Categories and Tags: Why Not Have Both

When Joshua Schachter first came up with the idea of tagging in 2003, most people didn’t get it.  Del.icio.us had its strange url and offered the seemingly simple idea of social bookmarks and tagging.  Today, Delicious is seen as one of those classic technology stories.  Start up innovates, gains a buzz, and sets off a technology storm.  Indeed, when Yahoo! purchased Del.icio.us in 2006, it was quite a catch.  (As a footnote,  Joshua Schachter who left Yahoo! in June, 2008 has now announced that he is an employee at Google.)

While tagging is great and in today’s Web 2.0 environment, pretty much essential, we at HubPages believes that it is not enough by itself.  While tags provide a very nimble way of organizing content, they have limitations as a mechanism for thoroughly organizing a web site.  There is a skill in coming up with the right set of tags and not everyone has the time or the interest in making sure that each of their hubs has the appropriate, popular tags associated.  It is hard to imagine that any tag will be used consistently and reliably by all authors.

We’ve created a tag suggestion tool to help people come up with tags.  There are web sites galore that help people figure out which tags they should use.  But even with these tools, tags have many limitations.  How many tags do you use for any hub?  What happens if someone mistypes a tag.  Should we have a tag spelling checker?  What happens if one persons add an ‘ing’ or adds a hyphen.  The strength and weakness of tags is that they are imprecise.

At HubPages, to address these limitations with tagging, we’ve decided to add categories to HubPages.  By categories, I mean a set of terms that are fixed and organized hierarchically.  There will be overlap.  For example, if a topic fits in two places, we will have a “See Also” reference.  We recognize that it will take some time for hubbers to get used to categories.  For this reason, an author will be able to change their mind as to which category or subcategory their hub belongs.  But the rule will remain that each hub will belong to one and only one category/subcategory at a time.

Categories were the standard approach before Joshua Schachter’s innovation and as a way of organizing content in a definitive and reliable way provide many benefits.  In our view, allowing users to flag their hub with both a single category/subcategory as well as tags is the way to go.

A category hierarchy is pretty much static.  It provides a way of navigating through the site and making it easier to find related content.  If it is chosen correctly, it provides a way of giving a full survey of web site content.  If you are looking for ideas on what to write about, a category hierarchy can help you survey what’s out there.  Tags are great ways to deep dive but categories are better for a high level survey if they are well chosen.

That really brings up the major reason why categories often have a bad reputation.  They are surprisingly very difficult to get right.  Deciding where something fits in can be frustrating.  Real life does not fit cleanly into categories.  A well written hub may easily fit in multiple categories.  A category by its very nature is an oversimplification: it emphasizes only one dimension of a multidimensional entity.

That being said, I would still argue that categories when they are well chosen are very useful.  One of the most successful categorization schemes is Roget’s Thesaurus put together by Peter Mark Roget in 1852.  When I was in high school, it was a must-have for writers as they searched for interesting words.  The cornerstone of the library reference section was dictionaries, thesauruses, and encyclopedias.

Many a web site has tried to create a perfect hierarchical organization.  I remember the early days of Yahoo! when it looked like its human-organized directory was going to be the definitive way to organize the web.  Before Google showed us the power of search, it really looked like directories were the way to go.  Here’s an old article from CNET that talks about human powered search being the winner in 1999.

Directories have many limitations.  The web is unbelievably dynamic at its very core and changes more rapidly than any human-powered directory.  Another problem is deciding which categorization is the best.  What is intuitive to one person may be completely baffling to the next.  People tend to have their own, personal way of organizing web sites.  This is one of the great appeals of Delicious which gives users the ability to tag web sites their own way.  Still, despite these limitations, if categories are done right, they become a useful navigation device.

As a child, I was a frequent visitor to our local library.  I learned by heart the Dewey Decimal system invented by Melvil Dewey in 1876.   With this knowledge, I could browse the entire library by going to the appropriate section for any topic.  History and Geography was in the 900s.  Science and Math was in the 500s.  Of course, you don’t need to know the categorization scheme to take advantage of it.  Once you have the library index number for a book, you can find similar books very close to it on the shelf.  The real value is the ease with which you can find related books.

At HubPages, we are not trying to do anything as complete as the Dewey Decimal System or Roget’s Thesaurus.  Our categorization will only be three-levels deep.  Our thinking on this is that three levels of depth gives people the opportunity to pinpoint their topic area for a hub without going into too much detail.

We are planning to put this together with participation by the Hubber community.  We will present our proposals for topic categories in the announcements section of the forum.  Our plan is to give Hubbers time to review our categories and provide feedback.

To get the ball rolling, I have listed below our currently planned top level categories:

  • Art & Writing
  • Automotive
  • Birthdays & Holidays
  • Business & Jobs
  • Entertainment
  • Fashion
  • Food
  • Games, Toys, & Hobbies
  • Gender & Relationships
  • Health & Beauty
  • Home & Family
  • Personal Finance
  • Pets & Animals
  • Politics & Social Issues
  • Religion & Beliefs
  • Science & Education
  • Sports & Recreation
  • Technology
  • Travel & Places

So, what do you think?

