Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Are Tag Clouds Useful? And how to make them more so

Tyler asked:
"Is there a better way to display tag utilization than the tag cloud?"

I would say yes. The "tag cloud" was a cool concept but I find it of limited usefulness. Its axes of meaning include:
1) inclusion (vs. exclusion - the cloud is finite)
2) font size
3) order

I have seen clouds ranked both alphabetically (another one) and ranked by use; when listed alphabetically that means that there is only one axis of meaning (aside from the set limitation of inclusion) which is font size.

It would be possible to include font color as another axis, and even bold vs. italic, but what does that tell the user? It will not be clear.

Absolute popularity is a moderately interesting feature of tagclouds that, frankly, is best represented by a list; I assume that the reason that tagclouds were first done is that the resultant visual mass fits more neatly on to a web page than a 100-item vertical or horizontal list.

Here is an idea that might make tag clouds more useful: Create an actual honest-to-god 2D map representation of them. Sort of like a network diagram, but all node and no connection between node. User types in a tag -- "chocolate" and you create a custom 2D map based on "events that include tag chocolate also include these tags" and then let the user scroll around on that map or click on that map, in Google Maps fashion (can you tell that I have been profoundly influenced by Google Maps? ;-) and get to "food" "wine" "laborador" "ghirardelli" "roses" or whatever, and gradually scroll away to the outer bounds of the related-tags-surface.

Now what you have is a tagcloud that shows not overall popularity (a "who cares" feature -- when was the last time you checked out Google Zeitgeist, much less derived some useful information from it?) but relatedness to something the user cares about, presented in a navigable visual form.

Might be interesting.

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