The Value of Synonyms in Content Systems

This three-part mini series on the use of synonyms aims to help users understand the benefits, use and potential dangers of using synonyms in content systems.

The nuance of language is what makes it beautiful, interesting, tough to learn, and even tougher to translate–especially for machines. Among the complexities is that we have so many different words that, depending on use or intention, can mean the same things.

You might drive an automobile, a convertible, a hardtop, a coupe, a sedan, a jalopy or even an old clunker. But don’t you really just drive a car?

When we’re used to a language and its vernacular and idioms, we derive conceptually similar meanings from what can be dramatically different words. For example, if someone says to you, “I drive a convertible,” you imagine a car with a removable or collapsible roof. Even though some people refer to a sleeper sofa as a convertible, you gained the “car” context from the use of the word “drive.” If that person had said, “I sleep on a convertible,” you wouldn’t have likely imagined a car, even though a nap in the backseat of a sexy ragtop can be a really nice thing.

Look at that! Turns out you know what a ragtop is too. But your content management system or DAM doesn’t–unless you “teach” it to.

Content management systems neither drive nor sleep, so they don’t know how to derive those contexts or any others. (Without help from you.) Instead, they accept whatever terms you give them, and they rely on those terms when communicating with users.

This is why careful and strategic use of synonyms is so important.

It’s easy for us to become aware of different languages in use around us because, when we hear a language we don’t speak, we’re aware that something is different. By contrast, when we hear people speaking in languages we understand, we hardly notice them.

We might not expect a Russian native who speaks little or no English to understand what we mean when we say “convertible,” but we would expect all fluent English speakers to understand that meaning.

But even within the confines of a single language, there are language barriers. What Americans know as trucks, Brits know as Lorries. And, depending on where you live, what makes those vehicles go is either gas, fuel or petrol.

Even within the same language, same location, and even the same person, there can be differences in terminology. Someone might ask you if there’s a chair into which they can sit, and you point them to a stool, couch, sofa, bench or whatever else might be available. Despite having been specifically asked for a chair, you infer that the requester’s goal is simply to sit.

A content system configured without attention to synonyms might have left the poor person standing forever. A savvy user, though, would have known to try the request again: “Okay, how about a stool or a sofa?”

But this is a game no one likes to play with computers. Synonyms can save your users from this torture, and they’ll appreciate it.

And the benefits go deeper too. ♦

Other articles in this series:

This excerpt from Metadata for Content Management is published with permission from author, David Diamond, who retains the exclusive copyright. Additional excerpts will be published in the Picturepark DAM Innovation blog over time. You can purchase the book via Amazon.

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