Why Tagging Doesn’t Work


Tagging doesn’t work.

Whoops, did I say that out loud?

Yes, I did. Tagging doesn’t work. Ok, all you geeks who are about to have a coronary now, breathe. No really, that blood vessel in your forehead is about to pop and ruin your linux box or powerbook.

Are you crazy? It’s part of being Web 2.0!

Seriously, if you haven’t heard, Web 2.0, regardless of it’s definition, or the fact that it’s now en vogue to say that you’re a Web 2.0 company but despise the term, has “tagging” as a baseline feature, a must-have for fledgling companies.

But remember, the internet craziness and Web 2.0 buzzwords are created by two types of people for those same two types of people.

These people are either geeks (the 53,651 TechCrunch users/subscribers), or CEOs. I’d throw in venture capitalists for fun, but I think they actually get the point I’m trying to make here more often than not.

Geeks make up cool stuff, like tagging. CEOs (who don’t have a marketing team do it for them) name it, make it “cooler” and a little more “usable”. I’m being liberal with the quotes here because if you haven’t gotten it already, tags aren’t easy enough, nor cool enough, for the general user.

The problem of the everyday users

All the services I mentioned above are great. I don’t use any of them. Uh oh, my RSS feed was just dropped by a few geeks.

No, really. Why don’t I use them? Because they are more difficult to use than what I already do, bookmark the old fashioned way – in categories.

Granted, I wish that Firefox had a better search capability than what it currently has for its bookmarks. But, I’ll deal with it because I don’t have the time to figure out delicious or magnolia. I’d rather be complaining.

I don’t think I’m alone in this. The web is great and wonderful and everything, but it’s not perfect, and it’s certainly not perfect for new users. We geeks have our own language that normal people don’t understand. We pick up on things rather quickly and are happy to adapt and change. Everyday users are not. Everyday users had to click on the link I had above named “tagging” and read the definition of it. Everyday users don’t care.

That’s not enough, bring it on

So, that’s not the only reason why tagging doesn’t work – the tech memes that wave around the internet wind so freakishly. It’s really the nature of tagging itself.

I’m writing this article because I saw this one. “Thirteen Tips for Effective Tagging” is the title. Why is this so wrong? Because if I have to go to all the effort to 1) figure out what tagging is and why it’s “cool”, 2) read tips on how to tag effectively, 3) take the effort to tag everything I have on my computer / the internet, and 4) remember what I tagged things when I come back, then something’s not right.

Tagging doesn’t work because people get tired of doing it. It’s effort. It’s creating more pain than bookmarking hierarchically. Tag every photo you take. Tag websites instead of bookmark them. Tag your videos. Tag your friends. Tag everything! Argh! Do you know how much time that takes?

Ok smarty pants, what’s the solution then?

Well, I don’t have it perfect, but one solution is to tag things for people automatically. That removes the effort. But, it’s not worth doing unless it works according to my brain/habits so that I can find the stuff later.

Let’s take photos for instance. I don’t want to have to tag every photo I take. But, I do want to tag in batches, like the date the photo was taken, what the event is (if there are people involved), and possibly the object if I want to get really specific (but usually I won’t) or if it has nothing to do with an event. Shouldn’t tagging the date be automatic? What about batch tagging the event (tag all the photos I upload in a batch the same event name), or the location. Those 3 tags alone could be all most people need, and it’s effortless.

One last question. Why is tagging a website, document, or other indexed text any better than just searching without the tagging effort? Photos, ok, I give up… it’s almost worth it there (if auto and batch tagging is used). But full-text? Nah, I’ll stick to GoodSearch, Google and Spotlight.

[tags]tagging, tags, delicious, flikr, magnolia, web 2.0, web20, web+2.0[/tags]

Nate Ritter lives in the Pacific Northwest (U.S.), popularized the #hashtag and creates web applications for a living. He also does miles and point hacking to enable cheap travel for his family. More here →

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