What is a Vocabulary?

On the Semantic Web, vocabularies define the concepts and relationships (also referred to as “terms”) used to describe and represent an area of concern. Vocabularies are used to classify the terms that can be used in a particular application, characterize possible relationships, and define possible constraints on using those terms. In practice, vocabularies can be very complex (with several thousands of terms) or very simple (describing one or two concepts only).

There is no clear division between what is referred to as “vocabularies” and “ontologies”. The trend is to use the word “ontology” for more complex, and possibly quite formal collection of terms, whereas “vocabulary” is used when such strict formalism is not necessarily used or only in a very loose sense. Vocabularies are the basic building blocks for inference techniques on the Semantic Web.

What are Vocabularies Used For?

The role of vocabularies on the Semantic Web are to help data integration when, for example, ambiguities may exist on the terms used in the different data sets, or when a bit of extra knowledge may lead to the discovery of new relationships. Consider, for example, the application of ontologies in the field of health care. Medical professionals use them to represent knowledge about symptoms, diseases, and treatments. Pharmaceutical companies use them to represent information about drugs, dosages, and allergies. Combining this knowledge from the medical and pharmaceutical communities with patient data enables a whole range of intelligent applications such as decision support tools that search for possible treatments; systems that monitor drug efficacy and possible side effects; and tools that support epidemiological research.

Another type of example is to use vocabularies to organize knowledge. Libraries, museums, newspapers, government portals, enterprises, social networking applications, and other communities that manage large collections of books, historical artifacts, news reports, business glossaries, blog entries, and other items can now use vocabularies, using standard formalisms, to leverage the power of linked data.

It depends on the application how complex vocabularies they use. Some applications may decide not to use even small vocabularies, and rely on the logic of the application program. Some application may choose to use very simple vocabularies like the one described in the examples section below, and let a general Semantic Web environment use that extra information to make the identification of the terms. Some applications need an agreement on common terminologies, without any rigor imposed by a logic system. Finally, some applications may need more complex ontologies with complex reasoning procedures. It all depends on the requirements and the goals of the applications.

To satisfy these different needs, W3C offers a large palette of techniques to describe and define different forms of vocabularies in a standard format. These include RDF and RDF Schemas, Simple Knowledge Organization System (SKOS), Web Ontology Language (OWL), and the Rule Interchange Format (RIF). The choice among these different technologies depend on the complexity and rigor required by a specific application.


A general example may help. A bookseller may want to integrate data coming from different publishers. The data can be imported into a common RDF model, eg, by using converters to the publishers’ databases. However, one database may use the term “author”, whereas the other may use the term “creator”. To make the integration complete, and extra definition should be added to the RDF data, describing the fact that the relationship described as “author” is the same as “creator”. This extra piece of information is, in fact, a vocabulary (or an ontology), albeit an extremely simple one.

In a more complex case the application may need a more detailed ontology as part of the extra information. This may include formal description on how authors are to be uniquely identified (eg, in a US setting, by referring to a unique social security number), how the terms used in this particular application relate to other datasets on the Web (eg, Wikipedia or geographic information), how the term “author” (or “creator”) can be related to terms like “editors”, etc.

Learn More

The Semantic Web community maintains a list of books on a W3C Wiki page. Some of those books are introductory in nature while others are conference proceedings or textbook that address more advanced topics. Details of recent and upcoming Semantic Web related talks, given by the W3C Staff, the staff of the W3C Offices, and members of the W3C Working Groups are available separately; the slides are usually publicly available. The W3C also maintains a collection of Semantic Web Case Studies and Use Cases that show how Semantic Web technologies, including vocabularies, are used in practice. Finally, the Semantic Web FAQ may also be of help in understanding the various concepts.

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