I’ve just added a label (as it happens, an ICRA label) to my site. Why? Because content labeling (or “labeling” depending on what longitude you reside in) is going to be an important building block of the future of the Web. If you pick up a box of breakfast cereal at the supermarket, you can look at a label and quickly determine if its ingredients are going to be suitable for you. For example, many products these days contain a warning label if they contain nuts for those of us that suffer from nut allergies. Even if you don’t have food allergies, but just prefer to eat organically produced food, you can look at the label. A content label for a Web site is analogous to such a food label, but is primarily intended to be processed by machines. The most deployed site labeling technology is ICRA (Internet Content Labeling Association) which was developed for child protection. Hence, ICRA is most appropriate for labeling “adult content.” The result has been that the adult content industry (keen to show they are supporting child protection and thereby avoid regulation) have embraced labels. And that’s the current state of labeling on the Web: lots of porn sites have labels. Most other sites do not.
But adult content is not the only possible application for content labels. For example, a content label can tell you whether a Web site is accessible (has it followed the W3C’s WAI guidelines?). A content label can tell you if the content is appropriate for educational needs. A label can also tell you if content is mobile friendly, and that’s the theory underlying the work that the Mobile Web Best Practices working group is undertaking with mobileOK. Content labels can also be an important enabler in the field of content search and discovery, particularly on the mobile Web. This is what Google mobile sitemaps (for example) are all about — explicitly telling the search engine (the content discovery agent) about the content so the user doen’t have to wade through pages of search results to find what they’re looking for.
So it’s clear that a number of industry requirements are converging on the idea that some kind of metadata will be fed upstream from content providers to browsers and content discovery agents. But can these content labels be built on top of open, inter-operable standards? And will they be trustable? These are some of the questions that the Web Content Labels incubator group (WCL-XG) has sought to answer. This group is likely going to transform into a fully fledged W3C working group some time in the new year in order to develop its initial recommendations into a new W3C standard. This standard could enable a whole ecosystem of labeled content, labeling authorities and label verification services. You can already see glint of how this could work by downloading the Search Thresher Firefox plugin.
Bottom line: content labels built on top of open standards mean more machine-readable data on the Web, which translates to better user experience and ease of use. Verification of these labels mean a more trustable Web. Labels are definitely coming into the mainstream. I fully expect content labels to be a ubiquitous within the next two years — users won’t necessarily even know they exist, but they will be silently improving the trustability and usability the Web. If you want to be ahead of the curve, hop to ICRA.org’s label generator and generate yourself an ICRA label.
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