Last Updated 28.02.06
I have been interested in tag clouds since I first knew of them, as they are a very effective way to highlight relevant elements among a cluster. As you may see in the cloud I added to the Archives section, there´s a number of words which correspond to topics I have written about. At a glance, you should be able to know which ones are more relevant, the more frequent ones the bigger and brighter, and clicking on any of the words will get to the list of related articles.
About the words themselves, they are “tags”, nouns that are relevant to the topic in question. There are several ways to deal with them: by hand, automatically or still by hand but “aided”. Adding tags by hand to each article allows you to have precise control over them, avoiding redundancies or irrelevant terms, but it may be tedious and expensive if the site has a big number of untagged articles. On the contrary, letting an analysis system get the tags is almost instantaneous, but irrelevant words could get highlighted. The point in between would be that of still adding tags for each individual article, but letting the automatic process suggest them by feeding it with the text.
In my case, I first tried to add a pluging for wordpress, the Ultimate Tag Warrior, which I read was powerful and flexible, giving both the option to add tags by hand or get suggestions from tagyu. Unfortunately, that first time I couldn´t get it to work, so I searched for something different. I then found tagcloud, which would extract the tags with just a link from my rss feed. I did so but, alas!, it didn´t work: I got a “no-data” message. After a few more tries I decided to ask for help at the Ultimate Warrior site, and I have to say that its creator, Christine, replied very fast and suggested several solutions until I got the plugin to work. Curiously, not long after I had the cloud embedded in the site, tagcloud started to give me results, so I could compare one to another. Here´s the link to the output from tagcloud: there´s an option to exclude words from the list, but I thought it would be interesting to offer the raw results. It may be that I cover topics which are sometimes very different from one another, or that I don´t have as many articles for the “survey” to be useful, but it seems obvious that the “by hand” approach works better for me.
I also found a slightly different plugin at endadgeted.net, which generates a heat map (a tag cloud is a heat map on tags), on the categories and monthly archives. By the way, I don´t think there´s a real difference in between categories and tags at this point: I prefer to have few categories and many tags mainly because of the way wordpress and UTW handle them (also because I like to use the categories for the core topics and the tags for finer detail), but maybe this latter approach could be more practical in some cases. (UTW gives the option to convert categories to tags, but it warns that you should update the database first, just in case).
All in all, I´m very happy with the way the tag cloud works, though I miss a way to “bias” the results so that a tag would be displayed as relevant either because it´s very common or because I want it to be relevant. I also wonder how tag clouds will evolve: I was just thinking on a site which would show pictures of celebrities, the more times they appear in magazines, the bigger their heads… 😉
Update 28.02.06 I have just read an interesting article on tags at problogger. I agree that tags make easier to find articles. However, though more specific than categories, tags are still “hints”, therefore less “catchy” than a listing of articles with their titles.
This said, I think that tags and tagclouds work best when combined with other browsing methods that point to specific articles: in this site´s Archives section, you can use a search bar for specific searches, or browse through lists of articles by date and category, or point to hot topics by means of the tag cloud, or go directly to any of the recently updated articles, or read any of the most popular articles -and there is also a list of featured articles in the sidebar that points to articles I think you shouldn´t miss even if you don´t visit the archives. The objective is to provide you with several points of view and several degrees of detail, so that you are able to understand the whole map and then decide where to go. Or so I hope 😛
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