Why Tagging Will End Up A Bad Idea

I admit I use tagging on my blog(s) and other sites.. it provides a quick and easy way to identify my posts, content, and information in a quick and dirty fashion. It’s a great idea in theory, but no one every really showed you and I how to use tags correctly did they? Not only does it help my users find and understand my content, but it provides some great search engine marketing results as well.. most ‘tags’ are hyperlinked to other similar content on the site that shares that same tag and that provides not only navigation, but a keyword in my URL along with a link title/description to more content related to that term.

My guess is no one showed you how to use tags correctly and for those that don’t know how to use tags and have a long standing site using tagging, you may be in for a headache sooner or later.

The use of tags is not a new idea and essentially tagging is no different than the use of the ‘meta tag keyword’ element in HTML. What really propelled the use of tagging into the mainstream was the profound use of del.icio.us, an online social bookmarking site. Since then, many sites have adopted the use of tagging to quickly identify their content to their users and the use of tagging has even helped usher in the term ‘web 2.0′ in some aspects.

The problem comes from the ’social’ part, meaning you.. me.. us. We all share similarities in the way we think and act. Whether your the editor of a post or page ( such as the case of a blog ) and you decide the tags used, or your site is community driven ( such as the case with del.icio.us ) and several people decide how to tag the content in question, one thing remains.. the fact many of us will use the lowest common tag ( term ) to describe the content.

Say me and you both have an article about PHP programming, with mention of MySQL, Ajax, PHP5, and Smarty. We both read the article and understand it well and want to use it later for a reference. We use del.icio.us to bookmark our article we found and now we need to tag it.

I will most likely, out of habit, tag this article as ‘PHP, Ajax, MySQL’ because I am picking out the tags that make sense to me and that I find useful. I already know how to use Smarty, so I don’t use a tag named Smarty because I am not bookmarking this article on how to use Smarty, but for the Ajax, MySQL, and PHP5 information.

You on the other hand may tag the article as ‘PHP, PHP5, MySQL’. You use those tags because they mean something to you and you can relate to those tags next time you see them.. some people might even tag the same article as ‘PHP article, PHP5, Using PHP and Ajax with MySQL, php, PHP, PHP5, PHP and MySQL’, and a few will just tag the article with ‘PHP’ or ‘PHP5′.

So, What does this mean? Well, after a while you will find almost every user has tagged the article differently.. but almost all of them have used at least the lowest common tag of ‘PHP’ to describe this one article. That’s great if you looking for just ‘PHP’ within tag data, but what if you have hundreds of articles about PHP in your database and you need something more specific? Say your looking for ‘PHP5 MySQL Ajax Smarty’ in the tag data.. guess what, you may not find this article because no one has tagged it as such with all the terms your looking for. You may get back results that number in the hundreds and thousands for the matches it did find.. like ‘PHP’ or ‘MySQL’, but you will have to weed through all of them for the ‘Smarty’ one.

It almost makes sense to go back to search engines for finding data in cases like this. To me tags should be limited to 1 word or 2 words per tag and 3 word+ phrases should almost never be used. The number of tags for each posting/article should be restricted to a limit of 5-6 and give a good indicator of the subject matter at hand.

If you run a SEO consulting blog.. don’t tag your post with ‘SEO’.. people are on your site for those topics anyway. Instead, use more specific terms that relate to your posting.. like ‘long tail’ or ‘Google’. Think of tagging the same as ‘categories’. Pick 5-6 category names you could put this article in to and try to use 1 word terms or 2 word phrases to describe this category.

The idea is to not use generalized or common terms in your tagging as this will lead to almost every post sharing 1 or 2 common tags that will present itself in all your data. The graph below is a very crude mock up, with y as the number of documents returned and x is the tag term. What you end up with is a graph very much like the layout of the ‘long tail’ theory in Internet marketing.

tag graph

Using tags correctly will give your users a much better experience on your site and will help more accurately give concise detailed information on the content in question. Sharing the same common tags will only bring the user a lot of information they will have to weed out and spend time finding on their own and defeat the purpose of tagging in the first place.


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