David Siegel: From Killer Web Sites to Semantic Web

One of the first web design books I bought was Creating Killer Web Sites, a 90s classic by David Siegel. That book was known for pushing visual style over HTML standards. It also encouraged the use of HTML hacks, for example using tables to create layouts. Siegel’s techniques were basically workarounds, but they just workedin an era when building web pages was painful due to browser incompatibilities.

In Siegel’s latest book, Pull, he tackles the Semantic Web. Once again, Siegel plays loosely with existing web standards.

Siegel’s definition of ‘Semantic Web’ is much broader than that of many technologists. So, just as many Web standards advocates derided Siegel’s version of web design back in the 90s, will they also cry foul of his version of the Semantic Web?

Pull is being positioned as a business guide to the emerging Semantic Web. It has similarities to Creating Killer Web Sites, which caught the wave of an emerging big trend of the mid-90s (web site design) and became a bestseller. Siegel is attempting to catch a second big online wave, with the Semantic Web in 2010.

Siegel explains the title in the introduction:

“This book describes the pull era, where customers pull everything to them on demand – products, services, information, knowledge, and advice. Much of the foundation for pulling is called the semantic web, a new way of packaging information to make it much more useful and reusable. Over the next ten to twenty years, it will change business from a lead-push model to a pull-follow model of interacting with customers.”

It’s hard to argue against the vision that the book outlines. However for many Semantic Web proponents, the foundational technologies are Resource Description Framework (RDF), Web Ontology Language (OWL), and Extensible Markup Language (XML). These standards allow web publishers to encode meaning – semantics – into their sites.

David Siegel’s definition of Semantic Web is far broader. On the book’s accompanying website, The Power of Pull, there is a “Semantic Web Acid Test.” It defines a semantic web business as one that has an “unambiguous” structure for its data. The book states that “some technologists feel that semantic web data must be expressed using a language called RDF,” but Siegel disagrees. Instead, he believes that “simple, unambiguous formats are part of the semantic web.”

The book is ultimately about how structured data will change how we do business. Frankly, the use of the term ‘Semantic Web’ in this book feels forced. Even so, I think it’s a very useful book and offers detailed scenarios of how structured data will improve business. For example, chapter 4 is about retailers and outlines the benefits of RFID tags in retail – including describing a visit Siegel made to forward-thinking German retailer Metro Group.

Overall Pull is a solid and well-researched book. It’s a good introduction for business people to structured data and the Semantic Web.

My one issue with the book is that Siegel’s appropriation of the term ‘Semantic Web’ leaves me feeling a little uneasy. On the home page of his personal website is a blog post (entitled ‘Why I Should be Apple’s Next CEO’), in which Siegel claims that he “started talking about the Semantic Web in 1998, before Tim Berners-Lee coined the term.” Whether that’s true or not, it does beg the question: is Siegel’s definition of the Semantic Web the same as Tim Berners-Lee’s?

Disclosure: David Siegel posted me a copy of his new book.

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