The online environment is a representation of our perception of reality. In the following document, I will argue that this vision is at least partial, and probably incorrect. We believe we perceive the world as a tree, applying an Aristotelian categorisation to what we see, hear, and all in all live in the world. This is the classic western culture representation, in which we split all existing things in categories based on their characteristics, starting from a unique “trunk”, all the way down to the single concepts, the leaves (this is actually only part of the story, but will be enough for our purpose). This structure helps us respond to our basic and often unconscious need for direction, to the fear that is caused by not knowing what we are doing here, who we are, and what we are: it is the ancestral question to which we cannot find an answer.
But the truth is probably another. Reality, or at least what we perceive around us (we can debate on another occasion about what is, in fact, real), is not as linear, clear and simple as we would like it to be. The world and our subconscious follow much more complex patterns, mocking our attempt to tie and standardise them.
This has something to do with the Web only partially: the Internet is a mine of information thanks to which humans can rightly call themselves in a more advanced evolutionary state, from the very moment of its invention. Indeed, the web is only one face of the dice: it is also involved, nevertheless, in my argument.
Disclaimer: I write this text with the awareness of not having (unfortunately) the appropriate formal training in either biology or philosophy, to avoid inaccuracies in form and substance. I invite those who find any errors to please contact me, I will be grateful!
Western culture has got, as its fundamental pillar, a vision of reality organised according to a hierarchical split. Or better: successive hierarchical splits. Starting from the top (good / bad, man / woman, etc.) to the bottom (“pen / pencil” > “coloured pen / black pen” > “warm coloured pen / cold coloured pen”, et cetera). This dichotomy is the ideal of hierarchy to which we aspire. Often the split is not binary, we cannot make it binary: my feeling is that we would like to, but can’t. Probably because reality is just too complex.
You know that friend of yours who sees the world in “black or white”? “If you are not my friend, are you my enemy”? “If you screw up, you are a screw-up?” Surprise: more or less, we are all like that. This attempt to satisfy the need to organise reality (the question) is congenital; the answer to which we arrived in the West (all sons of ancient Greece) is not. Proof of this is the fact that Eastern cultures arrived at different conclusions: in a way, completely opposite ones. In the West, those who have not respected this type of subdivision have oftentimes been pointed at as mentally ill.
The split, in real life
This “black / white” mental structure is much more present and identifiable than it may seem, in real life: it is no mere philosophical abstraction. All of our interactions and behaviours stem from it. As a practical example, for the first time in this text I will finally walk a field on which I feel much more sure-footed, i.e. online human behaviour.
One of the most complex and complicated parts in creating an online environment (largely meaning an internet site) is the so-called Information Architecture (IA). To properly structure a site, considering a perfect world with infinite budget and infinite time, the period devoted to the study of the perfect site structure is calculated in terms of months.
When we look for information, the path we choose is often of this type: I look for an X object which is a subset of Y, which is a subset of Z, which is a subset of…
Everything is organised in a hierarchical manner, and thus the web and all websites have developed: the red heeled shoe is inside a heeled shoes listing page, and heeled shoes are inside the shoes listing page. Rather straightforward: yet, even so, building a content structure that answers the user’s queries with the right level of depth* is not at all easy, and as mentioned can take months of study. As a quick demonstration of this, let me ask an easy question: should the “red heeled shoes” be inside the red shoes, or inside the heeled shoes? Or should I have a specific “red+heel” category? Or is “shoes” enough?
*Let me open a brief parenthesis about the concept of “right level of depth”. It is easy to be tricked into thinking that increasing the granularity to cover all possible research intents should do the trick. Yet it is not the case: a page that is too detailed may not give the user all the information they need, and will surely present “thin” (incomplete) information. On the other hand, a too general and high-level page will end up having the opposite effect. In both cases, the user will not be satisfied, will bounce back to the search engine, and in time we will lose ranking. Not to mention, they are not converting (buying, subscribing, et cetera). No matter the quality of the page per se: it is not the quality, it is the user intent that we failed to meet.
As for all things in life, it is necessary to find the right balance.
Everything, and its contrary
This vision of both how the distribution of information works, and of how we perceive it, is absolutely natural: it’s hardwired into our brains. In a classic dog-chasing-its-tail situation, this is the way we build our information offer, as well as the demand. This is because our “system 2” (loosely, what could be considered the rational part of our brain, as described by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman – DO go ahead and read Thinking, Fast & Slow ASAP) (yeah I mean like: right now!) is extremely lazy, and we tend to use it as little as possible: our automatic drive tends not to challenge our habits, reinforcing this structure while doing so, and leading us to having become accustomed to seeking information online in this way, in the last twenty years (since Internet exists).
