Siri, what is semantic search?

Big Bang Theory's Raj meets his dream voice-activated "personal assistant", Siri

I keep reading bits and pieces about Google using semantic search technology. It's a way that they plan to answer user questions rather than simply hunt down words. For quite awhile I had read about this being the next big thing in search engine functionality. I'm no expert on search technology but it seems that most of the searching we now do is semantic.

We have become used to seeing our search results as list of blue links. That's how it has been since the beginning. But you are probably noticing more things on the top of that results page. The promise of semantic search is to improve search accuracy by understanding our intent and also the contextual meaning of the terms we search.

Although Apple's Siri has both fans and critics, the potential is pretty exciting. It can support natural language now and it will get better at semantic search in the future. Instead of just using a keyword-based search, we can ask a question. Instead of "restaurant, Italian" and a zip code, you ask "Where's a good place to get Italian food nearby?" Is that question really so much easier than the keyword search? Well, Siri or Google or the next big thing in search will will know where you are located already (via GPS or your IP address) and it will also know that we have been to other restaurants in the area. And if we have entered some social data, like reviews of those restaurants, it will be able to suggest somewhere to eat that fits out personal little algorithm.

At least that's is the plan.

It was a year ago that I read an article about Google's semantic search algorithm. and since making it work requires vast amounts of data, Google seems like the one to do it. Now, why don;t I include Bing or other search sites? For one thing, I haven't heard much about their attempts at this, but mostly it's because they don't seem to have the other "personal" data about me that would make it work.

I actually took that Bing versus Google test online at  and it consistent comes up Google for me.

I have also read that "true" semantic search uses an "inference engine" which means that - like a good human reader - instead of just recognizing words, it draws on its own "knowledge" to reach a conclusion.  Hello, ontology!

Oh yeah, something else needs to happen. We, the users, need to change our searching habits. We will have to move from basic keywords that result in thousands of results, to clear queries that recognize the capabilities of the engine.



Tweetchats are live synchronous conversations that happen on Twitter. People gather around a designated hashtag and anyone who wants to participate just searches for the hashtag and then uses it in their tweets.

These thing pop up organically at events. Most conferences create an "official" hashtag and ask people to use it it during the conference. A variation on planned conversations are the chats that emerge around events like elections, the Academy Awards, the President's State of the Union address etc.

Of course, you can follow a hashtag at any time. Looking at the tag #MOOC will show you the current conversation on Massive Open Online Courses, but a tweetchat is when a designated time is planned to chat. (See an example below) Tweetchats usually have a moderator(s) who will ask questions and guide the conversation.

Some hashtags have been used for several years. For example, if you search in twitter for the hashtag #lrnchat, you will find tweets about instructional design, training, and eLearning.

You don't need to have an account in twitter in order to follow a hashtag, but then you are only an observer witn read but no write privileges. That would be very Web 1.0  :-(    One general education hashtag is #edchat and going to will show you what tweets people are tagging as #edchat currently whether or not you belong to twitter. Two other tags used are #blogchat (about blogging) and #futrchat for futurists.

What inspired me to post this today is that I am participating in an online social media course and we are doing a tweetchat tonight from 8pm-10pm US EST (Need to convert that time?)  Again, tweetchats are "open" because anyone can follow a conversation and participate, so if you want to to follow us or join in, go ahead.

There are also web apps to help filter these conversations from the rest of the flood of tweets in your feed. Tweet Chat and Twitter's own native app, TweetDeck, are two popular ones.

Network Visualization

This RSA Animate video has Manuel Lima, senior UX design lead at Microsoft Bing, looking at using network visualization. Hierarchical tree structures are being dropped and researchers are more often using networks to map the complexities of our modern world. Visualization and network topology are new cultural memes.

This was taken from a longer lecture given by Lima.  Listen to the full talk:

What Happened to Social Bookmarking?

Social bookmarking is when a community of users compiles an index by collectively submitting ("bookmarking") favorite or relevant sites for the community. To make it work, the sites are tagged with keywords to facilitate searching.

The idea of creating a folksonomy is something I wrote about here in 2008 and earlier. On the surface, it sound rather random and disorganized.

the people's taxonomy that is so prevalent on the Web through sites
like delicious, Flickr and Digg, works as long as there is some
agreement on the naming. If I tag something as "satire" but others tag
it as video, or comedy or TV or SNL, does that make it better/broader or
break the system? True taxonomies rely on agreement.  Plant taxonomy
classifies one plant as Gerbera jamesonii so that the common name
"African daisy" or the altered versions of the scientific name ("gerber
daisy" or "gerbera daisy") all point to the same thing. It's not
arbitrary at all.

I ask my students to tag useful sites for my visual design course in delicious with the unique tag of "msptc605"
so that their fellow students can share bookmarks and so that the list
can increase in future semesters. We agree on that tag so that all our
bookmarks can be together, but we also need to have additional tags such
as typography, color, usability so that the list is useful. It's not
arbitrary at all.

It has been enough years that there is a history of social bookmarking. But it seems to me that the use of many of the sites that were the most popular social bookmarking sites in 2010 are not being used as much today.

This video from 2007 was introducing a service like delicious to new users.

But I am not using social bookmarks as much as I did before. My own delicious account that I used for classes has fallen into disuse.

Certainly "tagging" is still being used. But adding the hashtag #edtech to your twitter post is not the same thing as what social bookmarking meant five years ago.

Some social bookmarking sites took a different approach to the process. There was more a "voting" (up or down) approach on the site Digg (which has gone through several rebirths and is no longer really a social bookmarking site). Facebook uses a "thumbs up" Like button for people to indicate to friends that they "Like" a site or post. But these choices are not searchable in any satisfying way and they are not tagged into categories. Newsvine called the headlines there "seeds."

Have Net users outgrown social bookmarking or has the practice evolved to simply tagging in social networks? Is "social tagging" the term to replace "social bookmarking?"

Back in 2006, I asked "Is Folksonomy Taxonomy or Fauxonomy?  Maybe the question is being answered.

iTunes U Gets Social With Piazza

Apple's iTunes U has never been social. Apple doesn't really do social. (Well, there was Ping, but that was dead on arrival.) But there is a new feature that is meant to allow users to learn with others, ask questions, and work more collaboratively in the iTunes U environment.

This social layer is already used in various ways on sites like Coursera, Edmodo, Knewton, Rafter, Codecademy and Udacity.

For this new social effort, Apple is partnering with Piazza. An article on the Forbes site, describes Piazza, not very flatteringly, as "a free student question and answer service" that adds the social layer to an otherwise one way "course" experience.

Piazza, as with most ogf the previously mentioned sites, is a newer startup that launched in January 2011. It allows students to
discuss topics in a course and has been free. Professors
or students can set up a page for a class. The only difference in the Piazza with iTunes
connection is that those courses will be public rather than closed to the students in a traditional class.

The first iTunes U course that is being used for this added layer is not a surprise. It is the "Coding Together: Apps for iPhone and iPad" class offered by Stanford. It is already one of the most popular classes on iTunes U, with over 10 million downloads. (The registration is open through July 6, if you want to try it out, but the class runs from June 25 to August 27.)  Of course, the new social tools are available for any course in iTunes U.