Tag! You’re It!

9 December 2005 In: Information Architecture

With the advent of Flickr, Technorati, del.icio.us, et al, there has been a huge buzz about tagging. Tagging is a resurgence of adding keywords to content. Tagging has spread like wildfire in the modern web content community, and scares the bajeesus out of some Information Architects, as they believe it obviates the need for a formal controlled vocabulary for categorisation.

From what I’ve observed, two types of tagging have become popular. Author-based tagging is performed by content creators. This is often considered a “top-down” approach to classification. User-based tagging, lets the user decide how to categorise the content they are consuming. This method is considered a “bottom-up” approach to classification.

Author based tagging isn’t any different from the content buckets that most Information Architects use to categorise content. Because the tags are a type of controlled vocabulary, the user is assured some measure of consistency. This is a benefit, as the user is then more likely to find the information they for which they are looking. The down-side to this method is the user now has to understand the methodology behind the categorisation process in order to get what they want. To mitigate this problem, it is up to the Information Architect to make these categories clear and unambiguous. A job that is sometimes very difficult.

User-based tagging can be separated into two types. Private tagging is when the user tags the content in an ad hoc fashion. These tags are not visible to anyone but the tagger. Public tagging is also ad hoc, but users can see all the tags applied to the content from all users.

Private tagging takes care of the problems inherent with a top-down classification system. Perhaps I don’t think the same way as the content authors, or maybe I have special needs. Having the ability to categorise the content in a way I can understand is empowering. I am more apt to come back to a website if I have sorted content based on my personal needs.

Public tagging is beneficial if you as a user aren’t sure about what you seek. It allows for greater serendipity, as you have many heads deciding what content is similar. Public tagging isn’t without problems. Noise is just one. As you are dealing with many interpretations of ‘similar’, you aren’t guaranteed relevancy for every piece of content tagged with the same keyword. It’s fun to see how other people categorise something. However, if public tagging is your only method of classifying content, you’re left with chaos. Public tagging can also be gamed. Malicious users can purposely pollute the “Tag Sphere” by tagging every bit of content with every possible tag –effectively spamming the system. This makes meaningful content retrieval difficult, if not impossible.

Tag Clouds are a result of public tagging. Tag Clouds are interesting in that it shows what words are most often used to describe content. But what if you have a similar piece of content, and you wish to tag it to get the most visibility? You would have to conform to everybody else’s standard. As specific tags become more popular (gain more prominence in the cloud), the less popular tags begin to recede and disappear. Alternate classifications get squashed in favour of the more popular way of thinking. It’s like being in secondary school all over again.

If you are incorporating a tagging scheme to your content, be sure to have a clear understanding of what you wish to achieve. Each flavour of tagging has its merits, and each has a unique role allowing users to find the content they seek. Tagging is a useful tool to augment your existing hierarchy and navigation system, but makes a poor choice if used as the sole method.

Update:

This article has been quoted in Ellyssa Kroski’s weblog: InfoTangle.

Good luck, and happy tagging!