How Semantic Technology Can Improve Reader Experience
With titles such as Far Cry and Halo set to add to their franchises in 2016, the hype and marketing that will surround the launch of these games is a clear indicator of the progression made by the video game industry in a very short period of time. Compared to characters such as Pac-Man and Donkey Kong, which dominated arcades in the 1980s, the home console games of 2016 are completely different beasts. The pioneering games, still well regarded with a heavy dose of nostalgia, all followed a basic platform game principle, allowing the player to control a character across a two dimensional area to gather items and points. Today, such a format would garner little attention.
The historical development of the video games industry is analogous to what is going on in the online publishing sector today. Given the relative infancy of online publishing within the context of all publishing, online publishing finds itself stuck 30 years in the past and requires the support of modern technologies to try and remain relevant.
Entering a New Dimension
For video games, the continuous improvements in hardware allowed for games to follow a similar trajectory. This came to a climax in the mid 1990s when Super Mario 64 introduced a paradigm shift in game design. Massively more powerful computational capabilities thrust a new dimension and greater gameplay complexity into the hands of gamers on a previously unseen scale.
Since Super Mario 64, developments have continued unabated and are responsible for the fact many games now are designed like Hollywood films, except multiple films exist within the game. Gone are the days of rudimentary coin collection. ‘Sandbox’ games like Grand Theft Auto introduced the ability for players to ignore the main quest altogether and simply choose their own adventure. Free from the constraints of linear progression, players embed themselves in the gameworld and pursue whatever appeals to them the most. The result is that today’s gamers are happy to invest considerable gameplay time into exploring the almost endless possibilities of a title, without necessarily achieving its central goals.
So how does this relate to online publishing in 2016? In short, today’s content consumers are where gamers were in the 1980s. An online reader’s behavior is largely dictated by how the publisher arranges its website: readers lack specific control over their interactions with their content. Today’s publishers divide their content into silos, like ‘world news’, ‘politics’ or ‘entertainment’, with rigid divisions between them. This does not adequately reflect our browsing habits. Assume you are reading an article on the most recent Oscar winners and you wanted to know who won what the year before, who won the Golden Globe in the same category, or stop reading about entertainment news altogether and switch to politics. In many cases you are forced to perform a second search either within the publisher’s site or via an external search engine. This places onus on the user to calculate what terms to search for in order to find the content they are after, which is ultimately a bad user experience.
It’s impossible to predict exactly what a user is going to do on your site, so publishers should stop trying to. It would be more productive to enable them, through meaningful linking, to do what they want. Because keeping them on your site is what counts: if they go to Google to find what they want they might never come back, and in the hyper-competitive world of clickthrough advertising this poor UX can severely impact profitability.
Some publishers have been fast to realize that disseminating content based on how their users want to read it can deliver significant results. In 2010, BBC Sport built its World Cup website on a foundation of semantic technology used to identify and link the huge amount of available data points. For users this meant if they were reading about a midfielder from Colombia, they could click on his name to be presented with his career stats and club history. This then provides direct links to the clubs and the players they currently have registered to them and so on and so forth. Essentially, the site was built to allow users to follow their curiosities and thirst for further information. So successful was the World Cup site that the BBC did exactly the same for its 2012 Olympics site and in 2013 launched a linked data platform, which is now central to how content is shared across its sports and BBC News sites.
The Key to Unlocking Content
Although the actual principle of improved sharing sounds simple and based in common sense, it does require advanced technology to integrate with the basic framework of a website. Expanding the number of links between individual content items is referred to as ‘deep interlinking’, which requires an application of semantic technology to succeed. Quality semantic technology allows a computer to isolate entities within the content, categorize them, and then infer relationships between entities, in a similar way humans do intuitively. The website then actually stores known relationships within a graph database and can draw on the database when relevant to enhance the reading experience with better content sharing.
For publishers, semantic technology is a logical evolution from Tim Berners-Lee’s principles for the World Wide Web. Berners-Lee built an open source language for linking pages across the web, and this is what is happening today as millions of webpages require the linking of individual nuggets of knowledge within them. Tim Berners-Lee remains an ardent champion of open standards and linked data both as a director of the W3C standards organization and through public speaking such as this TED talk from 2010.
Other commitments to this technology include schema.org, an initiative sponsored by Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and Yandex to popularize semantic web standards. The standards empower content providers to provide an improved user experience across the World Wide Web through better linking and increased knowledge sharing. These standards have the power to allow users to break free from their two dimensional linear progressions and adopt a sandbox style exploration of the world as they see fit.
Certainly these technologies are growing in popularity more and more. Where the tech giants like Google and Facebook have already been using their own versions of semantics for years, publishers such as the BBC, the Financial Times, and the Press Association are now working with specialists such as Ontotext to bring their platforms into the modern era. The rationale for doing so is very straightforward: by improving the construction of their sites, they can package content in myriad ways to create new revenue streams. Furthermore the longer a publisher has a reader stick around on the site, the greater revenues from advertising will be. For the video game industry adapting to gamers’ preferences has meant it is now producing games that draw higher revenues than Hollywood blockbusters. For publishers, the attraction is obvious.
Jarred McGinnis is UK managing consultant at Ontotext, a semantic technology company. Jarred has worked with organisations, companies and universities doing interesting projects involving semantic technologies, and has previously worked with companies such as the BBC and Press Association. Jarred holds a PhD in Informatics from the University of Edinburgh.