsors AdaptiveBlue and their Netflix Queue Widget.

6 TrackBacks

Listed below are links to blogs that reference this entry: Hakia – First Meaning-based Search Engine.TrackBack URL for this entry: http://www.readwriteweb.com/cgi-bin/mt/mt-tb.cgi/2895
2007 is going to be the year of the Semantic Web – and one of the first signs of that is the appearance of Semantic Search Engines that understand the meaning of phrases and can “extract” meaning out of diverse… Read More
» Hakia Article on Read/Write Web from SortiPreneur
R/WW has an early review of hakia and its semantic search endeavor. At the end, Alex Iskold answers the fundamental question that’s on everyone’s mind:Will Hakia beat Google? Hakia itself has no answer, but my answer at this point is Read More
» Hakia from nXplorer SEO & Marketing Blog
Auf http://www.hakia.com findet man hakia, eine Suchmaschine, welchen neben einzelnen W√∂rtern und Wortphrasen auch komplette Fragen verarbeiten kann. Ich habe sowohl auf deutsch als auch auf englisch einige Fragen gestellt aber keine vern√ºnftigen Antworten … Read More
» Search 2.0 – What’s Next? from Read/WriteWeb
Written by Emre Sokullu and edited by Richard MacManus You may feel relatively satisfied with the current search offerings of Google, Yahoo, Ask and MSN. Search today is undoubtedly much better than what it was in the second half of… Read More
» The Race to Beat Google from Read/WriteWeb
Written by Alex Iskold and edited by Richard MacManus In an article in the January 1st 2007 issue of NYTimes, reporter Miguel Helft writes about the race in Silicon Valley to beat Google. Certainly the future of search has been… Read More
» AI: Favored Search 2.0 Solution from Read/WriteWeb
In the current Read/WriteWeb poll (see below), we’re asking what ‘search 2.0’ concepts you think stand the best chance of beating Google. The results so far are interesting, because Artificial Intelligence is currently top pick – despite having a histo… Read More


Subscribe to comments for this post OR Subscribe to comments for all Read/WriteWeb posts

  • Good analysis, I wanted to write one but now there’s no need (:Anyway, I fail to see the difference between a ‘semantic’ search engine and a regular search engine. All search engines are ‘semantic’ in a way. If you type something like ‘How do you make a hot-dog’ in Google, it will give you the right answers. It won’t just search for “how”, then “do”, etc. and compile the results. It also has algorithms which know how to decipher the order of words in a sentence and other patterns that makes our writing meaningful.

    So, Hakia should do something really spectacular to beat Google with the semantic approach. It should actually be able to understand complex sentences better than Google, and as such be a search engine for more complex tasks, for example for questions like ‘I need drivers for Geforce 8800, but not the latest version’. Currently, compared to Google, it doesn’t deliver.

    Posted by: franticindustries | December 7, 2006 12:36 PM

  • What’s interesting is that Ask started out by trying to create just this type of search engine years ago. They abandoned that approach in favor of a more traditional Google competitor. So can we interpret from that that Ask learned that people would rather use a traditional search engine, or was there another reason for the switch?This type of semantical search technology seems especially well suited to encyclopedia sites like Wikipedia or Britannica. I.e., being able to type in “What is the capital of China?” at Wikipedia and get not only relevant topic articles about China, but also the specific answer, would be great. I would love to see a semantic search engine built into MediaWiki. But web search engines should, in my opinion, direct you to a variety of relevant sources.

    I don’t think I’d feel comfortable asking “What were the causes of the American Civil War?” and have the search engine only spit back one result answer (or, one viewpoint).

    Posted by: Josh | December 7, 2006 12:58 PM

  • Josh,Excellent points. I really like the Wiki idea.
    In terms of single answer, I think if you are looking for a quick answer – possibly, but otherwise you would defnitely want more results.

    The other thought occurs to me is that we might not necessarily need the new way of inputing the question in as much as we need new ways of getting the answer. So in a way, I view vertical search engines, like Retrevo, as approaching the same problem but from more pragmatic and better angle.


    Posted by: Alex Iskold | December 7, 2006 1:02 PM

  • Greetings from hakia!Thanks for the review and comments. We appreciate feedback:-)

    We are still developing, it will CONTINUE TO IMPROVE as many of the meaning associations will form in time, like connecting the neurons inside the human brain during childhood. hakia is like a TWO-year old child on the cognitive scale. But it grows EXPONENTIALLY — much faster than a human.



    Posted by: melek pulatkonak | December 7, 2006 2:05 PM

  • Melek,Thats great! Please make sure it does not become self-aware. I would hate for it to experience the kind of pain we do 🙂


    Posted by: Alex Iskold | December 7, 2006 2:19 PM

  • Noted:-)Melek

    Posted by: melek pulatkonak | December 7, 2006 2:25 PM

  • Hakia is promising, good to see this early review, but we’ll be able to judge them only after the official debut. Bad comments > /dev/nullPosted by: Emre Sokullu | December 7, 2006 2:55 PM

  • Hakia sounds quite Finnish – hakea means to fetch for instance.Reminds a little of Ms Dewey actually, but not as, errm, Flash. 🙂

    Posted by: Juha | December 7, 2006 3:58 PM

  • So, do they intend to read RDF? That is, the data about the data.I’d like to talk to them as it simple to read Content Labels. They can then provide users with more information about a sites *before* having to enter them… And that is based on Semantic capabilities 😉

    Posted by: Paul Walsh | December 7, 2006 4:31 PM

  • @Juha: yes, Hakia names comes from that Finish word. See About Us section of their site.Posted by: Emre Sokullu | December 7, 2006 5:03 PM

  • Paul,It seems to me that their claim to fame is that they do not need RDF because they mastered NLP (natural language processing).


    Posted by: Alex Iskold | December 7, 2006 5:15 PM

  • That’s a great question you bring up though Paul. Semantic Web is really associated with RDF, thanks largely to Tim Berners-Lee’s relentless promotion of RDF as ‘HTML 2.0’ (to coin a very awkward phrase!). So how many of these new meaning-based search engines coming on the market will utilize RDF?Alex is much more of an expert in these things than me, but still NLP seems to me the harder route to take – given all the difficulties AI has had in the past.

    Posted by: Richard MacManus | December 7, 2006 6:34 PM

  • I think search engines need to focus on the social aspect. Tracking what users search for and allowing them to vote on sites. This allows them to make good decisions – to immediately understand the domain a housewife is referring to when she says soap and when a developer says the same.Posted by: David Mackey | December 7, 2006 7:59 PM

  • Hmmm, doesn’t like “Where can I find a good globe?” much (a recent search that hadn’t worked too well for me on Google or Froogle). First link is good practice guidelines and legislation reform, which appear to use the word “GLOBE” for some reason (I can’t torture it enough to make it an acronym). Granted, the second link was to an eBay auction for a globe. Third was an auction for a Lionel station light “with globe”. The first and third results suggest to me that the meaning of the question hadn’t been understood. Still, we’re talking beta here, and it’s a very difficult problem. It’ll be interesting to see how they progress.Posted by: T.J. Crowder | December 8, 2006 1:06 AM

  • Hello Melek,
    Hakia rocks, its a really good search experience!Cheers.

    Posted by: Abhishek Sharma | December 8, 2006 2:33 AM

  • A semantic search is quite different from a text search like Google, which is not primarily based on context and the relationship between words and resources, but on the occurrence and position of words.If Haika really does semantic searches it could easily distinguish itself from Google by generating new content (e.g.) answers, that combine relevant unique snippets of information to a semantic result/answer to a query, as opposed to just a list of resources like the other search engines do and Haika currently does. In that case you don’t have to visit the resources to get the answer.

    The query “What is the capital of Finland?”, could show Helsinki as an answer and provide related answers regarding history, population, etymology, other capitals etc.

