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Web 3.0: 'Vague But Exciting'

When computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee first submitted his 1989 paper, "Information Management: A Proposal," his boss, Mike Sendall, wrote "vague, but exciting" on it by way of endorsing what was the blueprint for the World Wide Web.

Two decades later, Berners-Lee and others are formulating what can be called the third generation of the Web, the "semantic Web," or "Web 3.0." I know, I know, most of us are still trying to deal with Web 2.0 as part of a very confusing marketing landscape.

Here's a quick primer for marketers:

Web 1.0 (the information Web), the one we all know and love, is straightforward. It's full of content that we can surround with ads, mainly in the form of banners. Many marketers look at this as an extension of offline media—print and television. Sadly, they tend to use it the same way.

Web 2.0 (the social Web) is a little less "ad friendly." Social networking, live chat, folksonomies, mash-ups, virtual worlds, even mobile are part of 2.0. It's about people communicating, contributing, collaborating. Results come from the wisdom of crowds—for better or worse. This collaboration and sharing break down the traditional media model, and marketers lose control of their brands, even while they gain powerful new ways to engage their audience. (Type your brand's name into Topsy, the Twitter search engine, to get a little taste of market reality.)

Web 3.0 (the semantic Web) derives its "wisdom" from software that learns by looking at online content, analyzes the popularity of that content and draws conclusions. Instead of people refining information and opinion, intelligent software would do the same thing.

The key is that information is presented and labeled so it makes sense to machines. This means Web content needs to be presented in a language that software can understand; programming languages such as OWL and SWRL that can be "read" by software. The more Web content written in these languages, the more effective the software will be gathering information and making recommendations for users.

The TiVo model helps to understand how Web 3.0 might work. Express interest in, say, George Clooney, and TiVo's "agent" searches for and records any of his movies airing on TV. But it also finds and records content related to Clooney, such as films he directed or produced, reruns of ER, The Facts of Life and other credited work, interviews and gossip items about him, even the "Tears of a Clooney" episode of American Dad that mocked his persona. Now substitute your brand for "Clooney" and "the entire Web" for "TV," and you get some idea of Web 3.0's potential reach.

Today, search engines gather and classify their listings through a simpler version of "intelligent" software. For marketers to understand how they might operate in a Web 3.0 world, they should look to their current organic search programs and what's needed to do well with conventional search engines.

Berners-Lee refers to Web 3.0 as the semantic Web because software can learn, intuit and decide. This means people will have "intelligent agent" software filtering information and making decisions for them (e.g., "best," "lowest priced"). For marketers, this means the potential for unprecedented targeting and data-mining—but advertising would be less effective. Marketers would stand on their merits, not their claims. After all, how do you convince software?

There will still be a need to tell stories and build brands, but there will be a new constituency to persuade. This will require a very different approach than most marketers use today. This approach will involve data-based understanding of how software will intuit and clear "tagging" as a form of communication. There's no guarantee that 3.0 intelligent agents will be any less biased or inaccurate than 2.0 people are today.

Why worry about Web 3.0 when only a handful of hyper-geek sites are even designed for it? Well, most marketers lag behind consumers when it comes to media adoption. (How many of us understand enterprise search today?)

But consider the fact Google was founded in 1998, it sold its first ads in 2000 and within five years it dominated the search market. Also mull the fact that social media was an oddity, an add-on for marketers through 2005; four years later, social sites, blogs and Twitter are shaping public opinion and marketers' efforts more than any single media trend.

Some marketers and agencies will understand that Web 3.0 represents an important evolution in how they can (or can't) interface with consumers looking for information and solutions. They'll start playing with these new programming languages and look at how they can evolve the principles of search marketing (a good proxy for how to interface with intelligent agents).

Still, most marketers have time before Web 3.0 matters. Don't they?

Greg Smith is COO of Neo@Ogilvy, North America, a digital and direct media agency based in New York.

--Adweek