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Tags versus Labels versus Categories…

Wednesday, 24 January 2007 — by

The concept of meta data is often a tricky sell. It’s one of those concepts that requires a little abstract thought. Delivering the idea of meta data without a suitably real-world analogy to a non-technical client, for example, can be a project-ending event.

And so it is with Tags. As ‘blogging enters into the vocabulary of businesses right around the world, so these businesses must become at least familiar with concepts likes Tags, or if you’re a Blogger user like me, Labels, a point which I’ll return to later on.

Tag primer

Using things like Tags within a ‘blog or the likes of Del.icio.us or Technorati is a way of adding further meaning to information.

This is where people’s eyes usually glaze over, but stay with me! It’s not that difficult .. honest!

Remember the last time you walked into a music store and you immediately looked not for the album names, but for the A-to-Z headings?

In some stores, to be ultra helpful, they go one step further by breaking the music down by genre, too. This allows you to refine your search even more.

Another example is any paper-based filing system, such as your accounts. You could just put everything into one folder and still know where everything is, but you would lose nearly all chronological context.

So to get around that, you’d use tabbed card file separators with the month names written on them to delimit the documents by their respective month.

In essence, you’re using data to further describe information. You’ll also find that data and information aren’t the same thing.

Think of data as the eggs, butter, sugar, flower and milk. Think of information as the baked cake.

This cake tastes like a leather jacket!

With all of the near Herculean effort being made to ratify the larger, loftier standards that the web relies on, somehow, Tags got lost, but not forgotten:

“Depending on where you go and who you ask, tags are implemented differently, and even defined in their own unique way. Even more importantly, tags were meant to be universal and compatible: a medium of sharing and conveying info across the internet – the very embodiment of a semantic web. Unfortunately, they’re not. Far from it, tags create more discord and confusion than they do minimize it.”

It’s strange that such a elementary part of the still burgeoning web should be overlooked in this way. Worse still, with the task of defining how Tags should work being left to the developer community has created nothing short of chaos.

Take for example how Del.icio.us deals with Tags, here you delimit Tags with a single space character. But what happens if you’re trying to Tag a phrase? There’s no guidance on that:

“Can tags have spaces in them or not?! If tags don’shouldn’t have spaces, then what do you do with multi-word tags that you just can’t shorten? Do you replace the spaces with underscores, dashes, or just take ‘em out? Does it matter?”

Yes, it does matter. To me, the idea of not making provision for phrases as Tags is nothing short of insane, and here’s why.

Just think about the last time you used Google or Yahoo! and you will have most probably typed in a phrase, not a single word:

“According to data collected from users of European Web analytics provider OneStat, most people use 2- or 3-word queries in search engines. The RankStat research is based on a sample of 2 million visitors, made up of 20,000 visitors in 100 countries each day.”

So, you’ve found what you’re looking for, it pretty closely matches the phrase you used to find it with, now you want to save your newfound web page with Del.icio.us, but there’s a problem.

Your search phrase was: “Windows Home Server”, but Del.icio.us is going to split that down into three distinct words, none of which full convey that one item, and could point to any number of things.

You’ve already got a bunch of stuff under the “Home” Tag, which you use for your household stuff, so that’s clearly going to cause problems, unless Microsoft’s home automation ambitions extend to taking out the rubbish on a Thursday.

From common sense with commas comes a common ground

Personally, comma delimited Tags make the most sense. Sure, there’s going to be those that squeal because they like to use commas in their Tags, as well as quotes. But tell me this: are these Tags or dissertations you’re writing?

Once you start to writing in phrases that use punctuation, then you’re defeating to concept of using Tags, because you’re now using information to describe information, which could be as confusing if not more so.

By definition, a Tag is something that is small, succinct, and easy to read and use. I’d say that’s the way to go.

To compound problems, what happens when you have the likes of Google, who one would expect to lead from the front, to get things both right and wrong at the same time? Why confusion, of course.

The most recent update to Blogger included the new Tags .. err, sorry! I mean the new Labels option.

Look like Tags, act like Tags, but they’re called Labels. Problem is, they also look like Categories, which is something totally different.

When the web has meaning

However, even if we envisage some effort being made to sort out the Tag soup that we have now, what can be achieved? Can the problems be made to go away?

“A truly semantic web most certainly won’t ever exist because of the reluctance to change and the unwillingness to compromise and accept defeat. A semantic web requires objective analysis of methods and data, culminating in honestly evaluated options, and immediate acceptance of the outcome. But that’s never going to happen.”

That I don’t agree with.

In many ways, defeat can be self-imposed. If someone continues to use a method or convention that veers from what is the more established method and doesn’t sufficiently add value, then Darwinian principles take over.

In addition, while the Semantic Web is still some way off, it is an inevitability, if for only one reason alone: there are huge financial gains to be made from the ratification and simplification of the web, and personal agendas be damned…

In related news: Tag or Label?

Unbeknownst to me, someone else has had cause to ‘blog about the Tag versus Label versus Category debacle:

“Tags are one of the defining elements of Web 2.0. When Google started gmail, it used the term label instead of the term tag. When Google developed the new version of Blogger, it also again used the term labels instead of tags … I wondered why Google used this term instead of the other popular one.

When Google used the term label instead of tags in its new version of Blogger I said to myself this might be to continue on the same tradition of gmail. But I noticed something that made me get puzzled. I found that in Google Docs & Spreadsheets, Google does not use the term label and used the term tag instead!”

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