The following post was submitted by for the Blogging for Beginners Series by Aaron Brazell. Aaron is a major contributer over at b5 (he is a major player in keeping our servers in order) and writes on numerous blogs including Emerging Earth and Technosailor.com. I asked Aaron to write an introduction to Tagging. Here’s what he has to say on the topic:
When I was a kid, playing tag was a big thing. Everyone would run around the yard trying to avoid the person who was “it” so they wouldn’t become “it”. Eeny, meeny, miney, mo – who would be tagged next?
If you’ve been around social networking, or many of the next-generation web services out there (such as del.icio.us or digg) then you certainly know what tags are. They are really just labels. This is an article. It is about corn. We will tag it “corn”.
Like these services (and others!), blogs can utilize tags as well. The argument surrounding blog tags usually swirl around the similarity of tags to categories but there are some key conceptual differences that make them different.
Categories are structured; Tags are unstructured
The main difference between categories and tags is the way they organize content. Categories use the “tree” style concept that is probably the easiest to envision. You may have a series of categories such as “News”, “Music”, “Tech” with subcategories nested under those categories. The News category might have subcategories like “Politics”, “Main Stream Media”, and “Iraq” and the Music category might have subcategories like “Melbourne Bands” or “CD Reviews”.
In this way, content is organized in a structural way. Every entry has a bucket to go in and in this way, content can be easily maintained.
However, tagging provides more of a granular way of organizing content and it follows more of a “brain storage” approach. You might ask what I mean by “brain storage”. Let me explain.
If you step away from every day conversation and attempt to take a birds-eye view of normal every-day human interaction, you’ll notice a haphazard flow that tends to jump between topics, conversations, participants, etc. Rarely does a conversation follow a simple linear flow outside of email threads. If a blog is a reflection of the life of the blogger (and it should be, if it is authentic!), then the context of conversation will be non-linear as well.
And while this is a good idea when I write about it here, the application of that concept is far from simple. Blogs are, by nature, linear animals. They string together entries in chronological order with comments left in chronological order and fall into a far-too simplistic model of “this entry is about this, and that entry is about that” when in fact, that is a mischaracterization of how human interaction really is!
About six months ago, I started taking a look under the hood of my blog. I noticed I had tons of content that was old and was lost in the shuffle of posting new entries and constant UI changes. I would look at my stats and see Google traffic to older posts but blog readers could not quickly find old content. I wondered how I could keep that quickly accessible to my daily readers as well as the search engines. I began to dive into the concept of tagging.
As I attempted to answer that question for myself, I came up with a couple of common counter-arguments to tagging.
- I don’t need tags because I have archives. It is true that most blogs, including mine, have archives where older entries were stored for future reference. Most archives, however, follow a date structure that still makes finding an entry difficult unless you know specifically where to look.
- I don’t need tags because I have categories. This is true as well, but as indicated above, categories often don’t offer enough granularity or flexibility to find a given entry in a category with, perhaps, 300+ entries.
For me, the goal was to have every single entry one to (at most) three clicks away from home. One of the ways (and there were other tricks used as well) I did this was by implementing tags. Instead of finding all of the entries on “politics”, users can now find all entries on politics or, say, “The Patriot Act”.
Forms of Tagging
Tagging on a blog actually takes two forms and both have their benefits and downfalls. Whatever form of tagging you use depend largely on you, your blog and your goals. The decision of which form to use should not be done haphazardly because it is not easy to change later on.
- Internal Tagging is the form of tagging I chose for my blog. It capitalizes on the content within your own site and provides the internal linking that is good for search engines as well as your readers. Internal tagging, conceptually, uses the flow of conversation approach that I spoke of before. It highlights the fact that your flow of conversation is not simply linear, but is multi-topical and interspersed with other aspects of your conversation. It makes it easy for a user to say, “Let’s go back to what you were saying a few months ago”.
- External Tagging relies on services like Technorati, Flickr or del.icio.us and adds the benefit of more exposure on the outside. Most bloggers who employ tagging use this method because they already have categories for internal use and tagging allows them to feed the subject du jour to Technorati or other tagging services. The sacrifices that a blogger makes with this method have to do with broad dispersal of content versus the cohesiveness of conversation internally. In other words, they can get a lot of broad exposure on individual entries but at the risk of not being able to glue the many similar conversations together internally.
How Do I Implement Tags on My Blog?
Most blog platforms do not support tagging out of the box, but most provide support for plugins or extensions. Here are some to look at.
- Ultimate Tag Warrior, WordPress. My favorite and the plugin used on my blog. UTW provides a wide set of options for both internal and external tagging. External tags can link to Technorati, Flickr, del.icio.us, or Wikipedia to name a few. There are at least a dozen ways that UTW allow you to display tags and is thoroughly documented.
- Jerome’s Keywords, WordPress. Implement tags as keywords and by doing so makes this plugin the easiest to reverse in mid-stride. Not nearly as robust as UTW.
- SimpleTags, WordPress – This plugin provides basic Technorati tagging capability on a per-post basis. It lacks internal tagging functionality including tag lists, as it is geared specifically for gaining Technorati visitors.
- TechnoratiTags, Moveable Type – similar to SimpleTags and Jerome’s Keywords, this plugin for Moveable Type feeds an entries keywords to Technorati as tags.
Tagging is not for Everyone!
As a word of caution for established bloggers, implementing tags on existing content is a tedious and cumbersome process that will require your attention. How much attention is required will depend largely on the tagging plugin used, and how much content already exists.
For me, I spent a few hours a day for two weeks going back through every single one of my entries for nearly a year and a half, applying tags. I could have avoided this by using another tag plugin, but I would have done so at the cost of some functionality in the plugin I wanted. Make sure you think it through, understand what is going to happen by implementing tagging and are completely confident that it is what you want to do. I believe it will be worth it for you, but only you as the blogger can make that decision for yourself.