How should media companies best organise their content online?
I’ve been enjoying Martin Belam’s series of articles* comparing and contrasting the BBC’s new Topics pages, with The Guardian’s Keyword hierarchies.
With the latter, you have to click through to a specific area in guardian.co.uk to see them. See business for example, (with its subsections: Markets, Credit crunch, Economics, Interest rates etc.), in the local navigation across the top of the screen**.
These articles are of a technical nature, but unearth an interesting distinction between the sites, which speaks to the fundamentally different approach each takes to online.
But first – why browse at all? Well, if you want your readers to make the most of your content, you need to be able to organise that content appropriately, and available in different ways.
Sure, if someone wants to know a specific fact, or read a specific story, then search is fine. But if someone wants to find out more on a subject, or do some background research, allowing them to browse within aggregated results is a major boon.
Getting back to the comparison, Martin notes that the BBC pages are organised around entities, or concepts – places, people, events – where as the Guardian pages are organised around a top-down hierarchy of subjects.
These two approaches represent the twin poles around which information has been managed since the last century.
The former approach owes it origins to S. R. Ranganathan, who in the 1930s developed a cataloguing system for scientific libraries called the Colon Classification. This system involved looking at each item through the prism of 5 concepts (or facets), and classifying accordingly – personality: matter: energy: space: time.
This was developed as an alternative to hierarchical taxonomies, which owe their origins to the Aristotelian perception of the way the natural world is organised (and which are still used in university libraries today, through systems like Dewey Decimal).
The Colon system came about because hierarchies can be too rigid for fluid, fast developing subjects – and they don’t work well for organising hardcopy material on shelves.
So how do they compare in the world of online media?
The BBC produces popular content across radio, TV, and online, spanning genres as diverse as current affairs and drama.
Take Jonathan Ross. Users of the BBC site might be interested in his TV program, or his past radio output. They may also be interested in his movie reviews, or in his personal life (hence news, or specifically entertainment news).
Guiding its users across and between these diverse (and popular) media and genres is not easy, but if you use the places, people and events which feature in the content, you have a way of expressing the full range of what you do.
The Guardian’s approach is very much in keeping with the way its reader’s use the hardcopy Guardian – where sections are organised by theme and indexed near the front of the paper**. It speaks to those users who are making the digital transition, but it also implies that content is at least conceptually homogenous – journalistic in this case, albeit (of course) they produce across several media (podcasts, pictures, and even have their own TV channel).
In the (much) longer term, I’d suggest that various factors, including
The blurring of boundaries between genres and media
The development in experiments with formats (mashups etc.), and
The lessening reliance upon paper-based design conventions
…will see the places-people-events approach to organising content gather momentum.
*If you want to read back and forth between Martin’s articles, you will find them listed in reverse chronological order in these results, or you can find them individually here (1), here (2), here (3), here (4) and here (5).
**Note to The Guardian – it would be handy to have a single page to link through to all these subjects and sub-subjects, in addition to your site A-Z).