This is a work in progress so feel free to post your comments to this blog.

10 thoughts on “Categories and Tags: Why Not Have Both

  1. Nice developments to look forward to. I see that most of my own topics still do not have a catagory like Gemstones & Jewelry, Arts & Collectables, Astrology, Numerology etc. I also feel that Health can be an independent catagory and combine beauty & lifestyle together. Also you can add a catagory ‘Miscellaneous’ or ‘Everything else’.

  2. 1. Photo Gallery Category is needed – This is a good opportunity to give a separate Category to Photo Gallery Hubbers – This will avoid photo hubs getting mixed up with articles. This was the greatest demand by hubbers in this site. I hope this step will make everyone happy.

    2. Product Reviews – It is better to make it a top level category as more people now a days depend on reviews before buying a product or before doing anything.

    3. The category “Home & Family” will be better if named “Real Estate & Home”

    4. The category “Gender & Relationships ” will be better if named “Relationships & Family”

  3. Its a difficult job, as you say, because you are dealing with people’s perceptions and prejudices. These are my personal impressions only, supplied to help you figure it all out. I am sure you will be guided by the insider information of what people actually write about.

    Automotive – I am surprised that this warrants a level 1. If writing volumes justify it then OK, otherwise I believe these posts could be accommodated by Business, Hobbies & Recreation.

    Birthdays & Holidays – I am not sure birthdays warrants a level 1 status and Holidays could be grouped with Travel. Maybe drop this category as level 1?

    Business & Jobs – Business should be just business. Jobs should be level 2.

    Entertainment – strong category – agree although you may consider Entertainment & Media.

    Fashion – Maybe better Fashion & Beauty to give the important category of Health its own status.

    Food – not sure this is a level 1 – if writing about cooking then post under Home & Family, if eating out then post under Entertainment. Maybe drop as a level 1 and make it a level 2 Cooking, Restaurant?

    Games, Toys, & Hobbies – I think Toys & Games should be level 2 – This category should be just Hobbies & Recreation

    Gender & Relationships – I think Relationships on it own could define this category best. We are people first, gender second. So Gender to Level 2.

    Health & Beauty – Health is an important category that should stand alone. Group Beauty with its natural mate Fashion.

    Home & Family – strong category – agree.

    Personal Finance – not a strong level 1. Maybe level 2 under Home & Family. Still writing volumes will dictate this decision.

    Pets & Animals – not a strong level 1 – maybe a level 2 under Relationships or Hobbies & Recreation. Still writing volumes will dictate this decision.

    Politics & Social Issues – This could be grouped be under a stronger level 1 category Society, but being a sensitive category, I think it is best kept separate – agree, these are a natural and necessary fit.

    Religion & Beliefs – same comment as Politics & Social Issues – agree, these are a natural and necessary

    Science & Education – Unusual mix. Maybe just put Education on its own. Group Science with its usual mate – Technology

    Sports & Recreation – Sports is a strong category in its own right with lots of overflowing passions. Maybe group Recreation with hobbies.

    Technology – Huge field covering the full spectrum of society but is an acceptable level 1 although I would make it Science & Technology and break away Computers & Internet as an additional new level 1.

    Travel & Places – I think it should be Travel & Holidays – Every post has a potential geographic element and it could create confusion if placed as a level one. Places will form a natural part of Travel & Holidays and don’t need level 1 status.

    I would also add the following level 1 categories:
    Computers & Internet – because these topics are a huge part of the Hubpages comunity’s life.

    The Arts & History – A category that may help lift the appeal of the site and History because it is related and it is a level 1 in most book category lists.

    I hope this helps!

  4. I think top-level categories would be a critical feature. Naturally it’s impossible to have the perfect set of categories (and the harder you try to be ‘accurate’ the harder your categories will be to use), but it helps offset the insufficiency of tags.

    I never really liked tags. They point towards a good idea (flexible crowdsourcing of metadata, rich categorization, language-based browsing) but fall short because of their simplistic definition (e.g. if you tag a picture with “blue” and someone searches for “color” never the two shall meet). Ironically, the simplistic definition of tags is also what has allowed them to spread (it’s pretty easy to add a tagging feature), so they’re better than nothing.

  5. Some food for thoughts…I work at one of the leading online job boards (to be left nameless) and we rolled out what we called “enhanced job categories” to both job seekers and employers. The idea was to make the search results more relevant. We added more categories, then lots of sub-categories. What we found was
    1) Job seekers were confused. Made the search take longer. Caused dissatisfaction
    2) Took employers longer to post their jobs, we never seemed to have EVERY category needed and they preferred to have more responses to their job postings versus only the most relevant. (i.e quantity over quality)

    After one year of dealing with these issues, we improved our search functionality AND removed all the enhanced job categories. We’re back to the high level categories.

    It will be interesting to see what happens on Hub Pages.

    RW

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