Improving Search Using Taxonomies and Ontologies

Richard Padley

According to Richard Padley, Managing Director, Semantico Ltd., we are drowning in information, which forces us to look at strategies for improving search.  The benefits of a top-down approach are an improvement in user satisfaction and incremental sales from content monetization.  Search is therefore being “spiced up”.

Padley began by defining some terms:

  • Vocabulary–a body of words used in a specific discipline (like a tag cloud).  Vocabularies are unruly but can be useful.
  • Controlled vocabulary (aka keywords)–specific list of terms used to describe concepts.  They are important to resolve ambiguities in word meanings and can start to look like a dictionary.  They are used for identification of synonyms and include definitions.  Central control of controlled vocabularies provides rigor.
  • Taxonomy–hierarchical listing of terms that shows parent/child relationships (broader, narrower).  Can build polyhierarchy where a term has >1 parent.
  • Thesaurus–adds an associative relationship (See Also or Related Term).  Thesauri can have different “flavors”.  Allowing users to browse the thesaurus may not be useful for them.
  • Ontology–expression of a controlled vocabulary in a specific technical language.

Many searches return huge result sets, but they are in silos.  We can use taxonomies and ontologies to help us by building drill-down categories, suggesting additional search terms, and doing semantic analysis.  This is a major advance on a simple Google search which cannot be refined; you must do a new search.

Other ways to improve search include giving the user an opportunity to drill down in search results and build on taxonomies and ontologies by providing facets, and using Preferred Term displays to show the user the correct tags to broaden the search.  If you just give the user top level results, you are helping them by providing less information and then letting them easily access more if they wish.

Padley stressed that in improving the search process, it is important not to reinvent the wheel, but apply new technologies such as taxonomies and ontologies.

Reinventing the Wheel

Here are his final recommendations:

Padley is the author of The Discovery Blog, which discusses these issues and contains further information.

Don Hawkins
Columnist, Information Today and Conference Circuit Blog Editor

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