The Noisy Channel

 

Tag Clouds: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

October 21st, 2008 · 5 Comments · General

A while back, I promised to write about tag clouds. I’m a man of my word, and I apologize for the delay in getting to this promise.

First, let’s define tag clouds. A tag cloud is a visual depiction of a set of words or phrases that characterize a set of documents. While “tag” suggests that the words and phrases are user-generated, the contents of tag clouds are often supplied by authors or even automatically extracted. Typically, tag clouds order tags alphabetically and use the size (or some similar typographical aspect) of a tag to indicate its frequency or relevance to the document set.

Tag clouds have been derided as “the mullets of Web 2.0” (I believe the original “mullet” critic was Jeffrey Zeldman). As someone who at least finds himself advising clients about how to improve user experience, I have seen companies clamor for tag clouds without necessarily thinking through how users would benefit from them. Indeed, while a picture may be worth a thousand words, a tag cloud may simply look like a thousand words.

The Good

My favorite example of a tag cloud interface is the ESPN website. Here is a “before” and “after” view of Roger Clemens:

Before:

After:

I know that both Red Sox and Yankees fans read this blog, so I won’t take sides on the accuracy of the Mitchell Report, But the change in the tag cloud clearly and concisely shows how the news about Roger Clemens changed when that report came out.

The Bad

Unfortunately, tag clouds that offer insight are the exception, rather than the rule. Part of the problem is that tag clouds are only as good as the tags they depict:  garbage in, garbage out. Tag clouds can also be so large and heterogeneous. Ryan Turner cites Flickr as such an example in his post, “Tag Clouds Are Bad (Usually)“:

The Ugly

As Greg recently blogged, tag clouds generated by social tagging systems can be worse than unhelpful; they can be actively misleading. Since tag clouds often occupy prime real estate on web site, they are a natural target for what Gartner analyst Whit Andrews calls “denial of insight” attacks.

In summary, tag clouds are a too-often abused but sometimes useful means to communicate information about a set of documents. But sites need to avoid presenting tag clouds simply expose the poverty of their tagging.

Also, while tag clouds may be an appropriate visualization for summarizing of a set of documents, they may not be the best means of presenting users with options for refning it. My colleagues and I discuss this problem in our upcoming HCIR presentation, and I’ll blog about it when I get back from the workshop.

5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Rob // Oct 22, 2008 at 12:27 pm

    OK, so there are two huge problems that I have with tag clouds, in addition to their being total visual noise 99.9% of the time; the total opposite of the nice, stark utility of sites like Google.com.

    The first is that their users have not done enough to figure out if they’re even useful. The first user studies that have been done by Marti Hearst and others have found that users tend not to click on them at all. One of our partners, Buzzillions, used to have really clean, pleasant-to-look at tag clouds on their home page (props to them for making them look nice!), but removed them since users were not utilizing them. Bottom line: there are better, more efficient ways to use that real estate.

    The second complaint is that people too rarely think about what they’re trying to accomplish with a tag cloud. Are you providing a useful navigation tool that helps users find something? Clearly not, as I mentioned above. Are you providing an interesting visualization of data? If so, what data are you providing, and why is it useful to your users? Will it help a user make a decision faster? It won’t help them find what they’re looking for.

    If information visualization is really your goal, is there a better, cleaner, more intuitive way to display the information? “Top 10 Popular Tags” might be a nice side bar that is totally not confusing and probably easier to read and use, for example.

    The tag cloud arose as a cool and hip Web 2.0 visual widget. Displaying them is the moral equivalent to wearing LA Light Sneakers when you’re 7 years old (and, honestly, those shoes are more awesome than tag clouds will ever be). Fortunately, they seem to be going the way of the dodo as Web 2.0 applications become more mature.

  • 2 Daniel Tunkelang // Oct 22, 2008 at 7:29 pm

    Rob, I know I’m not going to convince you to spare the death penalty for tag clouds–though you do seem to be allowing that tag clouds may be useful 0.1% of the time. And, as I said, they are often abused and/or used without forethought about their intention.

    But they are a compact way to offer a visual summary of a document set–assuming that the tags are themselves meaningful.

    As for the alternative of enumerating the popular tags in a list as opposed to a cloud, there are pros and cons. While a list is easier to read linearly than a cloud and makes it easy to show counts, the list takes up more vertical space–which is often at a premium. A tag cloud can present more tags–and size is often just as effective an indicator of importance as counts.

    Tag clouds don’t kill people. Bad designers do.

  • 3 Rob // Oct 22, 2008 at 10:13 pm

    “Tag clouds don’t kill people. Bad designers do.”

    That’s fantastic 🙂

    I don’t mean to say the vertical list is the answer; for one thing, it’s not visually interesting like the tag cloud. I’m just saying that I bet there’s a way to use the site real estate, get information across, *and* be useful to the user at the same time. If there’s been experimentation among the designer community on this front, I haven’t seen it, which is too bad since it means that either they are not worried about replacing the tag cloud or that no reasonable replacement has really caught on.

    Anyone have any links?

  • 4 Rob Smeed // Sep 14, 2011 at 4:30 am

    Is there any benefit of tag clouds from an SEO angle? Does a website position better in search engines as a result of the extra internal links?

  • 5 Daniel Tunkelang // Sep 14, 2011 at 7:33 am

    Unclear. Especially since search engines keep changing the rules. I’d like to think that Google and Bing aren’t rewarding internal link farms, but of couse every system can be gamed. I know something about how Google fights this sort of gaming, but I can’t disclose what I know.

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