What’s the matter with tag clouds?

In response to Rob Cottingham’s post about the death of tag clouds on ReadWriteWeb I would like to elaborate a little why it appears that tag clouds are disappearing. Just to make it clear, I’m not saying that they are actually disappearing, but I do think that there are several reasons why tag clouds aren’t as popular as they used to be.

As is the case with any other new and cool feature, tag clouds have enjoyed a significant amount of hype over the last couple of years. After all, is there an easier way to “visualize” your blog than a simple, yet in some mystical way sophisticated tag cloud? No! But is it really a well readable and that sophisticated visualization? No again.

A tag cloud with terms related to Web 2.Image via Wikipedia

The thing about tag clouds is that after the hype tuned down a little, people started actually thinking about making them acceptably usable. And let’s be honest, that’s not an easy task if you have a blog that’s not as narrow-themed as this one ;) But even if you just write on one single topic, there will be numerous aspects to it and hence numerous tags, which you would want to appear in the nice and shiny tag cloud. However, once the number of tags in a tag cloud reaches 5 or so, they become highly indistinguishable and hard to perceive. In a way, it’s like some amazingly cute but useless social network visualization with 50+ nodes, where all you can see is pretty dots and lines making up a shape, but not the pieces themselves.

So to make a point, tag clouds can be fun and usable at the same time, but like with everything else, they need some more work put into it. One way is to group them by the topic that the target user is interested in and display these groups accordingly. So if I were reading the above mentioned post on RWW I wouldn’t get the entire tag cloud, but only a portion of those that are most related to the tags of the entry (“tagging”, “delicious”, “tag clouds”) -> “semantic”, “metadata” etc.. As you see, there are (many more) ways to make tag clouds appear everywhere again, just make them more usable and you’ll see some of these ideas implemented in the upcoming launch of our Topify project pretty soon. ;)

So stay tuned and.. Tag clouds are dead! Long live tag clouds!

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1 Comment

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One response to “What’s the matter with tag clouds?

  1. robcottingham

    I pretty much agree with everything you say here. What’s dead isn’t the tag cloud as such – it’s the tag cloud as nifty kewl gimmick tacked onto a web site.

    Thanks for linking to the cartoon – I’m glad it’s sparking some discussion!

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