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This is a blog from the Internet Development Team at ILRT, Bristol. We build websites and web applications for a wide variety of customers, many in the UK higher education sector. Continue reading…

The power of semantics

Chris Bailey explains how searching for Iron Man uses sophisticated semantics.

Here in ILRT, we don’t just produce websites for people.  Over the last year I’ve been working with our Web Futures team on a number of their projects. Web futures is a research group within ILRT investigating new ways of managing, organising and interacting with different forms of data. This research is part of a wider field called the Semantic Web.


The semantic web is a vision of the next generation of internet technologies spearheaded by the founder of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee. Like all good research fields it’s quite a hard concept to get your head around and it often means different things to different people, however at it’s heart is the concept of data that machines can understand.

Adding Semantics to Search

One of my favourite examples to describe this vision of the semantic web, is one that’s already with us today. If you search on Google for the worlds ‘iron man‘, Google does something very sophisticated. Rather then simply returning pages that contain the words ‘iron’ and ‘man’, which is the usual approach to searching the web, Google is able to understand that these two words represent a film. This is one aspect of the semantic web – understanding data. Now obviously (or unfortunately/or thankfully depending on your view) Google isn’t a massive brain that understands your every word – instead it’s been configured to run your search across the set of films currently in cinemas. If your keywords are similar enough to a film title then it considers this a ‘match’ and deduces that what your really interested in is the film Iron Man 2, and not just pages containing those words.

Knowing that you’re interested in the film Iron Man 2 is only part of the story. Using your IP address and other preferences, Google can make an approximate guess as to where in the world you are. It then uses a second aspect of the semantic web – linked data. Google routinely gathers the show times for all cinemas. Even though there are several major cinema chains and many smaller independent cinemas, each with their own websites, Google manages to pull together the same listing information for every cinema.

Now, using the current date, your location and the film title, Google can then present you with a list of showings for Iron Man 2 in your nearby vicinity. Very clever!

Does this mean the Semantic Web has already arrived?

The technology Google is employing here might not strictly be the same technology that underpins the semantic web. Purists would want to see acronyms such as ‘XML’, ‘RDF’ and ‘OWL’ being thrown around. For me however, what’s important is that the example above provides a great demonstration of what the power of the semantic web can bring to our web experience. As machines get better at interpreting our data, Google and others can employ increasingly sophisticated techniques to interpret that data and present it back to you in new and more interesting personalised, contextualised ways.

Further reading…

If your interested in finding out more about this topic, check out Web 3.0 from Kate Ray which provides an interesting view on the past, present and future of the semantic web.

For more information on some of the semantic web-related projects that Web Futures are involved with, the reader is directed to the following project blogs:

  • Visualising China
    Uses semantic technologies and visualisation software to link together imagery from China with other web-based resources (e.g. Flickr, Google Scholar) and annotations from users.
  • Research Revealed
    Demonstrates ways in which researchers, research managers and the public can explore (and enhance) up-to-date, accurate integrated views of research information
  • Mobile Campus
    Making existing campus-related data (events, seminar times, bus times, university news  etc) available to University of Bristol students via their mobiles and location-aware smart phones.

Chris Bailey – Web Developer/Researcher

This entry was posted on 14th May 2010 at 12:35 pm and is filed under Briefings. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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  1. That must be really irritating if you are not after the film (e.g. historians and archaeologists) but your results get swamped. Attempts to guess what you really want from two words strike me as being as pointless as an enquiry desk librarian believing that what a student asks for is what they really want instead of doing a subtle reference interview. It reminds me of results listings that offer a ‘more like this’ button – pointless since there is no way that the system can know WHY you found that result to be relevant. Was it because of the background image; the nationality of the writer; the style of the text; a good joke in paragraph three; or the downloadable documents area? Assumptions and second-guessing are difficult enough when done by humans, surely the semantic web is likely to lead to misunderstandings but with no way to correct them?

  2. You’ve got a good point Karl. You’ve got to be careful when interpreting meaning. It’s a fine balance between returning what the system assumes is useful information, and not annoying the user if they get it wrong. In the above case, Google uses the top of the page to show film-related information, while the remainder of the page provides the usual search results. Machines are not always going to get it right, but the semantic web offers a hope of getting it more right in the future.