Tagging Not Likely The Killer Solution For Search

In case you've missed it, there's been an explosion of interest in "tagging," the idea that if everyone labels photos, blogs and so on, we'll more easily be able to find what we're looking for. But all the interest (dare I say hype) is largely ignoring the fact that we've had tagging on the web for going on 10 years, and the experience on the search side is that it can't be trusted.

The meta keywords tag has been around for nearly a decade. The idea behind it in part was that people could use the tag to classify what their pages are about, as well as provide copy that search engines could index if the relevant text for some reason couldn't fit on the page itself.

Last I surveyed, Google still didn't support it. Yahoo did; Ask Jeeves said they did so "unofficially," meaning they might not tomorrow. MSN doesn't, to my current knowledge.

In addition, none -- NONE! -- of these search engines now or ever has made use of the tag in a way to let you perhaps see all the pages "tagged" to be on a particular subject. Why not? The data is largely useless.

Thinking that tagging would lead to top rankings, some people misused the tag. Other people didn't misuse the tag intentionally, but they might poorly describe their pages. In addition, especially as Gary likes to talk about, no one uses the same controlled vocabulary.

Now Yahoo's bought Flickr, which makes use of tagging has part of its photo organizing. Yahoo's game of photo tag from News.com is a nice look at whether a community of taggers will help make Yahoo somehow more competitive against Google, which steadfastly hasn't seen value in tags:

Yahoo itself said that digital photography was secondary to its decision to buy Flickr. More important is Flickr's technology and founding team who "get it," said Yahoo spokeswoman Joanna Stevens. "Flickr's strength are complimentary to Yahoo's goals for creating next-generation services," Stevens said.

If that's the plan -- if tagging is seen as some type of secret weapon -- good luck Yahoo. I'm in the Google camp on this, and you ought to know better yourselves. Anyone on the Yahoo crawling team knows how tags have been misused in web pages. Want to talk about leveraging tags? C'mon, there are literally billions of web pages out there with tags on them already.

OK, but those are self-provided tags! What if we let a community do tagging. Hey, the community already does that through links. Links are a form of tagging pages. And what have we found? Links will get misused, if there's a possible financial gain involved.

Mark me extremely dubious that tagging will make major inroads in improving search. And if I'm wrong, I'll happily mea cupla. But after 10 years of tagging, the experience so far gives me good reason to be dubious.

I'll come back to this issue with a proper rundown on what's been happening with tagging at some other places across the web, which I've been collecting information on. But until then, I'll leave you with some other reading:

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