Article: Folksonomies: A User-Driven Approach to Organizing Content

Jared Spool

July 19th, 2006

UIEtips 7/19/06: Folksonomies: A User-Driven Approach to Organizing Content

Design teams frequently need to organize thousands and sometimes millions of pages of content. With so much content, how can these teams go about creating an information architecture that is workable, extensible, and meaningful for the site’s users?

One strategy is tagging. Just ask users to free associate words and phrases with every piece of content you have. Soon you have a site organization that’s completely user-driven, making it easy to find everything in a heartbeat. Tagging lets users decide the categorization of the content on the site. Sounds straightforward, but does it work?

Sites like and Flickr have pioneered the use of tags, demonstrating their usefulness in several different settings. Even established players, like Amazon and Google, are using them. This style of community tagging, commonly referred to as a Folksonomy, allows a site to create an alternative categorization scheme, created by the users of that site. But, can they be useful in your design?

In this week’s UIEtips, we’ve re-published an article where Josh Porter discusses tagging and folksonomies. We believe folksonomies, while not yet a proven design tool, show great promise in helping design teams manage large amounts of content.

If you find this article interesting, you’ll also want to check out our latest UIE Virtual Seminar on July 27th, Is Tagging Right for Your Site?, Josh will show examples from dozens of web sites and talk about uses of tags in all industries.

7 Responses to “Article: Folksonomies: A User-Driven Approach to Organizing Content”

  1. Phil S-J Says:

    Tagging does work for Flickr, and works great. From what I have seen, it is not working well for Amazon and it is not working at all for Google video.

    In Amazon’s case, the instructions for tagging are questionable. Sure, they tell you that if a book is about cheese, then tag it with ‘cheese’. They also tell you that if you’re considering it as a gift, you might want to tag it with the name of the potential recipient. But both tags are pointless (for everyone); if a book is about cheese, then it will have the word “cheese” in the title, or at least in the description. And unless I’m missing something, I cannot fathom a use for a collection of “items sold by Amazon that are potential gifts for people named Tom”? It might work for people to organise their own private gift lists, but Amazon makes no distinction, and for a public folksonomy it is absurd. By definition, Amazon is already highly catalogued and organised, and I question the need for any kind of user tagging on their site (beyond the “tech buzz” factor anyway).

    The other example, Google video, calls their tags “labels”, and allows anyone to add them to any clip at will. On the surface, judging from the selection of tags on most popular clips, it seems like Google video users are adding inappropriate tags (‘xxx’, ‘adult’, ‘Zidane’ and so on) to every clip they see. Actually (and the last tag there is the clue) I think what is happening is that users are mistaking the “Add label” field for a search term box, and most of the tags are actually attempted searches. Of course it doesn’t matter _why_ people are adding the irrelevant tags, as they still significantly diminish the potential benefits of tagging.

    So the results are unclear for Google video. Perhaps allowing uploaders to tag their uploads (à la Flickr) would be a better start than offering it up to random viewers.

    Personally, I think that — at this stage in its life — tagging works best in a controlled environment, where the people entrusted with adding the tags are also the content owners/experts and where the concept of tagging is understood by all involved.

  2. Svein Ølnes Says:

    I read Josh Porter’s article about Folksonomies with interest. Clearly this approach can be useful in some circumstances but not all. And the problems with user-generated taxonomies are not touched upon very much.

    It’s interesting that Josh uses the example ‘cameraphone’ to illustrate the usefulness of folksonomies. I would say that this example is better to illustrate the shortcomings of the technology. The tag ‘cameraphone’ is completely useless for users to retrieve information. Why would I care if the picture is taken with a ‘cameraphone’ or an ordinary digital camera? Or an analogue camera for that sake? This is a good example of focusing on the wrong thing – technology instead of content.

  3. Dave Feldman Says:

    I suspect that folksonomies work for (a) applications rather than sites, and (b) applications in which the content is user-owned. In both cases, the idea is that users will be far more likely to tag content they have a stake in and/or will get imediate benefits from tagging. Flickr is a prime example: These are my photos, and I’ll have an easier time navigating them myself if I tag them. I question whether any site that’s primarily “push” will have success with tagging, because I doubt that users will be motivated to take the time to tag on a large enough scale. But then I could be wrong – look at how much user-contributed content exists on Amazon already.

    In a corporate context, I could see tagging working on an extranet where there are significant numbers of worker-contributed docs. (Each author would be asked to type a few words describing the document, and shared corporate jargon would probably help keep the folksonomy consistent despite smaller numbers.)

    I’d also like to see tagging UIs evolve: There’s no reason a multi-level filtering UI couldn’t be constructed for something like Flickr, wherein you click on tags sequentially to narrow the result set.

    Lastly, I’d be interested to see how effective a hierarchical folksonomy might be. Certainly there are parent-child relationships amongst tags in a system like Flickr.

  4. Jim Grey Says:

    If I upload my Hawaii photos to Flickr and tag them all as Hawaii, but you upload your Hawaii photos and tag them all as Hawaiian, you need to search on both tags to find all of the sunny, palm-tree-lined photos. Also, some people may be more interested in the palm trees in their photos and tag them that way, and never bother to tag them as either Hawaii or Hawaiian. (I found this one to be true the other day when searching YouTube for 1957 — I got far more meaningful hits just searching on the term than I did searching on the tag.) Finally, searching on a popular tag such as cameraphone returns so many results that it’s useless.

    I realize that a tag set isn’t an index per se, but two key things you learn as an indexer is that you have to use terms consistently (e.g., pick Hawaii or Hawaiian, but don’t use both), you need to make sure you index broadly enough for your audience (e.g., Hawaii *and* palm tree), and you need each index term to have only so many entries under it or readers will be overwhelmed. This last one is more true in electronic indexes, such as in online Help systems, where you can assign index entries to pages to your heart’s content and not know until you look at the resulting index just how many hits each term has.

    I find that tag sets, when users are good about tagging, are interesting and show a lot about how the tagger thinks. But they don’t yet replace good old search for me.

  5. Ryan Bates Says:

    If you are looking into tagging but want something more hierarchical or multidimensional, I highly recommend looking into facets. It is a way to classify and search content based upon its attributes. See for a good example of facets in action.

    See the wikipedia entry for more information and links:

  6. Erica Says:

    I would be interested to see how this would work for a government site. We do not always organize things the way our citizens think – too often we use our own acronyms or lingo that those outside the organization are unfamiliar with. Also, folks don’t always know what department handles a specific service. We try to organize things both by topic and department, but anything that would help folks navigate our site faster and find exacty what are looking for would be great.

    For example, our department that handles “garbage” or “trash” is called “Solid Waste Management.” I don’t know anyone that would think of that term if they were looking for a schedule of trash pickup times.

    Has anyone out there tried this on a government site, and if so, what were the results?

  7. Ardith G Says:

    Maybe a form of indirect tagging would work better for a site where the content is not user-owned. Assign tags based on users’ search terms and the pages they selected from their search results?

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