Is Tagging Actually Beneficial to Bloggers?

Is Tagging Actually Beneficial to Bloggers?We are self-confessed tag addicts here at WPMU. Tagaholics, if you will. We tag with wild abandon.

However, I don’t touch tags on my own blog. Given that tagging is fairly widespread in the blogging world and I appear to be missing out on all of the fun, I thought it would be interesting to take a closer look at why tags may be useful – and in contrast, why they may be useless.

What is a Tag?

Ugh. I have lost count of the amount of definitions I have read (mainly in comparison to categories). I’ve just about got my head around the concept, but it is not particularly intuitive, and definitely open to interpretation.

The best definition I have found is over at Lorelle on WordPress. The article may be seven years old, but I believe it to still be highly relevant. Lorelle defines tags as “your site’s index words”. If you are imagining the index at the end of a book, you are thinking along the right lines. And by extension, categories are to tags in a blog what chapters are to index words/phrases in a textbook.

Why Tag?

Good question. Tags are essentially a very simple form of meta data. Tagging is a way of grouping contextually-related posts in such a way that would not be practical through categorization.

I can certainly think of circumstances where sets of meta data are highly useful. A good example would be a film review website. Each movie would likely be categorized by genre, and then you would have multiple meta data sets for actors, directors, producers, and so on. Being able to read a review of one film then click through to reviews of other films including its lead actor is a handy feature. But tagging wouldn’t really come into it – it is too simple a taxonomy for such applications.

Taxidermy
Fun fact - I used to get the words "taxidermy" and "taxonomy" mixed up.

So when does tagging serve a useful purpose? The pro-tagging argument would be that people can browse your site via specific tags, thus concentrating their focus on a topic that particularly interests them. They see your tag cloud (or a group of tags at the bottom of a post), they click on the tag that interests them, and are presented with a list of related posts.

In my opinion, this a weak argument for three reasons.

1. Relevance

I used to tag on my blog, so I can give you a real-world example of how misleading tags can be. I have a “wpmu” tag, which is associated with six different posts. Here are the post titles:

  • 17 Posts To Help You Build A Better Blog
  • My Monthly Income & Expenditure Report – December 2011
  • My Monthly Income & Expenditure Report – November 2011
  • Freelance Writing: 9 Tips for Getting Started
  • My Monthly Income & Expenditure Report – October 2011
  • Learn How You Can Leave Work Behind

None of these posts are really about WPMU. They don’t really benefit anyone looking for information on WPMU. Having said that, they all mention WPMU, which is why they are tagged.

You could of course argue that the above example is down to bad tagging practices, but if anyone has a simple process for effective tagging, I would love to see it. The fact is, it is actually really difficult to consistently tag in such a way that produces useful results.

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 2. They Are Messy

Tags are a real pain in the ass to manage. They are case sensitive (so “wpmu” and “WPMU” would be two different tags). Furthermore, two differently-worded tags could essentially relate to the exact same thing (such as “plugins” and “wordpress plugins”.

There are essentially two ways of tackling this issue:

  1. Keep a full list of all tags on your site to hand. When you are ready to publish a post, go through the list and add any relevant tags, and add new tags that you feel are worthy of being created.
  2. Manage your tags on an ongoing basis by regularly consolidating related tags and checking for duplicates.

I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a whole load of work – the thought of it alone puts me off writing a blog post.

There is also a third option (although it is not actually a way of tackling the issue), which is to simply leave your tags to “grow wild”. I would hazard a guess that option three is exercised far more often than the other two, which surely defeats the object of tagging in the first place, doesn’t it?

Tagging Wilderness
Is your blog in a tagging wilderness?

3. Search is Better

Tags are essentially keywords. Keywords are used in a far more prevalent application – search. Why tag when you can provide a search engine instead?

But What About SEO?

Exponents of tagging argue that it is beneficial for SEO purposes. Now I have looked high and low and have found absolutely no compelling proof that tagging is of benefit to your rankings in search engines.

I am admittedly wandering into the realms of pure theory here, but my argument would be that tagging is of no additional benefit when it comes to search engines understanding the relevance of your site to any given topic.

Say you write a post about WordPress and tag it with “wordpress”. Did that achieve anything? Logic dictates that such an article already contains a wealth of contextually related words and phrases that give search engines a clear idea of its relevance to WordPress, regardless of the tag itself.

Tagging – is it For You?

I will of course continue to tag here at WPMU, because it is the done thing. But tagging just isn’t my bag, baby.

Don’t get me wrong – if someone could put together a compelling argument for the benefits of tagging, I would be all over it. But regardless of which angle I look at it from, I can’t see why it offers anything more than a headache.

I would love to get your opinions on this, so please don’t be shy – let us know what you think in the comments section!

Creative Commons images courtesy of chad davisGideon Burton and digitizedchaos

Comments (7)

  1. You’ve touched on something I’ve always wondered about with this post. I agree with you. Not only are tags a pain in the ass to keep organized, they look terrible on web pages. I’ve only rarely used them myself.

    Search & ‘Related Posts’ are typically the way I continue navigating a topic.

    I would be very interested to see definitive evidence about the pros and cons of tagging. Are they really worth the mess & the wasted screen real estate?

    Good post Tom. (as usual)

    • Hey Corey,

      I’m not sure definitive evidence exists, if I am honest. I certainly couldn’t find any. I think tagging is just too vague a concept to be effectively utilized by most bloggers (if effective utilization is even possible).

      Cheers,

      Tom

  2. You’ve been tagging wrong. The idea behind tagging – and even in the index in the back of a book – is not to simply pick every word or term that relates to the content, as you’ve done with ‘wpmu’, but to select terms to describe the content as meta in a way that encourages visitors/readers interested in those subjects to read more.

    Nobody reading your income & expense report cares one bit about WPMU. They want to know what your income and expenses are and how they relate to categorical values such as dining, revenue and so on. But listing WPMU is just antithetical to actual visitor interests there.

    You should absoltely be using tagging to promote your articles, but only use tags that actually relate to the context (not necessarily the content) of the article. If abused, people will ignore your tags completely, and that gets you in an even worse position – where “search” is the preferred method of finding related content. Not good.

    • Hi Shawn,

      I agree without hesitation with your first point – I have been tagging wrong in certain circumstances (the “wpmu” example being a good one).

      I also agree with your explanation as to how tags should be used.

      However, I stand by my point that the “right” way to tag is not only (a) difficult to standardize and follow, but also (b) not particularly beneficial. You certainly haven’t said anything to convince me otherwise.

      I find it odd that you imply that search is a poor method of finding related content. It is the standard, and the likes of Google have made search extremely effective.

      Thanks (as always) for your thoughts!

      Cheers,

      Tom

  3. Thanks for the thoughtful argument. I tend to agree with your assessment that there’s not much added value in tagging. Take my OWN browsing habits for instance – I rarely, if ever, utilize tags as a way to hop through a website’s content. I prefer to rely on good categorization, search, and “related posts” features.

    I am no historian, but I wonder if the original thought behind tags has been outgrown as WP features have improved over the years (i.e. the ability to easily add custom menus, search widgets, etc.).

    Anyhow, interesting thoughts. Thanks for sharing!

    • Hey Carrie,

      It can be dangerous to make decisions based upon how you browse the web yourself, but I of course agree with you – especially in your assessment that categorization, search and related posts are better forms of navigation.

      Interesting question regarding the original intention behind tags, and how that has evolved…

      Cheers!

      Tom

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