Thirteen Tips for Effective Tagging

How to mark sites so you and others can find them

May 18, 2006

Editor's Note:

This article has been modified from Alexandra Samuel's Choosing Effective Tags and Ruby Sinreich's Why Nonprofits Should Use Tags.

How many times have you dug fruitlessly through the links you've saved in your browser's Favorites folder, struggling to remember how you categorized that site you wanted to remember? Or how often have you been unable to locate information you needed -- simply because you didn't know what search word to use?

Let's face it: the Internet is huge. It's tough enough to find useful information, let alone save it so that you can refer to it later. Wouldn't it be nice to classify information with your own keywords so that you could find it again easily? To share your favorite sites and links with others, without relying on your browser's Advanced Search feature?

If you answered yes to any of the questions above, it's time try your hand at tagging. A tag is a collaboratively generated, open-ended labeling system that enables Internet users to categorize content such as Web pages, online photographs, and Web links. Tagging lets you categorize information online your way.

For nonprofits, tags can be a great way to promote and encourage dialogue about shared interests. For example, the ACLU and civil libertarians might want to promote use of the tag "safeandfree" to aggregate posts about reforming the Patriot Act. Likewise, some in the nonprofit technology sector currently use the tag "nptech" to collect technology resources that can be useful to colleagues. A single tag can be used across platforms to aggregate links, photos, blog posts, and Web pages.

To get started, visit the popular social bookmarks manager  or another social bookmarking Web site and pick a tag that for your organization or cause. Once you have selected a tag and start using it, let your supporters know about it. As they find relevant links, sites, and images, they can add your tag to it, allowing you to expand your movement -- and narrow your search results.

Choosing Effective Tags

When it comes to tagging, spreading the word is only half the battle. First, you have to give your tag a name. A tag should be unique but memorable; something that identifies your cause without being so vague that it could cover a broad spectrum of issues.

Below are some tips for choosing tags on from Web Consultant Alexandra Samuel.

  1. Be a lemming. Check how other people are tagging the kinds of sites you want to remember. Linkbacks makes this very easy. Bear in mind that different people will bookmark the same site for different reasons: I might bookmark Terminus 1525 as a great example of a Drupal site, while you are saving it as a link to young Canadian artists.
  2. Follow the herd. When in doubt, pick the tag that seems to have the most links -- this is the leading tag of the options you're considering, so hopefully will emerge as the dominant focal point (so you don't have to check "open-source," "opensource," and "open_source" to keep on top of the big world of open source). deliberately obscures the question of how many links exist under any one tag, but you can get a rough sense by seeing how many pages exist for a given link by adding a number to the tag page you're looking at, with the syntax "" For example, "" pulls up a nice healthy-sized page of links, whereas "" gives you no links at all -- demonstrating that "opensource" is the more popular tag of the two.

  3. Avoid camels. Camel case (you know, CamelCase) doesn't work -- it just comes out as all lower case letters, with the words mushed together.
  4. Like nature, abhors a vacuum. Blank spaces don't work either. So if you tag something "camel case" it will show up on the tag page for "camel" and the tag page for "case."
  5. Punctuate with care. Underscores and dashes work OK. But before you create a tag with an underscore or a dash, ask yourself: Does this tag exist in a non-underscored form? For example, I don't think the world is especially well-served by having three separate forks for open-source, open_source, and opensource. Whatever you do, stay away from commas: while there are lots of tag-enabled Web services that comma-separate their tags, comma-separating your tags will add commas to your tags.
  6. Independence is a virtue. If your underscore or dash serves to separate two words, could each of the two words be more useful as independent tags? For example, tagging the Drupal site with the tags "open" and "source" -- so that it shows up on separate pages for open and source -- is a lot less useful than giving it the tag "opensource." Rather than using the tag "canadianpolitics," try using two tags: "Canada" and "politics." That way your resource will show up under resources about Canada and about politics.
  7. Hang out at crossroads. If you've followed the guideline above to use two separate tags (rather than smooshing two words into one tag), find the resources you're interested in by using intersecting tags. For example, even if you use the tag "politics," you can easily find all the links on Canadian politics by entering the URL "" into your browser's address bar.
  8. Co-ordinate your efforts. If you're part of a professional community or community of practice, consider establishing a common set of standards for how to tag resources you want to share among yourselves. A wiki can help do the job.
  9. Tags are written in pencil. Unlike a Tiffany engraving, a tag is not a permanent commitment. If you realize that you've used the wrong tag for a particular link, you can always re-edit that link. Even more useful, will let you rename any of your tags -- so if you tagged a bunch of stuff "food" that you later wish you'd tagged as "cooking," you can re-tag them by visiting[yourdelicioususername]/tags.
  10. Bonus tip for Mac users: the Cocoalicious client (which offers another interface for accessing your bookmarks) is a really great tool for renaming tags. If you decide to do a major renovation of your tagging schema, Cocoalicious makes the job much faster and easier -- you can just click on any tag to edit it, just the way you'd edit a file name in the finder.
  11. On, everyone knows you're a dog. Or at least, they will know -- if you tag a photo of yourself with the word "dog." That's right, you're tagging in public, so think twice before adopting the tag "enemies" for your business competitors, or "prospects" for all the folks you're pitching.
  12. Shh! This one's for:you. There is one way to be discreet when you're tagging on, which is to use the "for:" tag. (Thanks to Richard Eriksson for this tip.) If you know a friend or colleague's username, you can send him or her a recommended link by tagging it "for:username." So if you wanted to send me a link, for example, you'd tag it "for:awsamuel."
  13. Spread the word. The very best way to refine your tagging practice is to embed yourself in a community of users. If your colleagues, friends, and collaborators are fellow users, that is a powerful incentive to tag your links in a way that makes them discoverable to your community. So start building that community today -- by encouraging everyone you know to leave browser favorites behind and get