Recent studies describe the negative effect of media including video, television and on-line content on attention spans and even comprehension. One such study suggests that the piling on of content accrued from multiple sources throughout our work and leisure hours has saturated us to the point of making us information filterers more than information “comprehenders”. Hold that thought while I present a second one.

Last week’s blog entry reflected on intellectual property (IP) and knowledge assets and the value of taxonomies as aids to organizing and finding these valued resources. The idea of making search engines better or more precise in finding relevant content is edging into our enterprises through semantic technologies. These are search tools that are better at finding concepts, synonymous terms, and similar or related topics when we execute a search. You’ll find an in depth discussion of some of these in the forthcoming publication, Beyond Search by Steve Arnold. However, semantic search requires more sophisticated concept maps than taxonomy. It requires ontology, rich representations of a web of concepts complete with all types of term relationships.
My first comment about a trend toward just browsing and filtering content for relevance to our work, and the second one about the idea of assembling semantically relevant content for better search precision are two sides of a business problem that hundreds of entrepreneurs are grappling with, semantic technologies.

Two weeks ago, I helped to moderate a meeting on the subject, entitled Semantic Web – Ripe for Commercialization? While the assumed audience was to be a broad business group of VCs, financiers, legal and business management professionals, it turned out to have a lot of technology types. They had some pretty heavy questions and comments about how search engines handle inference and its methods for extracting meaning from content. Semantic search engines need to understand both the query and the target content to retrieve contextually relevant content.

Keynote speakers and some of the panelists introduced the concept of ontologies as being an essential backbone to semantic search. From that came a lot of discussion about how and where these ontologies originate, how and who vets them for authoritativeness, and how their development in under-funded subject areas will occur. There were no clear answers.

Here I want to give a quick definition for ontology. It is a concept map of terminology which, when richly populated, reflects all the possible semantic relationships that might be inferred from different ways that terms are assembled in human language. A subject specific ontology is more easily understood in a graphical representation. Ontologies also help to inform semantic search engines by contributing to an automated deconstruction of a query (making sense out of what the searcher wants to know) and automated deconstruction of the content to be indexed and searched. Good semantic search, therefore, depends on excellent ontologies.

To see a very simple example of an ontology related to “roadway”, check out this image. Keep in mind that before you aspire to implementing a semantic search engine in your enterprise, you want to be sure that there is a trusted ontology somewhere in the mix of tools to help the search engine retrieve results relevant to your unique audience.