Harnessing the power of storytelling to change the world™ at SemTech

Posted on August 12th, 2010 by Hannah Eaves

It’s been a busy few months for us at, between launching our beta site, conducting usability studies, and adding new features. Expect a few posts in the coming days to bring you up to date on everything we’ve been up to.

In late June, we presented at SemTech in San Francisco, the self-professed “world’s largest, most authoritative conference on semantic technology.”  If you’re in to triple stores, SPARQL queries, and W3C working groups, SemTech is the conference for you. For us, there was the chance to tell people about, catch up with partners, and crash some of the less techie panels.

In what was a largely controversy-free (and thus Twitter-lite) conference, Andraz Tori from the semantic blogging plug-in/API/wizardry tool Zemanta sparked some debate with his presentation, “User Interfaces for Semantic Web: Do They Have to Be Ugly?” Happily, as a partner, Andraz had early access to our site and included some slides of it as an example of good design. He argued that a major factor in the success of semantic interfaces, including the BBC’s Nature site, is that they keep the semantic part to themselves. The user experience and design are just improved by the features and SEO bump that come with linking content semantically, but the ordinary person wouldn’t necessarily notice the change. Instead, their experience would be more along the lines of, oh, this looks nice, and now I can find everything I’m interested in (and possibly even some things they didn’t know they were interested in).

Away from SemTech, this point was reinforced when we recently met with John Domingue from the Open University in the UK. On top of giving us an amazing overview of EU funding for semantic research, he mentioned that the BBC had just had similar success with its World Cup site. If you haven’t read up on that yet, the BBC developed its own ontology to fuel “automated metadata-driven web pages” created on the fly. According to Domingue, the experiment was a great success, and when added to Nature and the BBC’s Music site, represents the biggest stable of successful semantic sites whose semantic-ness under the hood hasn’t altered their user-centric design choices.

(A word of warning to anyone who is both using the Zemanta API and touring around demoing their semantic website: using Zemanta’s blogging demo as a tool to explain what the terms “Semantic Web” and “Linked Data” mean will work really, really well. Too well. It may upstage your own presentation.)

Back at SemTech, on top of presenting a talk on “Semantic Web Tools for Video and Social Change,” we also took part in a publishers panel that brought together OpenCalais and Phase2 Technology. Phase2 is the web development firm behind OpenPublish, the Drupal-based online semantic publishing package powered by OpenCalais and used by The Nation and The New Republic, among others (Phase2 also built a little site called It was great to be invited onto the panel by OpenCalais. Tom Tague from OpenCalais echoed Andraz’s presentation, calling on new semantic sites to think of the user experience first and foremost. Tech talk was shunned in favor of conversation about real world examples of working sites and applications, including a lengthy profile of The biggest revelations seemed to come from Phase2 CEO Jeff Walpole when describing the improved SEO experienced by publishers who have regeared their sites using OpenPublish.