Tags & Folksonomies - What are they, and why should you care?

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Tags, or folksonomies are actually a lot simpler than much of the acedemic debate surrounding them. Put simply, they are a user defined method for organizing data. Im going to try to explain what they are, why they are important to marketers and web devs and suggest some ways you might use them. Follow the title link above for the full post.

First, Some Examples of Tags in Action

There are only a few good, working examples of tagging in operation right now. They include:

  • del.icio.us - a social bookmarking system
  • Flickr - a photo publishing / sharing site
  • Technorati Tags - a recent feature added to the popular blog search engine
  • MetaFilter Tags - another recently added feature to the original group blog.
  • TagSurf - an experimental forum based on tags rather than the standard way of organizing topics

del.icio.us and flickr were the first systems to use tagging as far as im aware, at least to become popular because of it. They allow users to submit data, links with descriptions and photos respectively, and classify that data themselves.

So How does it Work? - Getting up to Speed

The easiest way to find out how tags work and get a handle on the whole folksonomy thing is to go use del.icio.us - Follow these steps and you'll soon be up to speed:

  1. Create an account
  2. Follow all the instructions, it's dead simple. Then check your email and follow the link
  3. Login to your account
  4. You'll arrive at the about page
  5. Where you will then be able to post a link
  6. Follow the forms instructions, it's not hard :)

Now, when you filled in the form you would have given your bookmark some space seperated tags right? You can see my bookmarks here - notice that some of the entries have 2 tags? That bookmark will fall under both of those tags - on the right, you can see the tags i've created or added to so far. The really, really neat thing about this site is that each tag, and each user have an RSS Feed - slap it in your aggregator and keep up with posts to specific topics, such as Search [rss feed]

And by the way, del.icio.us has about 30,000 registered geeks so some of those tagged rss feeds are an absolute goldmine of information. For more, see this interview with creator Joshua Schachter

So What Makes Tags Important?

Simply put, tags are important because they allow your users to generate content and classify that content in their own unique way. To illustrate this, let me tell you about a conversation I had with a TW member last week.

Imagine that you have a website about hobbies (the blandest example i could come up with heh..) and you have lots of users that like fishing. So, when users input data, be that blog posts, photos, reviews or anything you might dream up, they will invariably tag their posts with fishing right? Well, yes and no. Some of your users will tag thier posts with angling or yet others may use 2 or more tags such as fishing vacation or holiday fishing or fishing weekend with me?

So, imagine using that user generated metadata in the way that your info is organized and presented - think url's for one thing...

  • Fishing - 300 posts
  • Angling - 20 posts
  • Fishing Vacation - 100 posts
  • Holiday Fishing - 40 posts
  • Fishing Weekend - 200 posts

and further imagine creating menus and pages based on those categories. By allowing the most popular tags to "float to the top" you can assign more importance, more link weight etc etc to the heaviest tags - just check out the side navigation on del.icio.us for a practical, if simple example. And don't forget the urls of course:

  • somesite.com/fishing/
  • somesite.com/fishing-weekend/

“Perhaps the most important strength of a folksonomy is that it directly reflects the vocabulary of users.”

Oh boy, starting to get the picture? The heavier tags directly reflect the heaviest searches, the most popular keywords people use to find subjects of interest! Now, if you can't see a value in that, your a lost cause :-)

Add to the above concept the fact that along with creating a grass roots, bottom up classification structure that can be used in many, many creative ways for search marketing you also have all of those wonderful misspeelings and mistakes - Not too many people search for "fising" - but it does happen doesn't it? - You get all of the benefits of genuine, bonafide human error, misconception and general weirdness that is soooo dificult, if not impossible to accurately generate by yourself.

Where Might you be able to Actually Use Tagging?

At present, tagging and folksonomies are brand spanking new. And they've not been used in any particularly comercial ways except for perhaps Flickr who appear to be grooming for a buy out - Right now these things are firmly in the hands of the academics and geeks, with not much to inspire the blood thirsty internet marketer other than the general idea. Use your imagination though, there are shit loads of ways to make this work.

Essentially, if you can solicit user input, you can most likely tag it - and in some scenarios that's going to pay off in a large way.

