Surf and ye shall find

A technology promising a more effective version of the internet, with significantly improved search engines, has moved a step closer to introduction with the approval of an important new language.

The semantic web will allow more sophisticated search engine requests to be made without thousands of irrelevant sites being returned. Instead, only a handful of relevant sites will be identified.

The new language, Web Ontology Language (OWL), gives every word used to describe and explain anything in everyday life a key, or uniform resource identifier (URI). These URIs can be linked with those used to identify other related words, such as ‘journey’, ‘transport’ and ‘train’, in a way that software programmes can understand and interpret. This ensures that the document retrieved actually concerns the subject area of interest.

Existing web pages have only a basic capability to describe information they contain, using ‘meta data’, a simple tag consisting of key words to describe the content.

The new language has been approved by the internet’s standards body, the World Wide Web Consortium, also known as W3C. Eric Miller, head of semantic web activity, said there will be no ‘big bang’ changeover to the semantic web. It will slowly replace the existing meta data-tagged internet.

‘The semantic web is made through incremental changes, by bringing descriptions to the data and documents already on the web. The new languages XML, RDF and OWL enable the internet to be a global infrastructure for sharing both documents and data, which makes searching and reusing information easier and more reliable.’

OWL will be used in conjunction with the Extensible Markup Language (XML), the foundation of the semantic web, which provides a set of rules for structuring documents and data. In addition to this, the system uses the Resource Description Framework (RDF), which provides further rules, or mathematical algorithms, to help computers search for documents. These RDF rules could be applied to library catalogues, worldwide directories, news services and personal web pages such as collections of music and photos.

Tim Berners-Lee, W3C director and inventor of web software, has said the semantic web will help the internet become far more powerful.

W3C has 400 member organisations and is an international industry consortium run by MIT, the French European Research Consortium for Informatics and Mathematics, and Japan’s Keio University. OWL is based on work by Darpa in the US and the European Commission.