Vendors and fuzzy logic or "How product marketing abuses domain terminology

Vendors and fuzzy logic or “How product marketing abuses domain terminology”
Compiled and edited by Stephanie Lemieux

An interesting offshoot of the traditional terminology debate (what is a taxonomy/thesaurus/ontology – insert term here) occurred on the discussion board this week regarding vendors and how they use – or abuse – domain terminology in their product marketing. Many members had funny anecdotes of head-scratching moments with vendors:

Seth Earley: “I once asked a vendor to tell me their understanding of the difference between a taxonomy and an ontology and he said: ‘an ontology is better’…”

Jordan Cassel: “One vendor, when I asked them what an Ontology is and why they call their offering that, as opposed to a Taxonomy, said ‘it’s an Ontology because they have two different taxonomies mapped together’…”

Hot Term Hijacking
It all boils down to the issue of hijacking: borrowing popular terminology and concepts from established subject domains and applying them – often inappropriately – to product and service descriptions in order to boost visibility and sales.

One current “hot term” that is often borrowed is ontology, which is really muddying the waters for those searching for classification technology.
As Jordan recounted: “I’m currently dealing with a number of Classification System vendors who are describing their offerings as ‘Ontologies’ when in fact they are Taxonomies or Thesauri, according to the strict definitions.”
Bob Bater added: “Hot or not, ‘ontology’ is certainly not what vendors of applications like ECM and EDMS are offering. In my experience, most of them don’t even understand what a taxonomy or a thesaurus is.A project a couple of years ago required me to evaluate the ‘Thesaurus Module’ of a global EDRMS vendor (now re-branded ECM of course). It was nothing short of pathetic, just a way of cross-referring terms in two different languages, no hierarchy or other standard thesaurus relationships.”

Marcia Morante gave us an insider perspective, thanks to her experience working for small product companies:
“First of all, marketing people within a product company generate the latest buzzwords based on what they read in industry rags or what they hear from the analysts that they are trying to impress. It doesn’t much matter whether the company’s products have anything to do with the buzzwords. The idea is to start talking it up and try to find a buyer who will unwittingly finance development. These capabilities used to be called ‘brochureware’, and the software was called ‘vaporware’. For the customer who mistakenly believed the promises, the package surely became ‘shelfware’ because it couldn’t be implemented. Once the sales team starts pitching the ‘buzzword’, then you’re into another layer of interpretation and misunderstanding.”

Education – no vendor left behind!
So how can information professionals deal with this kind of false advertising?
Kelly Green brought up the issue of whether or not it’s possible to defend against this term hijacking by educating either vendors or users/consumers:
“It’s not good to generalize and some vendors and 3rd party implementers do ‘get it’. However, I had to toss a number of proposals for our CMS/Portal because they do not support a taxonomy — they permit the administrator to create and edit folders. Too many vendors are not educated about the very functions they are purporting to provide. I understand the desire to market your product, but some of these products verge on false advertising. How do we prevent clueless marketing departments and vendors from redefining terms? Do you think it is appropriate to try to educate vendors so that they use these terms appropriately? Is anyone working with business users that have no information organization or IA background? We need to educate more users so that they do not assume vendors know what they are talking about?”

Marcia agreed with the idea of user education, bringing up a few suggestions to help consumers protect themselves:
“The only defense that business users have is to educate themselves, hire advisors who know the landscape, insist on trials (even if it delays the project) and talk to (and visit) references (beyond the ones that got their software for free if they put in a good word when called).”

Christine Connors described her interesting approach to weeding out vendors by bringing up industry standards:
“I now ask each vendor what level of compliance the product in question has to x standard. I frequently invoke the W3C and NISO. I do find myself more interested in the vendors who have people actively involved in the standards process, but I certainly would not dismiss any group who can point to something and say ‘this is our baseline’.

It’s obviously a buyer-beware world out there and it certainly pays to be informed when dealing with software vendors. Of course, as Bob Bater brought up, perhaps our own comfort-levels with terminology aren’t as solid as we’d like to think: do we really know any better what differentiates an ontology from a taxonomy from a thesaurus?
Hmmm, indeed.

Stay tuned for a recap of the ensuing discussion on definitions…

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DAM News Staff