01 March, 2007

Content Labels, explained in plain English

Before I explain how Content Labels enable more reliable and relevant search results, I will first use an analogy to help explain in plain English, what a Content Label is. This will help you to visualise yourself making use of a label, whether you are an end user, developer, Web site owner, search provider, browser vendor or trustmark provider.

Think of Content Labels on the back of food packaging

Heinz baked beans tin front and backJackie goes to the supermarket to buy the weekly shopping. Amongst other things, her shopping list includes a tin of baked beans. Most of the time, Jackie is happy to buy Heinz without hesitation.

Adrian goes to the supermarket with a similar shopping list. He however, has dietary requirements to consider. Adrian likes to check the Content Label on the back of the beans tin (irrespective of how much he trusts the brand) to ensure he’s happy with the contents before making a purchase.

Sarah is pregnant and although she should be taking it easy, decides to do the weekly shopping. She’s aware that eating any form of cream cheese is dangerous for the unborn. To ensure she doesn’t endanger her baby’s health, she checks the Content Labels on items that may contain cream cheese before making her purchasing decisions.

The moral of the story

People have different needs, some will only buy products that are low in fat, low in calories, high in protein or have some other dietary consideration.

Some brands will do more than provide a Content Label to promote the contents of their products. Brands such as Weight Watchers, for example, will promote specific aspects of their labels as a unique selling point to differentiate them from competitors. This allows buyers to look specifically for Weight Watchers without searching for any other brand to make a purchase, even though other brands may be trusted. Other brands are simply not ‘relevant’ (at this time).

So, there are numerous reasons why people check the Content Label on food packaging. The main point to highlight is that we are all different, with different needs and preferences when searching for and buying products.

If it wasn’t for the Content Labels on the back of food packaging, we would end up having to search and buy lots of products in order to taste and discover the ones that meet our dietary requirements. Some people may even die if they eat something they’re allergic to (such a nuts) – this may seem like an exaggeration, but the analogy does apply to the Web – consider a user who buys medication online.

Looking at labels before buying anything, allows us to make informed decisions about our purchase and without frustration.

If you’re the type of person that doesn’t care to read Content Labels on packaging, at least keep in mind that a lot of people do.

Old solution for reliability on the Web

Collage of trustmarksA range of trustmark (visual badges) schemes exist around the world. In each case, a Web site is awarded the right to display a seal of approval or trustmark following a review by an independent authority or internal assessor. Trustmarks normally hyperlink to a certificate page provided by the labelling scheme provider to authenticate its claims.

However, trustmarks are invisible to search engines which limit their value. A user must already be on a Web site before they know it meets a labelling provider’s claims. Moreover, the logo is often displayed on just a single page and therefore invisible to visitors who are viewing other pages on the site.

Content Labels for the Web

Taking the food analogy to the Web, wouldn’t it be beneficial if Web site owners could provide more information about their content before users hit their site? In other words, allowing users to read specific information about the suitability of their content from search results. Well, this is now possible using Web Content Labels.

Screen shot of some annotated search results with different coloured icons

  • It’s now possible for site owners to provide more information about their content from search results.
  • It’s now possible for search engines to provide more reliable and relevant search results.
  • It’s now possible for users to read Content Labels and make informed decisions about the suitability of content before entering Web sites.

Content Labels are files used to classify content in the form of metadata. The information contained within a Content Label is not generally found on the Web site, unless it’s in the form or a Trustmark. Content Labels not only contain information about the content, they also contain information such as the company name, asserter, creation date and expiration date.

The type of information contained in a Content Label very much depends on what the site owner wants to make claims about. It’s important to note that Content Labels have a very specific use. They’re used to make assertions about conformance to industry standards and codes of conduct. They’re not used to make assertions that are ambiguous. Although it’s debatable that most standards and codes of conduct are open to interpretation.

