Tag clouds: gadget, gizmo, gew-gaw or generation gap?

Yesterday I had a meeting with some smart people – really, legitimately smart people – to discuss creating a Web presence for the organization they run. I’d brought a few examples of sites that show a balance between presenting as an expert group and an advocacy group. One of these included a tag cloud on the front page.

Several people voiced concern that the tag cloud could be confusing or alienating and that it was something that didn’t add anything to the site. I’ve been thinking about that since yesterday and totally disagree. This is a device for visualizing the prominence or popularity of ideas. It can be viewed as the equivalent of an index for non-linear content. Would these smart guys argue that books would be better without indexes? I don’t think so. If you think about it though, an index is a far less intuitive means for displaying and organizing ideas.

First of all, you need to know which ideas are important before the index will do much good. You also need to remove yourself from the content in order to access the index; and finally, it is only by reviewing the contents of an index (which may span several pages) carefully that you can get a sense of the weight or prominence of the ideas it includes. Compare that to a tag cloud. It can be persistent on every page of content. By using size, it makes it very easy to see which ideas are most important and it allows access to those ideas in a simple and organized way.

I don’t know, it makes perfect sense to me. Does anyone find tag clouds confusing?

[tags]tag clouds, social media, generation gap, index. visualization[/tags]

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5 thoughts on “Tag clouds: gadget, gizmo, gew-gaw or generation gap?

  1. Yes in a way, it is easier to find a category if ordered alphabetically, while a tag cloud can be rather confusing for the tags that reference only few articles. Tag clouds are good for highlighting the topics that are most popular, so by definition tag clouds under represent those topics that are not popular. However, a list of 20-40 categories in the side navigation of a blog is unmanageable because you will probably have to scroll up and down to see all of the categories. Unless you know what you are looking for, in that case to me it is easier to find a category from a list of categories if ordered alphabetically, no matter how long the list. Having said all this my preference is for a tag cloud, but there are limitations, I think however the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. The only way to determine if you should use a tag cloud for a particular audience is to test it, and see what the audience thinks.

  2. It also depends on the nature of the information the tag cloud represents and how it is presented. For example, the US Presidential Speeches Tag Cloud provides an excellent way to see the major themes from a number of speeches over time. It also provides a handy key for the novice to understand the conventions being used.

  3. John Johansen says:

    I like John’s point about popularity. And Greg’s example seems to back that up. The most popular themes will be the most visible.

    One downside to tag clouds coalescing around popularity is the question tagging scheme. I’m not sure if you are asking broadly about user-generated tag clouds or more controlled tagging. But, in a user-generate cloud, the same piece of content may get a different tag by each user, limiting the usefulness of the cloud as an index. Alternatively, if people discover certain tags are popular they may be used for only marginally related content.

    Overall, I think the idea of tagging is useful but still has some work ahead of it in becoming a tool that is always easier to use than a traditional index.

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