    For this capability Haika should not only be able to do semantic searches, but entity extraction as well, since RDF and XML schema’s are not that widespread at the moment.

    If they can manage to do this, people won’t hesitate to abandon Google, especially because the Google brand is loosing it’s value rapidly because of SEO, spamming and privacy intrusions…

    Posted by: Gert-Jan van Engelen | December 8, 2006 4:04 AM

  • I think Hakia is bluffing if it claims to be ‘semantic’. I find it as semantic as Google :-)I tried questions like
    Why did the US attack Iraq?
    Why did Israel attack Lebanon?

    It gace absolutely unrealted results which confirms that it is as good as as text search. However, when i tried the Q – “Who is Mahatama Gandhi?” – it immediately responded with a remark “See below the Mahatma Gandhi resume by hakia. What else do you want to know about Mahatma Gandhi?”

    My hunch is that Hakia guys have set up a word filter before the search query gets executed on its DB (call it a ‘semantic filter’ if you’s like). If it contains words like ‘Who’ or ‘What’ it is set to return the ‘resumes’ and ‘galariies’ for the rest of the search terms. But that isnt what a semantic is about – the engine still does not ‘understand’ my question – thats just a slightly ‘domain restricted’ search being performed.

    I could as well have a dropdown for domain (who, what etc) before the search box and retrict the search queries myself!

    While Hakia is not bad – i wont give up my Google for it!

    Posted by: Nikhil Kulkarni | December 8, 2006 8:25 AM

  • really? no one but me remembers askjeeves? i’m all about semantic web, but i’m also skeptical of the recycling of web 1.0 into web 2.0. gigaom & techcrunch have already covered a few companies who have tried this, and while i’m sure hakia is great, let’s not pretend they reinvented the wheel. the concept isn’t new.Posted by: geektastik | December 8, 2006 9:08 AM

  • “but already ranks around 33K on Alexa – which is impressive.”Impressive? Give it a break.

    Posted by: michal frackowiak | December 8, 2006 2:05 PM

  • As pointed out in #16, a Semantic Web search is radically different from a regular search. I see no reason to believe that Hakia has anything to do with the “Semantic Web” proper, as the underlying technologies – RDF, OWL, and so forth – simply are not in widespread use.If the people publishing data on the web are not publishing it in a format which is intended for consumption by the Semantic Web – and most people aren’t – then either Hakia has next to nothing to do with the Semantic Web, or they’ve made an earth-shattering breakthrough in Natural Language Processing.

    Posted by: Phillip Rhodes | December 8, 2006 2:07 PM

  • michal,33K rank is impressive given that the service just launched beta.


    Posted by: Alex Iskold | December 8, 2006 2:26 PM

  • It’s my opinion that for a semantic search engine to *really* work properly, it will have to
    a. have demographic – based parsing logic, not just language – based.
    b. know the demographics of the user submitting the query.Posted by: Ernesto | December 8, 2006 2:31 PM

  • Ernesto,Add other factors like the stuff you like, etc. That would be more of a personalized search. I think the way to go is:

    Personalize( Semantic Search ) ==> Really cool stuff.


    Posted by: Alex Iskold | December 8, 2006 2:36 PM

  • Remember that Google’s growth was spread basically by word of mouth not SUV megalith marketing.
    If google an upstart can do it to yahoo it can happen again.Posted by: Shinderpal jandu | December 8, 2006 2:49 PM

  • This concept didn’t work with ask.com, it ain’t gonna work again now. It simply isn’t how people search for information on the web.
    There are many ways to work search engines but I’m quite surprise we keep seeing the same thing over and over again. What we are missing are real innovations, not a second runner up of same clothes with a different name.Posted by: Sal | December 8, 2006 2:55 PM

  • Ask both of them (and Ask.com) this question:
    what is 5 plus 5?enough said.

    Posted by: Dave | December 8, 2006 3:01 PM

  • @Dave – duh. Things like calculating 5 plus 5 is a VERY simple matter of doing word associations with relevant mathematical operators. Something which I’m sure Hakia can achieve shortly.The more interesting phrases here are – as Melek mentioned above – “connections being formed cognitively” and “intelligent as a 2 year old”. Is the engine behind it aware of the data it parses and spits out? What is the level of awareness then – Word associations, lexical analysis, categorization and meaning vs actual causal factors?

    Posted by: Viksit | December 8, 2006 3:53 PM

  • Nice work, going to check out how this handles.Posted by: Tele Man | December 8, 2006 4:25 PM

  • Very interesting, and props to the developers. I know it’s not a new concept (as pointed out earlier, ASK did try to do it), but then again, neither was a GUI when Apple took over… these things take development — do you know how long the concept of the Macintosh was alive at Xerox park before Jobs discovered it and furthered the development into a now-common operating system? Give Hakia (and semantic-search) a change to develop. Recycled ideas usually have merit. That’s why they’re recycled. They just didn’t get developed 100% the first time around.I do, however, see Hakia as far away from success of semantics. To get the semantics perfectly, and accomplish its goal here, it really has to conquer Bloom’s Taxonomy of learning and apply it to each query; especially if it is to return one (or few) valued and cross-compiled results from different sources.

    Currently, it wouldn’t pass a TRUE Turing Test — just mimics the foreign language copied from book to carry on conversation argument proposed by (insert name here, I forget it at the moment…)
    ^Wow… I just referred to like 5 things I learned last quarter in my freshman computer science classes… that felt good. Hope my thoughts make sense. Keep up the work Hakia, I really would be impressed to see success here, I just think it would have to incorporate some AI which is not looking good (from my eyes, anyway).

    Posted by: Augie | December 8, 2006 9:08 PM

  • I think Hakia weighted W5 (Who, What, Where, When and Why) heavily in the search queries. I think Hakia is decent but I am still not too sure the difference in using semantical search or text search (if the text search query is specific enough).Posted by: andy kong | December 8, 2006 9:34 PM

  • While there is some growing interest in semantics and meaning, partly due to work in the semantic web and upstarts like Hakia, the first copy of the first semantic search engine was delivered to the Congressional Research Service in 1988. I know because I was there and I installed it for the research staff there.In your analysis you asked: Does Hakia really understand meaning?. I think the question that has to be answered first is: What does it mean to understand meaning?. Long before you come to the turning test, you have to come to understand what the term “semantics” means and how it is used and understood by those in and outside the domain of software and computational technology practice.

    The answer to the last question you offered: Is semantical search fundamentally better than text search? depends greatly upon what you think semantical means in a search and retrieval context.

    In a word though, the answer is a resounding Yes.

    I think, in its most common and general usage (among peoples) semantics refers to the interpretation of the significance of the relationships and interactions of subjects and objects in a situational context.

    For example, the semantics of the state of affairs in modern day Iraq range over a state of civil war to extreme cases of outside insurgencies intended to deceive and delude. When the semantics are cloudy and unclear, judgments and decisions about what and how to name particular aspects of the state of affairs can also be murky. Thereby interdependent judgments or decisions become delayed or the subject of further debate. Ideally you want to present a situation such that a uniform perception emerges, with semantics (significance) that drives or guides interpretations such that those that are relevant and those with the same validity or authority prevail.

    As the Bush administration has demonstrated, the process, the presentation, the semantics– can become political and highly charged. When questions of significance persist, that is, questions ranging over the signifier and signified in a given situation, uncertainty, lack of clarity and disarray blur and obscure any significance and generally erode confidence and delay action.

    This is not the kind of semantics the Semantic Web and AI technologies proclaim. In their quest to share and exchange information, they want just enough semantics to normalize data labels between systems so that they are able to exchange information and be sure they are referring to the same items in the data exchange. They want to use named references, with authority of course. In fact, they strive to clear and unambiguous semantics –a foreign concept to the Bush administration.

