Keywording Standards? Nobody Knows

So what is the industry standard for keywording? When that question is raised, the appropriate answer is - in the words of Agatha Christie's Miss Marple - "nobody knows".

Due to it's unregulated do-it-yourself nature, keywording standards have developed to meet the needs of the particular photo or video libraries concerned, rather than as part of an industry-wide standard.

The result is some front runners (notably the so-called Getty standard), but many, many other standards with different sorts of rules and controlled vocabularies, or no set vocabularies at all.

Agatha Christie's Miss Marple - "nobody knows"

Whilst the Getty Images standard has much to recommend it - particularly its emphasis on including only the most pertinent terms - the original keywording submitted by photographers and photo libraries (often with the help of professional keywording contractors) is designed primarily to fit into the Getty system - being absorbed into a much larger vocabulary.  The result is the inclusion of some slightly peculiar terms such as human hand and full suit (jacket and pants).  This keywording is therefore not ideally suited to normal intuitive searching by ordinary people more used to looking for hands and suits.

Outside of Getty, there are numerous standards such as for Alamy and Corbis.  The irksome thing is that the difference between these standards is often stylistic rather than substantive.  For instance, ages and ethnicities are often referred to with different terms which essentially mean the same thing, but are unacceptable to other companies.  Some keywording standards involve multiple fields containing keywords, whilst most only have one - more complication.

Cynical observers might think that this is an attempt by the large photo libraries to make it difficult for images to be offered to competitors, by making it expensive to re-keyword images to submit in alternative keywording styles.

More likely, it is simply a case of no regulatory body and the historical rise and fall of various players in the market and with them their particular ideas about keywording.

Ironically, given that keywording is so un-standardised, people often have strong views about what constitues good keywording. We recently had a client ask for keywording to an "impressive standard" - and who wouldn't want that.  The only problem is that no such standard exists, and if you asked two people in the photo business to define it, they wouldn't come up with the same answer even if they could actually define a standard.

In amongst all this is an ongoing battle between two major camps: those who believe less is more (eg Getty) and those who believe more is more.  So the same set of keywords can be praised for being inadequate because they are over-keyworded with too many words of minor relevance, or not keyworded enough because the keywords do not include every single possible word that might be associated with the image.

The easiest way to view a standard is a set of rules setting out the constraints and prescriptions for how keywording should be entered.  These rules include such imperatives as "no plurals", or "only use verbs in present tense continuous" (running as opposed to run).  They may even go so far as to tell you exactly what words you can use - a controlled vocabulary.  Any words not in the vocabulary are not permitted.

Controlled vocabularies give a lot of consistency, but run into a major problem - language is a moving and growing target.  Words that are in common usage are changing all the time, whilst new words enter the language every day.  These new words are not necessarily slang or common words, more likely they are things such as place names, people's names, brands and other proper nouns.  Even sheer size of the language is a problem.  Whilst the contents of the Oxford dictionary might be considered "the English language", it is only a fraction of all the words available when you add in those place names, species and so on.

In attempting to make sense of such a difficult thing as language, keywording companies sometimes talk (with religious zeal in some cases) about keywords and synonyms as if there is a set of "main" words, and then their synonyms.  This is obviously nonsensical to anyone with high school English.  Two words such as "pants" and "trousers" are synonyms of each other, but deciding one is the primary word is totally arbitrary.

In getting advice about keywording, or picking a contractor to do your keywording, be wary of people who try to tell you there is an industry standard to which they adhere - this is just a sales ploy.  Likewise, be worried about people talking about keywords and synonyms - this is more hocus pocus.

Whilst it goes against the grain in some ways, a keywording company which has an honest appraisal of the uncertainties of keywording is far more likely to do a good job than one which tells you it will meet the industry standard (the one that doesn't exist). One way tounderstand what sort of company you are dealing with is to ask them if there is an industry standard or get them to explain how they deal with the expanding language.  The more ready they are to work with you to fit the sort of style you want, the more likely they are to give you what you want.  If they have developed their own standards and vocabularies that is a good sign as it shows at least the company realises that standards ar not set in stone, and have doen the hard yards producing a standard of their own.