Nevertheless, there is a less rational, more instinctive part of us: it is to touch that, that marketing teams came up with things like “tone of voice”, “customer journey”, and so on. Talking to the irrational soul of people, which is the one that incidentally drives most buying desires.
At least half of our purchases are on impulse. Source Statista 2018.
Important to notice: this number is indeed conservative, as in fact most of our impulses are unconscious.
So what I want to do here, is propose that the method of structuring information used today, in particular in the online world, is incorrect, or at least simplistic; I shall propose another, which could more closely resemble reality, and better respond to the unconscious desires of the audience-our desires. Finally, I will ask the question of how this can be applied in practice. Spoiler alert: I doubt I will satisfactorily answer the question.
What is a rhizome?
My level of knowledge of the is basically ZERO) I’ll quote the Biology Dictionary:
A rhizome (also known as rootstocks) is a type of plant stem situated either at the soil surface or underground that contains nodes from which roots and shoots originate […]. Rhizomes are unique in that they grow perpendicular, permitting new shoots to grow up out of the ground. When separated, each piece of a rhizome is capable of producing a new plant
A bamboo rhizome, source http://www.bamboobotanicals.ca
In essence, a rhizome is an element of the plant that can develop either in length (continue the rhizome), upwards (shoot) or down (root), at any point.
It will continue forward regardless of having originated shoots or roots, and each shoot or root will itself continue generating a regular, separate plant that is directly connected to others, in a single, complex entity.
Despite having no knowledge whatsoever in this regard, and alas being an involuntary killer of my own plants, I came to know what a rhizome is through its use as figurative speech in philosophy, in particular in the work of Gilles Deleuze (1925–1995) and Félix Guattari (1930–1992), “Capitalism and Schizophrenia”. In this regard, I also want to mention the podcast Philosophize This!, an absolutely unmissable source of knowledge and reflection for me, through which I learned this, along with many other things.
The rhizome in Deleuze
With a literary style at least bizarre, Capitalism and Schizophrenia tackles different themes in a brilliant and provocative way: for many of them my knowledge is not enough. By far.
But the idea that fascinated me and that I would like to report here is that of the structure of reality according to the two authors. For years I’ve had the feeling that structuring the whole reality like a tree, as we are used to do, was reductive and simplistic. Although my view of life is irrelevant to the reader, I believe I can offer an interesting insight into my field of knowledge, namely the web.
Capitalism and Schizophrenia substitutes a tree-shaped reality, with a trunk and branches and a clear hierarchy, with a rhizome-shaped reality. Quoting Wikipedia:
multiple, non-hierarchical entry and exit points in data representation and interpretation
Deleuze and Guattari use the rhizome as opposed to the tree: does this ring any bells? For webmasters this is as easy as “tags instead of categories”. Think about it, leaving all “practical” reasons and bias aside. A fluid structure. One that can open and close new channels at any moment in time. That can go up, down, or continue forward without apparent reason or direction. One with no beginning nor end, recursive, and fractal (in which every portion is representative of the bigger figure). Every part can be considered an element per se, or a part of a whole. The whole does not exist, but is itself part of something else, the universe: this represents well the site as a small portion of its neighbourhood, and the latter as a small portion of the Internet.
The tree structure
As stated earlier, it is normal for us to imagine a world structured as a tree. The same goes with how we represent and organise information on the web.
Photo: gypsyugal (Pexel)
A Top-level Domain (TLD) is level one: as a tree trunk everything origins from and falls back to it. This is normally country-based, but let’s consider the most common TLD as an example: .com.
All .com domains belong to this tree.
The tree splits: the main branches are single domains. Since this is just figurative, it is just exactly the same to consider the domain as the trunk. Let’s say one of the big branches is fashionecommerceexample.com.
Level three: third-level domain, for instance to split our information base by country: us.fashionecommerceexample, in.fashionecommerceexample, etc.
The two main areas are /womens and /mens, and so on and so forth, down to Product Detail Pages (PDPs): the leaves. It is not important how the branches are, what matters is that they are.
Have we always been wrong?
This is how information is normally distributed. Thus in all the web agencies of the world keyword studies are performed, and the Information Architecture(IA)is structured. And make no mistake: information distribution is the Internet.
I do not want to make this post exceedingly about SEO, as it actually has not a lot to do with SEO in the first place. But let me briefly explain what keyword research is.