    But semantics has to do with the significance of interpretation. What is significant in our experience of the search and retrieval application. What is of significance in the results of the search engine? Relevance. The benefit of semantic search is greater relevance. For Hakia to be relevant, it has to offer more relevance than Google. A semantic search engine should also offer more– in my opinion.

    A modern language semantic search engine should offer more than relevance. It should offer insight. Rather than fixing semantics to simple categories for easy exchange, a truly semantical search engine should aid and assist one while exploring topics. It should help to relate language to abstract ideas instead of just connecting the keywords, names and nouns.

    Posted by: Ken Ewell | December 8, 2006 11:32 PM

  • No,It is not better than google ,type the ame questions in google and you wll get better answersPosted by: jyotheendra | December 8, 2006 11:37 PM

  • Gee golly, as far ahead of me Ken Ewell is in every sense of technological knowledge and understanding, I have to say… You went way off topic just to make a point about the Bush administration… I get so sick of that.Of course semantic search is better than connecting language parts. People may not think it’s better, but I argue that they only feel that way because they are used to searching with boolean operators and combinations of keywords. Everyone knows WHAT SPECIFICALLY they want to find, but some people have trouble putting their question into acceptable and successful search terms… Imagine never having to phrase a question specially for a search engine: just type what you’re wondering, and have an instand answer.

    Much easier than combining keywords with booleans to try to simplify natural language to “search engine” language!

    PS — No offense to you, Mr Ewell — I really do respect that your technological insights and opinions are worth 10 times my own because of the knowledge gap; I guess I just got really sick of seeing more politically charged comments in non-related areas… I’m just sick of politics all-together right now, I think. Not trying to start a flame-war or anything! 🙂

    Posted by: Auggie | December 9, 2006 1:36 AM

  • Great job done by hakiaI got the perfect answers to my questions in the top 3-5 links and this saved a lot of time.

    I am impressed

    Posted by: priya | December 9, 2006 11:42 AM

  • What about Chacha.com? they actually have guides who help you with your search.Posted by: Tori | December 9, 2006 3:26 PM

  • Unfortunately, Tori, I was unable to ever get a guide connected to use, but I do remember trying that out a few days ago and thinking it was a pretty cool concept… as long as they don’t charge you for it ever! Could you connect to guides?Posted by: Auggie | December 10, 2006 1:33 AM

  • Guides worked for me.Alex.

    Posted by: Alex Iskold | December 10, 2006 6:15 AM

  • Looks like there’s a /very/ long way to go yet. Given that “what is the capital of china” is semantically ambigous, I tried to be helpful:what is the administrative capital of China
    what is the administrative capital of the United States of America
    what is the administrative capital of the USA
    what is the administrative capital of the US

    Unfortunately, Hakia provided irrelevant answers to all four questions. Google got 4/4.

    Given the apparently overwhelming power of Google’s indexing algorithm and the extent of their dataset, a semantic-based search facility such as Hakia may have to seek a qualitatively different area of search in which to make a contribution.

    Posted by: Graham Higgins | December 10, 2006 7:33 AM

  • Ref: # 35Tried the so called ChaCha.com forget about getting any good result, it felt like I was doing a chat!!! Users around the world have limited attention period. Getting best (no precise) results with minimum efforts – that’s the key. Advanced search and Personalized search have been there for long time with no good impact on users.
    Hakia – doing good work, but it’s too early to say something concrete. In addition, I would not like to accept that Google doesn’t have sementic features in their search algorithm. I’m sure they are working on it or looking out for something good (startup kid).

    Posted by: Dhruba Baishya | December 16, 2006 7:24 PM

  • props to geektastik for doing what the author failed to do. Mention askjeeves.Posted by: Bog | December 19, 2006 9:41 AM

  • I mention Ask Jeeves in the second comment. ;)Posted by: Josh | December 23, 2006 5:10 PM

  • This is good example of success of hakia
    why dont people tell their salaries?Posted by: Anonymous | January 3, 2007 2:14 AM

  • The main for Hakia is that Google is not standing still. G has a secret project which I feel must be to do with semantics.BTW – Google does not use any knowledge of semantics for translation. We have from Google.

    El barco attravesta una cerradua – un vuelo de cerraduras – La estacion de ressorte – jogar de puente

    The last is particular annoying. My daughter plays for England and I when I try to search for “Bridge” I am overwhemed with sites on civil engineering.

    I specifically tested these.
    with Hakia

    The locks on the Grand Union Canal
    Spring flowers (primavera) Springs in Gloustershire (mamanthal)
    Bridge tournaments

    The results on the whole were satisfactory – much better than Google. Understand is a difficult word to define. My definition (bueno espagnol) is the difference between Primavera, Ressorte, Mamanthal. In other words can we use our “understanding” in an operational way. My view is that precise definition + a large enough database = Turing. To some extent Hakia appears to do this. It must be the future. The fly in the oitment is what Google is doing.

    Posted by: Ian Parker | January 6, 2007 5:27 AM

Read Full Post »

Spock – Vertical Search Done Right

Written by Alex Iskold / June 26, 2007 6:10 AM / 11 Comments

There has been quite a lot of buzz lately around a vertical search engine for people, called Spock. While still in private beta, the engine has already impressed users with its rich feature set and social aspects. Yet, there is something that has gone almost unnoticed – Spock is one of the best vertical semantic search engines built so far. There are four things that makes their approach special:

  • The person-centric perspective of a query
  • Rich set of attributes that characterize people (geography, birthday, occupation, etc.)
  • Usage of tags as links or relationships between people
  • Self-correcting mechanism via user feedback loop

Spock’s focus on people

The only kind of search result that you get from Spock is a list of people; and it interprets any query as if it is about people. So whether you search for democrats or ruby on rails or new york, the results will be lists of people associated with the query. In that sense, the algorithm is probably a flavor of the page rank or frequency analysis algorithm used by Google – but tailored to people.

Rich semantics, tags and relationships

As a vertical engine, Spock knows important attributes that people have. Even in the beta stage, the set is quite rich: name, gender, age, occupation and location just to name a few. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Spock is its usage of tags. Firstly, all frequent phrases that Spock extracts via its crawler become tags. In addition, users can also add tags. So Spock leverages a combination of automated tags and people power for tagging.

A special kind of tag in Spock is called ‘relationships’ – and it’s the secret sauce that glues people together. For example, Chelsea is related to Clinton because she is his daughter, but Bush is related to Clinton because he is the successor to the title of President. The key thing here is that relationships are explicit in Spock. These relationships taken together weave a complex web of connections between people that is completely realistic. Spock gives us a glimpse of how semantics emerge out of the simple mechanism of tagging.

Feedback loops

The voting aspect of Spock also harnesses the power of automation and people. It is a simple, yet very interesting way to get feedback into the system. Spock is experimenting with letting people vote on the existing “facts” (tags/relationships) and it re-arranges information to reflect the votes. To be fair, the system is not yet tuned to do this correctly all the time – it’s hard to know right from wrong. However, it is clear that a flavor of this approach in the near future will ‘teach’ computers what the right answer is.

Limitations of Spock’s approach

The techniques that we’ve discussed are very impressive, but they have limitations. The main problem is that Spock is likely to have much more complete information about celebrities and well known people than about ordinary people. The reason for it is the amount of data. More people are going to be tagging and voting on the president of the United States than on ordinary people. Unless of course, Spock breaks out and becomes so viral that a lot of local communities form – much like on Facebook. While it’s possible, at this point it does not seem to likely. But even if Spock just becomes a search engine that works best for famous people, it is still very useful and powerful.


Spock is fascinating because of its focus and leverage of semantics. Using tags as relationships and the feedback loop strike me as having great potential to grow a learning system organically, in the matter that learning systems evolve in nature. Most importantly, it is pragmatic and instantly useful.

Leave a comment or trackback on ReadWriteWeb and be in to win a $30 Amazon voucher – courtesy of our competition sponsors AdaptiveBlue and their Netflix Queue Widget.

