Website tags are one of the enduring but odd features of content and product websites. They are everywhere on the internet. Yet tags are not easy to use and usually make finding information harder rather than easier.
The typical tag lifecycle
Website tags were designed to create a simple way to classify content, especially on less-well organized sites. When Search Engine Optimization (SEO) exploded, many sites developed a tagging strategy intended to create content “silos” in order to strengthen the associations between related content pages.
Yet like many things in SEO, the approach was not well governed and the fear of missing out created a massive tag proliferation. Soon people put almost all the tags on almost all the content, because they weren’t certain which should be included or excluded. In addition, they made no effort to prune tags. Often tag sets associated with content were filled with synonyms created over time by multiple content creators.
For many sites tags eventually became basically just alphabet wallpaper, but the content creators were afraid to change them. First, they weren’t sure what it would do to SEO. Secondly, in some environments the tags had become the de facto controlled vocabulary of the site: used to manage, organize, and curate information.
And so the tags stayed put, a lost opportunity to provide findability to users and imperfectly used to describe the internal underpinnings of an organization.
Are these the tags you’re looking for?
There are 3 key things to consider if you are going to use labels in a good way:
- Tags cannot be your controlled vocabulary! They are there to help users find things at a high level. If they go beyond that, then the set will be too large and specific to be of help.
- Every tag needs to be justified with a specific use case. Individual tags, NOT tags in general. If you don’t get specific, you’ll just talk about “tags being good for finding stuff”)
- Tags should not replicate other guide or search structure on your site (search, top-level navigation, the title of the article itself)? If they did, why do they need to be in a tag?
If you aren’t asking these questions intentionally, then your tags are probably not being used—or worse, are creating busy work and confusion.
Making tags work for you
At this point, you may be wondering whether you should have tags on your site at all, which is a fair point. But if deployed right, there are valuable. The biggest advantage a good tag set has is the ability to collect information that has commonality but is not organized in the silos of the site’s top-level navigation. Examples of this include
- work topics, or
- an organization’s internal systems
In future blog posts, we’ll talk about the ways you can think about tagging on your site, especially as you start to use them to improve other parts of your search and browse tools, like keyword search, top level navigation, and facets.