Why news organizations should try publishing in linked data

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[A version of this article was first published at PBS MediaShift IdeasLab]

On a news organization’s list of priorities, publishing articles as ‘linked data’ probably comes slightly above remembering to turn the computer monitors off in the evening and slightly below getting a new coffee machine.

It shouldn’t, and I’ll list 10 reasons why.

Before I do I should briefly explain what I mean by ‘linked data’. Linked data is a way of publishing information so that it can easily – and automatically – be linked to other, similar data on the web. For example, if I refer to ‘Paris’ in a news article it’s not immediately apparent to search engines whether that is Paris – France, Paris – Texas, or Paris Hilton (or indeed another Paris entirely). If published in linked data Paris would be linked to another reference point that would make clear which one it referred to (e.g. to the entry for Paris, France on dbpedia – the structured data version of wikipedia).

Until a short while ago I was reasonably clueless as to both the meaning and the value of linked data. I’m still far from being an expert, but enough people who are far smarter than me have convinced me that it’s worth trying. This was especially the case a couple of months back, at a News Linked Data Summit that we (the Media Standards Trust) organized with the BBC (which you can read about on a previous blog).

So, 10 reasons why news organizations should bump linked data up their priority list:

1. Linked data can boost SEO (search engine optimization)

People who tell you they can boost your SEO usually sound like witch doctors, telling you to tag all sorts of hocus pocus that doesn’t make rational sense or just seems like cynical populism. But at its simplest, SEO works through links. The more something is linked to, the higher it will come in people’s search results. So publishing content as linked data should, quite naturally, increase its SEO. A great example of this is the BBC’s natural history output. Type ‘Lion’ into Google and, chances are, a BBC linked data page will come in the first 10 results. This never used to happen until the BBC started tagging their natural history content as linked data.

2. Linked data allows others to link to your site much more easily

The world wide web is, more and more, being powered by algorithms; the Google search algorithm is perhaps the most obvious. But most sites now take advantage of some mechanized intelligence. ‘If you liked reading this, you might enjoy this…’ sort of thing. Problem is, algorithms – though intelligent – aren’t that intelligent. They have trouble telling the difference between, for example, Martin Moore (me), Martin Moore (kitchens), and Daniel Martin Moore (the Kentucky singer songwriter). But use linked data and they can. And once they can, sites like the BBC can link externally much more easily and intelligently.

3. Helps you build services based on your content

As it becomes increasingly difficult to get people to pay for news, so news organizations will need to build services based on their news – and other content – that people will pay for. You could, for example, provide a service that enabled people to compare schools in different areas, based on inspection reports, league tables, news reports, and parents’ stories. Creating services to do this is lots and lots easier if content is already made machine-readable through linked data.

4. Enables other people to build services based on your content – that you could profit from

Other people often have ideas you haven’t thought of. Other people also often have the space and time to experiment that you don’t have. Give them the opportunity to build stuff through linked data and they might come up with ‘killer apps’ that make you money. iphone apps anyone?

5. Allows you to link direct to source

You’re a news organization. Your brand is based partly on how much people trust the stuff you publish. Publish stuff in linked data and it enables you to link directly back to the report / research or statistics on which it was based – especially if that source is itself linked data (like http://data.gov.uk). That way, if you cite a crime statistic, say, you can link it directly back to the original source.

6. Helps journalists with their work

As a news organisation publishes more of its news content in linked data, so it can start providing its journalists with more helpful information to inform the articles they’re writing, and to make suggestions as to what else to link to when it’s published.

7. Throws bait over the paywall

Once content is behind a paywall it becomes invisible – unless you pay (that’s sort of the point). This is the same for joe public as for a search engine. But how are you, joe public, supposed to work out whether you want to pay for something if it’s invisible? Publish in linked data and there will be enough visible bits of information to help people work out if they want to pay for it. [This will probably be less of a deal with big search engines like Google, but more relevant to other search engines and third party services. Mind you, one of these bit players will, most likely, be the next Google or Facebook].

8. Makes data associated with your content dynamic

There is an ever growing mountain of information on the net that never gets updated. Pages devoted to football teams whose last score was added in 2006. Topic pages about political issues that haven’t seen a new story in months. But if those pages were filled with linked data, and linked to others that were too, they’d be automatically updated – rising from the dead like Frankenstein without you having to do diddly squat.

9. Start defining news events in linked data now and you could become a ‘canonical reference point’ (CRP)

What the heck is a canonical reference point, I hear you ask. Well, it’s a little like a virtual Grand Central Station. It’s a junction point for linked data; a hub which hundreds or even thousands of other sites link to as a way of helping to define their references. Examples of such hubs include: http://musicbrainz.org for music and musicians, data.gov.uk for UK gov stuff, http://dbpedia.org for almost anything. If you’re a news organization, why would you not want to be a hub?

10. Raises the platform for all

A web of linked data is a more intelligent web. A more mature and less superficial web. Not quite a semantic web, but getting there.

Of course, some of these benefits will come disproportionately to first movers (as with the BBC’s natural history pages). Which is exactly why news organizations, who have previously been pretty slow when it comes to web innovation, need to get their skates on.

More on linked data:

Linked data is blooming – why you should care’ on the ever readable Read Write Web, May 2009 (325 retweets to date)

A graphic of the linked data web: http://linkeddat

Tim Berners-Lee talking about linked data at TED 2009

UK government public linked data

My blog about our linked data summit

Written by Martin Moore

March 17th, 2010 at 8:14 am

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