Tyme’s Thoughts: Tags

MovableType released a tag plug-in. In this post Anil referred to a post by Jeffrey Zeldman about tags which I agree with 100%. Here is an excerpt:

The less brainy and more pressing problem is that with tag clouds, topics either gain immediate, widespread traction with the public, or they disappear from the cloud. Once they disappear, it is as if they no longer exist. Few users will ever find them. Network effects being exponential, what is immediately mildly popular quickly becomes artificially very popular, while what has yet to become popular never will be.

I am not a fan of tags, which is why I rarely talk about them here. In Jeffrey’s post he writes the exact reasons why I lean away from tags. I’m not saying not to use them but they aren’t always efficient. I honestly thought it was my research background that was swaying me to shy away from them. If one is looking for a popular topic it’s great. For unpopular topics it’s like trying to find a needle in a haystack.

It amazes me sometimes how mass amounts of people are quick to jump on the newest fad, without giving the first thought to how to improve it. Tags are cute but not efficient for accurately and efficiently locating data. In my opinion, tags should not be used as the primary navigational tool for a website/blog.

Let’s look at an example. Amazon has a Cordance feature that shows the top 100 words in a book. I picked one at random. I never read the book and never heard of the author.

Now let’s expand this. What if Amazon did this for the popular words used in the title of a book for each category as a way to aid users to find books of interest? If the author used the popular buzz words at the time the author’s book might do well, but buzz words change over time. What if the author didn’t use a word that accurately describes the book? For example, books about privacy use words like “protect”, “invisible”, “secret”, etc. which is fine when grouped with the other words in the title. If I was looking for the tag “privacy” I would miss it. If I looked under the tag “protect” I could have all kinds of books, many of them not about protecting my privacy. A popular book could get lost in the shuffle because the title doesn’t have a word that is the flavor of the moment. Or worse, what if the title did have “privacy” in it and so did 1000 other books. What good is that to me? Just because a tag is popular doesn’t mean the content within is good or what the user is looking for. Example, Flickr has a popular tag cameraphone. The tag is for pictures taken with a camera phone, not about camera phones themselves. That tag is essentially worthless because everything is in there…unless you want to look at pictures taken with a camera phone. What’s missing? What type of phone was used – the “parent” tag. Then it would be useful, especially if I was shopping for a camera phone. I could see the quality of the pictures and perhaps make a purchasing decision based on hundreds of different people using their phone. That would be efficient tagging power.

Give the article a read – Jeffrey makes very excellent points.