Semantic Vs. Automatic

Today while watching a webcast of a talk at Berkeley by Google’s Sergey Brin, I heard him say something that was… well… interesting.

In response to a question about the future of the semantic web and ideas like tagging, Brin said the following:

I think that tagging and semantics are great, as long as the computers are doing the tagging and semantics. Because, if people are doing the tagging and semantics for the computers, there is something a little bit inverted about the relationship between man and machine there.

This is a very telling statement and, assuming Brin speaks for the direction Google is headed in the future, it makes the distinction between Google and what some believe to be its closest online competitor, Yahoo!, very clear.

Yahoo! recently acquired Flickr, the shining example of tagging when applied to the world of photography. It has built and continues to expand on MyWeb, a system for tagging the web ala del.icio.us. It’s also got LaunchCast online radio, a service that uses user rankings of songs, albums and artists to recommend music in a collaborative, networked way.

Now Google. They’ve got a fantastic search engine. A search engine that takes the tags that already exists out there (links created by people) and aggregate and analyze them. They also have maps, news and gmail. Great interfaces, highly usable and effective, but nothing really new in the way of gathering and organizing information. I always imagined Google would venture down the same path Yahoo! looks to be taking. It seems from Sergey’s comment that this may not be so.

Yahoo! is working on tools that empower and encourage their large user base to organize all that stuff out there. They’re banking on their ability to help you help yourself. Google, well they’re banking on all their Phd’s and their ability to teach the computers how to help you directly.

There’s a clear difference in approach here and I think it will be really interesting to see which one is more successful in the next few years. It seems that the two companies are really set to diverge and perhaps they can even do so in a symbiotic manner.

I have a feeling that the online landscape is about to change, and I’m excited to be a part of it.

Update: It looks like someone at Business 2.0 read my blog post and wrote a story about the same topic ;) Pretty interesting.

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