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Megamoney Metatags:
Some Tips for End-of-Century Indexer Employment

Lunch notes by Laura Fillmore
President, Open Book Systems (OBS)
Rockport, Massachusetts

Presented to Massachusetts Society of Indexers
Westin Hotel, Waltham, Massachusetts
27 September 1997

Copyright © 1997 by Laura Fillmore; written permission required to reprint.


Thank you for inviting me to come today and share with you some of my observations on the metamorphosis of indexing from a paper to an online discipline. I hope that some of the experiences we’ve had, first at Editorial Inc., a book packaging company and literary agency I founded in 1982, and then at Open Book Systems, an Internet publishing company, will offer you some useful ideas about employment opportunities on the Internet in the immediate future.

Editorial Inc. evolved into Open Book Systems (OBS) starting in 1992. Editorial Inc., as a book packager, specialized in the computer-aided production of books; we adopted desktop publishing as a production method in the early ‘80s, and ran a virtual company by maintaining a relatively small staff of people in-house, supplemented by hundreds of freelancers. Together, we produced many hundreds of books and publications for major publishers.

We got bit by the Internet "bug" in 1989, thanks to John Quarterman’s book The Matrix, (published by Digital Press), the production of which introduced us to many of the promises and realities of network-enabled publishing. The epiphany the project afforded me had to do quite directly with the students in Tiananmen Square. To introduce me to the power of email, Mr. Quarterman would forward to me of-the-moment email written by Chinese students and posted at newsgroups. This showed me some of the power of an uncensored network — immediate, low cost, unmediated communication on a global scale. At this point, Editorial Inc. stopped producing paper books and products for the most part, and turned to the Internet as a publishing platform. We conceived of and produced the first trade book about the Internet, Tracy LaQuey and Jeanne Ryer’s The Internet Companion: A Beginner’s Guide to Global Networking, which we published with Addison-Wesley in 1992. This book spelled the end of Editorial Inc. as a paper- and product-based business, and the beginning of OBS.

Today, OBS consults with publishers, builds and hosts on our T1 line in Rockport the complete publishing sites for publishers. We still run a virtual company, maintaining a relatively small in-house staff, and hire freelancers from around the world to work with us. Some of those freelancers are wired indexers, and we’d like to add to that number. That’s why I am here today.

You’ve heard enough about me and my company for the moment. The topic today is indexing. I met my first indexer, Mrs. Blaché, in the early ‘60s, when I was a kid, selling Girl Scout cookies in our neighborhood in New Jersey. Her small red house lay nestled among the pine trees in back of a dirt driveway off of Shadyside Road. She lived alone, a quirky old lady with her hair in a bun. I knocked on her door and a voice arose from inside: "Come in!" When I slowly opened the door, some wind swept in behind me, and the living room became a whirl of bits of paper: index cards flew from their tidy stacks on the back of the couch, from their perches on the coffee table, from the desk, the divan and the umbrella stand. She frantically tried to capture some of the whirlwinding scraps and uttered little yelps as she did so.

When I quickly shut the door, the house plunged into darkness and I began to cry, both in fear of her and at the damage I evidently had done to work I did not understand. I had met my first indexer. She ended up calming me down with cocoa and cookies, explaining what she was doing with all those index cards and why it mattered, and finally bought not one but two boxes of shortbread cookies from me.

The Last Shall be First

Indexing used to happen at the end, at the back of the book, as the last of the editorial processes before going to press. Readers customarily turn to the final pages, the back door of the book, when they seek access to the ideas and information contained within. Excellent indexes reveal the logical construct of the book, the frame upon which the house of ideas is built. It can be a beautiful hierarchy of ideas, alphabetically ordered, linked, and properly subordinated one to one another. An index renders a book usable, doing its work by first categorizing, naming, and then linking ideas, both abstract and concrete, to the prose between the book covers.

The utility of indexes can be refined through use, and grows better over multiple editions of a book. Not to indicate that indexing is a gender-linked skill, but many is the mother who has quickly cooled a fever by paging through the excellent index at the back of Spock’s Baby and Child Care, or saved a white sauce from curdling by quickly searching the Joy of Cooking index and then turning down the flame. These state-of-the-art indexes far exceed the banal tag of "key word index" which came into being in the mid-eighties with the advent of desktop publishing. Both Spock and Joy indexes are rich in concepts, offering readers easy and intelligent access to necessary information. And this is a very important point, both in the terrestrial world of paper indexing, and in the kind of metatagging work we are talking about today: at this point, only a human being can make excellent indexes; only human beings can make excellent metatags.

In the burgeoning world of Internet, the art of indexing is emerging as one of the essential human skills necessary to building successful web sites. Any person or company who posts a content-rich web site on the Net in a sense becomes a publisher, and their site, a publication. At this point, corporate America has invested quite significantly in web sites, and these web sites need development, marketing, and maintenance. In an electronic world where success is measured by traffic, by users pleased with ease of access to and delivery of information from the web site, the capability to abstract, order, and name information has emerged as a very valuable skill indeed. Such skill remains very much in the human domain. Good indexes are created by people. And these people are being hired on web development and web maintenance teams today.

