August 16, 2010 – The key word in Web 2.0 is relevancy. The surge in social networking sites and mobile internet means we are always connected and always feeding information into the greater whole. Easy access to relevant information is emerging as a major focus as the internet continues to be flooded with exponentially more information.  

Viewing the Process from a Human Perspective – Information Foraging

Since humans are the ones searching for information, it is valuable to view the search process using information foraging theory — an explanation of how and why humans seek out and ingest information.

Information foraging theory sees humans as informavores. Just as carnivores or herbivores ingest meat or plants, informavores ingest information. In both cases the desired prey is identified by a cost-benefit formula that compares the amount of work to reach the goal against its perceived value.

Our ability to factor these ratios has been refined and developed through evolution until only optimal foraging techniques remain. As a species, we have been seeking out information for a very long time. We have developed sophisticated means of information scenting, which allows us to determine if we are on the right track based on proximal cues we pick up in our environment. The more blatant, obvious, and easily interpreted these cues are, the easier it is to determine the right path to take to reach the information. The process of making these cues clearer and easier to sense is called enrichment.

 Making Foraging (and Snacking) Easier Through Enrichment

In the IT world, enrichment is inevitably tied to metadata tagging, which allows for additional layers of information to be overlaid on top of the original information. This process of enrichment can occur within a particular website or in between websites through search engines such as Google. Websites act as patches of available information while search engines help navigate between these patches quickly and effectively.

For example, as search engines become more effective at directing individuals to relevant sites, people tend to remain at these sites for less time, bouncing between them more often. This information snacking behavior is a direct result of the increase of search engine optimization without a corresponding increase in website development.

By automatically cross-linking sites and integrating information, search result pages increasingly use metadata from Twitter, Facebook, and many other social media sites to more accurately redirect the user to relevant live results.

As we increasingly get the knowledge we want on demand, we are only going to want more knowledge, more quickly, from more sources. Why go to individual websites when your search engine results give you the information more readily? By integrating these results, search engines increasingly rule over individual websites as the location of knowledge. 

Enriching Social Media through User-Generated Tagging

Social bookmarking sites such as Delicious, Spar.Tag.Us and Stumble are even employing their users as a means of enriching their returns. By harnessing the collective will of the users through a crowd sourcing model, these sites are drastically increasing their ability to ferret out relevant information from the sea of digital junk.

This user-generated tagging has resulted in fascinating insights into the psychology of the humans involved:

  1. The greater the amount of information and interactivity you have with a site, the more accurate it is.
  2. The harder and more inconvenient it is to go out of your way to mark something, the less often users are going to actively participate.

So, decreasing the effort it takes to tag a site or a bit of information can result in an exponential growth in participation, leading to greater relevancy through crowd sourcing. At the same time, the fewer options and decisions you have in marking something, the more accurate your marking becomes. 

In the case of Stumble, as the site developed it progressively simplified the procedure that users followed to rate pages. By starting with a 10-star system and moving to a five-star system, then three stars, then just one star (a “like it” or “not” button), Stumble exponentially increased user participation. Increased user participation meant more accurate results. Stumble is now recognized as one of the leaders in collaborative tagging and relevance.

Lessons like this need to be understood as part of the bigger picture of what is happening with the development of Web 2.0. This kind of understanding can be a valuable tool in website and search technologies. Provide easily-accessed, relevant information for the foragers in the world of Web 2.0, and you help them while at the same time drawing more traffic to your website. The website grows richer in information, drawing yet more foragers who contribute even more information. It’s a win-win situation for the foragers and the website hosts who, together, make Web 2.0.

Margie Hlava
President, Access Innovations