Some Further Reading

If you've discovered an appetite for information on tags and folksonomic classification then you may be interested in the larger academic debate (far beyond the scope of this simple introduction) and some of the commentary from around the web. If you have good links to add, please do so in the comments and i'll update this post.
Posts and Articles of an Academic Nature:

These 3 are related - listed in order:

as are these 2

and these

And Some General Blog Post and Speculation / Commentary

There, that should give you something to think about :)

I'll leave you with this snippet from Tim Bray which sums up the current situation on tags wonderfully:

Quote:
I’m almost convinced that this new Technorati Tags thing is important, but I’m 100% convinced that I don’t understand where it’s going or what the implications are. Which is OK, because I suspect nobody else does either.

Questions and Comments

I dont claim to be any kind of authority on the subject of folksonomies and tags but like Tim, i do think that they're very important, and folks that stay ahead of the curve on this thing could reap some large rewards. If you have questions or general comments, post them. I'll try to answer and we can help eachother get to grips with this stuff FAST.

Comments

s. Any way I'll be

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Zombie thread

Strange ... this thread has been brought back to life!

Back to the topic, I am loving tags since I started using flickr properly. Never really found a regular use for them till I rediscovered my love of photography. Geotagging is a nice twist on the idea too, really nice when combined with flickr and maps. I find it frustrating sometimes how people will use different words to describe the same things or use the same word with a different meaning eg. is bigcat the same as bigcats? Is your "big cat" a fat moggy or is it a tiger?

It's an ad for Blog-zilla, methinks

- or a promotional post... Tool's brand new it seems, looks like Articlebot for blogs to me.

Hey Dan, why don't you move that post to a new thread in the "Tools" section and let us discuss those kinds of tools? We probably could get an interesting discussion going - a few of us might even be interested in a test run or something?

:-)

Everyone runs multiple sites

Everyone runs multiple sites here, what's the big deal?

Tags & Folksonomies are a must for multi-bloggers...

Tags have a special appeal for anyone multi-blogging; that is, anyone running 10, 30, 50 or 100 blogs. The phenomena of 'Tag Clouds' helps give a visual summary of your many blogs, literally in a glance. 'Tag Clouds' can in fact serve as a navigation tool of sorts for people wanting to know what you're blogging about (and where).

For example, using the multi-blog software, Blog-zilla I create and manage quality content across 100 blogs (each targeted to a specific blog audience). Yet, if one wants to know in one minute flat what I blogged about most recently and where (which blog)... my TagCloud says it all.

In addition, each week as I prepare my content, Blog-zilla can place appropriate technorati tags under each post and ping the important tag systems which pick-up on my tags across all 100 blogs. Within minutes, all 100 blogs are "on the map." Wow!

I would love to hear from others that are using tags with multiple blogs. Multi-blogging seems to make the reader a pivotal part of the blogging experience by tailoring and personalizing content specifically to each reader. Then the tags help the search engines (and other tag powered systems) categorize the content so the proper readers can find it.

By the way, if you're not familiar with multi-blogging, check out Wikipedia: multi-blog or this Yahoo news story.

where the whole tagging thing is heading

The trends are clear. User activity is becoming less localized on desktops and more global and public on the web. For example, instead of storing bookmarks in the local installation of your browser app, you can store them online now. Tagging is closely related to social bookmarking. The two go hand in hand. Five years ago I wanted a place to put my browser bookmarks online because I was using three different computers (home, work, and school), but there weren't any decent enough services at the time. So I promised myself that I would invent my own when I found the time, and finally two years ago I did: http://www.connectedy.com . Today there are several other online bookmarking sites (some of them quite good), but all such sites are naturally evolving towards this tagging paradigm. It makes more sense now to store personally relevant links in sharable folksonomies. There will still be a need for search engines because that's how we will always find the brand-new links. But once we find them, we need to be able to manage them. Think of links as sea shells: Google and Yahoo collect all the sea shells and let us look at them from behind a glass case. But what we need to be able to do now is pick them up and organize them in our own personal ways. Eventually search engines, browsers, and the rest of the web will settle on a standard model for tagging, online bookmarking, and personalized searching. Discovering that best standard model first and marketing it successfully will be the trick!

more on tags and search engines

I just read an article by Hjalmar Gislason, called: Coming to terms with tags: folksonomies, tagging systems and human information. It's pretty good because it describes what a search engine might be able to use these concepts for, and there's none of that "blogspeak" in it, so even i understand it.

