The Grand Unified Theory of Everything: Search vs. Filing vs. Tagging

395972_old_tag_1.jpgThe following joke is as politically incorrect as they come, but I need to quote it in order demonstrate my point (I apologize in advance):

Five Jews changed the way we look at things:

  • Moses: The Law is everything
  • Jesus: Love is everything
  • Marx: Money is everything
  • Freud: Sex is everything
  • Then came Einstein: Everything is relative

That’s as far as the old joke goes. But, when it comes to the Filing vs. Searching debate, Google would add:

  • Google: Search is everything

According to Google’s view of our desktops, there’s no reason to file anything; just use Google Desktop or Gmail’s search feature. Gmail does not allow emails to be filed in folders, and the whole service shouts the statement: “Google is so powerful, there’s no need to file anything any more.”

What is wrong with Google’s approach? The problem with searching your email using a powerful engine such as Google’s is that you find exactly what you’re looking for, or more correctly, exactly what you told the search engine you wanted to find. If you are looking for something very specific, you’ll find it. However, if you don’t quite know what you’re looking for, but you’ll know it when you see it — good luck! Search engines are only as good as the expression you feed into them — don’t expect them to supply you with loosely related results.

Let me demonstrate with an example. You’ve just delivered a made-to-order system to a customer. The customer is not happy about one of the features, and claims that it was not implemented according to the specification. Your first step is to investigate whether you are at fault, and if so, find out how the problem was introduced. You decide to retrieve all your correspondence with the customer about the said feature, and all internal correspondence with your engineering department regarding various aspects of it. However, your engineering department cares nothing about individual customers — they just need to know what you want built, and by when you need it. So none of the internal emails even mention the customer’s name. In fact, the marketing names of features are totally different from what the geek engineers call them, so there won’t be much in common between an email to the customer and a parallel email to engineering. You’d need to be quite clever to put together a query expression to give you all the relevant correspondence, and even then you’d have to run it a few times until you get it just right, and are sure that you haven’t missed anything.

Annoying problem. Easy solution, but it requires forward planning. As you send and receive messages, just tag each one with the customer’s name. The tag is independent of the actual contents of the message. The message might not even contain the name of the customer, but it will be correctly tagged. It’s a snip to locate the group of messages we’re interested in, and then narrow down the search by browsing. You see the results in context, which is another element missing from search engine results that just show you individual messages out of context.

Ladies and Gentlemen, you’ve been using this sort of tagging for years. You might be surprised to hear that tagging was not invented by the Web 2.0 folksonomy paradigm-synergizers. Most of us know it by another less sexy name: “Filing.” When you “file” a message or a document in a “folder”, you are just assigning it a tag, and declaring: “this item is related to this topic.”

Now I have to be honest and tell you that Google have not got it totally wrong regarding email. Gmail, albeit in keeping with the “thou shalt not file” directive, does allow you to “label” messages. However, the list of labels is non-hierarchical and therefore is less useful when you have tens of labels and don’t quite know what you’re looking for. On the other hand, traditional email programs have hierarchical folder structures, but they enforce exclusivity. You have to pick one folder in which to file your item or, if you prefer Web 2.0-speak, you have to pick one tag to assign to your item. Obviously, I do not see a good reason why the mechanism cannot be extended to allow an item to have mutliple tags (is this a clue to what’s in the next version of SpeedFiler?), which will increase your chances of finding it when you need to.

Let me do an “about turn” and say that Google are just being practical. They may be right: search seems the way to go. Why? Because people do not bother to classify their documents and messages when they create or receive them. This is for two reasons:

  • Traditional tools don’t encourage us to classify items.
    They require exclusive tags and/or they make it less than fun to navigate a deep hierarchy of folders.
  • We find it difficult to make simple decisions.
    “Where does this belong? In this folder or in that folder? Do I need to keep it? What do they want me to do? Heck, just leave it in the inbox — maybe it’ll go away.”

I built SpeedFiler to help with the first problem, and GTD can be a great solution to the second.

11 responses to “The Grand Unified Theory of Everything: Search vs. Filing vs. Tagging

  1. I believe a) the fundamental organization concept for information should be *links* (i.e., relationships) between information items, and b) the classification of the items should be done by *relational* machine learning techniques, using the attributes and structure of the information network.