2 TrackBacks

Listed below are links to blogs that reference this entry: Spock – Vertical Search Done Right.TrackBack URL for this entry: http://www.readwriteweb.com/cgi-bin/mt/mt-tb.cgi/2309
» Weekly Wrapup, 25-29 June 2007 from Read/WriteWeb
The Weekly Wrapups have been a feature of Read/WriteWeb since the beginning of January 2005 (when they were called Web 2.0 Weekly Wrapups). Nowadays the Wrapup is designed for those of you who can’t keep up with a daily dose… Read More
» The Web’s Top Takeover Targets from Read/WriteWeb
This past year has been a very eventful one in the M&A arena, with many of web 2.0’s biggest names being snapped up. A few stand-outs include the likes of YouTube, Photobucket, Feedburner, Last.fm, and StumbleUpon. Yet, there still remains… Read More


Subscribe to comments for this post OR Subscribe to comments for all Read/WriteWeb posts

  • Spock will also create a huge database of “ordinary” people, too.They’re aggregating Facebook, MySpace and LinkedIn. They have less known people, too. I was known to the system – there was not much detail, but it included my name, age, country and MySpace-profile.

    If they start to index more resources, like domains (who owns which domains), blogs (there are millions of them…), more social networks or best: the web in general, they’re on the best way to actually become a search engine for _everybody_.

    Also, don’t underestimate the fact that everybody will at least tag himself. That’s our ego! 🙂

    Posted by: Sebastian | June 26, 2007 6:46 AM

  • I agree that there’s huge potential for Spock, and that it is very well done.Potential downside? If Spock does hit I can envision employers and recruiters making extensive use of it to check up on/get background on employees/prospects – which might not be such a good thing for some.

    Posted by: Chris | June 26, 2007 7:26 AM

  • spock is gonna take alot of money to market that domain. the name is terrible. spook is better. spoke is better. you would think they would at least common sense vertical web address like mylocator.com or something. the world does not need another website that you have to explain what it does. vertical done right needs no explanation to location. change the name. I like spoke better.Posted by: steven emery | June 26, 2007 9:11 AM

  • What the fuk is this?!?
    semenatic who? Dont they make antivirus ?
    Why would they want to do search engine.they cant tell me who stole my screwdriver but I know it was claxton before he left that POS.

    Posted by: Mike Hulubinka | June 26, 2007 10:50 AM

  • Pretty interesting technology. One of the default queries behind the log-in is “people killed by handguns.” I think the feedback loop feature is a great quality control mechanism, assuming it’s not terribly prone to abuse; it’s also a lot of fun to play with!I think I still have a couple invitations if anyone is interested in trying it out.

    Posted by: Cortland Coleman | June 26, 2007 8:23 PM

  • I am not excited by spock because its business objective is meaningless. it is a good tool to kill time. however, google is a great tool to save time.Posted by: keanu | June 26, 2007 8:59 PM

  • Well, I would like to make an interesting comment, but when I went to their site it was down for maintenance.A portent?

    Posted by: Alan Marks | June 27, 2007 6:15 AM

  • I had the same experience as Alan but now Spock’s back up it appears that it’s invitation only. As current users are able to invite others, it would be great if some generous person could send me an invitation! jason (at) talktoshiba.comPosted by: Jason | June 28, 2007 2:20 AM

  • hai all spockerPosted by: rmpal | July 3, 2007 5:22 AM

  • If you want free spock invites go to http://www.swapinvites.com/Posted by: Nathan | July 11, 2007 10:55 AM

  • Crawling the web does not always lead to good results…search on spock.com for “Christian” and just wonder about the results…Posted by: wayne | August 14, 2007 3:19 AM

Read Full Post »

Top-Down: A New Approach to the Semantic Web

Written by Alex Iskold / September 20, 2007 4:22 PM / 17 Comments

Earlier this week we wrote about the classic approach to the semantic web and the difficulties with that approach. While the original vision of the layer on top of the current web, which annotates information in a way that is “understandable” by computers, is compelling; there are technical, scientific and business issues that have been difficult to address.One of the technical difficulties that we outlined was the bottom-up nature of the classic semantic web approach. Specifically, each web site needs to annotate information in RDF, OWL, etc. in order for computers to be able to “understand” it.

As things stand today, there is little reason for web site owners to do that. The tools that would leverage the annotated information do not exist and there has not been any clearly articulated business and consumer value. Which means that there is no incentive for the sites to invest money into being compatible with the semantic web of the future.

But there are alternative approaches. We will argue that a more pragmatic, top-down approach to the semantic web not only makes sense, but is already well on the way toward becoming a reality. Many companies have been leveraging existing, unstructured information to build vertical, semantic services. Unlike the original vision, which is rather academic, these emergent solutions are driven by business and market potential.

In this post, we will look at the solution that we call the top-down approach to the semantic web, because instead of requiring developers to change or augment the web, this approach leverages and builds on top of current web as-is.

Why Do We Need The Semantic Web?

The complexity of original vision of the semantic web and lack of clear consumer benefits makes the whole project unrealistic. The simple question: Why do we need computers to understand semantics? remains largely unanswered.

While some of us think that building AI is cool, the majority of people think that AI is a little bit silly, or perhaps even unsettling. And they are right. AI for the sake of AI does not make any sense. If we are talking about building intelligent machines, and if we need to spend money and energy annotating all the information in the world for them, then there needs to be a very clear benefit.

Stated the way it is, the semantic web becomes a vision in search of a reason. What if the problem was restated from the consumer point of view? Here is what we are really looking forward to with the semantic web:

  • Spend less time searching
  • Spend less time looking at things that do not matter
  • Spend less time explaining what we want to computers

A consumer focus and clear benefit for businesses needs to be there in order for the semantic web vision to be embraced by the marketplace.

What If The Problem Is Not That Hard?

If all we are trying to do is to help people improve their online experiences, perhaps the full “understanding” of semantics by computers is not even necessary. The best online search tool today is Google, which is an algorithm based, essentially, on statistical frequency analysis and not semantics. Solutions that attempt to improve Google by focusing on generalized semantics have so far not been finding it easy to do so.

The truth is that the understanding of natural language by computers is a really hard problem. We have the language ingrained in our genes. We learn language as we grow up. We learn things iteratively. We have the chance to clarify things when we do not understand them. None of this is easily replicated with computers.

But what if it is not even necessary to build the first generation of semantic tools? What if instead of trying to teach computers natural language, we hard-wired into computers the concepts of everyday things like books, music, movies, restaurants, stocks and even people. Would that help us be more productive and find things faster?

Simple Semantics: Nouns And Verbs

When we think about a book we think about handful of things – title and author, maybe genre and the year it was published. Typically, though, we could care less about the publisher, edition and number of pages. Similarly, recipes provoke thoughts about cuisine and ingredients, while movies make us think about the plot, director, and stars.

When we think of people, we also think about a handful of things: birthday, where do they live, how we’re related to them, etc. The profiles found on popular social networks are great examples of simple semantics based around people:

Books, people, recipes, movies are all examples of nouns. The things that we do on the web around these nouns, such as looking up similar books, finding more people who work for the same company, getting more recipes from the same chef and looking up pictures of movie stars, are similar to verbs in everyday language. These are contextual actuals that are based on the understanding of the noun.

What if semantic applications hard-wired understanding and recognition of the nouns and then also hard-wired the verbs that make sense? We are actually well on our way doing just that. Vertical search engines like Spock, Retrevo, ZoomInfo, the page annotating technology from Clear Forrest, Dapper, and the Map+ extension for Firefox are just a few examples of top-down semantic web services.

