Notes on the Relationship between Search and Tagging

13 09 2009

I had a number of exciting and very inspiring conversations this week with Marc, Rakesh, Fabian, Cathy, and Pranam, as well as with Ed and Rowan. It was great talking to everybody and I wanted to share some of the issues that were discussed. Most conversations focused on the role of tagging, and how it relates to searching the web. I do not claim that any of these interesting thoughts are mine or that my notes offer answers.  They merely aim to serve as pointers for what I consider important issues.

A minority of resources on the web is tagged:

A number of current research projects study the question how tagged resources can inform/improve search. However, a minority of resources on the web is tagged, and the gap between tagged and non-tagged resources is likely increasing (although this seems difficult to predict cf. Paul Heymann’s work). This would mean that a decreasing ratio of resources on the web have tagged information associated with it. The question then becomes: Why bother analyzing tagging systems in the first place when their (relative) importance is likely to decrease over time?

Tagged resources exhibit topical bias (that’s a bad thing!):

Tagging is often a geek activity. I am not aware of any studies of delicious’ user population, but it is likely that delicious’ users are more geeky than the rest of the population. This is a bad thing because it would bias any broad attempt leveraging tagging for search. The bias might depend on the particular tagging system though: Flickr seems to have a much broader, and thereby more representative, user base.

Bookmarks exhibit timely bias (that’s a good thing!):

Bookmarking typically represents an event in time triggered by some user. Most tagging systems therefore provide timestamp information, allowing to infer more information about the context in which a given resource is being tagged. This allows us to use tagging systems for studying how information on the web is organized, filtered, diffused and consumed.

Search supercedes any other form of information access/organisation:

I found this issue to be the most fundamental and controversial one. How do increasingly sophisticated search engines change the way we interact with information? What is the role that directories (such as Yahoo!) and personal ressource collections (such as “Favorite folders”) play in a world where search engines can (re)find much information we require with increasing precision? To give an example: Would an electronic record of all resources that a user has ever visited – and a corresponding search interface to them – replace the need for information organization ala delicious or Browser Favorites? (all privacy concerns set aside for a moment). How would such a development relate to the desire of users to share information with friends?

Search intent is poorly understood:

While there has been some work on search queries and query log analysis, the intent behind queries remains largely elusive. Existing distinctions (such as the one by Broder) need further elaboration and refinement. An example would be what Rakesh called pseudo-navigational queries – where the user has a certain expectation about the information, but this information can be found on several sites (e.g. wikipedia, an encyclopedia or other sites).

Conflict in tagging systems:

Tagging systems are largely tolerant of conflicts, for example, with regard to tagging semantics. This is different from systems such as wikipedia, where conflict is regarded to be an important aspect of the collaboration process. Twitter seems to lie in between those extremes, where conflict can emerge easily (e.g. around hashtags) , with some rudimentary support for resolution.

I truly enjoyed these conversations, and hope that they will continue at some point in the future.