Welcome to the home of Noah Brier. I'm the co-founder of Variance and general internet tinkerer. Most of my writing these days is happening over at Why is this interesting?, a daily email full of interesting stuff. This site has been around since 2004. Feel free to get in touch. Good places to get started are my Framework of the Day posts or my favorite books and podcasts. Get in touch.

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Is Tagging Really Useful?

Today seems to be tag day. Now it’s time to answer an essential question of tagging: Are tags really useful? The question was brought up by Tim Bray (which I found via Alex Wright). Bray wrote:

Are tags useful? Are there any questions you want to ask, or jobs you want to do, where tags are part of the solution, and clearly work better than old-fashioned search? I really want to believe that tagging is big, a game-changer, but the longer I go on asking this question and not getting an answer, the more nervous I get.

This gets back to the individual vs. social thing. Undoubtedly tags are useful for individuals organizing information for their own retrieval. They’ve already proven their usefulness as a way to organize bookmarks on del.icio.us. I think the question is whether this usefulness extends to the group. Specifically, is tagging blog posts the best way to organize them?

This I’m not so sure about. First off, as Scott Rafer points out, this can lead to spam. But even more than that, is tagging the best way for me to find the information from blog posts? Isn’t using a PubSub or Feedster feed with specific keywords even more efficient? Yes, you’ll run into some information you’re not necessarily looking for, but for retrieving other people’s content search seems like a much easier way. Why is this? Why don’t I think tags extend as well to blogging?

I’m not completely sure, but let me take a shot. First, I don’t tag my posts because I never remember to. It’s not built into the interface with the same simplicity as del.icio.us. Second, I would expect that people are much more specific when they’re tagging others work versus their own. It’s easier to boil someone else’s writing down to a few select tags than it is your own. It’s only human to want to think that you’ve covered lots of areas and thus deserve lots of tags. As Scott reminded me, essentially tags are a way to annotate content to make it easy to find later. Using that definition, why would you annotate your own content? What’s more, since you wrote it, aren’t you likely to remember specific language you may have used? I often find myself searching my site for something I’ve written and it’s almost always quite easy to find. I am pretty good at wording searches in my own words when I’m searching for my own words.

I guess what I’m saying is that I think people (or at least me) use tags first to help themselves. When you’re tagging your own content, it’s less useful to you and more useful to the group. It’s nice to believe people would think of the group first, but they don’t. Also, I’m not sure tagging with the group in mind makes for the best organization anyway. As I mentioned in my last post, the more specific I am with my tagging, the more likely it’s useful to someone looking for information under that tag or combination of tags.

So, in conclusion, my answer is that tagging is really useful with some caveats.

April 22, 2005