Webs, clouds and tags of meaning

Some time ago, The Guardian‘s Charlie Brooker wrote an article knocking the idea that 9/11 was some sort of demonic conspiracy by sinister industrial-military stakeholders in the US government. No ways, argued Charlie, for conspirators to bypass the gigantic pile of bureaucratic dust that is likely to be required in order to commission a governmental shady operation.

The aftermath of this piece is actually more interesting than the article itself: because Charlie mentioned terms such as 9/11, conspiracy, WTC7 (or “the third tower“), and controlled demolition, his article shot up the Googleadder, as these terms are highly popular with seekers of Conspiracy Theory stories. As a result, writes Charlie, “the article generated loads of traffic for the Guardian site, which in turn means loads of advertising revenue. And in this day and age, what with the credit crunch and the death of print journalism and everything, the use of attention-grabbing keywords is becoming standard practice.”

Charlie then caused further consternation by quoting an assertion by Private Eyeonline that The Guardian manipulated Search Engine Optimisation (SEO, the art of preplanning the position of a given information pack, such as the address and descriptive details of a website, in search engines’ results page) by planting attractive keywords within its article so, as Charlie Brooker explains it, “an article about shoe sales among young women.. ” would include a line like “Young women – such as Britney Spears – are buying more shoes than ever.” Spears – a known crowd puller on Google, will do the rest for the piece. To cap it all, Charlie’s piece was given the SEO-winning title “Online POKER marketing could spell the NAKED end of VIAGRA journalism as we LOHAN know it.”

The Private Eye posting got both the attention and the ire of Shane Richmond, Telegraph.co.uk’s Communities Editor. Richmond’s article moves from incredulity to amusement – “When Private Eye dabbles in the internet the result is usually both comic and alarming. It’s like having a blacksmith repair your car; it’s amusing to watch him bash around aimlessly for a minute but you soon start to worry that he might do some real damage.” According to Richmond, it is only natural and relevant that keywords (“the words that people are searching for on Google and other search engines”) appear in articles Telegraph.co.uk’s – “If you’re writing a story about British troops in Fallujah, it would make sense to include the word Fallujah in your story and not write “a city west of Baghdad”. It’s common sense.”

Shane Richmond seems to be protesting too much (why are P-Eyes less qualified to talk Internet than Guadians?) – but he has a point: planting relevant keywords in articles and postings is a no-brainer. At the same time, inserting random ‘hot’ keywords willy-nilly in the body of one’s article is patently daft, as it will tick readers off. It is also possible that search engine robots (or ‘bots’ – the electronic agents that trawl the Web and harvest content for indexing) would discover keywords of low relevance and dump the article, and even the site itself, down the SEO ladder. In fact, Brooker, Richmond and P-Eye are only scratching the surface of a much more complex issue. Writers, posters and bloggers can strengthen their postings’ SEO visibility by using keywords creatively. Here is how:

Webs, clouds and tags of meaning

In an attempt to explore further uses for the platform he created, World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee came up with the concept of a Semantic Web: “The Semantic Web is a web of data. There is lots of data we all use every day [that is] not part of the web…[currently] we don’t have a web of data. Because data is controlled by applications, and each application keeps it to itself.” The semantic web connects similar bits of information, allowing “a person, or a machine, to start off in one database, and then move through an unending set of databases which are connected not by wires but by being about the same thing.” Let’s look at the way semantic webs are formed:

As people move around various information repositories and enablers (search engines, portals, blogs, stuff stored on social networks, etc.) they leave a trail of thoughts, traceable via the search engine/s they used. Each traceable point shows a particular seeker’s choice of meaning (they way s/he understands whether a specific item of information is the one s/he’s looking for) – hence the ‘semantic’ aspect – (semantics is the study of meaning). The traces of many people’s meanderings around a concept, a theme, a word, a date, an object or an idea, can be collected together and presented graphically. Certain words or terms will be larger than the others – signalling that they were used by several people. The graphical form of these search results is known as a cloud of meaning (or a ‘semantic cloud’).

‘Semantic clouds’ are observable through visual search engines such as Quintura, KartooPixsy and Grokker – all use various graphic devices to show how a concept, a theme, a word, date, object or idea can be surrounded by other information bits that seekers felt were related to the original search. Many information repositories began adding such keywords to each and every article or posting they publish – this collection of keywords (known as ‘tags’) signals specific relation between the list of keywords – and the content they point to.

Back to Brooker, Richmond and P-Eye: while it make no sense to add keywords at random, it makes perfect sense to use visual engines and tag collections to find various layers of meaning related to keywords in the article or blog posting. Writers and editors should consider the semantic clouds that surround each and every piece they write and publish, in order to make sure their publication remains relevant in a world that is information-saturated. Content Managemant Systems, the application used to write, edit and publish content, should have a natural capability to identify the semantic clouds of each and every item of content they handle, and offer this information to all involved in creating and consuming that piece.

Look at the tags I chose for the piece you’ve been reading. Are there any tags missing or many a few tto much?

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