Yahoo's game of photo tag

Flickr purchase points to radical--and largely untested--theory that could up-end Web search.

Yahoo's buyout of community photo site Flickr goes well beyond sharing pictures.

The deal, made public Sunday, is the latest in a string of acquisitions in the red-hot online photo-sharing space. But, more importantly, Flickr is a pioneer in a new method for cataloging the Internet that some believe could revolutionize Web search. As a result, Flickr could give Yahoo new competitive tools to take on Google, if it can put Flickr's community-based technology to broader use.

Flickr's trick has been to enlist large numbers of unsupervised volunteers to individually classify files using searchable metadata. Anyone can "tag" files with personal descriptions to help everyone find them more easily. For example, if you want to create an easy way to find a digital photo of Central Park's Christo art project, you might tag it with "NYC," "art" and "orange." Someone who later searches with those keywords will find the photo among the results.


What's new:
Yahoo's buyout of Flickr bolsters a promising new method of cataloging the Internet--and could give the portal giant new competitive tools to take on Google.

Bottom line:
The fevered interest in such technologies comes as companies try to figure out how to satisfy new appetites for consuming information online, so as not to be left behind.

More stories on Flickr

"The democratization of information is the real interesting thing about this," said Bob Rosenschein, CEO of GuruNet, an answer search engine. "They're messy and noisy and they're not always accurate, but they're people talking about real subjects; and in that manner they have tremendous statistical interest when they get to scale. There's a wisdom of the crowd. The most interesting applications are before us."

It's a deceptively simple premise that holds enormous consequences for information management, boosters believe, provided the stars align properly. In addition to Flickr, up-and-coming communities at Wikipedia, and others have many people pondering the future of free tagging, as some call it.

Given the billions of files available on the Web, tagging has generally been considered unworkable. Flickr has gotten around the problem by recruiting thousands of people to participate for free. Its loose social framework offers a community that lets people discover, quite serendipitously, interesting photos in the collections of strangers. Without a central body of editors controlling the index, the network also can reveal rare insight into cultural zeitgeists from the people using it--for example, users find a collection of Central Park photos taken by locals, rather than professionals.

Interest in tagging comes at a time of great experimentation in search, content distribution and development on the Internet. Companies of all stripes are trying to figure out how to satisfy new appetites for consuming information online, so as not to be left behind.

Finding information in the vast and expanding sea of data online is one of the biggest problems to crack. Creating metadata, or tags, for describing files has long been thought of as a solution for hunting down a range of files on the Web, PCs and intranets, but it has remained an

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