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What do online publishers and the video games industry have in common?

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With titles like Fallout 4 and Skyrim on the shelves, it’s easy to lose sight of just how far video games have come during their brief history. The 1980s is the decade most associated with the birth of video games, with characters like Mario, Pac Man and Donkey Kong all making their first appearances. However in terms of playstyle, we may be looking at this era through rose-tinted goggles: the most popular game type was the platformer, where the player controls a character moving in two dimensional space collecting resources. While many loved these mechanics, it seems a little simplistic to us now. You might wonder how this progression is relevant to online publishing: in my view, online publishers are in general stuck in the 80s, and they need to employ innovative new technologies in order to stay relevant.

The move towards more complex video game experiences began in the mid 1990s with the release of Super Mario 64. This is a rare case where it’s not much of an overstatement to say that this title brought about a paradigm shift which remains to this day. Due to exponential growth in processing power, game designers were able to add another dimension to their games, both graphically and in terms of gameplay complexity.

These developments, which are very much still ongoing, are bringing us to the hugely successful titles we see today: gamers are no longer restricted to collecting coins, points or bananas; they don’t even have to complete the main quest. With the ‘sandbox’ genre spearheaded by the Grand Theft Auto series, players are able to ‘choose their own adventure’. The games present different playstyle options, such as combat, city building or exploration, and the player is free to engage with whatever aspects of the game appeal most to them. They’re not ‘stuck on rails’, they’re given interesting choices, and the success of this game structure is evident in the vast number of hours gamers sink into these new style titles.

1980s gamers and today’s content consumers have something in common. Today’s readers don’t have much control over how they interact with the content they’re engaging with. Instead, they have to change their behaviour based on how the publisher has set up the website. If I am looking up an article on the winner of the Best Director Oscar for 2015 and I want to find out the previous year’s winner, I’d have to look that up separately, or just Google it. In essence, I’d have to put some thought into the exact phrasing of my question in order for the system to find the correct answer. This is not an intuitive way of managing content, and it is also to the detriment of content publishers, considering today’s online readers are fickle and happy to vote with their feet if they have a sub-par experience.

A few publications understand this problem and are taking steps to improve the quality of their user experience. BBC Sport’s World Cup website is a great example: using semantic technologies to identify and link different data points, they have created a much more useful and flexible experience for their users. If I’m reading about a midfielder for Germany and want to find out more, I simply click on the player link which takes me to his stats and history. From there I can follow links to previous teams he played for, and from there to other players on those teams, and on to other topics. The BBC found this system successful, and replicated it their 2012 Olympics website, and launched a linked data platform in 2013 which now plays a central role in the running of BBC Sports and BBC News.

The key here is choice: my research is not limited by how the publisher decides to package the content – instead I’m allowed to follow my interest wherever it takes me within the website.

Needless to say, advanced technology needs to be integrated into these websites to allow this to happen. In order to provide readers with more choice, content managers must implement more links between individual content items. This is called ‘deep interlinking’, and there is a variety of semantic technologies which can enable this to happen. Many of these technologies give computer systems the ability to isolate entities within sentences (hence the word ‘semantic’), categorise those entities (e.g. Ronaldo is a ‘person’, Real Madrid is a ‘team’), and then infer the relationships between those entities. These relationships are then saved in special “graph databases” as links, which can then be used by the website to enhance reader experience.

What semantic technologies offer us is a logical progression from what Tim Berners-Lee did for the internet twenty years ago. Berners-Lee created an open source language for linking web pages, and now the revolution of linking is happening again, but on a finer scale, links between individual pieces of knowledge about the world. Tim Berners-Lee himself is very active within this space, and this 2010 TED talk goes a long way to explaining what linked data is all about.

In 2016 there’s already proven standard practices for these technologies to allow them to be implemented more widely: just as W3C formed in the mid-90s to create web page standards, schema.org has been sponsored by Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and Yandex to popularise semantic web standards. Using these standards, content providers can enrich their content with links to not only web pages, but to knowledge data about the world enabling their publishing platforms to give readers a richer experience. Soon readers will no longer be forced through this metaphorical Pac Man maze, but will be able to choose their own path.

My prediction is that within five years these technologies will have become widespread: companies like Google and Facebook have been using proprietary versions of this technology for years. Content owners are beginning to realize the real business benefit of these technologies. By having a more nuanced view of the content they have, they are able to package their content in new ways to create new revenue streams. This comes on top of boosting advertising revenues by enhancing user stickiness: more and more publishers are coming to see these technologies as an important tool for enhancing the user experience on their sites.

By Dr Jarred McGinnis, UK managing consultant at Ontotext

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