16 December 2013

Crystal Semantics: From Disambiguation Research to Smart Online Advertising Analyst

Crystal Semantics, one of the most singular European language tech companies and an LT-Innovate Prize-winner, has changed hands again. Previously owned by the Dutch media company ad pepper Media (from 2006), it was sold last week to the media monitoring giant WPP’s digital’s marketing technology company 24/7 Media which will in turn be merging with the technology company Xaxis early in 2014.

Why the interest in Crystal Semantics and its 15 employees split fairly evenly between engineers developing the technology and semantic linguists?

The UK company uses proprietary technology to read web pages for their total (fully disambiguated) meaning in real time, thereby enabling an advertising agent to know exactly what is contained on the target web page where they might wish to place their advertisements. The kind of brands that WPP and others provide monitoring services for want to ensure that they do not get their adverts placed on a page of web content that is semantically inappropriate to their brand image – i.e. containing porn, political incorrectness, tobacco, alcohol, etc.

By buying into Crystal Semantics technology, media managers can ensure an automated understanding of content, and therefore benefit from an optimised guide to placement for their clients’ adverts in the cut-throat world of brand competition.

What makes the company so singular in the European technology landscape is that the underlying technology was originally developed as a use-neutral, almost academic attempt to digitise an English dictionary with all its multifarious word meanings. An encyclopaedic subject matter taxonomy was then used to assign a web page to a category on the basis of the interacting word meanings, giving an accurate picture of its fundamental message.

The progenitor of this effort – David Crystal – is an eminent linguist in the UK, with a remarkable track record of linguistic inquiry, ranging from speech therapy to indexing, via stylistics, consulting for the government and linguistics education for the general public. The company website claims that the effort of developing the semantic network – called the Sense Engine - that underlies the company’s application took over ten years. It was largely carried out with the Dutch AND Publishers in the mid-1990s and represented “one of the largest language engineering projects ever undertaken.”

Under the new ownership, will this core resource, which used to be available as a service for web page analysis, continue to aid others in providing semantic disambiguation?
Tomorrow, the world of brand advertising management on the web will be genuinely global, and Crystal Semantics, now part of the Xaxis technology stack for WPP, will need to extend its semantic expertise beyond the dozen or so European languages it covers today and adapt to target languages throughout Asia and elsewhere, despite the low expectations for advertising growth according to WPP’s boss.

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