Category Archives: Searching

On knowing the customer and what they want

It always amazes me that some internet sites are not really set up to serve the needs of the customer.  You see examples of it time and time again.  As many readers will know, I am a big fan of Gerry McGovern and Mark Hurst, both of whom extol the common sense line that the customer experience is all important and should be uppermost in the mind of any selling organisation.

One of the first maxims of internet or intranet design is to know your customer and what your customer comes to your website to do.  People are busy, and in the majority of cases, go on the internet to do something; find some specific information; complete a task.  Sure, there is serendipitous search but website design is not about focusing on the per chance customer; internet design should be about identifying your customers and servicing their needs. 

Let’s take an example – I am going to another city for work or for a holiday and I need a hotel.  What is the information that is most important to me – the customer? 

– the address and service offerings of the hotel
– price (including any discounts or specials)
– availability
– reservations
– maybe booking and cancellation policy for the more detail-oriented patrons among us.

Now, do you think people search for hotels based on price or do you decide upon the place first?  Price is nice, but people want a hotel in a specific place.  Choose the place and then check out the prices. 

So when I went to check out the IBIS hotel (I am an A-club member) in Christchurch, New Zealand, I found this IBIS hotel site.  You will see that the site gives the address and contact details, provides information on the service offerings of the hotel, and allows online bookings and reservations.  This is all good standard stuff.

But what about that header at the top of the page, especially the one titled IBIS special offers.  Naturally, before I check out the price and availability of the hotel I am looking at booking in Christchurch I want to see what special offers might be available.  Well, what you actually get is the global IBIS special offers page with great deals for IBIS hotels in ….. Bregenz, Austria; Marrakech, Morocco; Basle, Switzerland, and Toulouse, France, etc.  There are also major cities to explore …. but not Christchurch.

Please tell me, why would I want to know what special offers are available in Toulouse and Bregenz when I am going to Christchurch?  Why is there a link to these European special offers from the Christchurch IBIS Hotel page?

Well, the answer is that the Christchurch page is a page (a local page) on the global IBIS Hotel internet platform.  The header information at the top of the page is the global banner across all the IBIS Hotel pages, from Christchurch to Marrakech. The banner bears no relation to the local hotel page other than for IBIS Hotels to tell you stuff that you don’t need to know; stuff IBIS Hotels obviously thinks is grand news!

The obvious point is that if you are offering special offers on the Christchurch IBIS hotel page then give me the special offers for the Christchurch IBIS Hotel – that is where I want to go and that’s why I am looking at the IBIS Hotel Christchurch internet page!

The message is: design the web page for the particular customer that you need to service.  Do not design a web page for the ease and ego of the organisation.

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On possibly an announcement from WordPress

A couple of months ago WordPress started adding automatically generated links to the bottom of the comments section on WordPress blogs. WordPress calls them “possibly related posts”. The rationalisation was that these automatically generated links gave the commenter or comment viewer the option of seeing similar blogging posts from WordPress bloggers. The idea seems to make sense, based on the options one has on Youtube and Amazon (although I have more faith in Amazon than the others).

However, I have noticed some interesting links popping up at the foot of my comment sections. My post yesterday generated a couple of comments and so the automatically generated links were added by WordPress, one to a site on rude cartoons. Now I am definitely not prudish, but I didn’t really feel that such a site was really appropriate to the kind of stuff I want to talk about and the tone of my own blog.

By inference, these links are associated with me and the character and content of my own blog. I have no control over what automatically generated sites WordPress chooses to associate with my blog. I have no say over whether the content is appropriate, according to my standards. WordPress and their monkeys at Sphere determine these links using a “document genome” to do the link matching (sounds exciting, doesn’t it?).

The other issue is that maybe I don’t want my readers traipsing away from my site to explore these automatically generated links. I may want the readers of my comment section to stay on my blog and browse the rest of the site’s content without being drawn away by possibly related posts. And “possibly related” hardly fills me with great confidence that the linked blog posts have any commonality at all.

Furthermore, I can see how this particular automatically generated linking feature could be extended into the realm of advertising, akin to Google ads. How much of any revenue stream will be made by WordPress and how much by the bloggers? I’d be interested in hearing if WordPress is looking at commercialising the automatically generated links to make advertising available in this manner.

Now I want to give WordPress a chance with their automatically generated links to other WordPress blogs. I do believe in serendipity and I do think that cross-linking with other blogs on similar topics is an interesting feature (although doesn’t a blogroll perform the same or similar function?). WordPress said that they are looking at “tweaking” the results to your liking so this is a move in the right direction.

WordPress does allow the automatic linking feature to be switched off all together. I will monitor the automatically generated links more closely in the coming weeks and decide how useful or distracting these links turn out to be. I want to give WordPress a chance but I am annoyed at the lack of control I have as to the relevance and appropriateness of the automatically generated content.

I am playing “wait and see” for the moment.

On tagging, the grey side

My last two posts have been about tagging based on my presentation last week at the conference in Sydney, “Enhancing search and retrieval capabilities and performance”.

I want to look at some of the perceived disadvantages of tagging that I briefly mentioned in my presentation:

  1. Lack of specificity – refers to the fact that an item can have innumerable headings (tags) and there is no fixed agreement as to the most suitable term. A formal taxonomy and classification system have been the traditional ways of asserting specific terms to items.
  2. Ambiguity and inconsistency – because anyone can apply a tag to an item, there will be a multitude of tags that do not clearly and consistently apply to a specific item. Some people may tag something as “locomotive” and another “train”. The same person may use “locomotive” now but three weeks previously used the term “train”. And train may in fact not refer to a locomotive at all (with or without carriages or wagons) but to a wedding dress, a series of thoughts, or to an adult education class.
  3. Lack of structure – The traditional relationship between broad and specific terms (the parent-child tree structure that historically organised information into “like things”) is not there in a tagging system. Weinberger refers to a tagging system as one that looks at the leaves on a tree rather than just the branches.
  4. Problems with stemming or truncation – words like plurals, or words with a s or z in them.
  5. Ceding control of search terminology to the “inexperienced” – using the correct terms is an important exercise not to be trifled with by amateurs and the inexperienced professional.

It is true that there will be imprecision in tag terms and inconsistency in the application of tags to items that look to be the same things. It is also true that the same individual may use different tags over time to describe essentially the same thing. And tagging might thus be perceived as a mess, needing an experienced taxonomist and library professional to make sense for us. People in the information business who like order and structure have a long historical paradigm to work from.

Yet all is not lost. Tagging will become self-refining, gradually highlighting preferred terms (perhaps through a tag cloud) or via suggested or similar headings. Collaborative tagging and folksonomies will help shape a form of group consensus leading to a meaningful sense of order. And technologies will improve to cater for some of the weaknesses of current tagging systems. One example is Raw Sugar.

Overall, tagging will continue to grow simply because digital information will grow at time-warp-like speed. The sheer scale of the digital world, and the cost of ordering that digital information, will not easily permit formal and timely classification. Just imagine trying to keep up with all the blogs in the world, let alone the individual blog posts from each of them. 

Tagging will become more important and self-fulfilling due to both the technology and the demographic changes in society, responsive to the digital world and the need to make sense in it for individuals and their peers. The changing nature of information, and the new consumers and producers of that information, means that change is inevitable.

Interestingly, a recent article highlighted the changing nature of reading – the development of an information browsing culture among the digital natives. The impact of the digital world should not be underestimated.

In looking at tagging so far, perhaps one could say we are in a period of transition from the structure and hierarchy of giving order to physical information (like books, journal articles and celluloid film) to one where digital information allows for innumerable access points, innumerable tags and descriptors, and seemingly available from anywhere.

[Of interest, check out this podcast from Beth Jefferson on transforming public libraries’ online catalogues into environments for social discovery of resources that are catalogued not only by librarians, but also by patrons. A salient quote on social cataloguing – collaborative tagging if you like: “the metadata people create by cataloguing content is what enables social search and discovery”. Beth Jefferson wants to enhance social search and discovery across North American public libraries through collaborative cataloguing, whether by evaluative comment or by description. Tagging and thesauri may indeed coexist.]

So the question remains – is the traditional way of ordering information and establishing a single authority for fixed terms appropriate in the modern digital world? And practically speaking, what is the right balance between order and miscellany in any given context?

I will feature one more blog post on the tagging issue looking at how the enterprise (the firm, not the fictional space ship), might take to the tagging phenomenon. Stay tuned…

On the positive side of tagging

In the light of what I discussed yesterday with respect to my conference presentation on Tuesday, I want to move on to tagging. Tagging is essentially unstructured metadata that is assigned by the content creator and the readers/users of the content, the latter called collaborative tagging. The user-generated classification that emerges is called a folksonomy.

Examples of digital content using tags include de.licio.us, Flickr, LibraryThing, Technorati, and Youtube. Even the web-based news services are using tags, like the ABC in Australia.

In addition to the tags themselves and the act of tagging content, a collection of tags into a group showing relative emphasis or popularity is called a tag cloud.

There are a number of benefits from using tagging and they can be broadly summarised as the following:

  1. terms meaningful to the content creator and/or readers (and not just those terms allowed by a single classification authority)
  2. establishes relationships between content and the people connected to the content (both content creators and readers)
  3. is inexpensive to undertake, especially in relation to traditional cataloguing and thesauris construction
  4. scales exceptionally well, thereby suiting the miscellany of digital space
  5. aggregates especially well, thereby harnessing the so-called wisdom of crowds
  6. permits multiple access points to information instead of just bibliographic data
  7. permits discovery of a range of other items tagged by other content creators and readers
  8. overcomes the lack of currency when using traditional fixed forms of metadata (like the established classification systems)
  9. is highly participatory in that people freely choose the relevant tags they regard as appropriate to their own content and to the content of others
  10. as more applications make tagging available, and as the new digital generations increasingly enter the workforce, tagging will become the established norm in the digital information environment (we can see how blogs may offer such an opportunity)

Point 10 is especially important. There is already some evidence of tagging popularity from a Pew Internet Report showing that nearly one-third of US internet users tagged content. As tagging becomes more familiar and mainstream, new opportunities will open up to enhance the popularity of tagging – what I have called “the tagging locomotive”.

I’ll stop here (but with another post to come) with some recommended readings:

Everything is miscellaneous by David Weinberger

Ontology is overrated by Clay Shirky

Folksonomies: power to the people by Emanuele Quintarelli

On search and tagging

Yesterday I gave a presentation at the Ark Group conference, “Enhancing search and retrieval capabilities and performance”, in Sydney. The presentation, called “Tagging and the enterprise”,  is available to conference attendees and I am rejigging some of the slides to load up onto Slideshare.

There were two key points I tried to emphasise yesterday in a conference context that discussed taxonomies and search in great detail.

The first was this: that having been brought up in a world of library-based classification schemes at school and university (Dewey decimal classification scheme), of thesauri and controlled vocabularies, of ordering and searching  for information using the structure of tree hierarchies, I was a typical information-order kind of person in my profession. Working with these established and authoritative structures was in fact the norm.

Yet I wasn’t completely satisfied that this structure always helped – sometimes I couldn’t find the information I wanted and nor could the people I was supposed to help. In fact, sometimes other people (not the authority) had better ways of describing and classifying an item, to which a cataloguer associate of mine would scream, “if it’s not in the book (subject headings), it’s not the correct term and I won’t be using it!”.

In fact when one thinks about, the photo below of steam locomotive 3801 charging through a train station means different things to different people: a Japanese tourist might (incorrectly) classify it under bullet train, while a railway historian might prefer the term ARHS enthusiast special, or the stock photographer might use 3/4 view as a suitable classification term. The point is that we could search using terms like these that make sense to us individually but get nowhere because Dewey or Library of Congress says so.

 3801 on ARHS Newcastle Flyer Special 2007

Moreover, the history of my everyday experience has been one where I ascribe my own, personal, and context-driven classification schemes. They have been informal and functional for my needs. I make up my own mind how I sort the dishes, how I arrange my digital photos (well, trying to make up my mind), and how the groceries in the pantry are arranged (even making sense of putting the jar of Vegemite on a small shelf in the kitchen with the cough medicines and cat worming tablets, instead of with the jams and condiments, to ensure that I find it). We try to make order out of complexity that gives us – the individual – meaning. Yet the world is a complex place.

The second point was that the demographic and technological changes in recent times have ensured a generation (or two) of tech-savvy people whose norms are those of identity, connection, collaboration, and peer relationships managed and articulated through digital space. This has a major impact on how information and knowledge is used and sourced. The implication of this demographic trajectory suggests an acceleration into the workforce of people whose norms are couched in the digital space.

The digital space changes our traditional way of looking at information since information is essentially everywhere and not bounded by the physicality of the book or the library. The incoming, tech-savvy generation of digitally connected workers will continue to be part of that change and will (more than) likely increase their participation in it since that is essentially becoming the norm.

Tagging will be one manifestation of this.

I will elaborate on the tagging issue tomorrow.

On information research

The latest issue of the e-journal, Information Research, is now available.

There are some really interesting papers, especially the paper by Marcia Bates on browsing behaviour and the paper by Judit Bar-Ilan on librarian blogs.

There are several book reviews too, including this one on David Weinberger’s book, Everything is miscellaneous (a book I am currently reading).

 All in all, a range of articles and reviews well worth a look!