Create harmonious tag families with a sensible framework

The rundown

Here’s the formula: This content is a (form) about (subject) for (audience).

How to use the formula — and where it came from — takes some explanation.


Stumbling through mistakes

I didn’t set out to invent a tagging methodology. It happened organically, by necessity and curiosity.

Maybe “methodology” is too pompous. Mindset seems more appropriate. I believe tags aren’t labels slapped on ad-hoc. Tags are tools for building connections.

I discovered the idea of “tag strategy” by struggling with a news platform some years ago. I wanted to break an incoming stream of articles into easy-to-manage chunks. So I invented tags, including:

  • Informational
  • Promotional
  • Overview
  • Politics
  • Top news

Problems emerged after only a week. I tagged all information as “informational.” Because … obviously. Most feature stories contained overviews, so I wasn’t sure if “overview” was actually a sub-tag — whatever that meant. I added and removed the “top news” tag so often that the chore became moot. “Politics” applied to half of the content passing through the system, rendering it almost useless as an “easier chunk” filter.

None of the tags helped me organize data. They just cluttered the system’s interface.

So I turned it around.

What isn’t a tag?

I left the news platform with a vague inkling that tagging could apply to any project — if done right. I was also learning about the Dublin Core Metadata Initiative. So I started pondering the difference between metadata and tags.

Metadata are “information about information,” like titles and dates. In my experience, they’re are usually bits of info that get their own fields in a database table. Tags are more of a pivot or match table sorta deal. Put another way, metadata are part of a package. Tags are reusable stickers on the package.

I didn’t get it at the time, exactly. To understand the difference, I thought about what tags are not while developing an ad management system. This resulted in a list:

  1. Tags do not come from calculations
  2. Tags are not exclusive to one type of information
  3. Tags are not always objective
  4. Tags exist in a sweet spot between too-general and too-specific

This applies to all kinds of content. Podcasts, for instance. Podcasts don’t need tags for duration any more than articles need word count tags. Length is a measurable fact, not an arbitrary descriptor.

Soon after learning about the Dublin Core and microformats, I began exploring accessibility and semantic markup.“Tags describe what things are about” became my mindset.

“Interview” could be a tag. So could “backpack.” Both can apply to more than one podcast episode, article, or video; they can’t be calculated from the content they describe; and they’re open to interpretation.

But the idea wasn’t ideal. I thought that since no news items were about, say, “purple,” then “purple” was not a tag. Well, not a good tag. OK, not always a good tag. When exploring Adobe Kuler, and stock image sites, a “purple” tag made more sense.

Lesson learned: good tags work in context. That idea lead to a system.

Inventing tag families with a system

I dropped the “tagging is important!” platform for a few years. Producing articles became more important than them. When I picked up tagging again, I was getting paid to preach the value of CSS frameworks.

One day, something clicked.

Nutshell: Frameworks are sets of code people use to build apps or websites. Sure, the word “framework” has other uses. But for digital content, frameworks are starting points for developers and designers. Why not content folks? What would a framework for tags look like?

Well, like design frameworks, a tag framework would provide a template on which people could build sensible taxonomies. I tested a few ideas, and the simplest one proved best. It was a sentence.

This content is a (form) about (subject) for (audience).

What you’re reading now is a “tutorial” about “tagging” for “organizers”. Another post might be an “overview” about “state parks” for “armchair backpackers.” Both cases suggest three types of tags:

  • Form
  • Subject
  • Audience

I called these groups “families.” Within each, I could make tags appropriate to any piece of content consistently across any given project.

Finally, I’d hit pay dirt.

Meet the families

Here are the most common tag families I use today.

Form tags are the format that the content takes, like list, rating, Q&A, prose, infographic, or teaser. Longer pieces of content may get more than one tag, if they contain more than one content type.

Subject tags are topics like fruit, software, history, trekking poles, or t-shirts. They’re also where I tend to defy my guideline about things vs. concepts … which is why these are guidelines, not rules. “Subjects” what people usually think of when they invent tags.

Audience tags describe groups people, like gamers, veterans, southpaws, patrons, or stressed-out office workers. This family helped me focus the tone of content as I created it; when you write for an audience, you learn to remove extraneous ideas. (Again, that breaks my guideline about avoiding plurals.) (Again, they’re guidelines.)

Singular or not, I also discovered that my best tags were nouns.

This content is a (noun) about (noun) for (noun).

The above sentence is a tag framework I use to create frameworks per project. Yeah, I know that’s ironically meta in a post about taxonomy. So let’s get to brass tacks.

I might tag the article you’re reading as a “tutorial.” Tutorial is a noun. The article could also be “educational,” which is an adjective. But most often, I find that nouns are better than adjectives. Here’s why.

This content is (adjective). It is (adjective) and (adjective).

Let’s try it:

This content is inspiring. It is short and sweet.
This content is mauve. It is intense and vanilla.

Um … no. Adjective-based frameworks fail because they lack substance.

Going forward

As I write this, I’m involved in a complicated project with a mountain of content from diverse sources. I’m not in charge of the taxonomy … but as an experiment I’ve successfully applied the framework to most of the content in the inventory.

Every project may not require a full tagging strategy, but after years of contemplation, I believe this framework can fit many needs. That’s why you’ve just read an overview about tagging for organizers.