On Being Found: Some Purposes of Metatags

Simply building and posting a web site no longer suffices to create a web presence. Today, millions of web sites pepper the digital landscape, creating a veritable anarchy of ideas. To be useful, a web site must first be found, and then found again and again by many people. Increasingly, people find the information they need by turning to the large search engines on the Internet such as Lycos, Alta Vista, Excite!, and Yahoo, the kinetic indexes to the vast and global online library of the Internet.

These search engines themselves rely for their efficacy on indexing, both human and machine-driven, in order to find, categorize, weight and rate Internet sites, and then make these sites available to people searching for content. The machine-driven or automatic web crawlers and web spiders seek out and cite Internet content resources by searching on such things as file names, titles, and hidden metatags and comment fields within a site. The better search engines hire real live indexers who adopt traditional indexing techniques in order to offer the search engine users a well-ordered logical construct, a front end to the Internet.

These major search engines have jobs for indexers, as do the many companies (some of them publishers in the traditional sense) who post content-rich web sites. The first finds and orders the sites; the latter creates Internet indexes to enable their sites to be found. We can talk about a recent example of this activity. This summer and fall, OBS conducted an online marketing campaign for one of our client publishers. This campaign included renaming many of the thousands of files within the site, building comprehensive metatags for content areas within the site, then re-registering the site with the major search engines. The metatags were both key words and concepts contained within those content areas. The result was a large and immediate influx of traffic to our client’s site.

As with most discoveries and tactics on the Internet, we have not been able to rest on our laurels of a job well done. The content at the site continues to evolve, and more metatags need to be created, more handles for the content noted and posted, to ensure that our site keeps getting found through the search engines. More work for indexers. And other competing sites have also quickly adopted the metatag approach to being found, and in one case of metatag larceny (including our client’s trademarks posted at another’s site) we discovered yesterday, an unscrupulous competitor copied the metatag file from one of our magazines and posted it on his own site, so that the search engines would find his site as well as ours, which action has caused involvement of the legal department of our client.

This legal action may mean many things, but one thing is certain: it underlines the value of the indexer’s role in the site, and the value of naming and ordering information. And this role is increasing not only in scope and complexity, but also in commercial value. The scope and complexity we can see evidenced by the increasing modularity or granularity of tagged information. Metatag handles no longer apply simply to a site as a whole, as an index would modify a whole book. Rather, discrete chunks of information may bear their own metatags.

A chunk can be defined as an entire book, a paragraph, a line drawing, an equation, a string of code, a photograph of the family dog. Chunks (or "memes") come into and pass out of being on the Internet all the time, in what may be seen as colors in a kaleidoscope of ideas, each bearing a tag, a descriptor. And every chunk or "meme" has a name, or many names, which enable it to be found and linked to other related chunks. OBS finds itself working for publishers involved in choreographing this evolving metatag index of interlinked memes, and we know that the primarily skill needed for this task is that of an indexer.

New Models of Commerce

Above and beyond serving the "find-me" function, metatags are now beginning to contain the germs of commerce. Web publishers also are beginning to adopt systems of tagging that contain values, which will ultimately yield royalty income to a given meme’s copyright holders. The American Association of Publishers (AAP), is releasing its Digital Object Identifier (DOI) system at Frankfurt next month; adoption of this "content license plate" system for information chunks will further escalate the need for indexers skilled in abstracting from and naming information contained in chunks. With DOI, we will see the accounting department as well as the legal department beginning to be involved in the editorial process of indexing, tagging, and metatagging. We know we’ve hit pay dirt. And we see the commercial horizon for indexers beginning to brighten.

Book packagers since 1982, and Internet publishers since 1992, OBS created the first publishing web sites for such companies as McGraw-Hill, John Wiley, Viking/Penguin, Fischer Verlag, Addison-Wesley, and Henry Holt. We have always welcomed skilled freelance indexers to our fold. Now that we are building and hosting full-service web presences for companies and traditional publishers, and building memes and metatags, we value even more highly the skills of indexers and continue to welcome wired indexers to the fold.

Now, let’s think about that. A wired indexer? I imagine Mrs. Blaché’s little red house today, back there on Shadyside Road, sporting a satellite dish. All the windows stand open, and the wind blows briskly through. Her craft of indexing, instead of being at the end of the publishing process, an activity built out of scraps of paper and stuck at the end of the book, is assuming a more and more central role. With the advent of online publishing and metatags, what we used to know as indexes may be coming to their own and assuming a central role in the online publishing of web sites, forming the invisible glue that holds our houses of ideas together.

Copyright © 1997 by Laura Fillmore; written permission required to reprint.

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