What Is Semantic Web?

Daniel Attoe
Daniel Attoe

Updated · May 10, 2022

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The Semantic Web isn’t a new concept; it’s been around for decades. In that time, several misconceptions have arisen, some of them extremely off-base.

We should clarify that it differs from semantic webbing! So before we get into the former, let’s ask - What is semantic webbing?

Simply put, it’s a method enabling students to organize information from various sources as part of the prewriting process and has nothing to do with the Internet.

Whereas the Semantic Web very much does! It represents a major technological leap from the World Wide Web as we know it today.

So, what is Semantic Web

If you’re new to this topic, this article has you covered - it will spell out what exactly the Semantic Web is. You’ll also get to learn the differentiating factors between this technology and the current version of the Web, as well as the benefits we can look forward to.

So, let’s get down to it.

What Is Semantic Web?  

The Semantic Web is an extension of the World Wide Web that establishes a “common framework that allows data to be shared and reused across application, enterprise, and community boundaries,” according to the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). 

In different contexts, the Semantic Web has taken on other names — Web 3.0, Linked Data Web, and the Web of Data.

Most of the information on the web is readable by humans. But it isn’t quite the same for computers and software.

This is where the Semantic Web comes in.

It’s a vision centered around data that is understood both by human operators as well as being machine-readable and machine-understandable. That way, machines can interact with the web in much the same way as we do. They can also manipulate and glean meaningful insights from the data just like humans.

As you can imagine, this would automate much of the work on the web.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web coined the term Semantic Web to refer to a “web of data”. Berners-Lee’s vision is one in which computers can become “capable of analyzing all the data on the Web — the content, links, and transactions between people and computers.”

It’s one of Linked Data, the basis of the Semantic Web.

For the actualization of the latter, the vast quantity of data on the web must be available in a format that Semantic Web tools can read and manage. But there must also be defined relationships, or links, between this data, so it’s not just a mass of datasets. 

Linked Data would make the Semantic Web possible by:

  • Defining the relationships between data
  • Enabling the accessibility and integration of different datasets on the Web
  • Using a standard format for data and relationships

That way, both human operators and machines can explore that web of data.

Tim Berners-Lee described four steps or rules for Linked Data:

  1. Use URIs as names for things.
  2. Use HTTP URIs so that people can look up those names.
  3. When someone looks up a URI, provide useful information, using the standards (RDF*, SPARQL).
  4. Include links to other URIs. so that they can discover more about them.

URI here stands for Uniform Resource Identifiers, a unique string of characters used to identify web resources such as pages, books, or documents.

In Berners-Lee’s view, achieving the Semantic Web involves including metadata (data describing other data) that computers can read and understand. When added to regular web pages, semantic metadata describes their meaning clearer, making it much easier for web search engines to find relevant results.

For instance, it resolves the ambiguity when someone inputs a search query for Apple (the brand), they don’t get back results for the fruit.

How Is the Semantic Web Different?

Let’s take a brief look at the linguistics of the term.

Semantics is related to syntax, but there is a stark contrast. While syntax refers to how you say something or the structure of what you said, semantics is more concerned with the meaning, or context, of what you said.

When connected to the web, the syntax here refers to HTML. HTML defines things in a way so that computers can understand them, informing the computer how to display documents to you.

The difference between Semantic Web technologies and other data-based technologies like relational databases comes down to the former being concerned with the meaning, and not the structure or syntax, of data.

To better illustrate what is different about the Semantic Web, a brief look at the different web generations is necessary.

Web 1.0

This refers to the first stage of the World Wide Web, also known as the Syntactic Web or the Read-Only web

Read-Only, because at this stage, users of the Web were limited to reading the information provided by a small collection of content creators. Information could not go the other way - from the consumer to the content creator.

Tim Berners-Lee developed three technologies that became the bedrock for the Web:

  • HTML: HyperText Markup Language
  • URI/URL: Uniform Resource Identifier or Locator, used to identify web resources
  • HTTP: HyperText Transfer Protocol, for retrieving linked resources throughout the web

The introduction of the web browser around the mid-1990s was a milestone in the Web 1.0 era. The web was characterized by static pages that were retrieved from the server’s file system, something that’s still hard for today’s generations to believe was actually the norm.

Other technologies credited to this era include content and enterprise portals, email services, P2P file sharing, and publish and subscribe technologies.

Web 2.0

Web 2.0 was the era of interactive websites, characterized by user-generated content, ease of use, and enhanced participation. Unlike what the numbering suggests, there was no formal change from Web 1.0, but rather a general shift in the nature of the web, with interactive websites replacing the static pages of the previous era. 

Web browsers became more complex, handling more advanced tasks. In essence, Web 2.0 is the read-write web.

What did that mean for users?

Social connectivity blossomed, with online forums, blogs, social networks, and instant messaging welcomed enthusiastically by web users. Participation skyrocketed - rising from millions of users up to billions.

Social media, as well as innovations in mobile technology, played key roles in driving the Web 2.0 era. Those innovations led to the development of web and mobile apps, now ubiquitous, that have far-reaching applications. 

Web 2.0 is credited with the monumental advent of artificial intelligence.

Web 3.0

Web 3.0 is what the Semantic Web is referred to more often these days, although yet to be implemented. This includes the evolution of the blockchain — a technology that didn’t exist when Berners-Lee had his vision of the Semantic Web

This iteration of the web is read-write-execute, according to John Markoff, a tech journalist at the New York Times. It builds on several newer concepts of Web 2.0, such as machine learning, artificial intelligence, and decentralization.

