Tagging and the Semantic Web

May 20, 2008

A while back I commented on a Tech Crunch article quoting my CEO regarding keyword searches in the Semantic Web space.   My comment was later quoted on the Faviki blog, a Semantic startup involving tagging web pages with semantic wikipedia data.  Finding this prompted me to start writing more about the Semantic Web on my own blog.  This is actually the first time I have ever posted about someone else’s post.

(The following is based on a presentation I gave on the subject in September of 2007.)

Tags the way they are implemented today

The way the better Web 2.0 sites implement tags involves faceting. I have discussed this in a previous blog post regarding faceting with Lucene and SOLR, but it in a nutshell, it allows you to group together documents or objects based on attributes. For example, give me all documents about ‘George Bush’ and ‘Washington’. The problem with these attributes is they have little or no value on their own and they certainly they are not understood by computers. They are just strings denoting some type of concept. Here is a short list of limitations which I feel the Semantic Web web will address:

- Tags do not provide enough meaningful metadata to make meaningful comparisons
- More information is needed besides their origin
- Tags are essentially a full text search mechanism, although faceting helps
- Need more relationships between tags and the objects they pertain to

The solution, tags as objects

Allowing users to tag an object with another object we can make extremely interesting comparisons; discerning a lot more information about the original object becomes simple and accurate. With this type of interrelationship we can pivot through the data like never before, not with full text search but object graph linkages that machines and humans can understand. Lets go over an example.

Lets say a user adds a note into our system ranting about a beet farmer who lives in Washington state by the name of William Gates. The user goes on to discuss his beets and farming techniques in great detail, mentioning nothing about software and Windows Vista of course. In the current Internet model the user would tag this note with strings like, ‘William Gates’, ‘Bill Gates’, ‘beets’, etc.

Now another user comes along and starts digging through documents tagged ‘Bill Gates’ to try and find new articles about Vista. Unfortunately, many searches will turn up bad results, especially if the density of the word ‘Bill Gates’ is great enough in the document about beets. That being said, the other direction would work more as intended, searching on the tags ‘Bill Gates’ and ‘Beets’ would yield more expected results.

In the Semantic Web model, the document about William Gates the beet farmer would be tagged with the William Gates object which could contain a plethora of metadata, his location, occupation, etc. Now when we look at this document there is no guessing as to what it is referring, especially from a machines point of view. This is exactly what the Semantic Web was built for. In this model we are not relying on linguistics, natural language processing, or full text search. We are relying on hard links that machines can understand and relate to.

The disambiguation page (was the tag page in Web 2.0)

What about regular string tags? The Semantic Web cant possibly understand everything?! The fact of the matter is, thats true. We still support regular string tagging. Some things are not proper nouns and less concrete, like adjectives and verbs. They may not yet deserve their own object; however, lets think about actual language here for a second. The semantics behind how we describe things.

Take the adjective ‘cool’. Well, first of all, what are you looking for? Nouns? A grouping of multiple nouns? Probably ‘cool’ nouns. A search on this tag could turn up anything and everything from many different levels. It could start by pulling in a definition from Wikipedia. Then it could group together a list of groups tagged cool like the ‘Super Cars’ group or the ‘Fast Cars’ group. It would also show you users tagged ‘cool’ and documents tagged ‘cool’. But where it becomes really interesting is where you find the ‘cool’ string tag on a tag object! Now you can find proper noun tags like ‘Ferrari’ as well as ‘Super Cars’ the proper noun.

Joining these tags together in a search would yield detailed results from rich metadata like a list of Ferrari’s over the years represented as objects. Each car object would contain detailed specs on engine type, weight, horsepower, etc. Then by examining the ‘Ferrari Enzo’ object we can find all the people who used this tag on their bookmarks, links, documents, or other objects they created. With this information you can connect with these people, join their groups, and further your search for whatever it is you are interested in. The point is, everything is related at many different levels. What links them together are adjectives and verbs that describes them.


To be able to come at your data from every angle is important. Everyone thinks differently and everyone searches differently. The truth is, I think its going to be a while for machines to really understand what us humans are talking about. Its up to us to help organize data in a format that is machine readable so the machines can share, but in return it allows us to perform incredible searches likes never before.

There are many common misconceptions around the Semantic Web. It is a very broad term which has many facets. We are going after what I feel is an attainable portion of this idea. Our platform may not try and fully comprehend and reason what the term ‘cool’ means like a human does but you are a human. You the user understands what this term means and just how to use it. If not, our platform will definitely try to help.

Categories: Computers, Semantic Web


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  4. Vuk Milicic says:

    Great Article. Glad to hear that my blog prompted you to start writing more about the Semantic Web:)

    Tags as objects are logical next step, and the idea that is definitely worth spreading. I believe one day it will be assumed tags are objects, but untill then we have a hard work to do.

  5. [...] Tagging in the Semantic Web | John Clarke Mills’ Blog What if you could tag an object with another object. Instead of tagging objects with strings, which falls back on a full-text search, you could tag something with an actual representation? (tags: metadata ontologies radarnetworks semanticweb tag article taxonomy twine search) [...]

  6. billy says:

    you wrote: “Allowing users to tag an object with another object we can make extremely interesting comparisons; discerning a lot more information about the original object becomes simple and accurate.”

    I ask: isn’t that essentially a hyperlink?

  7. John says:


    You could look at it like that in its most basic form; however, there is one key missing component – Metadata.

    When one URL links to another you really have no idea as to what the other page is about. You could read it yourself or rely on Google to discern what that page is about but other than that, who really knows?

    When you tag and object with another object, both of them contain a rich data set, allowing humans and computers to more accurately figure out what the linking page is about. If I tag something with the ‘Bill Gates’ object, the former CEO of Microsoft, you better believe that the link is not about the beet farmer.

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