In concept, Content Labels act in a similar fashion to SSL Certificates. SSL Certificates are used so browsers can tell if a site is secure for credit card transactions. However, Content Labels are much more flexible. They can be used to make claims about a specific URI without the restriction of having to make a claim about an entire domain.

Content Labels are a lower cost solution than SSL Certificates as sold by companies such as VeriSign and GeoTrust. Oh wait, VeriSign bought GeoTrust which was their biggest competitor, so that provides them with a monopoly using proprietary technology. This is something we intend to disrupt!

Content Labels also allow search engines and browsers to build additional preferences for users to get more granular search results. The preferences are mapped to the assertions made in Content Labels. For example, a user could select preferences that allow them to find Web sites which are appropriate for children, contain a privacy statement and support alt tags so blind users can access them using a screen reader. Choosing these preferences should either highlight Web sites in search results, or filter out everything that doesn’t support these preferences.

This in-built flexibility allows Web site owners to make conformance claims and label sub-sections of a Web site for standards compliance such as accessibility without the need to certify an entire domain. This is also why Segala permits the certification of Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) Guidelines without having to comply with the restrictive WAI categories.

Benefits of Content Labels

End Users

Mass adoption for Content Labels means users will no longer have to visit each Web site before finding out if the content is suitable or accessible to them.

Web site Owners

Site owners (including blogs) benefit from the positive PR and marketing though demonstrating that they care about what users think. They benefit from the trustworthiness that they promote online as more people will be inclined to buy from their Web site. They also ensure that their site is prominent in search results and accessible to as many users as possible.

Agencies and Developers

Agencies and developers that design or build Web sites benefit from adding more value to their service offering to clients. This is done by ensuring clients’ Web sites are optimised for search ranking potential. It is also easier for them to encourage clients to adopt standards such as Web accessibility and codes of conduct such as privacy statements.

Search engines and browsers

Search and browser vendors stand to benefit by providing more reliable and relevant search results. Simple!


Industry benefits from more standards and codes of conduct being adopted by more people. This can only be a good thing as it will encourage more people to discover suitable content that they trust. This in turn will improve consumer trust in e-commerce and online spend in general.

Use cases

There are a number of use cases for which Content Labels are being used today. There are many more uses cases that would benefit from Content Labels, which will also help encourage mass adoption.

Current use cases for Content Labels

  • Web accessibility
  • Suitability for mobile devices
  • Suitability for children

New use cases for Content Labels

  • Blogs
  • E-commerce
  • Privacy
  • Direct marketing
  • Online advertising
  • Educational material
  • Business ethics
  • Other

Web accessibility standards

w3c acc initiative

Web site owners can assert that their site meets W3C standards to demonstrate that their content is accessible to disabled users. In this instance, the site owner has implemented the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) or Section 508 Guidelines to ensure their site includes functionality such as text resizing, amongst other best practice design principles.

Using a Content Label to make assertions about Web accessibility enables users with specific needs to find sites that are accessible to them. This saves them from having to wade through inaccessible sites before finding one that is accessible to them.

In the UK alone, the annual spending power of the disabled community is £50billion. Furthermore, making Web sites accessible in this fashion is a legal requirement in countries such as the UK, US and Australia. So, it’s a powerful use case.

Segala provides Content Labels with its trustmark and certificate to help Web site owners demonstrate their commitment and conformance to Web accessibility standards. They are awarded directly by Segala and by certified partners . By building a partner network, Segala also anticipates more sites being labelled quickly.

Child protection

The Internet Content Rating Association (ICRA) label sites to help protect child from inappropriate content.

A new top level domain name called .xxx is expected to be given the green light by ICANN in the coming months. Every Web site which registers a .xxx domain will be mandated to use a Content Label to describe their content as inappropriate for children. This will help reduce the risk of minors being subjected to inappropriate content when browsing the Web, as filtering will be much more accurate than current tools such as Internet Explorer’s content advisor.

