Google Snags Semantic Web Firm Metaweb

In the latest in a string of acquisitions, Google has unveiled plans to purchase Metaweb, a firm that maintains a vast open source database of information about objects in the real world.

Through the acquisition, Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) aims to provide a smarter search engine that will be able to retrieve more specific answers to complex queries.

“The Web isn’t merely words — it’s information about things in the real world, and understanding the relationships between real-world entities can help us deliver relevant information more quickly,” Jack Menzel, Google’s director of product management, wrote in a blog post.

Metaweb’s Freebase database houses information on more than 12 million items, such as locations, books, movies, restaurants and businesses.

By pairing the Freebase database with Google’s sprawling and ever-growing index of the Web, the company hopes to endow its search engine with a more sophisticated understanding of what users mean when they type search queries.

The notion of leveraging the metadata associated with online content to create a smarter, more human-like search engine is a central pillar of efforts grouped broadly under the umbrella of the Semantic Web.

“Working together we want to improve search and make the Web richer and more meaningful for everyone,” Menzel said.

With Metaweb, Google envisions a search engine that could offer neatly ordered results to complex queries that would draw on the real-world attributes housed in the Freebase database. A query for “colleges on the west coast with tuition under $30,000,” for instance, might produce a list of schools filtered by geography and price.

“These are hard questions, and we’ve acquired Metaweb because we believe working together we’ll be able to provide better answers,” Menzel said.

Keeping Metaweb free and open source

Google also confirmed that it will continue to maintain Metaweb’s database as a free and open source endeavor, and encouraged other Web companies to contribute.

Metaweb took the occasion of the acquisition to announce that it will begin issuing its downloadable database updates (full “data dumps” of all current facts and assertions in Freebase) on a weekly basis, upping the frequency from what has been a quarterly release cycle.

For Google, the acquisition of Metaweb continues a string of recent purchases of mostly smaller, startup firms with specialized technologies that would complement one of the company’s product lines, such as search, video or mobile.

The company has also made a couple of larger buys of late, gobbling up the mobile ad network AdMob for $750 million, and more recently shelling out $700 million for the online travel service ITA.

Google endured a prolonged antitrust review with the AdMob deal, and officials have said that they expect continued government scrutiny to accompany the large purchases the company makes in the future, including ITA.

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