Getting the right tags for your blog is important. For starters, it will affect how your blog appears to search engines and other services. Next, it will impact upon the way your readers navigate your blog to find other posts. The tags you choose - seen as a whole, say as a tagcloud - also tell the reader a lot about how the blog is positioned. With so much riding on it, getting a good set of tags is worth a moment's reflection. To tackle this problem, I've drawn upon my own experience with retro-fitting tags to two blogs, plus conversations with blog tagging luminaries like Johan, John and Singpolyma. I would love to hear from you (below) with your own stories and advice for getting on top of this.
Tags vs Categories
One of the common distinctions that comes up is whether you're using tags or categories ("tags-as-categories") for your posts. The distinction is that categories are fewer in number, generic, chosen beforehand, possibly hierarchical (sub-categories) and persist for a long time. Sometimes people will file a post under only one category. Tags are much more specific, made up on the spot, are "flat", may be single-use and each post may have half a dozen or more of them. Categories work well for navigation within your blog and integration between blogs (better chance of a match-up with a related blogger). But they can be a bit too generic for readers to get a sense of your blog. Also, if you want to pick up traffic from tag-searchers you may need to go beyond your generic "art" and "culture" and delve a little deeper.
In practice, the category/tag distinction is a question of degree and many authors use a hybrid strategy: tag their posts wildly but reserve ten or so to use as categories. This seems to be a best-of-both-worlds scenario, as your top tags (when sorted by frequency) function like categories while the long-tail of one-shot tags is useful for tag-searchers.
You can also create a traditional hierarchy by including the higher-level tags as well. For example, you could indicate that a post belongs in the "science/physics/theoretical" sub-category by using all of "science", "physics" and "theoretical" as the tags. That way, you can see all posts under science/physics using tag intersections.
Setting Up Your Tagspace
The first step is to recognise that you will want to use your tagging service account (at delicious, simpy or elsewhere) for more than just tagging your blog posts. For instance, you may wish to use it to store your bookmarks! Or for tagging posts in a second blog or guest blog. The easiest way to accommodate this is with an anchor tag for each blog. This means that you have to think up a simple one-word label for your blog and ensure that each and every post is tagged with this label. This will ensure that any subsequent blog hacks you employ will work on a cleanly separated list of tags/posts. It is very frustrating seeing random links or posts from other blogs appearing in your sidebar!
Next, you need to nail your list of "recurrent tags" (or categories, if you prefer). Doing this for a blog that doesn't yet exist is very difficult and amounts to little more than a blog's mission statement. (Sadly, all too often it has the same energising effect - and correspondence to reality - as a corporate mission statement.) This is where retro-fitting tags is a blessing: you already know what the blog is about, what topics are covered and where it's headed.
At this point, you might consider having "themed" tags. For example, You're It! blog uses "who, what, how, why". My letters-to-the-editor blog started out following traditional newspaper categories: politics, foreign affairs, education, media, IT, lifestyle etc. My footballer-scrutiny blog uses crimes: bashing, rape, drugs and so on. While this may be an okay starting point for brand new blogs, I'm a bit wary of using this approach for established ones. The temptation is to shoehorn your tags to fit the pre-conceived theme rather than putting the content first.
[A tip for those with very popular blogs: find out what tags your readers use to describe your blog. Not only will this give you insight into how the world sees your content, but will also provide ready-made "hooks" into the wider tagosphere.]
I recommend skimming your blog's titles if it's more than a few months old, then writing down a list of, say, six tags (as categories) plus a couple of "policies" for dealing with tags targeting the long-tail . For example, you may decide to tag all company names (or product names, or place names, or other bloggers etc) mentioned in each post. Beforehand, decide on a "format" for these tags. For company names, will you use the parent company name or the relevant division? Acronyms? Stock ticker names? You get the idea; consistency may be "the hobgoblin of small minds", but it also makes for a usable tagspace.
OK, once you've got your category-candidates and long-tail policies, trial it out on a few post. Just pick out a nice selection of posts - early/late, short/long, typical/unusual - and see how well it fits. While you won't get each tag being used an equal number of times, I'd suggest that you don't want more than a factor of ten difference between your most-common and least-common recurrent tag (excluding the anchor tag of course). You'll want to fine-tune your tags at this point, but keep in mind that fewer is better. This is because it is relatively easier to split tags than to merge them. Eg. All posts tagged "culture" become tagged with "art" + "media", and you can manually remove "art" (or "media") from relevant posts.
Another point: how do you form your specific tag? For example, should you use "math" (American English), "maths" (British English) or "mathematics"? What about using underscores or hyphens or CamelCase? Singular or plural? While some tagging guidelines are available, there are no standards. One solution is to use all variations at once. While this will ensure you will get the tag-searchers, it also clutters your tagspace, reducing usability and potentially turning off readers. Another approach is to look at which version is most popular on a range of tag sites. Personally, I recommend going local: look at your corner of the blogosphere (blogs you cite, shared readers, blogs that cite you) and see what conventions are followed. If, later on, you decide you backed the wrong version, you can readily rename it.
Tagging Your Posts
The actual mechanics of adding tags to your blog posts are straightforward. There is a range of bookmarklets, greasemonkey scripts and other add-ons to support this. In term of the process, should you have only a few posts, it's best to just go through them in chronological order. I'd suggest that each post will average about two minutes to process (one minute to skim and choose tags, another minute to add them).
If you're facing several hours of this, it's best to break it up into blocks. To that end, I recommend prioritising your tagging efforts. Through mechanisms like web traffic counters and backlinks, you should have a good idea which are your most popular posts. Put these at the head of the queue. Next, your blog may have changed its content or focus over time. Posts from an earlier, less relevant epoch should go to the end of the queue. In the middle, put your "recommended posts" ie those that are not necessarily seeing a lot of traffic but which are likely to be of interest to readers of the high-traffic posts. (Do these in reverse chronological order. More recent means more impact.)
After this experience, chances are you'll want to modify your tag selection again. On the second pass, allow one minute per post for, say, 25% of posts.
From time to time, you will feel compelled to add new categories (recurrent tags). This is natural as you discover "better" tags for existing content (ie more popular or widely-understood versions of your tags) and your blog evolves its scope. However, there is the danger of a "tag explosion" rendering your tagspace unwieldy. To instill discipline, you could try promising to yourself to only add a new category if you're prepared to go back through your posts and reflect the changes throughout the blog history. To that end, ask yourself (in order of ease and frequency):
1) Is this renaming an existing tag?
2) Is this splitting an existing tag into two?
3) Is this a brand new tag that could apply anywhere?
The prospect of wading through all those posts again to see if the new tag applies should be sufficiently irksome to put the brakes on too much enthusiastic tag creation.
Finally, an important aspect of maintaining your tags is to monitor their usage. Most blog category/tag mechanisms (eg built-in, FreshTags, links to delicious and search engine approaches) will provide you with traffic stats about which tags your readers are using. It's worth considering whether or not your readership agrees with the tags/categories that you think are important. Do your readers use them like generic categories? Or do they prefer the really specific tags? What about tag-searchers and other inbound traffic?
Now, I'd like to hear from you. What experiences have you had with retro-tagging your posts? What tips would you offer newbies? What are some pitfalls to watch out for? What about automatic tools to help with this arduous task?
Filed in: technorati, tags, tagging, folksonomy, blogs, blogging, blogger, blogtech, delicious, how-to