Segala has a licence agreement with ICRA for the provision of Segala-verified ICRA labels to help increase the level of trust in labelled sites through independent verification of assertions.

W3C Mobile Web Best Practices

w3c mwi

Web site owners will soon be able to make conformance claims about the suitability of their Web site for mobile phones.

The W3C Mobile Web Initiative (MWI) has created a set of Best Practices which help developers build Web sites to work better on mobile devices as well as desktop computers. To make an assertion about conformance (mobileOK ) to the best practices, Web site owners must use a Content Label. A visual logo may not be available. We’re pretty close to this use too given that we are co-editor of the mobileOK specification with Google.

Other compelling use cases

We’re seeing an increasing demand from associations who wish to make their trustmarks ‘machine-readable’ as they realise the benefits of Content Labels promoting reliable (trusted) sites in search results. For example, more than half of adults have searched for information about a medical condition at one point or another. Wouldn’t it be beneficial if users could tell from search results, which sites promise to follow a code of conduct ?

Taking it a step further, it would also be beneficial to see which sites have been independently verified by a medical authority when searching for information that may cause harm should you get it wrong. That is, the health risk associated to buying a product without knowing if you can rely on the information regarding its content.

Health on the Net Foundation (HON) provide free independent verification to Web sites that contain medical related information and wish to demonstrate their commitment to following its code of conduct. HON is one such organisation that would benefit from Content Labels as it already provides a trustmark for its code of conduct. Like all other trustmarks, it will not be possible to find HON trusted sites from search results until they adopt Content Labels.

We’re also seeing an increase in demand for new codes of conduct. For example, IAB is creating a new code for online advertising and the Office of Fair Trading in the UK is researching the feasibility of a code for e-commerce (for which I provided advice). The EU is also seeking a solution for enabling more trust on the Web.

There are many other use cases for which Content Labels can be adopted seamlessly, including but not limited to, security, privacy, identification, educational, business ethics and blogs .

How to achieve mass adoption

Segala is helping to build an ecosystem to ensure mass adoption for Content Labels is achieved.

w3c incubatorContent Labels to become a W3C Standard

To help ensure Content Labels is scalable, unlike every other implementation of trust, Segala was instrumental in the creation of a W3C’s first ever Incubator project to have Content Labels reviewed, by other W3C members as a potential standard for labelling content. Segala was co-author of the final report with ICRA. The new charter for Content Labels (under the name POWDER) was this week accepted by the W3C and is now moving onto a ‘Full Recommendation Track’ to turn it into a standard.

As part of the W3C Charter, Content Labels will be proposed as a replacement for PICS . This is significant as PICS is an old W3C Recommendation still in use by Internet Explorer for filtering content (Content Advisor).

Helping to build the ecosystem

We’re also helping to build other elements of the ecosystem. We have instigation the creation of ContentLabel.org. Contentlabel.org facilitates the creation and harmonization of new codes of conduct for which Segala will create new Content Labels. The idea is for any organisation or association worldwide to create a code of conduct and then have it reviewed in an open forum, formalised, endorsed and promoted.

It’s also possible for organisations and associations that already have a code of conduct (even if they have a trustmark) to have it recognised by industry and promoted to encourage mass adoption.

We intend to start with a new code of conduct for blogs as it appears to go down well with the bloggers we’ve spoken to. Anyone can participate so get in touch if you would like to get involved.

Creating Content Labels must be made easy

We’re almost finished building a fully automated system which will enable other parties to provide Content Labels for their own code of conduct. The interface will comprise of a Web page with tick boxes. Each tick box represents an assertion for a code of conduct.

It’s so simple to use that labelling providers will only have to concern themselves with the branding of Web pages.

At present, Segala creates the Content Labels for Web sites that have been certified for accessibility compliance. Even now, Web site owners and partners don’t need to create labels. They simply add a link tag to a Web page and we do the rest.


