Daniel Lemire's blog

, 2 min read

Tag clouds are here to stay

I was chatting with a friend from NRC-CISTI this morning. He said he was not very keen on tag clouds. (If you do not know what a tag cloud is, follow the link!) I must admit that I rarely use tag clouds. This is usually a bad sign in IT: if you are not using a new gadget, maybe nobody is. A good example are PDAs. I once belonged to a lab. where everyone owned an expensive PDA. Nobody used them. PDAs have since gone out of fashion. I must be the only PDA user left in Montreal. Ontologies are another such example: some labs are producing ontologies, but I do not know anyone actually using ontologies for real work.

But I think that several people are, indeed, using tag clouds and that they will stick around. And yes, I have an argument coming later. Let us review what tag clouds can do for you:

  • provide an intuitive, easy-to-use, bird eye’s view;
  • support, intuitively, user interaction through hyperlinks.

Finally, they are easy to draw and easy to implement (using current HTML technology).

Here is a challenge for you: name one thing that can compete with tag clouds other than a list of items?

The reason I think tag clouds will stick around is that Amazon started using them on their site and, while Amazon is often wrong, they have had good luck whenever they picked up a new idea. When I log into my own Amazon page seeking my recommendations, Amazon throws a tag cloud at me. Why? Because instead of providing a nearly useless list of recommended items, they figured out that it is better to give a tag cloud so I can select what type of recommendation I want. Now, that’s smart! Right now, I have Mathematics and High Tech as large bold tags, and then Probability and Statistics or Software Design as smaller weaker tags, and then a bunch of lesser tags. I rarely buy books about Mathematics, so Amazon has gotten by personalized tag cloud wrong, except that I really enjoy having my recommendations presented at me this way. They try to direct me to the type of recommendations they think I want, yet they allow me to have a complete picture.

In effect, on the Web, other than the list, the tag cloud is the only navigation tool that works for me. Some have been trying to sell us 3D for some time, but I think we just finally got 2D right with the tag cloud. (Text is, arguably, 1D.)

Why did it take so long? Mostly, I think, because tag clouds in print are not common. Web design was initially built by analogy of GUI software and the printed media. That is why we have bullet points, tabs, buttons, text boxes, and so on.

Question: why aren’t there tag clouds on the front page of my blog?

Answer: just wait.