Tim Berners-Lee: Google could be superseded by the Semantic Web

The inventor of the World Wide Web says that what Google has done so far pales in comparison with what the Semantic Web will bring. Facebook and MySpace could eventually be trumped, too.

Dan Farber
4 min read

The inventor of the World Wide Web,Sir Tim Berners-Lee, isn't satisfied living on his past laurels. At every opportunity he talks up the Semantic Web, which he calls the "Web of the future."

In a recent article in the Times Online, he said that what Google has done so far pales in comparison with what the Semantic Web will bring. Social -networking leaders Facebook and MySpace will eventually be trumped by networks that connect all types of things, not just people, he said. To be clear, he wasn't saying that Google is doomed.

In the Times Online article, Berners-Lee gave an example of how the Semantic Web would work:

"Imagine if two completely separate things--your bank statements and your calendar--spoke the same language and could share information with one another. You could drag one on top of the other and a whole bunch of dots would appear showing you when you spent your money."
"If you still weren't sure of where you were when you made a particular transaction, you could then drag your photo album on top of the calendar, and be reminded that you used your credit card at the same time you were taking pictures of your kids at a theme park. So you would know not to claim it as a tax deduction."

Google's technology and approach to parsing the Web is based on statistical analysis of incredibly vast amounts of data. The Semantic Web involves creating a layer of metadata that enables rich connections between any type or piece of data.

In 2006, Peter Norvig, Google's director of research, noted some challenges to building a Semantic Web, such as creating the metadata, agreeing on standards, and gaming the system.

"We deal with millions of Web masters who can't configure a server, can't write HTML. It's hard for them to go to the next step. The second problem is competition. Some commercial providers say, 'I'm the leader. Why should I standardize?' The third problem is one of deception. We deal every day with people who try to rank higher in the results and then try to sell someone Viagra when that's not what they are looking for. With less human oversight with the Semantic Web, we are worried about it being easier to be deceptive."
Peter Norvig, Google director of research

However, Norvig does envision a Web of connections far down the road. In a New Scientist article projecting into the future he stated:

In 50 years the scene will be transformed. Instead of typing a few words into a search engine, people will discuss their needs with a digital intermediary, which will offer suggestions and refinements. The result will not be a list of links, but an annotated report (or a simple conversation) that synthesises the important points, with references to the original literature. People won't think of "search" as a separate category--it will all be part of living.

The digital intermediary Norvig mentioned will be informed by semantic metadata, and search engines will take advantage of semantic metadata to deliver more precise and richer results.

Building Semantic Web applications has proven to be challenging so far. For example, Radar Networks just released a public beta of Twine, a personal information manager that uses Semantic Web technology, such as RDF (Resource Description Framework). With Twine, Radar Networks is trying to unleash the "semantic graph," which turns people, places, companies, products, Web pages, videos, photos and other data into Semantic Web content, according to Nova Spivack, CEO of the company.

Twine has met with some early criticism.

In response to the critique, Spivack wrote, "Twine is already far and beyond what any other semantic app I know of is capable of, but that still isn't good enough. We have to push further and focus more on usability. We are opening it up early in order to get feedback and more help testing and guiding the direction of the app from users."

"Ultimately, we will be the category killer for bookmarking, taking notes and organizing information," Spivack proclaimed to me in conversation today, noting that reaching a level of success was "definitely going to take time."

Radar Networks is not alone in trying to turn Semantic Web concepts into usable products. Other startups, such as Freebase, Powerset, Hakia, Blue Organizer, Wikiaand Reuters' Calais, face a similar uphill climb to gain adoption.

What's evident is that Berners-Lee continues to be ahead of the curve. Just as the Internet was in gestation for decades, creating a semantic layer at the core of the Web will take decades to evolve.