If I tag my content, do I need a taxonomy?

Just about every new web app worth its salt allows users to add freeform tags to content.  I use tags when I add content to del.icio.us, Flickr, Google Reader, and other web apps. that I use regularly.  Heck, I’d probably complain if a new web application came out that didn’t allow me to tag content.

I’ve also added tagging to some new internal applications that I’ve been responsible for architecting.  Our Knowledge Base application now has tagging, as does our new Professional Development web application too.

But does tagging make it any easier to find content?  Do we really use those tags for anything other than to produce TagCloud’s?  Increasingly I’m finding myself questioning the value of freeform tags.  Don’t believe me?  Try going back to del.icio.us and finding that article that you captured 12 months ago from the sea of tags that you have there now!

I’m thinking that I’d be better off using the tagging feature but sticking to a structured, well planned taxonomy:


Del.icio.us actually allows this via the creation of ‘bundles’.

Do you have any thoughts in this area?  Do you find it easy to use your tags to find content?  Do you have a structured tagging philosophy?


~ by D on March 24, 2008.

4 Responses to “If I tag my content, do I need a taxonomy?”

  1. I\’ve been wondering the same thing. I don\’t think I\’ve ever actually used tags to find anything, except on my own blog, and that\’s only when Google doesn\’t work. Even then, I wish I\’d used them as strict categories/folders instead. Contrast how much we rely on the structure of SharePoint sites/folders to finding stuff in our tag systems. Tagging in GMail seems to work well though, but probably because I use it more like 1D folders rather than tags. My blog failed because I used too many tags. Maybe files/folders wasn\’t such a bad idea. That said, I can\’t think of how many times I\’ve used Del.icio.us, Digg or Technorati *period* – I post to them, but I rarely search for things on them except my own name :$ (Hey, how come I have to be signed into Live to comment?)

  2. Darren -Yes, you should, but you should only do it for your "best" content.  You need to choose the threshold of what determines "best", but hierarchies shouldn\’t be thrown out of the window just because we have the benefit of tagged indexes.  The information flow flaw that tags solve is that many times content is so dynamic that its information fits into multiple mental groupings.  Tagging allows that content to be marked as appropriate for each grouping.  However, tagging does not allow for the concept of weight.Hierarchies are excellent for assigning "primary concept" organization to content but provide absolutely zero organization otherwise.  How many times have you moved files from one folder on your hard drive to another because you needed to have the files organized differently for this project as opposed to a prior project?While an article on penguins may be additionally tagged as "Antarctica", there\’s no way to know that the article is not primarily about the frozen continent, only that it contains some content about it.  The combination of hierarchies and tags allow you to add the notion of "primary concept" to content while freeing you from the rigidity of hierarchies alone or the communism of tagging alone.  So, create a hierarchy containing "Mammals > Birds > Penguins" to store the content but also tag the content with "Penguins, Antartica" for easier retrieval.  Display to the user that the content is in the above hierarchy and they\’ll know that there may be additional information available if they\’re bird hunting or that they\’re barking up the wrong tree if they\’re continent hopping.Chris

  3. Tags are by definition a "free" form of indexing. They are only as valuable as the form being used. Indexes work because we all follow the form. If something becomes "free" how can we follow it around its pathway to be used a year later to find the exact same spot on the map? The folders provide structure, but with the needed level of structure, we arrive back at a standard index. The freeform only works if we always use the same tag in the same exact fashion, which removes the free from the definition. They look cool on the sidelines, but seem very impractical in action. Makes one ask if they are worth the effort.

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