14 Responses to “Content Labels, explained in plain English”

  1. [...] That said, technology does enable users to exclude Web sites that contain inappropriate content. Using Content Labels is the best way to enable trust on the Web in my opinion as they allow users to read more information about Web sites from the search results screen, without having to enter the Web sites. Read the post I wrote last week about Content Labels if you want the ‘for dummies’ definition. [...]

  2. [...] Segala amongst others such as FOIS, Vodafone, T-Mobile and others, feel that Content Labels is much more appropriate. Content Labels is currently going through a W3C Full Recommendation Track to ratify the method as *the* standard for content classification and labelling. Content Labels is also being proposed as a replacement for PICS. [...]

  3. [...] Thanks to Paul Jacobson from Chilibean, I’ve been getting more practice being interviewed about Segala, Content Labels and how we’re enabling trust on the Web to improve the future of search. [...]

  4. The semantic web cometh…with baked beans…

    I’ve been chatting with Paul Walsh of Segala a lot recently – he’s my new partner in crime at BIMA but…

  5. [...] I’ve been chatting with Paul Walsh of Segala a lot recently – he’s my new partner in crime at BIMA but also runs a company called Segala. I had to sit down with Paul last week to get the full deal on Segala and Content Labels. Paul has done a great job of explaining this in lay terms and when he demo’ed it to me I thought “shit, this is hot”…and the noticed he was doing it with a plugin to Firefox and wondered how we could get the same done for Internet Explorer. [...]

  6. Steven Livingstone 7 December 2007 at 2:08 pm #

    Paul – i get this with a McAfee plug-in i got with the product – do you know whether they use such labels or whether this is purely manual just now?

    The image you have above is almost exactly what i get except they (McAfee) do it manually for now.

  7. Paul Walsh 8 December 2007 at 7:36 pm #

    Steven – McAfee, like every other Trust Provider, use proprietary technology. This means it’s not scalable across the Web.

    You’ll see something similar on http://trustwatch.com – again, not scalable. Philip Hallam-Baker agreed with my last point and he’s the Chief Scientist at VeriSign (who now own GeoTrust).

    We’re very familiar with all other implementations of Trust and none of them will see mass adoption. This is the reason all the companies involved in the W3C POWDER (Content Labels) group agreed not to take out any patents. The W3C doesn’t guarantee anything, but it certainly makes a massive difference.

  8. [...] Content Labels, explained in plain English – Paul Walsh explaining what could be THE next big thing [...]

  9. [...] than a minute? I can, but it has taken me more than two years to learn how to explain what the hell Content Labels are, what problem they’re solving and why I think they’ll gain mass adoption, all in [...]

  10. [...] Content Labels in IE to enable more trust on the [...]

  11. [...] going to deliver a presentation on how Content Labels (AKA POWDER) will enable more trust on the Web. I’ll have with me, a tin of Heinze Baked Beans to [...]

  12. Sheetal Mehta 26 May 2009 at 7:24 pm #

    This is completely amazing -being an OCD label reader of all foods – and one who cares about what tech and sites we leverage at a grass roots level for kids in slums and villages makes this ultra key to moving forward with integrity and innovation….

  13. colum joyce 30 November 2009 at 10:48 pm #

    The new (Nov 2009) EU directive mandates the provision of efficiency information via all media that is used to advertise electronic goods and appliances. This included all internet channels, media and mechanisms. EU consumers now HAVE to be informed online of the products characteristics prior to the sale being made.

  14. [...] is good news, in December 2009, PICS was replaced by a new method called POWDER (AKA Content Labels) that is much easier to use and it’s much more advanced technology [...]

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Founded in 2003 and privately owned, Segala is a specialist in testing and certification.

Segala’s mission it to help make the Web more reliable, safe and trustworthy. Our method of certification helps us to realize this mission by exposing more information about the suitability of each website in search results – enabling users to make informed decisions about which sites to visit. Read More…


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