To lump or to split?

“It is good to have hair-splitters and lumpers.”
—Charles Darwin

Unless you are a compulsive organiser, filing is a chore. And so is putting your news posts in right category. Making sense of piles or files isn’t always straightforward. The difference between a pile and a file is often quite subtle. If you know a hoarder whose pile you’ve just re-organised, you’ll know exactly what I mean. In many circumstances someone’s piles are in fact as good as files, so long as they don’t have to share the kitchen table with your family or work colleagues. At the other extreme, I came across someone who would simply create a new file for each bit of paper that arrived in the office. This form of splitting must be very very rare and may even has its very own medical syndrome.

A “lumper” is an individual who takes a gestalt view of a definition, and assigns examples broadly, assuming that differences are not as important as signature similarities. A “splitter” is an individual who takes precise definitions, and creates new categories to classify samples that differ in key ways.

Without classification and categorisation where would we be? According to the classical view, categories should be clearly defined, mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive. Science and philosophy would have certainly stood still without classification, and mundane things like shopping would be pretty damn difficult, come to think of it. Even if the Aristotelian view may have moved on a little bit, splitting and lumping are pretty handy ideas for describing the world – physical or abstract or virtual.

Heck, I hear you say, why does any of this really matter in my small world of publishing?  Surely I can to rely on the quality of my content? And that is one approach, we can just let the Google algorithm do the hard work of interpreting your content and making it retrievable. This approach isn’t necessarily a bad one, so long as you are methodical in the way you structure your content. In this case you’ll be paying attention to the way you create story titles (are you an expert in catchy news headlines and click bait?), to structuring the main text, sprinkling it with keywords to entice the search engines. SEO experts will tell you that the foundations to getting found online lie in no small part in creating attractive content and laying it out in a way that the lazy (and somewhat imperfect) search engines can find it. But the idea that Google will do the entire job for you, make sense of it all, contextualise it, and also lift an average news story above the competing noise and social media chatter, let alone the spam, propaganda, fake news and other apocrypha that litter the internet, is fantastical. The more structure and context and description you provide the better.

When you write your article on OurLocality by default it gets assigned to a category called News, a general bucket we created for you in case you forget to do your bit and categorise. We created just four buckets to get you started: Blog, Events, News and Gallery. But did you know that you can create as many categories as you like? You can also delete the default ones and start afresh. You cannot delete the default category, but you can rename it. If you delete a category, the contents are transferred to the default category: News or whatever you decided to call it, so you won’t lose the underlying stories. You can change your mind about a category at any time or modify the whole schema.

If categories are used well, your website and our news archive should also become more useful to users.

You don’t want your readers confused by your very interesting ramblings on biology, education and technology – to take a random mix, so you will probably end up using a collection of categories or buckets to help people around your site.  It will help you to make sense / retrieve things more easily in future too. At the outset it is sometimes hard to see how your schema will work, but with time, when you have a healthy crop of articles, perhaps that is the best time to lump or to split.

So, what if you’re writing about the use of technology in biology education? Surely you assign the articles to all 3? You certainly could and in some circumstances you might. But, what if most or all your articles are about the use of technology in biology education? Arguably your categorisation simply wouldn’t be useful any more – using the universal test above – so you should either lump everything into a new high level category e.g. BiotechEd. Or, find sensible subdivisions to split your articles. The user will forgive you for errors of omission, but not of commission or spam.  If the user finds the same articles whichever category they want to list they will conclude that your website is either broken or worse that you don’t know what you are doing.

At ourLocality we don’t have a so-called ‘controlled vocabulary’, that forces you to chose one or more low level categories – but that could be an option. Categories in WordPress are hierarchical, so you can nest them. You can also use categories in menus to help users find topical articles.

Turning to ‘tags’, or keywords used in academic journals, these also provide a useful way to group related posts together, which can help readers determine what a post is about. Tags should make it easier to find your content, but it is equally important not to trick people by spamming with the tag tools. Tags are similar to, but more specific than, categories. While the use of tags is completely optional, it could be useful to your readers. It certainly helps OurLocality’s news aggregation services to localise News, by town, village or district. Different themes and widgets will display tags at the top of posts, or the bottom or in the sidebar area. As with categories, you can create menu items with tags and there will be an rss feed available based on that tag.

To parody Darwin, it is good to embrace your lumping and splitting tendencies at different times.

This piece was first written and published 17 March 2013

By @ourlocality

Publishing Locally in East Lothian since 2010