The debate about the various merits of taxonomies vs. folksonomies will probably continue long after I’ve departed this mortal life; it’s the lifeblood of dyed-in-the-wool information professionals. Based on experience I’ve had in implementing enterprise search solutions, users presented with either a taxonomic organisation of content vs. doing a keyword or free-text search for what they are seeking, the vast majority of users will choose a free-text search. The reason being that users don’t want to spend valuable time trying to understand the taxonomy, and particularly where the new breed of search engine is able to return relevant results AND cater for the serendipitous nature of some search queries. Interestingly, Verity (since bought by Autonomy, which was itself bought by Hewlett Packard….are you keeping up?!) had developed a collaborative taxonomy facility for their K2 search engine, where common terms could be identified for taxonomy labels. Sounds to me that they had recognised the limitations of the inflexible top-down taxonomy approach and were heading towards the realms of folksonomies without realising it. David Weinberger once said:

Folksonomies are not only frequently more useful than top-down
taxonomies; they better reflect the bottom-up, messy, ambiguous,
inconsistent, social nature of meaning, despite Aristotle and the
tradition his genius spawned.

I couldn’t have put it better myself!


  1. If you can afford it, a flexible, dynamic taxonomy is the best. Manage the taxonomy independantly of the content and change the relations both in time and from person to person.
    If you cannot afford it (like myself), use general taxonomies, which do not discribe the documents in detail (they are not keywords), but act as the coloured labels in a traditional library. Combine this with (affordable) full text search.

    November 29, 2006
  2. Thanks for feedback Marnix. My own experience of taxonomies are that they are usually created by the intellectually elite (but with no disrespect to Librarians) and the fact that the terms are managed independently of the content is more about losing touch with the user audience than making a strategic decision on the Information Architecture.

    December 3, 2006
  3. Lampson Nguyen said:

    Correction: Verity is part of Autonomy now, not FAST.

    December 5, 2006
  4. Stephen Dale said:

    Lampson – yes, my mistake. Have corrected.

    December 8, 2006

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