Semantic Web Shopping – a “how to” for the immediate future
mike darnell @ headup
Although opinions about scope and scheduling tend to vary most experts agree that the transformation of “The Web” in to “The Semantic Web” is only a matter of time. Based on the experience from the last major upheaval – the transition to “Web 2.0”, it’s safe to assume that regardless of the details, the transition will be a gradual one. This will be a process of Evolution rather than Revolution.
Change is coming (image by Maria Reyes-McDavis)
When will it begin?
One need only observe the steady increase over the past two years in the amount of enterprises and services focused on the Semantic Web space to realize that the process is already well under way.
Advances in web technology instigate social change
One of the lessons to be learned from the last transition the Web went through is that advances in web technology are powerful instigators for social adaptations and cultural evolution:
- Online social networking
- Crowd sourcing
These are just a few examples of some of the social adaptations that can be attributed to the transition to Web 2.0. It should be obvious that the transition to Semantic Web will have, indeed is having already, a similar impact. This post is an attempt to predict what impact the transition will have on our habits as consumers.
Buying online today
Our experiences as customers on today’s web are largely modeled on the offline commercial world and can be divided into two categories:
- Impulse buys
- Planned purchases
I’ve chosen to concentrate on planned purchases simply because impulse buys are by definition much harder to predict. To simplify things further I’d like to use an example from my own recent experiences:
Stroller Hunting 2.0
Shopping for a stroller isn't child's play... (image by Matt Ryall)
In order to understand how purchasing on the Semantic Web might differ from what we’re currently used to we first need to be aware of our current practices. As luck may have it my girlfriend and I are expecting our first child and since she’s started her third trimester about a month ago we’ve begun dedicating an increasing amount of time daily to hunting for the perfect baby stroller. By “perfect” I men the stroller best suited to our needs and circumstances. This is a textbook “planned purchase” and serves as a great case-study for this discussion so I’d like to take a closer look at the activities we’ve engaged in as part of our stroller hunt:
- Consulted with friends that made the same purchase recently.
- Discussed the purchase between us to define what we’re looking for
- Used Google and other resources to get a grasp of the stroller market.
- Compared stroller prices by using both price comparison sites and our own notes.
- Hunted for stroller bargains on Ebay, Amazon, and others online retailers.
- Posted “Stroller Wanted” ads on second hand and free-swap sites.
Upon analysis the following underlying commonalities can be identified as being shared between all the activities listed:
- They’re all motivated by a clearly defined and obvious need.
- The online activities required we visit specific web services.
- In order to really get the most value from our online activities multiple repetitions over a period of a few weeks were required.
- A certain portion of the time we invested turned out to be a dismal waste.
- All the activities we engaged in required us to aggregate and analyze the data.
The bottom line is that although the Web saved us the effort of getting out of the house to do our research, our online shopping experience turned out to be, perhaps unsurprisingly, not much more than a digitally enhanced bargain hunt. Moreover, when the value of the time my girlfriend and I invested in the purchase is added to the price we paid for the stroller we bought, our purchase, regretfully, ceases to be anything that can even remotely be classified as a “bargain”… Shopping on the Semantic Web may well be a very different experience.
The Semantic Web Stroller Hunt
A key element to remember about an ideal Semantic Web is that it’s a web of data where everything is perfectly defined and linked, and moreover all the data is structured and accessible to computers. When all the data about everything is available online and accessible to computers shopping becomes a task requiring not much more than the indication of intent. The research, price comparisons, bidding all become completely automated.
Here’s a vision of what shopping for a stroller might look like on the Semantic Web:
Being pregnant has an effect on both my girlfriend’s, and my own online activities: Tagged pictures of my girlfriend’s pregnant belly are uploaded to Flickr for far away friends to see, gripes about morning sickness start appearing in our Tweets feeds and Facebook status alerts, we both begin subscribing to feeds from parenting sites, etc.
As our due date approaches the volume of these pregnancy related activities steadily increases.
Each one of our actions by itself is nearly inconsequential, but to all-aggregating and all-reasoning Semantic Web the cumulative effect of all of them combined means only one thing: we’re pregnant and ripe for pregnancy related content and… advertising.
