Tagging–What Good Is It?

“Tag, you’re it!”

The notion of “tagging” has evolved quite a bit from childhood playground games. While we used to tag people when playing hide and seek, we now tag things so we can find them again. Specifically, we tag things online—photos, videos, web pages, even people. (Maybe we haven’t come that far after all.)

Tagging has become one of the cornerstones of Web 2.0—many websites enable visitors to tag content on the site. Site owners can choose to display lists of tags that have been supplied by visitors or use a “tag cloud” generator to build a graphic of the tags, with the font size of each indicating its popularity relative to the other tags. Tag clouds look really cool (although they have declined in popularity lately), but you might wonder: Is tagging really useful for anything?

Benefits

It turns out that whether you decide to display a tag cloud on a site page or not, enabling your visitors to tag your content has several benefits:

Crowd-sourced SEO: By enabling your visitors to tag your content, you are essentially getting them to do your SEO work for you—and far more accurately than if you had to come up with all those keywords yourself. After all, the tag terms that your visitors add are most likely the same ones that other potential users would search for…you might as well take advantage of it.

More flexible than categories: When organizing content into folders, you inevitably will run into cases where an item conceivably would fit into more than one folder or into none of the existing folders. If you create new folders for the latter case, you could end up with a bunch of single-item folders (or one big “miscellaneous” folder). With tags, how you categorize your content is less important because users will be able to find your content by searching instead of drilling down through categories and subcategories.

Faster in-site searching: With a robust population of tags for your content, in-site searching can reference the tags, which a search engine can do more quickly and with fewer server resources than full-text searching.

Drawbacks

Tagging has its drawbacks, though:

Homonyms, misspellings, and other junk: A tag that can have multiple meanings can cause problems because some of the people searching for that term will be looking for something completely different than what you have. This is an inevitable shortcoming of natural-language search, and there isn’t much you can do about it. Similarly, words that are pronounced alike but are spelled differently and have different meanings can muddy the search waters. And misspelled tags are problematic because they cause the popularity of the properly-spelled tag to be lower than it would be otherwise. (Conversely, commonly misspelled words can have an advantage in that lots of people misspell them the same way and will be able to find what they are looking for using the misspelled terms.)

Nonsensical or inappropriate tags: Some people have nothing better to do than add nonsense or inappropriate tags to site content. Although not especially harmful from a search perspective, having obscenities in your tag cloud can leave your visitors with a bad impression.

Making the Most of Visitor-Supplied Tags

Most visitors who tag content on your site do so to make sure they can find it again, and as such, most people will make a good-faith effort to provide accurate, relevant tags. As the tag population grows on your site, junk tags will become a smaller—and eventually negligible—percentage. So perhaps the best thing to do with visitor-supplied tags is to let them run their natural course. If you don’t already let visitors tag your content, consider the advantages and talk with your web designer or developer about implementing it.