The Top-Down Semantic Web Service

The essence of a top-down semantic web service is simple – leverage existing web information, apply specific, vertical semantic knowledge and then redeliver the results via a consumer-centric application. Consider the vertical search engine Spock, which scans the web for information about people. It knows how to recognize names in HTML pages and it also looks for common information about people that all people have – birthdays, locations, marital status, etc. In addition, Spock “understands” that people relate to each other. If you look up Bush, then Clinton will show up as a predecessor. If you look up Steve Jobs, then Bill Gates will come up as a rival.

In other words, Spock takes simple, everyday semantics about people and applies it to the information that already exists online. The result? A unique and useful vertical search engine for people. Further, note that Spock does not require the information to be re-annotated in RDF and OWL. Instead, the company builds adapters that use heuristics to get the data. The engine does not actually have full understanding of semantics about people, however. For example, it does not know that people like different kinds of ice cream, but it doesn’t need to. The point is that by focusing on a simple semantics, Spock is able to deliver a useful end-user service.

Another, much simpler, example is the Map+ add-on for Firefox. This application recognizes addresses and provides a map popup using Yahoo! Maps. It is the simplicity of this application that precisely conveys the power of simple semantics. The add-on “knows” what addresses look like. Sure, sometimes it makes mistakes, but most of the time it tags addresses in online documents properly. So it leverages existing information and then provides direct end user utility by meshing it up with Yahoo! Maps.

The Challenges Facing The Top-Down Approach

Despite being effective, the somewhat simplistic top-down approach has several problems. First, it is not really the semantic web as it is defined, instead its a group of semantic web services and applications that create utility by leveraging simple semantics. So the proponents of the classic approach would protest and they would be right. Another issue is that these services do not always get semantics right because of ambiguities. Because the recognition is algorithmic and not based on an underlying RDF representation, it is not perfect.

It seems to me that it is better to have simpler solutions that work 90% of the time than complex ones that never arrive. The key questions here are: How exactly are mistakes handled? And, is there a way for the user to correct the problem? The answers will be left up to the individual application. In life we are used to other people being unpredictable, but with computers, at least in theory, we expect things to work the same every time.

Yet another issue is that these simple solutions may not scale well. If the underlying unstructured data changes can the algorithms be changed quickly enough? This is always an issue with things that sit on top of other things without an API. Of course, if more web sites had APIs, as we have previously suggested, the top-down semantic web would be much easier and more certain.


While the original vision of the semantic web is grandiose and inspiring in practice it has been difficult to achieve because of the engineering, scientific and business challenges. The lack of specific and simple consumer focus makes it mostly an academic exercise. In the mean time, existing data is being leveraged by applying simple heuristics and making assumptions about particular verticals. What we have dubbed top-down semantic web applications have been appearing online and improving end user experiences by leveraging semantics to deliver real, tangible services.

Will the bottom-up semantic web ever happen? Possibly. But, at the moment the precise path to get there is not quite clear. In the mean time, we can all enjoy better online experience and get to where we need to go faster thanks to simple top-down semantic web services.

Leave a comment or trackback on ReadWriteWeb and be in to win a $30 Amazon voucher – courtesy of our competition sponsors AdaptiveBlue and their Netflix Queue Widget.

5 TrackBacks

Listed below are links to blogs that reference this entry: Top-Down: A New Approach to the Semantic Web.TrackBack URL for this entry: http://www.readwriteweb.com/cgi-bin/mt/mt-tb.cgi/1638
Summary: The original vision of the semantic web as a layer on top of the current web, annotated in a way that computers can “understand,” is certainly grandiose and intriguing. Yet, for the past decade it has been a kind… Read More
Alex Iskold’s ‘Semantic Web: Difficulties with the Classic Approach’ for Read/Write Web was one of the posts rolled up into yesterday’s outpouring here on Nodalities. He’s been busy during the (my) night, and I woke this morning to ‘Top-Down:… Read More
Yesterday brought an enlightening post by Alex Iskold, entitled “Top-Down: A New Approach to the Semantic Web“: “While the original vision of the semantic web is grandiose and inspiring in practice it has been difficult to achieve bec… Read More
Here is a summary of the week’s Web Tech action on Read/WriteWeb. Note that you can subscribe to the Weekly Wrapups, either via the special RSS feed or by email. Web News Yahoo! Drops $350m on Zimbra; an Open Source,… Read More
Em teoria a web sem√¢ntica √© fant√°stica, ou seja, redescrever toda a informa√ß√£o que j√° existe na web na tentativa de fazer os computadores entenderem o significado das coisas. Em poucas palavras, seria uma camada a mais na web com meta-informa√ß√µ… Read More


Subscribe to comments for this post OR Subscribe to comments for all Read/WriteWeb posts

  • Hi Alex. The top-down approach alone is not enough to reach the Semantic Web. It’s not even enough to reach the half-hearted attempt at the Semantic Web that you describe. I believe both the bottom-up and top-down approaches will be needed to reach the goal. At this time we’re faced with few too many people attempting either approach. Top-down isn’t even fully feasible yet, whereas a bottom-up approach can at least be done with currently available technology.I fully disagree with your statement that the complexity of original vision of the semantic web and lack of clear consumer benefits makes the whole project unrealistic.

    Posted by: James | September 20, 2007 4:58 PM

  • I think the use of Microformats does provide some actual practical usage of a form of machine-readable semantic formatting for content. Ok, it’s maybe not quite “the semantic web” people envision but it does have some usefulness.I also read an blog post yesterday by Peter Krantz entitled “RDFa – Implications for Accessibility” which talks about the W3C’s RDFa HTML extensions as opposed to Microformats as a means to include machine readable data.

    I wasn’t sure if I should be writing ‘semantic web’ with a capital S as some people seem to use that as suggesting something more than just the concept of ‘semantic standards compliant HTML / XHTML’!

    Posted by: Rick Curran | September 20, 2007 5:10 PM

  • If you’re talking about the Semantic Web (the W3C attempt, and the actual Semantic Web) then you use caps for the S and the W. If you’re talking about types of webs (reactive web, proactive web, semantic web) you would not use caps (proper noun vs noun).Posted by: James | September 20, 2007 5:29 PM

  • My bullshit meter went off after the first paragraph. You are so far off dude. You should take some time to “understand” it before you try to write about it. Otherwise you are just making noise.Your article is just noise.

    Where do I check that this article is not useful?

    Posted by: Ken Ewell | September 20, 2007 6:07 PM

  • Good article, especially about the top down vs. bottom up. I am working on a very specific problem – make it easy for teachers to create lessons – and search is not an answer ! We are working on an overlay – a top down semantic web, which not only includes normal metadata but also more domain specific, contextual information. SOme thoughts at http://doubleclix.wordpress.com/Posted by: Krishna Sankar | September 20, 2007 6:08 PM

  • The bottom-up and top-down approaches are not mutually exclusive, so there is no point in trying to pit one against the other. And indeed, why wait until the perfect vision is implemented? If some value can be delivered now by cutting corners, and more value later by investing in a more formal approach in parallel, then surely everyone wins. If a top-down service is able to cheaply extract facts from the Web now, then surely, it should be able to easily translate these facts into predicates (and map them to ontologies) so as to plug into bottom-up machinery (rules, proofs, etc.) as it becomes available. It’s all good.Posted by: Jean-Michel Decombe | September 20, 2007 6:21 PM

  • I must admit I was very disappointed to see an article on this topic with such a wide audience not take the opportunity to increase the visibility of microformats.In the perfect world, publishing platforms (wordpress, cms’s in general,etc.) would allow the publisher to easily mark certain parts of their content with semantic value, using microformats.

    Then, all modern browsers should be able to recognize them and provide the users with some useful actions. Add hCards to your address book, events to your calendar of choice, etc. The list goes on and on.

    From where I stand, we’re not that far. Firefox 3, MS IE8 and Apple have all shown interest in this matter. Let’s all hold hands and see what they have in store for us.

    Sir Tim Berners-Lee is much more than a dreamer. He is, as we all know, a visionary. Thank you, Sir.

