Tag Clouds and Tagging – Does it Work?

Obama Baracks speach in Berlin treated with wordle
Creative Commons License photo credit: karstenkneese

“Tag cloud”

This phrase was once so sexy. Instantly you can picture a block of random words with varying sizes and/or colour in a random order. Now it seems to have fallen out of favour – since the initial conception, nobody is talking about how to improve or advance this technology.

A Tag Cloud was once talked about as a perfect example of Web 2.0 – user generated content, funky design and alternative UI navigation. Many sites quickly jumped to using Tag Clouds and even now most new sites that can use them will.

What caused the hype with Tag Clouds? They ticked all the right buttons:

  • User Generated – The idea that your website visitors will tag everything and save you time in organising content.
  • Alternative UI – Finding better ways to access content is a good thing
  • Modern Design – As a new but widespread idea a Tag Cloud gives visual appeal and association with high profile sites
  • User Interaction – Allowing user contribution improves community and repeat visits

For me a Tag Cloud has been a paradox. When discussed in planning a new site they are always a good idea but in practice they often fall down or cause problems. The initial designs benefit from them but in practice they are rarely clicked and often ignored by visitors. The prospect of self-organising content is tempting but often more administration is created.

Why is this? From my own experience as a user, tags are just too fuzzy. I often waste more time trying to think of the right tags and as such I am most likely not to tag them. I always turn off tags in WordPress installs and have never taken to delicious properly because the tagging seems like hard work to me.

Essentially there is too much freedom and ambiguity. Do you tag an SEO tool website as “SEO”, “Tool”, “SEOTool”, “SEO Tool” or all of the above? Do you use singular or plural? If your searching for content, can you guarantee it has been tagged with the right keywords or could you be missing some things?

Here is a breakdown of my issues with Tag Clouds:

  • User Generated – Your users can and will do what they like. While you will get some great users who tag perfectly others will make spelling mistakes and not care. Others still might bicker over pointless details such as the user of captilisation or singular/plural. Users will use a mix of different ideas resulting in a total lack of cohesion.
  • User Interface – While the Tag Cloud looks good to an experienced internet user, to others it is not self explanatory. More importantly even experienced users will ignore a tag cloud for the reasons above (basically inaccuracy). The Tag Cloud relies on the idea of “casual browsing” or in other words a user who doesn’t know what they want to see next. In reality we  mostly browse with a purpose or goal in mind with little room for suggestions of what to look at and therefore little room for a tag cloud.
  • Modern Design – While initially it might have been beneficial to be associated with the Tag Cloud crowd, it no longer stands out and your users will be blind to it. Even if your website implements tags in a flawless and useful way, the association with bad implementations on other websites will ruin your hard work.
  • User Interaction – If your users don’t understand the need for tags and you make it an integral part of the system (like delicious) then you risk making your service seem like hard work. For me tags don’t flow easily and therefore it seems like hard work to bookmark a site with delicious.

To illustrate my point, here are a couple of examples of how Tag Clouds are frustrating to me. These two examples show how this applies to group tag clouds (i.e. where many people can tag the same thing) and individual tag clouds (i.e. where the content owner/publisher only can tag).

Flickr – The original tag cloud user, Flickr allows their users to tag photographs with whatever they want. The result? Ambiguity (search for cheese and you get a dog). Overkill (tagged with many variations e.g. “samui”, “koh samui”, “kohsamui”, “thailand”, “chaweng” etc. etc.). Innacuracy (wrong spelling tags). Spam (Using a “Michael Jackson” tag incorrectly to get visitors).

Delicious – This bookmarking tool tags in a different way by allowing all users to tag the same website. The main problem is the variety of tags that are used. Take the excellent Penny Arcade web comic – it has a vast amount of different tags including the ambiguous “fun”, “art” and “monday”. In reality this offers no value for navigation and creates a headache for when you want to tag the site (oh should I tag it “fun” or just “comic”? or maybe “webcomic”? Or how about “gaming web comic”, or is that too specific?). The result is simply a mess of disorganisation.

Unfortunately for all the promise I cannot see a benefit to using Tag Clouds in this way. I can understand tagging content in a controlled and structured environment, but on the web in community websites it would be impossible to organise and manage.

Once you start using Tag Clouds it is hard to go back. Users will be used to them (some will of course like them) and your navigational structure will no doubt be based around them.

So in reality your Tag Cloud could actually be doing your website some harm. Don’t simply follow the cloud crowd – think about if this concept will work and know for sure before it is too late.

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Carey

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