While the terms are used interchangeably, Web 3.0 is not exactly the same as the Semantic Web. There’s a large overlap, but the Semantic Web is now considered too expensive and unrealistic in many circles. 

It would be extremely difficult to transform all human language into data for machines to understand. The techniques required for this task, like Natural Language Processing, would take a tremendous amount of time. 

Also, the complexity of semantic web technology like RDF does not incentivize organizations to release their data as Linked Data.

That said, this era will see businesses and other organizations begin to migrate their data off restrictive legacy systems and onto a semantic web database.

Web 3.0 doesn’t fit what Berners-Lee envisioned precisely, however, it certainly aligns with his idea of a web where “there is no central controlling node and no single point of failure.”

Some core semantic concepts are:

Decentralization: Web 3.0, or the Semantic Web, goes against the central storage of data concept that has made companies like Google and Meta the behemoths they are today. Instead, users would largely be in control of their data, introducing democratic participation by web users.

Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning: These concepts are already making headway in Web 2.0, but will take on newer dimensions in the next era. Semantic technology and machine learning/AI tools will help machines learn from data the way that humans would — learning from mistakes and improving accuracy with practice.

Permissionless interactions: Web 3.0 will also be permissionless or trustless. This means that it would be open for everyone, allowing them to participate freely without going through an intermediary or requiring permission. Trustless and permissionless participation is already a concept in blockchain technology.

Standards: Semantic Web standards include RDF, SPARQL, and OWL - see below for a detailed description of these.

Technical Standards of the Semantic Web

Previously, Linked Data was described as the basis for the Semantic Web. On the other hand, Semantic Web technologies empower Linked Data. They enable the collection and structuring of Linked Data

The World Wide Web Consortium has developed and published standards that form the foundations for semantic technology to build on. There are several standards, but three major ones are RDF, SPARQL, and OWL.

RDF

RDF stands for Resource Description Standard. It’s the standard for data interchange and describing web resources. It’s a general technique for describing data and works by defining the relationships between linked data.

The standard is built on the XML and URL (URI) web standards. It follows a “triple” model that describes the relationship between three data elements - the subject, the object, and the predicate. Using the triple, RDF allows both structured and semi-structured data to be mixed and shared.

SPARQL

SPARQL is short for SPARQL Protocol and RDF Query Language. It’s responsible for querying, retrieving, and manipulating data stored in RDF format.

SPARQL consists of two parts. The first queries data in much the same way as SQL queries relational databases. The other, the SPARQL protocol, facilitates the transmission of SPARQL queries and results through HTTP

As a whole, SPARQL lets users explore databases and establish the links between data.

OWL

OWL (Web Ontology Language) is a Semantic Web tool built on the RDF. OWL leans heavily on Description Logic, which refers to knowledge representation languages. It’s designed to be read and understood by machines, allowing them to process the information and perform inferences.

Benefits of Semantic Web

If implemented, the Semantic Web will play a vital role in addressing many of the issues raised by the current generation of the Web. 

For instance, it’ll be instrumental in getting rid of data silos. A data silo is a repository of data controlled by one part of an organization but not fully accessible to others. Data siloes are usually created unintentionally and then grow to become very problematic, restricting access to data. 

With the Semantic Web, metadata tags attached to the data will make them more accessible to any and all users.   

As touched on earlier, the Semantic Web would dramatically improve web searches. As we know, performing a web search today results in a ton of results that aren’t relevant. With artificial intelligence to assist, filter, and infer the information based on your data, these semantic search technologies will help to eliminate unwanted results.

The Semantic Web would bring about automation, letting humans do away with boring and mundane tasks. Because of the linking of data and inference, information is much more easily discovered than before.

Wrap Up 

If you had no idea what Semantic Web is before reading this, now you do. This extension of the web is one where computers and machines can read and process the data on the web. It seeks to transform the World Wide Web as we know it from a web of documents to one of the machine-readable data.

It hasn’t been implemented and may never fully be, but we’ve taken a sneak peek into what we can expect from the world of the Semantic Web.

FAQ.


What Is Semantic Web?

According to the World Wide Web Consortium, the Semantic Web provides a “common framework that allows data to be shared and reused across application, enterprise, and community boundaries”. 

Here is an example of a Semantic Web website application:

  • Supply Chain Management – Biogen Idec

They manage their global supply chain using Semantic Web technologies. The users aren’t IT professionals, so they need to be able to see, understand, and manipulate the data being tracked directly. This is exactly what the term Semantic in Semantic Web means by definition, the data model is transparent to subject matter experts, not only technologists.

Semantic Web technologies give supply chain managers and officers the ability to manage all of this complexity reliably and efficiently.

What Is the Purpose of the Semantic Web?

The term Semantic Web refers to W3C’s vision of the Web of linked data. Semantic Web technologies give people the opportunity to create data stores on the Web, construct vocabularies, and come up with rules for handling data. Linked data are empowered by technologies such as RDF, SPARQL, OWL, and SKOS.

Are Web 3.0 and Semantic Web the Same?

While you might occasionally see Web 3.0 mentioned as the answer to the question what is Semantic Web, they are not quite the same thing. There is a wide area of overlap and the terms are used interchangeably. Still, Web 3.0 goes beyond the Semantic Web in terms of scope.

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Daniel Attoe

Daniel Attoe

Daniel is an Economics grad who fell in love with tech. His love for books and reading pushed him into picking up the pen - and keyboard. Also a data analyst, he's taking that leap into data science and machine learning. When not writing or studying, chances are that you'll catch him watching football or face-deep in an epic fantasy novel.

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