    I hate spamming, but if you’re interested in these matters visit microformats dot org for more info and/or click my name for a fresh screencast showing how this works for the users.


    Posted by: André Luís | September 20, 2007 6:24 PM

  • How many stacked straw men does it take to reach the Moon? Apparently, both not too many, and quite a few.This week’s dust up about “what is the semantic Web?” is but a mote in the eye of history, and even within very recent history (say, 1-2 years) at that.

    The real story behind everyone desiring to state the obvious about easy things and hard things relating to information federation is that commercial prospects must be near at hand. I take this as good news.

    It will be interesting to see whose silks get dirtied as this jockeying continues out of the gate.

    Posted by: Mike Bergman | September 20, 2007 7:17 PM

  • I get the same sense of things Mike. The heated debating back and forth shows not only that the Semantic Web is taking in larger numbers of followers, but that we’re nearing a time when we can put what we’ve researched to practical use.The interesting thing to me will be the kind of products and services that will emerge. To me it’s not entirely clear yet what markets will be most profitable for Semantic Web technology (and semantic technologies in general).

    I hear that there is a lot of money in the market for a system that radically simplifies data exchange in the enterprise, but consumer products and services I’m not sure about. I don’t think there will be a market for “Semantic Web browsers.” I’m sure Firefox 4 will accommodate any such needs, and I would hope that becomes the case.

    I need to do my research on what the current “Semantic Web companies” are up to.

    Posted by: James | September 20, 2007 8:53 PM

  • I lost my comment on your last post somewhere, so I blogged it.All I’d add here is that most of the systems you describe are effectively domain-specific data silos. Unless there’s Web-based interop, these things are merely on the Web, not of the Web. Semantic Web technologies are designed for truly Web-based data integration, they are essentially an evolution of the link.

    Mike’s comment above creased me up – especially since you only have to look at his collection of Sweet Tools to see the “bottom-up Semantic Web” is coming along just fine, thank you 🙂 He does have a point – all this is really about is moving from a Web of Documents to a more general Web of Data.

    For a continual update, subscribe to Planet RDF, or even This Week’s Semantic Web. Coders might also be interested in the Developers Guide to Semantic Web Toolkits
    for different Programming Languages
    . As well as tools applications, there’s more and more linked data appearing on the Web all the time…

    Posted by: Danny | September 21, 2007 3:38 AM

  • some good points though I think you might use some less words. e.g. the goalsSpend less time searching
    Spend less time looking at things that do not matter
    Spend less time explaining what we want to computers

    are in short: “spend less time on things you do not like”.

    still, excellent post. as always 😉

    Posted by: Peter P | September 21, 2007 5:02 AM

  • Alex,
    You make good points. We need both top-down and bottom-up approaches.Isn’t GRDDL (http://www.w3.org/2004/01/rdxh/spec) a generic approach to gather information from documents?

    Simile projects and RDFizers are worth a look (http://simile.mit.edu/wiki/RDFizers)

    I think semantic web components – a way to describe the components that make up web applications, may be another approach to build bottom-up web.

    We do need a general framework of resource description as a common vocabulary whether our approach is top-down or bottom-up.

    We do need more dialog and I am glad that you started it with this post.


    Posted by: Dorai Thodla | September 21, 2007 5:23 AM

  • Peter’s P’s last comment pretty much sums up what everyone wants from new web technology (regardless of whether or not it falls under the semantic web umbrella), doesn’t it?And I quote:

    “Spend less time searching
    Spend less time looking at things that do not matter
    Spend less time explaining what we want to computers”

    In general, people want to spend less time doing the boring stuff and get right to good/relevant/interesting stuff (if I could add a picture, I’d totally post the “This is relevant to my interests” lolcat right, because really, what topic couldn’t benefit from a little lolcat levity?

    *by the way, since I know that many RWW readers are of the entrepreneurial type, if anyone is working on a project or has an idea that accomplishes the above missions, check out the Knight News Challenge – http://newschallenge.org.

    Posted by: Jackie | September 21, 2007 11:04 AM

  • I have just retired after finished spending years trying to play a small part in controlling a corporate intranet with rules as basic as “use HTML”. It degenerated into a collection of thousands of PDFs (with internal links)and even Word documents posted straight to the Intranet. In spite of supplied templates and document management tools the information suppliers saw the Intranet as if it were a paper filing cabinet. HTML combined with proper use of CSS goes a long way towards basic structure but even when given the tools information suppliers will not see the reason to use them.Posted by: Albert Mispel | September 21, 2007 1:23 PM

  • Good effort, but there is very little new here. Lots of work has been done in the area of semantic integration which understands that an inference architecture will always result in false associations that typically require lots of manual refinements (customizations) of ontologies.Semantic integration (where mission critical systems are involved) is a case of the good being the enemy of the perfect. If only we could return lots of choices and let the user pick. Google has it easy.

    Posted by: Pano | September 21, 2007 6:57 PM

  • yea google… they will get this …Posted by: Nature Wallpaper | September 21, 2007 11:34 PM

  • Thanks a lot for this post and the previous one on semantic web. Really interesting. I was wondering whether you will address what you said about computers not being able to understand human language, later on. I think this is one of the fundamental problems with semantic web. Although I do agree with you that we should do what we can, even if that means we cannot get any further than the “simple semantic web”. More comments on my blog.Posted by: Samuel Driessen | December 18, 2007 12:36 PM

Read Full Post »

Dave McComb : What will it take to build the Semantic Technology industry?

mccombDave McComb, CEO of asemantics and co-chair of this year’s Semantic Technology Conference in San Jose / USA, does not believe in killer applications when it comes to capitalize semantic technologies. Read his comment on what it takes to build a Semantic Technology industry.

What will it take to build the Semantic Technology industry?

I get asked this question a lot. And I’d like to get your help in answering it please.

As co-chair of the Semantic Technology Conference program, I see lots of customer organizations experimenting and adopting semantic technologies – especially ontology-driven development projects and semantic search tools – and seemingly as many start-ups and new products emerging to address their requirements. It’s an exciting time to be in this space and I’m glad to have a part to play.

But back to the question of “what will it take?” I don’t think anyone has all the answers, though it seems there’s a growing consensus about how semantics will eventually take hold:


1. A Little Semantics Goes a Long Way

I think it was Jim Hendler who first used the expression, and I find myself in stark agreement. Much of the criticism of the semantic web vision focuses on the folly of trying to boil the ocean, yet many of the successful early adopters are getting nice results by taking small incremental steps. There’s a nice little exchange at Dave Beckett’s blog on this point.

2. Realistic Expectations

I guess this relates to my first point, but I remain concerned about the hype and expectations that are being set around the semantic web, and now the term Web 3.0. As much as anyone, I’d love to see semantics grow exponentially. But this market is going to be driven by customers, not vendors, and the corporate clients I see have hyped too many times so they’re taking a more cautious approach. I’m confident they’ll catch on eventually, but let’s not try to push them too far, too fast.

3. We Don’t Need a Killer App

Personally I think we need to look at semantic capabilities as an increasing component of the web and computing infrastructure, as opposed than trying to identify a killer app that’s going to kickstart a buying frenzy. If a killer app emerges then that’s great, but don’t hold your breath. There’s plenty of value to be gained in the meantime. More than anything, we need to demonstrate speedy, cheap ways to get started with semantics. This will be far more useful in the long run.

4. We Need to Get Business Mindshare

It’s so obvious that I’m almost embarrassed to say it, but the main point is that we need to improve how we’re currently demonstrating the business value of semantic technology. I see a few key ways we can improve, starting with a greater willingness to talk about the projects already taking place. Secondly, I think we can leverage existing technology trends – especially SOA and mashups – to show how semantic technology can add value to these efforts. Third, and I risk offending a few people with this, but in the short term we should be emphasizing cost savings and reduced time to deployment over and above the extra intelligence and functionality that semantics can provide. Especially for corporate customers. Semantic SOA can save hugely over conventional approaches in data integration and interface projects, and this is where most businesses are really feeling the pain right now.

