Information Architecture (IA)

The importance of tagging when publishing on the web

June 4, 2019
3 mins
An introductory guide to tagging, Part 2. Looking at the renewed interest in subject tagging and the challenges facing organisations in getting their information management right.

An introductory guide to tagging: part 2
In the previous post we made the case for why organisations need to rediscover fundamental library science skills.
Since the 1990s, library science has been written off by many as a relic of the dark ages. The perception has been that the gap could be filled by search engines, machine tagging or folksonomy. However, increasingly organisations are starting to talk about the future in terms of Knowledge Graphs and metadata. The skills of the librarians are back in demand and needed more than ever.
There are a range of skills needed to support a comprehensive information management strategy, but in this post I'm going to examine one:- Subject tagging (more accurately subject indexing).

Why tag?

The first challenge is changing the perception about why to tag content. It is often perceived as being about enabling better free text search. However, this is probably the least important outcome of tagging. 
In fact there is nothing new here. 
Since their inception 200 years ago, subject indexing in card catalogues has been about more than keyword search. Instead these cards represent the domain of knowledge to be explored providing many contextual entry points. Concepts (or headings) are navigated rather than documents themselves. This age-old context based navigation was rapidly lost as library systems became computerised and keyword search dominated.
Karen Coyle describes some of the problems of keyword search based catalogues:

Once a keyword search is done the resulting items are retrieved without any correlation to headings. It may not even be clear which headings one would use to create a useful order. The set of retrieved bibliographic resources from a single keyword search may not provide a coherent knowledge graph.

Karen Coyle Libraryland we have a problem
The situation still prevails today and results in massive lost opportunities for organisations as they have unwittingly allowed this context to reside within the search engines and not in their own publishing systems.
This misunderstanding of the value of subject indexing can mean organisations miss out on the huge benefits. Without structured subject metadata you limit your options when publishing, using analytics and monetising content.
Clearly tagging content comes at a cost. Is it outweighed by the benefits? For organisations spending large sums on producing articles, recording podcasts and shooting video, the associated tagging and other structured descriptive data often represents a tiny cost in percentage terms of creating the original asset.
This is perfectly illustrated by a push in the music industry for better music metadata.

Metadata sounds like one of the smallest, most boring things in music. But as it turns out, it’s one of the most important, complex, and broken, leaving many musicians unable to get paid for their work.

Metadata is the biggest little problem plaguing the industry
So what value can be derived from better tagging? This clearly depends on the specific business model of the organisation. Some examples would be bringing readers to your site and getting them to spend more time there. Others are driven by analytics and user insight. Or it might be about revenue from better targeted advertising or driving paid subscriptions.
In summary, subject tagging provides opportunities to increase the value and impact of content and data. In the next post I am going to look at why subject tagging is not as easy as it seems.
Part 1: Why the web turned its back on the librarians. And why we need them back.
Part 3: Why good subject tagging is hard
Part 4: How to use domain modeling to improve subject tagging