Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Tagging is a Dead End

Web 2.0pre-alpha zealotry aside, does anyone actually use tagging in a way that would suggest that it's living up to the hype?

I know I try and be a good little web citizen and dutifully mark my blog posts with Technorati tags, but I'd bet that the only time those links ever get clicked is by me when I want to see if my post is showing up in the listing or not.

It would take some amount of hackery to have these tags act like categories do in more heavyweight blogging software. I can't quickly get a list of posts of a certain tag. Technorati hasn't seen fit to make site-specific tag searching easy to do.

The trouble with the non-hierarchical nature of tags is that a user must already be familiar with the language of a particular domain before he can fully navigate a tagged ecosystem of information. Take Flickr, for example. Sure I can use it to look up pictures of dogs or fish or Charlottetown. But what if I wanted to explore some photography technique that I saw in a friend's photo? I would have to know what that technique was called before I could find any pictures that use it. With a carefully planned out hierarchical system I can start at the top and guess my way to the correct category. But with tags it's an all-or-nothing proposition.

Flickr, in its rush to please the Web 2.0 priesthood, has even made its own site less useful for the cause. It used to be that the default search box would search through your titles, descriptions and tags. Now it limits you to just searching through tags unless you search for something and it returns no results, then it reluctantly gives you the option to check a checkbox and also search through title and description fields. So it can take several steps of guesswork if I hadn't been dutifully tagging my photos from day 1 with a system that would let me find them later on.

Another thing I've noticed is that sites like aren't very smart about sub-categories. For example, say I wanted to distinguish between US Politics and Canadian Politics in my bookmarks. I could tag each with US+Politics and Canadian+Politics respectively, but a general search for 'Politics' would not return any posts with those tags. I would have to start to really repeat myself, with the end result being a bunch of tags like 'Canada Politics Canadian+Politics'. You end up having to second-guess your future self and accounting for various combinations that you may search for in the future, let alone other users who may use slightly different words for things. "Colour" or "color"? "photos" Photographs" or "pics"? You might have to try each before you can get a comprehensive set of results.

Spotlight won't stop people from putting their files into folder trees, and similarly tags are a poor replacement for categories and proper planning of your information structure and vocabulary.
Technorati Tags: , , , , ,

By al - 7:47 p.m. |

I share your scepticism and sense of futility when I'm banging out my tags, but my Mint stats tell me otherwise. Technorati tags are both good referrers and common outclicks for me. Whether people are finding what they want or just clicking tags aimlessly across the web, I don't know. I'll keep trying to figure out the best way to use tags, but there may come a day when I just drop them altogether.
Technorati Tags also seem to be a gaping spam hole just waiting to be flooded.. oh well, we'll see how it all works out.
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