Andy Swindler

March 11, 2009

Keywords and Categories and Tags, Oh My

With billions of web pages out there, the web would be utterly useless without search engines and tools that help us label and categorize content to make it easier to find. This taxonomy breaks down into “meta data,” which is extra information that you attach to a piece of content to help describe it, and the content itself. A good example is a digital photograph. It’s likely that you usually only look at the photo itself, but your camera automatically attaches meta information such as date/time and perhaps location. New face recognition software makes it even easier to find that particular photo you’re looking for in your library of thousands.

What do categories, tags, and keywords all have in common? These are all tools we use to organize and classify information in order to make it easier for people to find when they need it. I’ll describe each below using this blog post as the consistent example to illustrate the differences.

I’m going to start with categories since they are the most intuitive. Categories are used to define general topics of interest related to a subject. You can see the Astek Blog categories listed to the right of this post. Categories serve two very useful functions when applied to blogs. 1) It helps the readers know at a quick glance the general topics being covered by the blog. 2) It helps the author(s) stay focused. Blogs are best when they are focused around a certain set of topics and this is an easy check to make sure the blog post is still on track. It is common to see something generic like “General” as the only category. While this can be applicable in some cases, it’s typically not an effective way to label your posts.

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Categories are common in blogging software. You can typically define the categories you want to write about, and each time you write a post simply select the categories that apply to that post. If you find yourself commonly wanting to write about a category that isn’t in your list, go ahead and add it. Just remember to keep your list relatively short (fewer than ten) to make it easy on the reader. In this case, I used the following categories for this post:

Categories: ePiphany Featured Story, Marketing, Social Media, Technology, Web

As it becomes easier and easier for anyone to create and distribute content of all types on the Internet, categories quickly start to become a fairly limited way to organize information. Enter tags, which have become popular in the past few years. While I recommend putting a limit on the number of categories you use, there is no practical limit the number of tags you can attach to your content. Any significant concept word that is related to your text is worth putting in as a tag.

Tags are single-word labels that you can add to as you go. A tag “word” might actually contain more than one word, but it’s important that the tag have no spaces for consistency. Whereas I felt limited to five related categories for this post, I assigned ALL of the following tags to describe the article I’m writing:

Tags: apple, astek, blog, bookmarking, categories, community, content, design, distribution, how-to, information, internet, keywords, Marketing, media, publishing, search, seo, sharing, social, socialmedia, tags, Technology, tip, tool, Web, web2.0, writing

To get an idea of all the specific areas we cover in the Astek Blog, check out our tag cloud:

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Okay, that looks cool, but what does it mean? Notice how some of the words in the tag cloud are larger and bolder than others? Technology, Web, socialmedia, Entrepreneurship, etc. The more a single tag is used to describe each post on this blog, the larger and bolder that tag will become in the tag cloud. This makes it easy to see at a glance which topics are covered more than others, which gives readers a more detailed topical view of the blog content. Click on a tag to see all the posts related to that word or concept.

Tags emerged from social media. Delicious.com and Flickr.com were at the forefront of developing this technology a few years ago. Since then, tags have become the commonplace method of assigning labels to vast amounts of information to make it easy to find later. I recommend you sign up for a free account at Delicious.com to store all your web bookmarks in one location (great for accessing from various locations). There is also no better way to demonstrate how tags depend on the community to make sure people are using them consistently. When you bookmark a site in Delicious.com, the community suggests several tags that other people have used to describe that web site. Typically the community gets it right, which means you have to think less about what tags to use. It makes everything quicker and more reliable.

In the following example, I tried to bookmark Apple’s web site in Delicious. Since I had already bookmarked it, Delicious shows me all the tags I had already used (highlighted in gray boxes). However, since that was awhile ago, the community has applied many new tags to describe the site. All I have to do is click on the new tags I want to assign to the bookmark.

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Then, when I want to find a particular web site, I can use tags to filter my bookmarks. In order to find Apple on my Delicious.com account, I might type the following tags:

Tags: computer hardware ipod

In that example Apple is the only site that has all three of those tags attached to it. If I remove the “ipod” tag, I get six results (including Apple) that are related to “computer hardware.” Go ahead and try it yourself.

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In the blogosphere, prominent blog search engines like Technorati and blog authoring tools like WordPress collect tags from all the people who use these services. When you write a post on WordPress, it suggests tags that others have used based on the content you are writing. The more people consistently use tags to describe content, the easier it becomes to discover content that relates to other web sites. We’re moving away from meticulously crafting the taxonomy, and instead tossing it all in the bag. The trick is if we put a tag on everything on the way in, we’ll know where to grab it on the way out.

Last, but certainly not least, we have keywords. I’m going to save an in-depth discussion of search engines for another ePiphany, but keywords are used most heavily when using sites like Google, Yahoo, Alta Vista, etc. to find specific content on the web. Search engine optimization (SEO) is also called search engine marketing.

If you’ve stuck with me so far, you might be asking yourself what the difference between a keyword and a tag is. The key difference between the two is that tags are attached to content and keywords are IN the content itself. It’s a special combination of art and science to properly optimize a page on a web site. First we find the keywords that people are using to find that type of content, which is not always intuitive and requires research. Then we integrate these keywords directly into your content through strategic copy writing to allow search engines to find them contextually. The trick here is preserving the integrity of the authored material while making it searchable.

Gone are the days of loading up meta keywords behind the scenes and being done with it. A good SEO strategy requires consistent monitoring and tweaking.

A Few Things To Keep In Mind:

Pluralization and alternate forms are always a bit weird with tags. I usually just put both forms in. You never know if someone will search for “finance” or “financial” or “finances.”

Spelling is something common to all of these. A misspelled tag or keyword will result in the content potentially not coming up. Some people optimize for misspellings to grab some low hanging fruit (e.g., micorsoft).

There is common confusion about the “rules” of tagging. Particularly when you get into the semantics of multi-word phrases like “social media.” My advice is to use any variation of the tag you think is appropriate. In that case I would use “socialmedia,” “social,” and “media” as separate tags.

Feel free to post questions in the comments.

astekarrow10.jpg This post was featured in ePiphany, Astek’s Monthly Newsletter |  Other ePiphany Articles 

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