(it can be referred to as a keyword/query study/research/universe, depending on the school of thought).
It is the operation through which we obtain, through different tools, the queries for which a user might want to browse our site. We categorise them by semantic scope, looking for the various correlations and hierarchies, and structure our information (products included, if we are a commercial company) as consistently as possible with search patterns of our possible audience. Basically, it is searched-for concepts, hierarchically structured in the shape of a tree. A repetitive and boring task, which I absolutely love. I love it because, after all, it’s a study of the human brain.
This operation, whose benefits are immense and manifold, should always be carried out at the launch of any web project. One of the things that can be done on the back of a keyword research is the definition of an IA, that will dictate how a website should be built. Born from the keyword research, the IA will tend to follow the same hierarchical pattern.
Let’s start to put some pieces of the puzzle together now: on the back of all we saw so far, this structural organisation just does not work.
Let me restate something that I don’t want lost: everybody, yours truly included, proceeds this way. Right now some of you are saying ” oh no no that’s outdated, we have a smarter way”: OK, brilliant: do let me know cause I’m curious to see this. What matters here though is the result, not the process.
A Rhizome structure
After all, what is it that we are doing, when creating a website? We are trying, for that part of information that we possess, to have the audience look at us rather than our competitor. And to do so, we try to offer them what they want, plus some subtle message of our own to lead them to use our products, subscribe to our newspaper, et cetera.
So what am I suggesting here? That maybe it’s the case for us, webmasters and all involved in the web industry, to realise that it is time to move on to a different information structure. We made it work thus far, and I argue it worked because the Artificial Intelligence(AI) was not there to drive the audience – briefly, because the search engine was not ready. But it is now. Are we ready?
No we are not.
Hell, 90% of the industry still doesn’t know what machine learning is. This is absolutely fundamental for our job, and we are totally missing the step. We will be late, I can guarantee that. The machine is studying to become human, while we humans are dumbing down to adapt to old machines.
Wrapping it up: let us maybe try to make our information more similar to what our brains perceive the reality around us is.
Easy? Not one bit.
Do I know how? Nope.
What can we do? Dunno. I’m writing this as much for myself as for others, as is the case for pretty much everything on this blog. I will go deeper into this, but have no fixed answers to provide with right now.
And how about the Search Engine?
Remember when some 20 years ago at the beginning of the web tags were quite widespread? An SEO disaster; they created duplications, they were redundant, they confused the user and the search engine (more because of inept webmasters than because of the concept of tag itself).
That’s why we stopped using that system. Yet, the problem of confusion for the search engine could have disappeared now, thanks to AI and all the leaps forward made by Google, Bing, Yandex, and others (during the process of writing this article, Baidu overtook pretty much everyone, for instance). The remaining problems are not intrinsic: I mean that the various optimisation defects, for example duplication, can be solved with careful technical work.
Google is currently absorbing all that it’s fed with. Concepts both abstract and concrete, and the connections between them. They are now able to understand that “red” is not a sequence of letters, but an actual concept with a meaning; they know that there’s a connection between “red” and “blue”; they can abstract the concept, identifying it as a sought-after characteristic of items of clothing or stationery. They are learning to connect the dots. They are naturally moving from a tree-like query structure, to a rhizome: the rich snippets, the long tail, the markup, the way all Search Engine Results Pages look now, where the list-of-10 has become rare. All are proof of this. As this brilliant Nielsen Norman study exposes, people are no longer clicking search results in hierarchical order (top-to-bottom). They are clicking following what they call a “pinball pattern”.
Now that we are comfortable with searching on Google as easily as we are able to write or read, with no sensible effort whatsoever, searches are becoming more and more intricate: they follow a rhizome pattern, rather than a tree. I maintain that searching online, from this point of view, is becoming more and more a subconscious activity, especially for those who’ve been always exposed to it, the young. Or as Kahneman would put it , searching online might be becoming more and more territory of our system 1, the more instinctive and emotional part of our brains.
To wrap it up
I am finally drawing conclusions:
A tag organisation might be more similar to how our brain works and understands the world, as opposed to the current ubiquitous tree-like subdivision.
It might be necessary to completely reinvent the way we build the web, introducing a more complex information organisation system that follows what our brain naturally tends to do. We should do it because AI is allowing the search engine to overcome the technological limitations of the past and get closer and closer to understanding us.
The machine is reaching the human and our industry should be ready for it.
Soundtrack: I’ll make an exception today, and suggest a podcast instead of music: it’s Philosophize this! by the brilliant Stephen West