Contextual ad platform Textwise launched SemanticHacker.com today, a contest for applications and business plans built on the company's semantic analysis technology. While the new API is offered for free, the contest will award three winners with $100k and one winner could score up to $1 million based on subsequent commercialization.

Semantic APIs only make sense, superior contextual advertising is clearly the most obvious cash-cow of semantics and a bounty sounds like a good idea - but there's something about this contest that doesn't quite feel right.

"One Meeelion Dollars"...A Cynical Gimmick?

As is probably always the case, this bounty looks like a very cheap way to acquire some development that will pay off in a far larger sum. Textwise has spent years developing their technology so perhaps that's fair.

Taking the technology for a test run on SemanticHacker.com doesn't produce very exciting results, though. You can try it yourself right on the front page of the site. While the super-hyped Twine at least attempts to add all kinds of value to the text it analyzes, the Textwise engine's results are clearly suited only to general, topical and contextual advertising.

The polite way to put this, as the company did in its press outreach, is as follows:

The Textwise technology is focused on discovery as opposed to the “extraction” and metadata-based approaches of most semantic web technologies. This is not the same as the “who/what/when/where/how” thread that is based around RDF, OWL and other similar ontologies and approaches. No - this is a semantic discovery tool that can take in huge chunks of text and grok their essential "aboutness". The core technology (with origins in DARPA and intelligence agency stuff) is designed to decode the "DNA" of documents and be able to tell you what they're about.

Like we said, suited far better for advertising than for anything else more interesting. If semantic technology delivers nothing more than spy-agency-built ad networks then that's going to be a real tragedy.

Semantic web expert Paul Miller points out that the contest's limitation to US participants is also a real loss of opportunity and says he'd be much more interested in a bounty not tied to any particular vendor's semantic API.

Market Context

Semantic markup is ready to hit the big time now that Yahoo! has announced that it will index the stuff. A long list of other startups are doing something similar to what TextWise is doing today. Hakia started licensing its semantic search technology yesterday. We've written before about Dapper's forthcoming semantic ad network.

We've offered extensive coverage of the Reuters Open Calais semantic API extravaganza here, as well.

There's a lot of movement in this space; the market is downright crowded. A search through our "top blogs in the semantic web" custom search engine (from the RWW toolkit for 2008) shows that none of the 60 blogs we follow on this space have ever written about TextWise or the SemanticExchange network they participate in. Maybe that shows the limitations of our list of sources, but maybe it says that TextWise just got a whole lot more publicity for a relatively small amount of money.