Web tagging has nothing to do with spray paint and isn’t illegal. But it does have something in common with the gang tagging seen on freeway overpasses: It is a way to show the masses what you think is cool.
When you tag a Web site, you save it in your tagging account and assign it a keyword. The keywords, or tags, are used to organize Web pages and make them easier to find again for the user and other people searching for similar topics. Web sites can be assigned multiple tags or keywords and organized accordingly so that when a user searches a tagging site such as Furl.net or del.icio.us, the two most popular social tagging Web sites, the results are weighted by popularity.
So what is the difference between searching tag sites and a Google Inc. (GOOG) search?
"It takes Google about a month for them to crawl the Web, index and bring it all up to date," said Salim Ismail, co-founder of PubSub, a blog-filtering service, and creator of a new tagging Web site that will launch later this summer. "There’s no layer on top of it as to what people thought of it. Whereas with tagging, I can see what people say about it, think about it and how they use it."
"Search engines use algorithms to decide categories," explained Dalton Caldwell, founder and CEO of imeem, an instant messaging service that allows users to create profiles and tag their Web sites and pictures on their profiles. "There’s no human in there anywhere. It’s like playing chess with a computer. With tagging, you have the wisdom of the crowds."
Different tagging sites aim at organizing different things. Furl and del.icio.us are used to tag Web sites. Flickr.com, operated by Yahoo Inc. (YHOO), is the most popular site used to tag pictures and YouTube.com is the most popular site used to tag online videos.
Furl is the creation of LookSmart Ltd. (LOOK) in San Francisco. Once a popular search engine, the company fell on hard times with the rest of the tech industry circa 2001 and was forced to reinvent itself. Now, LookSmart has approximately 12 million users and reported first-quarter revenues last week of $10.5 million for the first quarter of 2006, up 5 percent from the first quarter of 2005.
"In a world where you have over 10 million documents on the Web, it gets less and less targeted to you," said Michael Grubb, senior vice president and chief technology officer for LookSmart. "Once you start to tag, that all goes away. You see what is relevant to you, what other people have found relevant, how many people have saved it and what other comments are left about it."
Tagging even has its own subset of "geek speak." The naming system is called folksonomy and the categorizing is called ontology or taxonomy. Thomas Vander Wal, Ismail’s business partner in their upcoming, yet-to-be-named tagging Web site, coined the term folksonomy.
Users say they like to tag so they don’t have to spam the people they know with content they think is interesting. Software architect Andre Stechert says such e-mail is "too in-your-face."
"If I send you an e-mail, you have to do something about it, either respond to it or delete it or something," he says. "I shouldn’t burden friends and family with that. Butif I tag something on my blog and you want to go read it, that’s OK."
Last year, Stechert watched the filming of a Sony Corp. (SNE) commercial from his home in North Beach that involved thousands of bouncing balls.
"I had my wife get our little video camera and take a video of the shot in action, and I uploaded that to Google video and I tagged them with ‘bouncyball,’" he said. "So try searching for bouncyball, all as one word, and there is one particular picture that kind of got people wondering about it."
This story begs the question, is tagging a time saver or a time waster? Stechert thinks it can be both in that he can find useful content faster, but he can also get carried away with virtual tangents, looking at what other people think is relevant to the information he is seeking.
Tagging a site on Furl also saves content that may not be available in a few days or weeks.
"When I read The New York Times online, they put up articles and like a week later the articles are no longer available and you have to pay for them," Stechert said. "So if I tag an article, it also saves a copy of the page and I can use that later. So it’s like clipping an article out of the newspaper."
Emily Cookson is a member of the Corte Madera Larkspur Mother’s Club and grew tired of all of the e-mails circulating about breast pumps and diaper rash. She introduced the group to tagging and says the intrusive e-mails have been drastically reduced. Now she only has to see the content she wants to see. She says that even though tagging is relatively easy to learn, some of the mothers were a little resistant to the idea.
"I’d say that 10 percent of those that we’ve invited said they don’t have time to understand it," she said. "The other 90 percent have adopted it. We love it because it keeps us from having to clutter up each other’s e-mails with things that we think would be interesting to each other."firstname.lastname@example.org