It's not just theory, though. It's rather interesting what Hjalmar has done with spurl.net and zniff.com. Spurl is a "social bookmark manager" like del.icio.us and others, but zniff is a search engine that actually bases part of its ranking on spurl tags.

Some of what he says in that article reminds me of the thoughts in the recent Yahoo patent, and there's some similarities to Google's history thoughts as well, both in the sense "Search History" and in the sense spam prevention. Reading of the article should be combined with the spurl FAQ and forum (history link above)

Freetag - Open Source Tagging Module for PHP/MySQL

At last someone has developed an Open Source tagging/folksonomy system for those that want to play - although the concept of tagging is not hard, and for an experienced P

Tagging Sites to get Spammed, Hard

Steve Rubel is busy jumping up and down for all he's worth on the next moronic blogger buzzword, tagvertising, heaven give me strength, it was all i could do to hold onto my dinner reading that. Inadvertently though, he's giving a good lesson

// tagsy

File this under one to watch

I've tried to contact the people behind //tagsy but so far no joy. It appears to be a Firef

Folksonomy — One Man’s Experiment

My experience with folksonomies, ad hoc user-generated tags for classifying web content, is that they help you understand something in the context of the individual who created them. Outside the context of the individual, the tags tend to be too ambiguous for inferring too much about what they are used to classify. What may be quite useful is seeing who is tagging the same web content you are tagging; that way you know you at least have something real in common.

Nick W of Threadwatch on Folksonomies

I stumbled upon a blog post by Threadwatch's proprietor Nick W discussing "folksonomies. . . ." Nick's post harmonized quite well with
the stated purpose of the XODP Yahoo! eGroup in that it deals with "progressive
ideas for how the Internet should...

Right..

im with you, thanks guys :) nice implementation and a damn good example of where these things can really work i think...

flash cards

Flash cards are study tools. Think of a small 3x5 index card with a question on one side and an answer on the other side. I guess this should be a faq! Monitoring the spanish tag (http://flashcardexchange.com/tag/spanish) will list new material entered by people who are studying spanish.

culley

flashcards are those things

that you teach children to read with aren't they?

You need to get up to speed on this Nick... I think really ambitious parents start 'em on the flashcards at about 6 weeks ;)

Thanks Culley

And welcome to Threadwatch, do introduce yourself..

er... what's a flash card? I did have a look around your site but i still can't figure out what one is?

So I...

So I sat down, expecting a *huge* headache while I figured out not only how to insert the tags into my posts, but also my feeds - and backdate it all.

Then - hurrah! - I learned that MT does it automatically - - - for Technocrati at least.

In fact, seems they like me - got 4 posts currently listed in the Finance section: http://www.technorati.com/tag/finance

:)

tagged flashcards

For what it is worth, I recently added tag functionality to my flashcard site:

http://flashcardexchange.com/tags

All new flashcard sets are tagged and 3000-5000 flashcards are added daily.

culley

I am quietly furious, as thou

I am quietly furious, as though I've not read the rest of the article yet, I see my neat tag-based forum idea has already been done, whilst I was sat coding it. Twice, no less, because MeFi is as much a community/forum as this teeth-gnashingly similar idea Tagsurf.

excuse me while I go and rage, and read the rest of the article.

Time

I dont sleep :)

I've got loads more i'd love to write about but time is always the killer...

Excellent

Excellent post Nick, much appreciated. But tell me - where do you find the time?

Shock

Headline: Nick Wilson does long involved article that doesn't slap some blogger sideways for whining, shocker!

Great summary, Nick - will go home, study, reminisce on the the good old days when the internet was just HTML 4, and try not to let head hurt too much while exhausted old dog tries new tricks.

Great post Nick, excellent fo

Great post Nick, excellent for people who need to get into grips of tags.

Tags SEO

Nice post Nick, definitely worth a del.icio.us bookmark!

Maybe this isn't "really" SEO, but for the past 2-3 weeks I've been using Technorati tags with each blog post (and optimized press release) along with bookmarking each post on del.icio.us and using RSS ping services like pingomatic.com and/or pings.ws to update. This has more than doubled unique visitors to the blogs I'm marketing for clients.

This is just the tip of the iceberg I think.