Breaking Down LibraryThing vs. Amazon Tagging Analysis

by Thomas Vander Wal in , , , , , ,

I have been rather heads down on a project the last week or two since the Thingolology: When tags work and when they don't: Amazon and LibraryThing blog post was created.  Tim from LibraryThing, who wrote the post, was kind enough to give me an early heads-up and I responded a few days later.  I have also had many people e-mailing and IM'ing me links to it and other people praising the post.  This has drawn me into some long discussions into the comparisons that are made, which are difficult to call valid. However, there are some great nuggets of insight that Tim brings forth, which sadly are getting overlooked in an apples to oranges comparison.

The Great Nuggets

I will (uncharacteristically) begin with the things I like with the analysis that I have not seen elsewhere. It is also appropriate to mention I love LibraryThing as it is really an innovative approach to organization of one's own things and there are many things it does that are done very well.

The first bit that is really good is the difference on LibraryThing in the use of tags based on the number of items in a person's collection.  The more items the great the probability that person will use tags.  The more items in a persons collections the greater number of tags they use.  Tim states it as,

Tags work best when they're about memory, so tagging makes the most sense when you have a lot of something to remember. On LibraryThing, members with under 50 books seldom tag, but users with 200 or more usually do. When you get right down to it, few of us need to remember 200 books on Amazon.

This is really good, because it points out that there is a trend toward people using tags when their collection of objects grows. Two of the reasons people tag (of many) is to aggregate as well as sort information.  It is building hooks to pull things together that are similar. It is a flat organizational structure.

Ironically, the other really good point is the core of why I think the analysis is really flawed:

In fairness, Amazon didn't give tagging a lot of prominence. Tags were stuck in the middle of their ever-lengthening book page—one section for adding your own tags, another for showing others' tags. They didn't push them very hard.

Oddly this bit is one of many reasons why the analysis does not hold up. It is really important to grasp that there are many different reasons why people tag. For tagging to work it needs to scale, but getting people to tag takes work through explanation and examples. Not only did tagging not have prevalence on the page, but tagging was not in all user interfaces as of 7 months ago on US Amazon site.

Apple to Oranges

The major problem with the analysis is the comparison is being made on 2 vastly different products, with 2 vastly different uses, with 2 vastly different points of focus.

First Order of Functionality

The first order of functionality for both sites/products is vastly different.  LibraryThing puts its functionality focus on people organizing their book (and other media) collections online.  Tagging is central to what LibraryThing does and its means to enable organization. It is for people to claim and organize what they own, share that with others, and find related materials.

Amazon has it first order of functionality around people buying products they want. From this point Amazon uses other tools to ensure the person is buying what they want or believes they want.  Tagging is not central to the first order of functionality for Amazon, but it can and is being used to help people find products. People are not organizing their collection on Amazon, well as of yet.

Options for Similar Input

The two sites compared have very different sets of tools and the numbers of options are vastly different.  The length of time the other options have been in existence is nearly an order of magnitude different. LibraryThing has puts its primary focus on tagging and ratings, while it offers the ability to have people write a review very few people people seem to write them (I would not dare say reviews are a failure on LibraryThing as they are helpful). With the focus on tagging and ratings and with few other options to manage the collection it is no wonder tagging took off.

Amazon has been around for much longer and has offered reviews, ratings, wish lists, shopping lists, sharing purchases, listmania, registries, customer discussions about the product, search suggestions, share with friends, wiki pages for products, etc.  The reviews and ratings are the two things that people using Amazon are most familiar with as they have been around for many years. All of these elements are social web means for people to comment, track (all reviews on on the identity page for the individual).  Tagging has not had anything close to the prominence on the Amazon product pages or the site as it does in LibraryThing, due to the other options and the years of habitual use of the other options.

Amazon, only in recent months, has given tagging a little more prominence on the product pages. Amazon is still iterating drastically what they are doing with tags as screen captures over the past six months (even going back 18 months) will show.  Their current iterations are really are moving toward utterly brilliant interactions in some areas (I have done a couple hour long impromptu presentations on the depth of what Amazon is doing with tagging and how it seems to be making a difference - this may become another post, but it will be really long even for my norm).

Availability of Tagging in the Tools

One of the claims that bothered me most was the claim that Amazon and LibraryThing has roughly had tagging for the same amount of time.  As of 7 months ago I had people showing me they did not have tagging functionality in the Amazon page interface. Tagging on Amazon is only available on the United States Amazon site, as far as I can tell. Claiming the date that when tagging first appeared on the Amazon product pages for some of us, it even seems to have disappeared for a while, is not really a solid claim to make. Again it is another really weak comparison.

Related to the last major point made, options for similar input, the adoption rates for new tools for people using Amazon has been relatively slow. But, the tools quickly make difference and become valuable. One example of tools is Amazon's Listmania.  This has been on the Amazon site, rather prominently, for many years but many people (the people whom I am talk to about Amazon tagging and their uses of it) have not noticed it. This is directly related to the other features that do know. But, for Amazon the Listmania has been a really successful tool for increased sales.

Mis-understanding of DefectiveByDesign

The analysis claimed the "DefectiveByDesign was spam by a few people. But, the 501 people currently using the tag 5809 times across 1063 products may have a different view.  The dominant use of the tag is for items that have copy protection and/or DRM. Talking to people who do use Amazon tags, this is often one of the tags people find very helpful as it is a tag for missing metadata about a product.  None of the product pages state the OS will not let you copy your own media you have bought or the CD you bought will not let you copy it so to put it on your iPod (which is where you listen to all of your music). This tag is not spam and for many people I have talked with about tagging on Amazon has been how people found out about Amazon tags and the value it has for them personally.

Tagging in Amazon is True Longtail Commerce

One of the things that Amazon is doing really well with tagging, not covered in the analysis piece at all, is helping people interested in the LongTail products connect and share recommendations.  Because of changes in the interface that Amazon has been iterating through (there are many more potential possibilities where Amazon tagging could really soar) more people are using the tagging to connect products not normally connected.  One tag that has been around for a while is "discomusic dot com top pick", which is a great hook for the longtail as it is the picks from a site and putting them in a context that helps join disparate items together. The Amazon tag page for discomusic dot com top pick is a great jumping off point for beginning to grasp the insane power that one variation of use for tags has within commerce.