Tag, I’m It

With the number of blogs now in the tens of millions and the availability of niche blogs on virtually any topic, attention has shifted to the hot space of blog search. The simple truth is that it isn't easy to find a blog post on subjects of interest. Some nifty new tagging features are beginning to make a big difference for users, but the dark side of marketing may hamper the growth of tags.

Recently, a colleague needed new tires for his car. Instead of just heading to the local retailer and being at the mercy of the salesperson, or poking around tire manufacturer Web sites, he went to one of the blog search engines to see what people were writing about tires. He entered the keyword tires, and sure enough, within a few clicks he reached several blogs that had useful information about purchasing tires. But because blog search engines rank keyword and phrase search by the freshness of the post, he also faced a heck of a lot of useless noise with the word tires in the results—things like analysis of tires used in a recent NASCAR race, rants about the garbage (which includes discarded tires) on the sides of freeways, and even posts about . . . ahem . . . "spare tires" on middle-aged men.

It is precisely this problem (the false hits in word and phrase searches, not middle-aged men's lack of exercise) that led blog search engine Technorati to develop a tagging feature that lets bloggers indicate what their posts are about. With Technorati tags, a blogger simply creates a set of meta tags for each blog post. So now if someone is looking for a blog post about tires, he can go to Technorati and search on the tag for tires rather than the keyword. This gets readers much closer to what they are looking for than a simple word search, but this method still has some flaws.

From the blogger's perspective, the benefits of adding tags include increased precision about the post's content. But there's a drawback: you have to think about your tags before you post and then set them up in your blogging service. For example, I use TypePad to create my blog, and the way that I create a tag that Technorati can read requires that I establish a new category for my blog posts. The need to jump through this hoop means that many bloggers won't leverage the benefits of tagging to help people find individual posts because of the (relatively minor) hassle factor involved. The system also has the potential to be abused by people assigning inappropriate tags simply because the tag has a tendency to generate a large amount of traffic. The practice of tag spamming (for example, assigning a "Britney Spears" tag to something unrelated to the pop-tart just to build traffic for advertising revenue from Google or another network) is a growing problem, which has the potential to diminish the usefulness of tags.

Technorati answers this problem with its new "Blog Finder" feature (still in beta as of this writing). Blog Finder allows blog creators to assign subject tags for the entire blog, not just post-by-post. I easily created Blog Finder tags for my blog including "Web Content" and "Corporate Blogging." While not every one of my blog posts are about these subjects, people looking for information on either of them will find content on my blog. With a ranking feature for each subject code, Technorati has taken the concept one step further to make it even easier for people to find a useful blog about a particular subject. Technorati ranks by the number of links to your blog as a proxy for popularity of that subject matter. New bloggers may choose to tag their blog as being about something broad and popular and be ranked way down the list, or create a new tag that has never been used and be number one in the category (or both; Technorati allows up to 20 tags per blog).

There are tons of interesting ways beyond blogs that user-generated tags could help people find content online. For example, classified ads can be tagged based on known criteria so that easy comparison engines can sort, say, automobiles by make, model, year, color, and condition. Personals could be sorted by all sorts of criteria—SWF and the like. Or users could tag music, books, and other forms of artistic expression based on genre and ratings. Another example of user-generated tags comes from del.icio.us, a site that lets users create Web pages of personal bookmarks and share them with others. Users of del.icio.us work together to categorize the Web into a "folksonomy" (user-generated taxonomy). It's fascinating to see how a breaking story with well thought-out tags helps to build traffic remarkably quickly. For example, when the London Underground bombings occurred in July 2005, ordinary citizens posted tagged blog entries as well as photos on sites like Flickr well before mainstream news media had gotten the story. This kind of tagging is definitely it.