Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Blogging the Write Way: Tags, Categories, and Labels

According to the platform you use, or maybe just the parlance with which you are most familiar, you may know tags as "labels" or "categories," but they all mean the same thing: tags are terms used to classify content. Generally descriptive, these tags are somehow applicable to the content in a way that not only makes sense to the tagger but anyone else looking for specific, or similar/related, content. Content refers literally to any kind of computerized media or object - images, music, files, blogs and blog posts, and more.

We'll be using the term, tag, throughout this and other posts.

If you have never given it much thought, you actually categorize/label, or tag, all of your content - both online and off-. You group friends and contacts in your communications programs (IM, e-mail, etc.) according to similarities - friends, boys/girls, classmates, etc.; your blogs and the posts in them are tagged according to whatever they discuss; your images are tagged according to place, time, people in them, and more; you even tag yourself on social networking sites - even those that don't have a "tagging" system in-place (such as MySpace) - as your interests, personal data, and the the groups you join provide information as to whom you are and it is all searchable (meaning others can use it to find you).

Offline, you still "tag" your files and content, even if you do not use the actual "tagging" option most operating systems offer (right-click on a file under most Windows OS after 98 and choose Properties and you can add labels to the file), simply by placing them in appropriate folders (My Pictures, My Music, etc.).

At its most basic, that is all tagging is: an organizational system you develop to make it easier for you and others to find your content. Pretty much any part of your content that is searchable - which primarily refers to all associated text - contributes to how that content is found. And while readers can always search through your blog to find content, both specific and general/related, search functions often return confusing results. A reader searching for any/all posts relating to journalism will see all of the posts in which you use the word in the actual text of the post, but not those that are specifically about (tagged) journalism, but in which you did not employ the actual search term, "journalism." For many blogs, this is an acceptable navigational method - no structure or system, just a search function.

But if you want your blog to be useful, as well as entertaining, your tagging system is key - doubly-so if your blog is educational in nature, such as this one (ostensibly, anyway). This is why I spend so much time managing and maintaining the tags I use on my blogs.

Your blog's tagging system is one of the primary methods readers use to find content (search being the other, while hyperlinking to related information within posts is a distant last); without it, they have to rely on the Search function, which often misses important posts or even returns results for posts from other blogs, which drives readers away! To these ends, your tagging system is the main navigational system of your blog and you need to develop an earnest structure for it to make your content more accessible to readers.

Using this very post as an example, note that I included only the following tags:
  • Blogging the Write Way
  • Blogging
  • Organization
Now, up to this point, I have not used any of these words in this post, so if you were using the search bar to look for any/all content relating to any of these words, you would not find this post - and it's entire content is directly-related to, and specifically about, every one of those concepts! In fact, no matter how much else I have to say on any of those subjects, this is going to be the most important document on them, so while you would almost certainly come across other posts which link to this one, most readers will not bother to follow them through, and so the majority of the audience would never see this keystone post! This means that readers who are looking for this information will think Weird Ink doesn't have anything to offer and they will consider it less of an authority on its very topic!

That's a death-knell for a "niche" blog!

Conversely, I could have over-tagged the post, including every synonym for every concept, which would have resulted in a much longer list:
  • (All of those in the list above)
  • Tags
  • Categories
  • Labels
  • Navigation
  • Search
  • Blogs
  • Structure
  • Form
  • etc.
Contrary to what you might be thinking, this would make the content even harder to find because it gives the reader way too many options. Since Tag, Categories, and Labels are interchangeable, if you only use one and not the others, some readers might not realize the tag you chose as the one they are looking for. On the other side of that same coin, if you include all three, then you need to remember to include all three on every post concerning this one subject - since they all mean the same thing, you would be filling every post about tagging with two repetitive tags - thereby both confusing and overwhelming the reader!

Repetitious and/or excessive tags are not only confusing on an individual post basis, they also lead to long tags lists. Just like most visitors will not click-through the hyperlinks included in the body of the posts, they won't bother to look through a long list of tags to find the one they need. And if that long list is confusing? Fuggedaboudit!

I chose Organization because that is what tagging is. Navigation would have worked as well, but that is more of a webdesign term, so it is too specific; Organization is a great tag because it is applicable not only to blogging, but also to writing, journalism, and many other subjects we discuss here! Not only will it be used often enough to warrant its inclusion, anyone looking into the topic for any other reason (such as how it applies to writing or journalism) will likely find this post helpful - and they didn't even know to look for it!

Of course, in order to utilize a tag-based navigational system, you will need to include your list of tags on your sidebar or elsewhere on your blog. In Blogger, you can do this simply by going to Layout -> Page Elements -> Add Element -> Labels. See the documentation for your chosen platform to find out how to do this in your blogging software. Make sure the list is easy to find - while some readers may take the time to search for it, others will not even know to look for it, so they won't even bother!

Once your tagging system is underway, make sure to take some time every week or few to go through it, pruning unnecessary tags (they will appear, no matter how careful you are!), combining repetitive ones, clarifying confusing tags, and so on.

With a replete and easy-to-use tagging system, readers can locate information and content they are looking for without having to wade through repetitious and unnecessary search results. With a truly useful tagging system, visitors will also find other, related content which they didn't even know to look for. In the end, while users may still be able to find your content without one, your blog's authority and usefulness will be bolstered by the inclusion of a useful and well-maintained tagging system.

© C Harris Lynn, 2008

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