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February 16, 2009

How tag clouds help clients see what you have to say (and why web designers don't like them)


This is a section of a tag cloud at www.overflowlegal.com,
click in the image above to see whole tag cloud


Tag clouds use topics, but website navigation uses sections
If you click a word in a tag cloud you see a list of content that covers that topic.

Tag-clouds give website users an easy way to find content on particular topics. You don’t need to know in advance which section of the website that content has been tucked away in.

This is why tag clouds are helpful: click on a word in a tag cloud and you see a list of content that covers that topic – regardless of what section that content is in. A tag-cloud is a useful website feature, in the same way that a dos-and-don’ts box is a useful feature in an e-bulletin.

You can see the full tag cloud for this site here.

How tag clouds work, and why the words are different sizes

‘Tags’ are invisible labels that explain what topics a particular bit of content on the website mentions or covers. One piece of content can have several tags.

The tag cloud shows all the tags in that websites (or the number of tags that can be shown in a specific bit of space on the home page). The words are bigger or smaller in the tag cloud according to how many bits of content have that tag. This site is all about creating more client-focused know how updates, so the ‘client needs’ tag is one of the biggest in our tag cloud.

And you can create new tags as you go, so you’re not limited to a fixed list of available tags (it’s relatively difficult to add a new section to a website).

Why web designers don’t like tag clouds

Now, I must declare a prejudice here. I’ve worked with a lot of website designers and web developers. Some are talented individuals (like my collaborator on this website, WordPress guru Simon Dickson).

But like all specialists (e.g. doctors, builders, economists) there’s a trade-language that serves to keep clients in their place. Two powerful touchstones of this language are ‘site map’, and ‘information architecture’.

If website designers and their information-architect colleagues want to put the wind up a client they might say “we need to get the information architecture sorted out first”, or “it all depends on what your sitemap looks like”. What this means is that they want to set the framework and structure of the site first, but they want to add a bit of smoke and mirrors to the process (I did mention I was prejudiced).

All that these phrases mean is that a website is like a bento box that holds pieces of content. So website desiners have to design the bento box first. But phrases like “information architecture” sound more glam than “we have to have a structure for the website”.

And that last phrase is a bit like saying that there are lions and tigers in the zoo… Structure. Website. Duh.

A tag-cloud rains on the information-architect’s parade

Tag clouds give website users (i.e. the website designer’s client’s clients) an easy way to get to the content they’re interested in. A click on a word in a tag cloud removes the need to navigate through the information architect’s carefully planned sections.

So that’s why a web designer or (and) an information architect will try to talk you out of a tag cloud. They’ll say that tag clouds ‘are a bit messy’, and talk sniffily about their ‘usability’.

Just tell them that you want to make it easy for your clients to find content. And that like Malcolm X, you’ll do it by any means necessary.

(Simon Carter, managing director, One Three Four)
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