Incremental Benefit and Bursts of Innovation

Ian Davis, of eRDF fame and a great guy all around, writes about Google’s recent RDFa announcement:

At first this announcement seemed like a big deal – Google supporting the web of data in a big way, a real push into the world of open structured data. However, a closer look reveals that Google have basically missed the point of RDFa.

Ian’s main complaint is that Google invented a new vocabulary, where they could have used FOAF. With all due respect to Ian, I think he’s missing the forest for the trees.

Sure, they could have. But the point of RDFa and in general of the semantic web is that you get incremental benefit from partial deployment. Add a Dublin Core title to your pages, and you’ve got titles. Then add Dublin Core creator and you’ve got the author’s name. Then add geolocation and you can place items on a map, with their titles of course. For every bit of data you add, you get added benefit. That’s the power of a single syntax and a standardized approach to decentralized vocabularies. Start small, and build progressively. Settle on the syntax, then discuss the semantics separately.

Google’s approach makes perfect sense to me. They don’t want to suddenly parse all sorts of existing FOAF data that alters their search results presentation. They want people to opt in by choosing the Google-sponsored vocabulary. In doing so, however, they’re now parsing RDFa. That’s a huge step forward, a significant evolution: they’re letting publishers define the semantics of their pages rather than guessing by algorithmic means. The algorithms are still there, of course, but now they have a lot more structure to work with.

In modern evolutionary theory, it’s relatively widely accepted that evolution occurs in spurts: one major systemic improvement, e.g. a new chemical pathway arises once in a blue moon, and then tons of small innovations rapidly appear based on this new pathway. That’s what’s going on here. Google has enabled a new pathway. And now innovation based on this new construct is going to flourish, incrementally, one bit of structured data at a time, but very very rapidly, because the framework for structured data is now deployed on the top two search engines.