Tagging The Web

September 1st, 2007


Originally published in Intercom (Society of Technical Communication)

In this era of Web 2.0, it seems that blogs, mash-ups, RSS feeds and wikis have been the buzzwords occupying most of the limelight. But personally, tagging is the Web 2.0 technology that excites me the most, because of its versatility and wide applicability.

A tag, according to Wikipedia, is “a (relevant) keyword or term associated with or assigned to a piece of information (e.g. a picture, article, or video clip), thus describing the item and enabling keyword-based classification of information.” More simply put (with due credit to Flickr.com): tags are like keyword or category labels, and they can help visitors find items which have something in common.

With tagging, items are cataloged and organized by keyword. Those keywords can then be displayed as navigation using what’s called a “tag cloud.” In a tag cloud, the font size of each keyword is proportionate to the number of times that keyword has been used as a tag. In other words, the more items a tag has been associated with, the larger the font size. Tag clouds were first popularized on Flickr, the photo sharing website. The social bookmarking site del.icio.us further popularized tag clouds. A tag cloud provides web visitors with a quick visual indication of what tags are most popular on a site. It’s a new, more intuitive way to navigate an extensive collection of content and find information. A tag cloud makes your website look very Web 2.0ish (if that’s a word?).

Clicking on a tag in a tag cloud leads the visitor to a “tag page.” A tag page contains a collection of the most recent items that have been tagged with the particular keyword. Tag clouds aren’t the only way to navigate to a tag page. Typically, an item’s tags will be displayed adjacent to the item, with each tag linking to its tag page. Also once on a tag page, you can often find links to other tag pages through a list of “Related tags.” A tag is related to another tag if there are items that that have the tag in common.

Tagging isn’t just a tool for usability, it’s also a powerful weapon for search engine optimization (“SEO”). That’s because tagging allows you to rejig your internal hierarchical linking structure, flowing the link juice (a.k.a. PageRank) more strategically throughout your site using keyword-rich text links. The anchor text (the underlined words) of links is especially important to SEO, because Google and the other major engines associate the underlined words with the page to which you are linking. From an SEO standpoint, a tag cloud is far superior to a graphical navigation bar and presents real opportunities.

When tagging is applied to a website, such as a blog, it can significantly increase the site’s traffic by achieving visibility for a much larger array of search terms. Consider for example, the case of my own personal blog, StephanSpencer.com: simply by tagging one of my posts with the keyword “blog optimization,” I received a top 10 ranking in Google for the query “blog optimization” â?? within only a few weeks and without any additional effort. It was a tag page that achieved the high ranking for me; and it was created automatically the first time I used the tag. (Note: I use WordPress as my blog software and Ultimate Tag Warrior is the WordPress plugin that does this for me.) A tag page, by its very nature, is designed to have its tag as its keyword focus, and a strong keyword focus helps the page “sing” to the search engines. Simply bear in mind what you want to rank for when coming up with tags for your content. Presto! Instant rankings.

Tagging is particularly effective at delivering “Long Tail” search traffic if you have implemented “tag conjunction pages” on your site. When I say “Long Tail,” I’m referring to the concept as described in Chris Anderson’s definitive book of the same name (The Long Tail, ISBN 1401302378). Long Tail search terms are the more obscure search terms that few people search on, but when considered in aggregate, it can add up to a sizeable amount of traffic. An example of a Long Tail search term is “links and blog optimization.” One of my blog’s tag conjunction pages (www.stephanspencer.com/tag/blog-optimization+links) ranks #1 in Google for that esoteric search term. That tag conjunction page was created automatically by the fact that I have posts with those two tags in common. That tag conjunction page is displayed in the right column of the “blog optimization” tag page (www.stephanspencer.com/tag/blog-optimization), underneath the section titled “Related Tags.” Each “Related tag” is preceded with an “AND” and an “OR” link pointing to a tag conjunction page. By displaying links not just to the related tag pages but also to conjunctions between related tags, multitudes more pages are made available to the search engine spiders.

It should be noted that tagging is applicable not just to blogs, but all types of sites â?? ecommerce sites, content sites, even corporate sites. Probably the most well-known ecommerce site is Amazon.com, and it supports tagging. In fact it supports consumer-generated tagging.

Some sites allow tags to be defined by the community of visitors, not just the content author. A taxonomy of content items influenced by your visitors is called a “folksonomy.” Should you allow your visitors to tag your content? That depends on how good of a job your visitors will do and how good your quality control systems are at stamping out spam and minimizing noise. Amazon.com’s tagging system has been plagued with useless tags like “betty’s birthday,” which really only has value for the tagger and no one else. Nonetheless, tagging seems to be working for Amazon; if it wasn’t they would cease expanding upon their tagging functionality and probably discontinue offering it altogether. Another issue with letting visitors do the tagging is lack of consistency. Sometimes visitors will misspell words, sometimes they will add hyphenation, sometimes they will use obscure synonyms. Which brings me to another point: your visitors don’t know how to (and don’t care to) conduct keyword research â?? identifying popularity of various keywords by search engine users. They may, for instance, tag a product with “hard disk” when “hard drive” is the much more popular keyword with searchers. But what do you expect? After all, you’re getting free labor!

One corporate site where tagging has been utilized, to great effect, is my company’s website â?? Netconcepts.com. Tagging was largely responsible for a more than doubling of pageviews â?? within two months. First, every testimonial, every portfolio entry, every press mention, as well as each bio, article and case study, was broken out into a separate blog post. Then, each post was tagged with appropriate keywords. For example, all the testimonials were tagged with the word â??Testimonialsâ??. So instead of having a single testimonials page as we used to, we have a testimonials tag page that spans three web pages (at 10 posts per page) and each of the 30 testimonials is a separate web page now too. In other words, we went from 1 page to 33 pages; thatâ??s a lot more search engine fodder, all with different keyword foci!

Spiders can find and index these tag pages through the text links contained within the tag cloud on the home page, through text links underneath each post, and through links to â??Related Tagsâ?? on each tag page. Remember, Related Tags are determined from posts that have the tag (from the tag page in question) in common. So, for example, because we have posts that are tagged with both “Email Marketing” and “Testimonials”, “Email Marketing” then appears as a related tag on the Testimonials tag page and “Testimonials” appears as a related tag on the Email Marketing tag page. Letâ??s restate that a little bit differently just to clarifyâ?¦ All our email marketing related items (testimonials, case studies etc.) were tagged with “Email Marketing.” Consequently, there is a tag page that relates to “Email Marketing” and a tag page that relates to “Testimonials.” Additionally thereâ??s a tag page that relates to “Email marketing testimonials” â?? the intersection of those two tags. That makes for a plethora of tag pages, considering how many different permutations there are for various combinations of tags being “ANDed” or “ORed” together. The result? Thousands of tag pages and tag conjunction pages indexed by Google, many of which are bringing in traffic, albeit individually in small amounts. For example, a tag conjunction page ranks well in Google for “email marketing testimonials,” though few search for that term. In all, the traffic increase from this initiative was substantial, as illustrated in the traffic graphs in the case study at www.netconcepts.com/netconcepts-case-study/.

Over time, look for tagging to become much more widespread across the Web. Until then, tagging presents a distinct competitive advantage, both in terms of search engine visibility and user experience.

Stephan Spencer is the founder and president of Netconcepts (www.netconcepts.com), a web agency specializing in SEO, ecommerce, and website design, as well as email marketing through Netconcepts’ gravityMail division (www.gravitymail.com). Stephan can be reached at sspencer@netconcepts.com, or on his blog at www.stephanspencer.com.