Tagging and Relevancy

I was reading this great article by Thomas Vander Wal on the recent boom of tagging content, and it got me thinking about my own opinions on metadata, classifications, taxonomies and content relevancy in general.

Now I’ll freely admit that the first time I noticed tags reaching more of a critical mass (del.icio.us, Flickr, Technorati) my initial reaction was a negative one: metadata soup! Although tag clouds certainly have visual appeal on a UI level, most (IMHO) also seem to suffer from what early Photoshop and UI wunderkind Kai Krause referred to as ‘747 syndrome’- an interface/usability pattern that overwhelms more than informs (i.e. the console of a 747 jetliner) and requires steep investment from the user to browse and/or use effectively. I don’t want to parse a cloud to find something quickly- and can get really annoyed when I visit sites/blogs that only use tags, as although tags feel like navigation, in practice it’s more like exploration (IMHO). Sometimes exploring content is fun, of course- but I’m not always in a ‘nose around’ kind of mood. Who really is?On the plus side, the greatest benefit I can see for tagging schemes are that they expose a given content item to larger, cross-community relevancy patterns outside the myopic site/application/resource it lives within. Local hierarchies simply can’t compete on that level. Very cool end result when navigating this shared ‘tagspace’, but will different interpretations of tag terms (and the ever-growing morass of tags shared across communities) dilute the long-term effectivity of this new browsing meme? For example, the tag ‘service’ could mean public utilities to a consumer, wsdl links to a developer, military branches to a government official, et al- interpretation definitely affects relevancy. Does a given tag/keyword mean the same to you as it does to author X on site Y as interpreted by consumer Z?’Folksonomy’ efforts offer a twist – i.e. letting content’s consumers categorize your data – but this further subjects classification of content to third-party interpretation and/or misinterpretation. There are benefits to ‘folksonomic classification’ of course- one would tend to trust data from known sources/quantities (and misinterpretation could possibly be construed as a sign that the content itself has flaws or unclear focus) but I’d still prefer the content owner- who ostensibly should understand their content’s intent and purpose more clearly than anyone else – be the primary first step in the process.At the end of the day, when I mull over Thomas’ article and whether it’s worth the effort to jump on the hype-wagon and start implementing tag-based categorization myself, I still have doubts these ‘open social taxonomies’ will ultimately help consumers to navigate and target content effectively. I just keep stalling on the dilution problem- without a way to at least standardize tags across resources (example- ‘auto-fill’ UI elements that suggest standardized strings/terms based on your initial keystrokes)- I can’t help but feel that tags will be negatively impacted as more and more interpretations of what a given ‘tag’ actually represents are entered into the system. Maybe I’ll implement tags here soon, but honestly I’ll probably watch things develop a bit more first and make a call later. Updating my crappy pumpkin-colored Movable Type default template here will be the first use of any free time, honestly. ;-)But enough braindumping- what do YOU think about tagging?Passing fad riding on a big hype-wave, or navigational meme of the future?

3 Responses to Tagging and Relevancy

  1. Craig says:

    I find I’m much more likely to find relevant information with searches like technorati’s tag search over their standard search when I’m looking to read up on common topics of interests. What does that say about their engine though? Search engines can only categorise to a point. How many times do you google and never find what it is you want? I find tags help me narrow the field which helps some of the time finding the more relevant information to me. Especially when I can subscribe to those feeds for later perusal.As for tag clouds on a per site basis… I rarely click on them. They’re too general. No different to categories that I rarely click on. Tags may be useful for SEO though. I’ve definately seen an increase in initial referrals when I tag with popular tags.On long-term effectivness after tag dilution I think “related tags” as technorati does can work well. I used that recently to find feeds related to a topic of interest and the results are much better targeted for me.For me tags compliment existing search technologies. They help me find stories on topics I’m interested in with more relevancy.

  2. mray says:

    As interesting as the concept is, and despite its relevance in modelling of cognitive systems, I have to agree with you on the limits of tagging. If one goes back to some of Lou Rosenfeld’s concepts of searching versus browsing you can see the importance of supporting multiple modes of searching within one coherent interface. In most cases, supporting one and not the other ends up making visitors feel trapped or like they are wandering aimlessly.I just commented a bit on the subject myself, and despite it being a really neat area of research, it is only one tool in the arsenal of Information Architecture and HCI. My tagging goal – use it sparingly, in the right places, for the right kind of visitors, ant it can lend word-on-the-street relevance to your content.

  3. Great comments, both- and quite inline with my evolving opinions as well. For general relevancy, tags certainly have proven useful in recent weeks to get me in ‘the general neighborhood’ of pertinent content- but are still a bit lacking (IMHO) as a single navigational method within a single site/resource/application.Personally speaking, I’ve already started tagging my content here bit-by-bit to prep for adding the option and broadening relevancy patterns around my own ramblings/bloggings/musings/etc- just not as a replacement for clear categorization and search functionality. ;-)