Our co-founder Jen Evans was recently featured on the Association of Canadian Advertisers where she discussed the importance of having an organized taxonomy to improve search rankings with SEO.
It is not easy finding non-fiction books in a library and it would be completely impossible if there weren’t a system in place to categorize the books based on subject matter.
Substitute “finding non-fiction books in a library” for “finding content on the web” and you have a sense of the problem. The web has no system. Well, it does, but it’s closed and mysterious and owned almost exclusively by one company. That would be OK if it were usable, but it’s not. In fact, it renders 99.999% of all web content invisible.
Think about content on a given topic as an iceberg. Through search terms entered into a box, SERPS (search engine results pages) are served up. I am not proposing replacing this entirely since a link-based popularity system isn’t a terrible system. Like democracy, it can be gamed, but it’s the best one we’ve got.
However, as the web has grown, it’s increasingly unusable. Eighty-five percent of traffic goes to the first page. There are jokes about burying a dead body on the second page of Google search results. That is a tiny, tiny fraction of what is available. We rarely look deeper for anything; news dominates, much content is unreliable, and not easily found.
Efforts have been made to develop something called the semantic web, but much of that discussion has been technical and hierarchical and focused on taxonomies vs. ontologies and not on practical uses.
The implications of this reality for marketers (and anyone who produces web content) are enormous. Marketers make huge investments of time and resources to achieve search visibility. The impact of improved findability through categorization could have a substantial effect, particularly for small businesses with limited resources to dedicate to current search visibility.
How to address this? Go back to the roots of the web and add in a little library science. Directories like Yahoo! and Altavista became less useful as content proliferated, but replacing that visual directory with one based on categorization and taxonomy makes more sense than ever.
Proposed: the web needs a subject-based taxonomy infrastructure much like the Dewey Decimal system, administered by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). It should be transparent, topic-based, and flexible. It should not replace search engines, but enhance them by categorizing content by subject matter, by the author, by the publisher, so that it is possible to view related content. Some sort of rating system, possibly link-based, would need to be in place to distinguish between trusted and non-trusted content. But the fact that the most powerful instrument of communication and knowledge has no usable categorization system reduces its value to something purely commercial. The Internet has so much utility beyond that, we’ve just buried it in an avalanche of the new.
A system like this could change how the web actually functions, make it much more usable to academics, professionals, and students, and make it more navigable overall by clustering content on related topics together, not based on keywords but on a categorization framework. This is not a proposal to lock down the Internet but to make certain important and useful parts of it easier to find via categorization.
Initially, domains were supposed to do this via the .org/.com conventions, but this did not support better information retrieval. Categorizing metadata as part of the structure of every page, app, and link, however, would.
It’s a big undertaking but similar to overhauling a bridge or an overpass: as demands on infrastructure increase, we need to replace or repair infrastructure so it continues to function. A world where 99.999% of web content is all but invisible is not highly functional. Our biggest information asset in the registry could do so much more for us with some basic, but wholesale, usability changes.
Jen Evans is a B2B digital strategist, the creator, and co-founder of SqueezeCMM & B2B News Network, a past chair of the Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC), a former tech columnist for the Globe and Mail who made Canada’s Profit Hot 50 two years in a row, and a curious marketing technologist.