Hierarchy Versus Tagging: Organizing Information And How Online Marketers Can Make Millions

October 27, 2007 at 1:26 pm | Posted in Communication, Online marketing, Tagging, Web 2.0 | 1 Comment
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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we organize information online and what that means for online marketing. In my opinion, there are two discrete ways to organize information.

First, there is a hierarchy – an outline of information with parent-child relationships between categories or items. For instance, if “beverage” is the parent, children would be milk, water, or a daiquiri. All daiquiris are beverages, but not all beverages are daiquiris (for most of us). A good example is the Dewey Decimal system. Books are housed via a set system of categorization based on hierarchy. The benefits of such a system is the use of a common language (continuity, predictability) and the visual appeal (relationships easy to access). However this system is rigid and does not react to changes over time.

Now, there is a new system of categorization. Tags are a “type of meta-data involving the association of descriptors with objects,” which basically means categories associated with items after the fact or on a case-by-case basis. Tags are flexible, work across cultures and languages, can be used by the author or a reader, and assists with search. Examples of tag use include del.icio.us and Flickr where users can organize and share bookmarks and photos, respectively. The detriments to using this type of organizing system is that there is no relationship between items (no parent-child hierarchy) and no relationship with the rest of the language (homophones, for example).

It seems to me that we are going to have to rectify the old faithful taxonomies with the Web 2.0 ones. But how is this possible? They may be mutually exclusive; the use of common categories, for example, specifically excludes the use of tags conceived by others. I suppose that might be a back-end system of suggesting tags to users based on what others have already used, thus providing a higher instance of identical tags. But we are many years out from a system intelligently designed enough to understand the intricacies and nuances of English (much less other languages).

Please share any ideas in the comments section. If Web 1.0 is a one-way process of providing content to the reader (thus, hierarchical) and Web 2.0 is a two-way dialogue (using tagging), then perhaps Web 3.0 is where users are connected to other users and where everyone is a content producer and content consumer – perhaps this is when some resolution will occur. Online marketers are uniquely positioned to make this change and the person or persons to get in front of this problem will make a ton of money, believe me.


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  1. Nice work, DJ.

    IF I read you correctly, your chief complaint with hierarchies is that they are not responsive to changes over time, but I think that here you’re conflating two aspects of taxonomy systems — the relationship among terms in a lexicon, and the origin of those terms.

    Tagging systems aren’t required to be flat and hierarchies aren’t required to be closed. Imagine the construction of hierarchies whose included terms are based on tags created by users.

    In this scenario, a content producer (publisher) constructs an initial hierarchy of editorially-chosen tags based on the content of their site and make some decisions about the hierarchy (Is Egypt inside Africa or the Middle East or both?). These publishers can then open the site up to tagging by visitors, and through cloud tags and analytics can track which words are repeatedly being used by site visitors to categorize a particular piece of content. This data can inform the structure of the hierarchy — do most people categorize an item as “Egypt and Africa” or “Egypt and the Middle East”?

    Once a tag’s usage has reached a certain threshold, it can be promoted from the folksonomy into the site’s official lexicon and slotted into the hierarchy. Publishers can then use those recently promoted tags to categorize newly created content.

    This scheme blends the best of both worlds — it allows content owners to control how their content is being “officially” categorized while still allowing for users to interact and have input.

    As for homophones, Google has shown us the power of disambiguation (“Did you mean Britney Spears?”) and through synomyn rings content producers can manage mis-spellings, homophones, and other aspects of language.

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