The Semantic Web and Retail

The software industry has been using XML for quite a while since it carries meaning along with the data. But websites are written in HTML, not XML, so all the information is hard for computer programs to understand. Over the past few years the W3C has been pushing something called the Semantic Web, an approach to adding metadata to websites so that computers can find meaning more easily.

goodrelations-logo.gif
Take an e-commerce site for example. All the information about the products is available for customers to view. They can see the image, the description, the price, related items, etc. But when a crawler (software program) looks at the page, it has a very hard time "understanding" what it sees. It could infer that the numbers following the "$" are the price, but it could also be the discount amount, or a pre-order price. Because of this, most retailers export their product data to comparison shopping engines using XML.

As the Web has matured, we've learned how to augment web pages with information that makes the pages easier to index by search engines. This practice is called Search Engine Optimization, and while it helps lead people to answers, it doesn't provide answers. Put another way, instead of asking Google "What cameras are available for the iPad?" we search for "iPad camera" then use the returned results to answer our real question. The Semantic Web would be able to provide the answer more directly.

As part of its Open Graph program, Facebook has chosen to use RDFa, code that augments HTML pages with meaning. Google is also using RDFa in order to produce "rich snippets," convenient summary information about search results at a glance. Many of their examples are for product reviews.

Best Buy began using RDFa in its web pages about two years ago in order to share more information about its stores. They leverage Good Relations, a vocabulary created specifically for e-commerce.

GoodRelations is a standardized vocabulary for product, price, and company data that can (1) be embedded into existing static and dynamic Web pages and that (2) can be processed by other computers. This increases the visibility of your products and services in the latest generation of search engines, recommender systems, and other novel applications.

The retailers that include semantic aspects in their websites will have an advantage over those that don't. Best Buy has already reported an unexpected 30% increase in search traffic. As more sophisticated crawlers appear, retailers need to expose their data in new ways that enhance a shopper's ability to find exactly what they're looking for.

Comments:

Only for Google.com (for now). We're still waiting until RDFa comes to Google.be. No sign of it so far.

Posted by Dries on July 30, 2010 at 02:58 AM CDT #

Great Introduction to the world of the semantic web. We most certainly live in an era of rapid change. Will get our developers to look into this concept, to see what changes can be applies to our site.

Posted by Sydney Planner on July 31, 2010 at 12:21 AM CDT #

Update (to Dries comment): RDFa is by this time functional all over the world. It might be a good idea to make a new follow up article with a schema.org mention, since this has changed quiet a lot.

Posted by Pieter on November 28, 2011 at 11:28 PM CST #

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David Dorf, Sr Director Technology Strategy for Oracle Retail, shares news and ideas about the retail industry with a focus on innovation and emerging technologies.


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