I’ve been jotting down re-design ideas in my trusty paper notebook. On the Web there is an unwritten maxim: learn (steal?) from the best. So I decided to review some of the weblog ontologies/taxonomies on the Web that I admire. My method of review is informal and non-judgmental. I try to illustrate my findings with a test drive of each site. In no particular order…

1. FTrain – Paul Ford: Trust me to start with the most complex 😉 Paul Ford’s site is graphically striking and he’s one of the few bloggers to have implemented a Semantic Web-like structure. Not to mention his writing is mind-blowing. But to the design. I don’t claim to fully understand it yet, but basically it seems every piece of content is connected to other content according to various types of relationships. Here’s how Paul describes it:

“Ftrain is a hierarchy. Any given page has one or more of parent, children, and sibling pages, and every page lives somewhere in the hierarchy.”

Further down that page, he states:

“Ftrain is this complicated because it has over 1000 separate nodes, all of them connected to one another in some way, with something like 700,000 words between them, and all extensible.”

I decided to start at a recent Ftrain article, A Response to Clay Shirky’s “The Semantic Web, Syllogism, and Worldview”, and browse from there. If you scroll down to the end of the article, you’ll find some navigation and external links. First there is a “Links Related To” table, which has 1 external link. Below that there is a statement of the hierarchy:

“This is A Response to Clay Shirky’s “The Semantic Web, Syllogism, and Worldview”, a technical essay by Paul Ford, published Monday, November 10, 2003. It is part of Theory, which is part of Ftrain.com.”

By this I understood I am at the third level down from the homepage. Breadcrumb-like: Home > Theory > A Response to Clay etc. But the “technical essay” bit threw me. I clicked on that and discovered this article had been cross-posted to another category: Home > Taxanomy > Things > Ways of Communicating > Forms of Expression > Essays > Technical Essays.

So I back-button back to the Clay essay. The next thing after the hierarchy statement is a list of 6 links under the heading ‘Related’. 3 of these links are also attached to ‘Technical Essays’. The other 3 aren’t immediately obvious relations.

Below this is a group of links called “Navigate by Hierarchy”, which is two other links from the category ‘Theory’. Finally there is a “Navigate by Time” option.

So all up, a pretty complex navigational structure and who knows how it is done under the hood. The Ftrain Sitekit provides some clues – we find out the site is built using XML technologies and XSLT.

2. Erik Benson: Erik bases his site around the concept of nodes, which are grouped into categories, which are placed in a section. So it is a hierarchy, like Paul Ford’s site. Hmm, already I’m sensing a pattern in the ontologies I admire – they’re hierarchies. To be honest, I hadn’t clicked that Ftrain and Erik Benson’s sites were hierarchical (grouped by categories) until now.

I took Erik’s most recent article, The future has already happened, as my starting point to check out the ontology. Under the title, the following breadcrumb displays:

home > thing > idea

I clicked on “idea” and it took me to that category page, which displayed an alphabetical list of all the other nodes in the “idea” category. There’s also a chronological navigation, under Weblog Archive. The article above is listed as:

“home > weblog > general > archive for Dec 2003″

Another feature is the “Related Nodes” functionality. I’m not quite sure how this works yet, I’ll have to come back to it.

3. Dave Winer’s Scripting News. As most people are aware, Dave has recently switched to a category-based design. Right at the top of his homepage is the following breadcrumb:

“Top > Dave’s World > Weblog Archive > 2003 > December > 12”

This is chronological, but Dave is also categorising each of his weblog entries. To find the category listing, you have to go to the search drop-down box and click “All Cats”. Then you will see a long list of all Dave’s categories. For my research purposes I clicked on “Politics / Money” and got a page which displayed all the posts in that category.

4. Bill Seitz’s Wikilog. Bill’s site is a cross between a Wiki and a weblog. When I first saw it a few months ago I was blown away by it. As I’ve been following it I’ve gotten to like the way all content on one topic is grouped together on a single topic page. So no matter if two entries on the same topic were written a year apart, both entries end up on the same page. This has huge benefits in terms of linking and relating ideas together. Bill calls it his “thinking space”.

Usually with Bill’s site, I track his RSS feed of headings in my RSS Aggregator (Bloglines). When I see a heading that looks interesting, I click on it. For example, a recent one was SummarizingIsNecessary. If you scroll to the bottom of this page, you’ll see a list of “Backlinks”. According to Bill, backlinks are:

“…a list of all pages referring to the current page. This is useful for finding “related” information. (This is the Two Way Links feature available in pre-World Wide Web Hyper Text environments, that people like Ted Nelson have been complaining about since the Web came about.)”

Summary of Part 1:

I’m sure I haven’t done justice to the sites I’ve analysed so far. They are all pretty complex and very well-developed. But there are some patterns emerging for my purposes: they all in some way use the concept of “nodes”, 3 of the 4 use hierarchical categories, all but Dave’s have a “related links” feature.

This is just a start. There are other sites whose ontology/taxonomy I admire. Andrew Chen, Mark Pilgrim, Phil Pearson – to name just a few. But I’ll be here all night if I write about them now. Maybe tomorrow. For now, I’ll think more about the “category vs topics” dilemma that I’m stuck on currently. I’m very keen on having a topic-based navigation, which has the benefit of a bottom-up “flat” structure of content – and I was thinking of using XTM topic mapping to achieve “related link” functionality. However given that hierarchical categories are being used to great affect by 3 of the 4 people listed above, maybe I’ll change tack. Hmm.