OK, so this is a short and incomplete list of ideas, and I’ll admit that part of my motivation is just to get the conversation started. But I hope you’ll join in. There are two places where you can start:

  1. My Blog
  2. The Semantic Technology Conference

This year’s SemTech conference in particular will have numerous discussions around the theme of how to grow the semantic technology industry, including Mills Davis’ Semantic Wave 2007 tutorial, and the Keynote panel on Building the Semantic Technology Industry: A Conversation with Entrepreneurs and Investors.

I hope to see you in one place or the other, and to get your input to the conversation.

Cheers,Dave McComb
CEO, Semantic Arts, Inc.
Co-Chair, Semantic Technology Conference

Read Full Post »

Nova Spivack : “Web 3.0 will combine the Semantic Web with social media, enabling a new generation of richer, more shareable, mashable content.”

spivackNova Spivack, CEO of Radar Networks and inventor of the term Web 3.0, gives a micro-interview to Tassilo Pellegrini on the logic of versioning the internet, popularizing the Semantic Web and the secrets of the Radar Networks Laboratories.

People have hardly got used to the concept of Web 2.0 then suddenly you came up with a term called Web 3.0 and shortly Web 4.0. What is the logic behind versioning the Internet?

My proposal is that we use these terms to index decades of the Web. Web 1.0 was 1990 – 2000 and the focus was mainly about the backend of the Web (HTML, http). Web 2.0 is 2000 – 2010 and has been mainly about the front-end of the Web (usability, AJAX, tagging, etc.). Web 3.0 will be 2010 – 2020 and will be about the backend again (RDF, Sparql and the Semantic Web) – it will upgrade the content of the Web. Web 4.0 will be from 2020 – 2030 and will be about the front-end again – a smarter, more proactive and productive Web in which apps will be able to reason and help users intelligently.

To me Web 3.0 seems like a mixture of social software and Semantic Web combining the principles of socially generated content and semantic interoperability. Could you agree on this? What is your explanation?

Yes I agree that Web 3.0 will combine the Semantic Web with social media, enabling a new generation of richer, more shareable, mashable content.

So where does the Semantic Web come in? Could it be that the W3C’s concept of a Semantic Web (despite its greatness) is too purist, too technology centred, which finally makes it difficult when it comes to outreach?

I think that the W3C’s original vision of the Semantic Web focused mainly on the value to software. But the Semantic Web will also be valuable to end-users, publishers, advertisers, buyers & sellers. The end-user benefits were not emphasized or even illustrated very much in the original vision. But that makes sense – the W3C is mainly focused on open standards for software. Today those of us who are promoting Web 3.0 are really focusing more on the benefits of semantics to end-users – regular non-technical end-users. That is ultimately the most important story to tell in order to bring about mainstream adoption.

Your company Radar Networks is still operating in stealth mode but a lot of people are really curious what it will reveal later this year. So what is behind the curtains? How will you apply the Web 3.0 principles in your products?

Well we’re in stealth as you point out so I can’t say so much yet. But we’re trying to bring the Semantic Web to ordinary non-technical end-users. Our application is a hosted Web-based service that will enable anyone to build and share their own Semantic website.

About Nova Spivack

Mr. Spivack has a BA in Philosophy, with a focus on cognitive science and artificial intelligence, from Oberlin College and a CSS degree from the International Space University a NASA-funded graduate professional business school for the space industry. In 1999 Mr. Spivack’s interest in space gave him the opportunity to help pioneer the early days of space tourism when he flew to the edge of space with Space Adventures and did micro-gravity parabolic flight training with the Russian air force.

Mr. Spivack’s weblog, Minding the Planet, focuses on Radar Networks and emerging technologies and can be read at http://www.mindingtheplanet.net.

A full version of his biography can be found here.

Read Full Post »

 10 Semantic Apps to Watch

Written by Richard MacManus / November 29, 2007 12:30 AM / 39 Comments
digg_url = ‘http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/10_semantic_apps_to_watch.php’; digg_bgcolor = ‘#ffffff’; digg_skin = ‘compact’;

digg_url = ‘http://digg.com/software/10_Semantic_Apps_to_Watch’; digg_bgcolor = ‘#ffffff’; digg_skin = ‘compact’;One of the highlights of October’s Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco was the emergence of ‘Semantic Apps’ as a force. Note that we’re not necessarily talking about the Semantic Web, which is the Tim Berners-Lee W3C led initiative that touts technologies like RDF, OWL and other standards for metadata. Semantic Apps may use those technologies, but not necessarily. This was a point made by the founder of one of the Semantic Apps listed below, Danny Hillis of Freebase (who is as much a tech legend as Berners-Lee).

The purpose of this post is to highlight 10 Semantic Apps. We’re not touting this as a ‘Top 10’, because there is no way to rank these apps at this point – many are still non-public apps, e.g. in private beta. It reflects the nascent status of this sector, even though people like Hillis and Spivack have been working on their apps for years now.

What is a Semantic App?

Firstly let’s define “Semantic App”. A key element is that the apps below all try to determine the meaning of text and other data, and then create connections for users. Another of the founders mentioned below, Nova Spivack of Twine, noted at the Summit that data portability and connectibility are keys to these new semantic apps – i.e. using the Web as platform.

In September Alex Iskold wrote a great primer on this topic, called Top-Down: A New Approach to the Semantic Web. In that post, Alex Iskold explained that there are two main approaches to Semantic Apps:

1) Bottom Up – involves embedding semantical annotations (meta-data) right into the data.
2) Top down – relies on analyzing existing information; the ultimate top-down solution would be a fully blown natural language processor, which is able to understand text like people do.

Now that we know what Semantic Apps are, let’s take a look at some of the current leading (or promising) products…


Freebase aims to “open up the silos of data and the connections between them”, according to founder Danny Hillis at the Web 2.0 Summit. Freebase is a database that has all kinds of data in it and an API. Because it’s an open database, anyone can enter new data in Freebase. An example page in the Freebase db looks pretty similar to a Wikipedia page. When you enter new data, the app can make suggestions about content. The topics in Freebase are organized by type, and you can connect pages with links, semantic tagging. So in summary, Freebase is all about shared data and what you can do with it.


Powerset (see our coverage here and here) is a natural language search engine. The system relies on semantic technologies that have only become available in the last few years. It can make “semantic connections”, which helps make the semantic database. The idea is that meaning and knowledge gets extracted automatically from Powerset. The product isn’t yet public, but it has been riding a wave of publicity over 2007.


Twine claims to be the first mainstream Semantic Web app, although it is still in private beta. See our in-depth review. Twine automatically learns about you and your interests as you populate it with content – a “Semantic Graph”. When you put in new data, Twine picks out and tags certain content with semantic tags – e.g. the name of a person. An important point is that Twine creates new semantic and rich data. But it’s not all user-generated. They’ve also done machine learning against Wikipedia to ‘learn’ about new concepts. And they will eventually tie into services like Freebase. At the Web 2.0 Summit, founder Nova Spivack compared Twine to Google, saying it is a “bottom-up, user generated crawl of the Web”.


AdaptiveBlue are makers of the Firefox plugin, BlueOrganizer. They also recently launched a new version of their SmartLinks product, which allows web site publishers to add semantically charged links to their site. SmartLinks are browser ‘in-page overlays’ (similar to popups) that add additional contextual information to certain types of links, including links to books, movies, music, stocks, and wine. AdaptiveBlue supports a large list of top web sites, automatically recognizing and augmenting links to those properties.

SmartLinks works by understanding specific types of information (in this case links) and wrapping them with additional data. SmartLinks takes unstructured information and turns it into structured information by understanding a basic item on the web and adding semantics to it.