Unlike the advertising we experience today the advertising my girlfriend and I are targeted with takes into account our unique needs and circumstances: We’re only offered stuff likely to be within our price range and supplied by vendors shipping to our region. Our online purchases influence the advertising we’re receiving as well: Ads for items we’ve already purchased are removed and replaced with ads for items that compliment and augment the stuff we’ve already bought.
The sum total of the experience is one in which instead of us having to hunt for baby items the Semantic Web makes sure they hunt for us…
How to prepare for Shopping 3.0
A key element of preparing for the Semantic Web is to remember that the best Semantic Web technologies are only as good as the data they can access. If you want to enjoy the best that Semantic Web technologies have to offer be prepared to make A LOT of information about yourself available online. A great place to start is your Facebook profile. If you want to get the most from the future of Semantic Web shopping I suggest you begin by flesing out your profile as much as you possibly can. The reason I suggest you begin with Facebook in particular is because you’ve probably already got a profile there already and, whether you like or not, Facebook is already making your information available to other services via it’s API. The Facebook API grants access to the following details about any and every Facebook member (this is a very partial list):
- Sexual preference
- Marital status
- Employment history
- Likes – books, films, music, etc.
- Fan pages the member belongs to
Despite current criticism over Facebook’s failings in regards to monetizing, the information they have is without doubt a veritable treasure trove of personal information just waiting to be commercialized.Whatever the future has in store for us in terms of Semantic Web there can be little doubt that the Facebook API will have an important part to play in it.
Hunting for bargains - a thing of the past? (image by avlxyz)
What about privacy?
I’m fully aware that those of you who are touchy about privacy are probably scandalized by my last suggestion. Right about now you’re probably thinking: “What? make stuff about me publicly available online? What are you nuts?!?”.Luckily while writing this post I ran into an excellent article titled “How much is your privacy worth?“. The article, written by Eric Harber, does an excellent job of presenting the Semantic Web consumers’ paradigm, and moreover illuminates that there’s little that’s new about it. The articles main premise is that we’ve been trading our privacy in for perks and benefits for yearsand therefore there can be little doubt that we’ll continue to do so in the future. Mr. Harber argues that every loyalty club we’ve ever subscribed to, every coupon we’ve ever cashed and every marketing survey we’ve ever particiapted in all stand as examples of cases where we’ve voluntarily surrendered some of our privacy for a perk offered by a marketer.
Our wish to safeguard our privacy is understandable but the simple truth is that in this data driven day and age privacy is increasingly an illusion. More and more of our daily activities are monitored, individually or in aggregate, whether we’re aware of it or not. The data collected is already being put to use in advertising whether obviously or less so. This trend will increase as the quality of data and the ability to analyze it continue to improve.
Semantic Web shopping will be Opt-in
To me there’s something very comforting about the knowledge that this process of cashing in my privacy for perks isn’t new. It means that the practices and policies that need to be developed in order to enable and regulate marketing on the Semantic Web have a solid base for reference, one that not only takes consumers’ privacy into account, but also gives it a paramount importance. There can be no doubt that the Semantic Web will usher in a new age that will change not only our understanding of what consists of “private information” but also what may be done with it. As was the case with this same dilemma in the past, ultimately legal frameworks will be created that will ensure that a consumers right to privacy is protected and that receiving marketing offers remain an opt-in experience (Anti spam legislation being a prime example).
If you’re skeptic that the legal aspect alone won’t be enough to enforce the sanctity of consumer privacy I submit to you the following argument – companies that abuse privacy will suffer such a backlash from consumers and create such splitting PR headaches for themselves that the practice will quickly become unprofitable. At worst we’ll have to deal with the Semantic Web version of Viagra spam…
Progress is inevitable therefore it becomes the collective responsibility of both marketers and consumers to define to what extent the trade-off between privacy and purchasing perks creates value for all the stakeholders involved. The laws of economics will eventually guarantee that imbalanced models will slowly die out leaving us with those that we not only can, but also want to, live with. After experiencing first hand how inefficient online shopping really is I personally would be happy to divulge information about myself if it would save me all the time I spent searching for that perfect stroller… ; )