  2. regarding your blog articles – it is obvious that anyone who wants to accomplish a job of work cannot be reading in depth or heaven forbid responding to scores of emails a day. Unless of course his job is to be a call center of message center of some sort. therefore a tool that simply files away efficiently his emails does not either help him to answer them if they require an answer nor does it help him to read them if he really needs to read them. However having an efficient filing system is a useful tool for many people that like the concept of filing. There are two people in our office that both receive and more importantly need to store a very large quantity of emails – one uses elaborate filing system and the other works like me – they are both super efficient at finding for me past correspondence from customers. So i suppose its really a question of what type of character you have – a ‘power of filing’ tendency or a ‘power of search’ tendency!!! Maybe we need to refer this to Freud, Yung and friends as another way to look deep in to our furthermost recessess!!!!

    yours truely

    Solly ‘search mad’ Ezekiel

  3. I agree re: the two camps. However, I built SpeedFiler as more than just a filing aid: what it really helps me do is get rid of a message once I’ve read it, so it does not remain in the inbox and clutter my clarity of vision.

    My inbox is for unprocessed items. Something I’ve read is admitted into my system, and by the time it is closed, it must be delegated, filed or turned into a task. It’s been processed: converted from “stuff” into something more meaningful. Allowing it to fall back into the inbox clouds up the system, because it’s the unprocessed “stuff” that weighs on my mind.

  4. Yeah – tagging is the way to go, and I’m looking forward to the next version of SpeedFiler (if it will include tags). Asit is, if I could only (simply) modify the standard inbox form to include an editable Categories field in the header, I’d be pretty much set. But alas – I ran into this problem http://support.microsoft.com/?kbid=249199 and haven’t had the time/patience to get past it. So far I’ve simply added the Categories button to the main Outlook toolbar, which simplifies things somewhat, but I stll have no way to assign categories to an opened message (the Categories tool is not available from inside an opened message). PITA

  5. This isn’t about Google so much as Microsoft Outlook. The 2003 version has “Search Folders” – I’ve just discovered them.
    They’re not real folders – more like virtual folders. You enter a bunch of search criteria and source folders and the search folder always shows you just the messages that match the search criteria.
    I’ve created 3 new Search Folders” -one called “Received Today” — it searches the Inbox for items received today – BUT it doesn’t search any sub-folders. This folder shows me ONLY items received today. Once I read or deal with them, I can put them in various sub-folders and they don’t appear in the search folder anymore.
    My other Search Folders are Received Yesterday and Sent Today, but the possibilities are endless.

    I’m wishing Windows itself had Search Folders.

  6. For 10 years, I used a folder based, clear-the-inbox system for email. I recently switched to Gmail and I have to say that the change has been profound.

    I can set up filters to apply labels to tag mail as project or subject area based. I can reply to a message with a message that continues or closes the thread and then archive the message without worry. If my correspondent EVER replies to the thread, the entire conversation returns to the inbox, to be reviewed as needed. I can search by tag, sender, subject, etc. using sophisticated search queries.

    Plus the spam filters are unreal. I know I sound like a Gvangelist (which is curious considering this), but Gmail has completely changed the way I relate to email (for the better in my opinion).

    LifeHacker’s Gmail tag (if you scroll down, there’s a hack for Making Outlook thread conversations like Gmail)

  7. I was months behind the power curve on this- I wish I would have found your blog sooner… I wrote somethign similar:
    http://my.opera.com/usability/blog/show.dml/237595

  8. Pingback: Scott Hanselman's Computer Zen - Hanselminutes Podcast 30 - Outlook Add-Ins and Personal Productivity Enhancers

  9. I’m convinced that some data is more or less un-classifiable. We need to embrace novel techniques that allow us to find and retrieve the data quickly without having to make excess categories or classifications.

    Noguchi Filing System was a great help for me in maintaining a cleaner desk and a cleaner mind. It’s simple but effective http://everythang.wordpress.com/2006/10/19/how-the-noguchi-filing-system-seriously-cleaned-up-my-clutter/

  10. Pingback: Generalisierte Lösungen… | work.innovation Blog

  11. Do you ever feel like you need to get in touch with the universe/nature and if yes, how do you go about doing so?

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