[Disclosure: AdaptiveBlue founder and CEO Alex Iskold is a regular RWW writer]


Hakia is one of the more promising Alt Search Engines around, with a focus on natural language processing methods to try and deliver ‘meaningful’ search results. Hakia attempts to analyze the concept of a search query, in particular by doing sentence analysis. Most other major search engines, including Google, analyze keywords. The company told us in a March interview that the future of search engines will go beyond keyword analysis – search engines will talk back to you and in effect become your search assistant. One point worth noting here is that, currently, Hakia has limited post-editing/human interaction for the editing of hakia Galleries, but the rest of the engine is 100% computer powered.

Hakia has two main technologies:

1) QDEX Infrastructure (which stands for Query Detection and Extraction) – this does the heavy lifting of analyzing search queries at a sentence level.

2) SemanticRank Algorithm – this is essentially the science they use, made up of ontological semantics that relate concepts to each other.


Talis is a 40-year old UK software company which has created a semantic web application platform. They are a bit different from the other 9 companies profiled here, as Talis has released a platform and not a single product. The Talis platform is kind of a mix between Web 2.0 and the Semantic Web, in that it enables developers to create apps that allow for sharing, remixing and re-using data. Talis believes that Open Data is a crucial component of the Web, yet there is also a need to license data in order to ensure its openness. Talis has developed its own content license, called the Talis Community License, and recently they funded some legal work around the Open Data Commons License.

According to Dr Paul Miller, Technology Evangelist at Talis, the company’s platform emphasizes “the importance of context, role, intention and attention in meaningfully tracking behaviour across the web.” To find out more about Talis, check out their regular podcasts – the most recent one features Kaila Colbin (an occassional AltSearchEngines correspondent) and Branton Kenton-Dau of VortexDNA.

UPDATE: Marshall Kirkpatrick published an interview with Dr Miller the day after this post. Check it out here.


Venture funded UK semantic search engine TrueKnowledge unveiled a demo of its private beta earlier this month. It reminded Marshall Kirkpatrick of the still-unlaunched Powerset, but it’s also reminiscent of the very real Ask.com “smart answers”. TrueKnowledge combines natural language analysis, an internal knowledge base and external databases to offer immediate answers to various questions. Instead of just pointing you to web pages where the search engine believes it can find your answer, it will offer you an explicit answer and explain the reasoning patch by which that answer was arrived at. There’s also an interesting looking API at the center of the product. “Direct answers to humans and machine questions” is the company’s tagline.

Founder William Tunstall-Pedoe said he’s been working on the software for the past 10 years, really putting time into it since coming into initial funding in early 2005.


Tripit is an app that manages your travel planning. Emre Sokullu reviewed it when it presented at TechCrunch40 in September. With TripIt, you forward incoming bookings to plans@tripit.com and the system manages the rest. Their patent pending “itinerator” technology is a baby step in the semantic web – it extracts useful infomation from these mails and makes a well structured and organized presentation of your travel plan. It pulls out information from Wikipedia for the places that you visit. It uses microformats – the iCal format, which is well integrated into GCalendar and other calendar software.

The company claimed at TC40 that “instead of dealing with 20 pages of planning, you just print out 3 pages and everything is done for you”. Their future plans include a recommendation engine which will tell you where to go and who to meet.

Clear Forest

ClearForest is one of the companies in the top-down camp. We profiled the product in December ’06 and at that point ClearForest was applying its core natural language processing technology to facilitate next generation semantic applications. In April 2007 the company was acquired by Reuters. The company has both a Web Service and a Firefox extension that leverages an API to deliver the end-user application.

The Firefox extension is called Gnosis and it enables you to “identify the people, companies, organizations, geographies and products on the page you are viewing.” With one click from the menu, a webpage you view via Gnosis is filled with various types of annotations. For example it recognizes Companies, Countries, Industry Terms, Organizations, People, Products and Technologies. Each word that Gnosis recognizes, gets colored according to the category.

Also, ClearForest’s Semantic Web Service offers a SOAP interface for analyzing text, documents and web pages.


Spock is a people search engine that got a lot of buzz when it launched. Alex Iskold went so far as to call it “one of the best vertical semantic search engines built so far.” According to Alex there are four things that makes their approach special:

  • The person-centric perspective of a query
  • Rich set of attributes that characterize people (geography, birthday, occupation, etc.)
  • Usage of tags as links or relationships between people
  • Self-correcting mechanism via user feedback loop

As a vertical engine, Spock knows important attributes that people have: name, gender, age, occupation and location just to name a few. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Spock is its usage of tags – all frequent phrases that Spock extracts via its crawler become tags; and also users can add tags. So Spock leverages a combination of automated tags and people power for tagging.


What have we missed? 😉 Please use the comments to list other Semantic Apps you know of. It’s an exciting sector right now, because Semantic Web and Web 2.0 technologies alike are being used to create new semantic applications. One gets the feeling we’re only at the beginning of this trend.

Leave a comment or trackback on ReadWriteWeb and be in to win a daily $30 Amazon gift voucher, courtesy of AdaptiveBlue and their Amazon Wishlist Widget.

2 TrackBacks

Listed below are links to blogs that reference this entry: 10 Semantic Apps to Watch.

TrackBack URL for this entry: http://www.readwriteweb.com/cgi-bin/mt/mt-tb.cgi/1796

» Top 10 semantic web players from wAve the mAchines
Wondering who the top applications are in the emerging semantic web field? The excellent Read/WriteWeb blog published a top 10 list last week. Freebase, Powerset, Twine, AdaptiveBlue, Hakia, Talis, TrueKnowledge, TripIt (an interesting application of t… Read More
On Read/WriteWeb there was a post about 10 semantic Apps to watch. It seems that the terminology of semantics is used for all sort of kinds. Our understanding is that semantic applications should use some form of ontology in order to describe the meani… Read More

Read Full Post »

Kurzweil Technologies
The Founders Mentoring Kurzweil Companies Contact Us About Ray Kurzweil Ray Kurzweil's Publications

In this excerpt from The Age of Spiritual Machines (Viking, 1999), Ray Kurzweil describes his work in speech recognition.

I also started Kurzweil Applied Intelligence, Inc. in 1982 with the goal of creating a voice activated word processor. This is a technology that is hungry for MIPs (i.e., computer speed) and Megabytes (i.e., memory), Ray Kurzweil introduced the first large-vocabulary speech recognition 	system in 1987 so early systems limited the size of the vocabulary that users could employ. These early systems also required users to pause briefly between words… so…. you…. had…. to…. speak….. like…. this. We combined this “discrete word” speech recognition technology with a medical knowledge base to create a system that enabled doctors to create their medical reports by simply talking to their computers. Our product, called Kurzweil VoiceMed (now Kurzweil Clinical Reporter), actually guides the doctors through the reporting process. We also introduced a general purpose dictation product called Kurzweil Voice, which enabled users to create written documents by speaking one word at a time to their personal computer. This product became particularly popular with people who have a disability in the use of their hands.

Just this year, courtesy of Moore’s Law, personal computers became fast enough to recognize fully continuous speech, so I am able to dictate the rest of this book by talking to our latest product, called Voice Xpress Plus, at speeds around a hundred words per minute. Of course, I don’t get a hundred words written every minute since I change my mind a lot, but Voice Xpress doesn’t seem to mind.

We sold this company as well, to Lernout & Hauspie (L&H), a large speech and language technology company headquartered in Belgium. Shortly after the acquisition by L&H in 1997, we arranged a strategic alliance between the dictation division of L&H (formerly Kurzweil Applied Intelligence) and Microsoft, so our speech technology is likely to be used by Microsoft in future products.

<!– –>
The Founders Mentoring Kurzweil Companies Contact Us About Ray Kurzweil Ray Kurzweil's Publications

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: