Archive for Navigated search

Taxonomy, Yes, but for What?

The term taxonomy crept into the search lexicon by stealth and is now firmly entrenched. The very early search engines, circa 1972-73, presented searchers with the retrieval option of selecting content using controlled vocabularies from a standardized thesaurus of terminology in a particular discipline. With no neat graphical navigation tools, searches were crafted on a typewriter-like device, painfully typed in an arcane syntax. A stray hyphen, period or space would render the query un-computable, so after deciphering the error message, the searcher would try again. Each minute and each result cost money, so errors were a real expense.
We entered the Web search era bundling content into a directory structure, like the “Yellow Pages,” or organizing query results into “folders” labeled with broad topics. The controlled vocabulary that represented directory topics or folder labels became known as a taxonomic structure, with the early ones at NorthernLight and Yahoo crafted by experts with knowledge of the rules of controlled vocabulary, thesaurus development and maintenance. Google derailed that search model with its simple “search box” requiring only a word or phrase to grab heaps of results. Today we are in a new era. Some people like searching by typing keywords in a box, while others prefer the suggestions of a directory or tree structure. Building taxonomic structures for more than e-commerce sites is now serious business for searches within enterprises where many employees prefer to navigate through the terminology to browse and discover the full scope of what is there.
Taxonomies for navigation are but one purpose for them to be used in search. Depending on the application domain, richness of the subject matter, scope and depth of topics, these lists can become quite large and complex. The more cross-references (e.g. cell phones USE wireless phones) are embedded in the list, the more likely the searcher’s preferred term will be present. There is a diminishing return, however; if the user has to navigate to a system’s preferred term too often; the entire process of searching becomes unwieldy and abandoned. On the other hand, if the system automates the smooth transition from one term to another, the richness and complexity of a taxonomy can be an asset.
In more sophisticated applications of taxonomies, the thesaurus model of relationships becomes a necessity. When a search engine, has embedded algorithms that can interpret explicit term relationships, it indexes content according to a taxonomy and all its cross-references. Taxonomy here informs the index engine. It requires substantial maintenance and governance of a much more granular nature than for navigation. To work well, a large corpus of terminology needs to be built to assure that what the content says and means, and what the searcher expects are a match in results. If the results of a search give back unsatisfactory results due to a poor taxonomy, trust in the search system fails rapidly and the benefits of whatever effort was put into building a taxonomy are lost.
I bring this up because the intent of any taxonomy is the first step in deciding whether to start building one. Either model is an on-going commitment but the latter is a much larger investment in sophisticated human resources. The conditions that must be met to have any taxonomy succeed must be articulated in selling the project and value proposition.

Taxonomy and Enterprise Search

This blog entry on the “Taxonomy Watch” website prompts me to correct the impression that I believe naysayers who say that taxonomies take too much time and effort to be valuable. Nothing could be further from the truth. I believe in and have always been highly vested in taxonomies because I am convinced that an investment in pre-processing enterprise generated content into meaningfully organized results brings large returns in time savings for a searcher. S/he, otherwise, needs to invest personally in the laborious post-processing activity of sifting and rejecting piles of non-relevant content. Consider that categorizing content well and only once brings benefit repeatedly to all who search an enterprise corpus.
Prime assets of enterprises are people and their knowledge; the resulting captured information can be leveraged as knowledge assets (KA). However, there is a serious problem “herding” KA into a form that results in leveragable knowledge. Bringing content into a focus that is meaningful to a diverse but specialized audience of users, even within a limited company domain is tough because the language of the content is so messy.
So, what does this have to do with taxonomies and enterprise search, and how they factor into leveraging KA? Taxonomies have a role as a device to promote and secure the meaningful retrievability of content when we need it most or fastest, just-in-time retrieval. If no taxonomies exist to pre-collocate and contextualize content for an audience, we will be perpetually stuck in a mode of having to do individual human filtering of excessive search results that come from “keyword” queries. If we don’t begin with taxonomies for helping search engines categorize content, we will certainly never get to the holy grail of semantic search. We need every device we can create and sustain to make information more findable and understandable; we just don’t have time to both filter and read, comprehensively, everything a keyword search throws our way to gain the knowledge we need to do our jobs.
Experts recognize that organizing content with pre-defined terminology (aka controlled vocabularies) that can be easily displayed in an expandable taxonomic structure is a useful aid for a certain type of searcher. The audience for navigated search is one that appreciates the clustering of search results into groups that are easily understood. They find value in being able to move easily from broad concepts to narrower ones. They especially like it when the categories and terminology are a close match to the way they view a domain of content in which they are subject experts. It shows respect for their subject area and gives them a level of trust that those maintaining the repository know what they need.
Taxonomies, when properly employed, serve triple duty. Exposing them to search engines that are capable of categorizing content puts them into play as training data. Setting them up within content management systems provides a control mechanism and validation table for human assigned metadata. Finally, when used in a navigated search environment, they provide a visual map of the content landscape.
U.S. businesses are woefully behind in “getting it;” they need to invest in search and surrounding infrastructure that supports search. Comments from a recent meeting I attended reflected the belief that the rest of the world is far ahead in this respect. As if to highlight this fact, a colleague just forwarded this news item yesterday. “On February 13, 2008, the XBRL-based financial listed company taxonomy formulated by the Shanghai Stock Exchange (SSE) was “Acknowledged” by the XBRL International. The acknowledgment information has been released on the official website of the XBRL International (http://www.xbrl.org/FRTaxonomies/)….”.
So, let’s get on with selling the basic business case for taxonomies in the enterprise to insure that the best of our knowledge assets will be truly findable when we need them.