Incurring the wrath: tags vs labels

Tags vs LabelsSo now that the Google Toolbar has added support for “labels” (and not tags) it seems like there should be some consensus built about the heck we should call these little jellybeans in Flock.

Vera has repeatedly told me that “tagging” is a hard word to use in documentation because it has multiple purposes… whereas “labeling” is a bit more clear and more singular in its utility. Let’s face it, when you label something, it’s pretty clear what the before and after states are. When you tag it, not so much.

The other thing we have to consider is this: since Google is obviously throwing its hefty weight behind labels and not tags (consider Gmail, Picasa, your search history, the toolbar and elsewhere), we might do well to realize that the de facto “word” for this behavior will not be “tag”, but will instead over time become “label”.

Sure sure, we need consider what Redmond will standardize on, but from what I’ve seen of IE7, etc., they’re playing a game of catch up and will do whatever the consumer market standardizes on first. (Imagine that… what happened to that whole bit about needing a monopoly to innovate? Guess that didn’t work out after all, eh guys?)

Anyway, Flickr has tags, delicious has tags, ‘rati has tags and most other Web Two projects seem to support tags… so when Google goes the other way and pushes labels, seems we ought to pay attention.

Mind you I’m not advocating one or the other or suggesting that we all change course now (especially within Flock), but instead proposing that we think seriously about this now before the rift between the two starts to hit teh long tail and we have massive confusion between one term and another.

Author: Chris Messina

Head of West Coast Business Development at Republic. Ever-curious product designer and technologist. Hashtag inventor. Previously: (YC W18), Uber, Google.

13 thoughts on “Incurring the wrath: tags vs labels”

  1. I think “label” is a more useful word. The services you mention that use “tag” still have a by and large techie, 2.0ish user base that understands the 2.0ish label (heh) “tag.” As Yahoo tries to drive more and more people toward these services, it wouldn’t surprise me if they too adopt a more friendly term. Google’s adoption of “label” is significant too, as you note.

  2. The term “tag” has an informal ring that helped adoption. Tagging also implies plurality more than labels does. Labels tend to specify a unique identity in other contexts: (clothing label, label on a jar). We tend to attach a label to a person, or label people in a photograph. Labels tend to be affixed permamently while tags are attached, like a price tag.

    For every example, there is of course of counter example. Both tags and labels are alternatively terminology for “keywords”. The term keyword seems to carry too much librarian and hiearchy connotations.

    The tag v. label terminology is a real shame. I suspect both will last some time and will negatively affect mass adoption.

  3. Exactly my point… as these services go mainstream (a scary thought in and of itself given the bees-to-honey tendency of spammers) they will need to use more colloquial terminology. As you point out, “tags” tend to be kind of techie, whereas “label” is something a non-geek will probably figure out right away.

    Interestingly, each word carries its own sub-meanings… consider that when you go to an event, you come up with an official “tag” — which is typically unique and non generic. Labels, it would seem, connote commonness or similarity and therefore tend to atomize around normal phrases: “family”, “sports”, “car” and so on. To
    “tag” something sounds more active, creative and expressive.

    I dunno. It’s a very interesting conundrum.

  4. The title and image are cute, but I do not really get it.

    Ian McKellar, in reply to the same topic on Flockstars mailing listwrote:

    The term “label” does describe these things pretty well. Its a short
    description you use to find and organise things. I use labels in my
    filing cabinet, I label spices in my cupboard, I affix address labels to
    mail that I want to send, etc.

    I completely agree with Ian, tag does not work well in this context for technical communication to an inclusive audience.

    Before Web 2 dot oh, I had never tagged anything.

  5. Isn’t ‘label’ an older term that ‘tag’? I’m fairly certain that, at least in my own experience, gmail had labels before I’d ever heard of ‘tags.’

  6. what about skins and themes?

    there’s supposed to be a difference, but the terms are so interchanged that it doesn’t really matter anymore.

    that might happen to labels and tags.

  7. In a nutshell, when Flickr, Delicious and Flock prompt me for tags, I can’t use HTML tags. That interaction in itself tells me it’s the wrong label for that input box. Label – get it? Label? Funny, huh? Okay, I’ll go back to my day job.

    The first time I tried to explain to one of my programming coworkers, he got confused when I said you could tag your links. A lot of people have basic exposure to HTML now, and they understand that HTML tags are a programming tool that the web is built on. He immediately said, “But I don’t know HTML.”

    For that simple reason, I think the term “labels” makes more sense. The term “tags” already has a specific meaning as it relates to the web and web content. This new meaning is not an extension of that existing definition.

  8. I think “jellybeans” is perfect.

    PS It was good to meet you Monday. Brilliant blog here.

  9. Tagging is fine to define. It’s not really that hard, the idea is that you ‘tag’ an item with anything. The fact that it can be tagged with anything can cause some confusion. (i guess)

    But in Flock ther should be something like a first run tutorial, that explains tagging. Someone should do a quick little screen cast that explains what tagging is. It would eliminate the confusion, as well as define what tagging is and what it is used for.

    I also think the idea of Google’s ‘Labels’ is going to flop! Tags are already astablished on many many websites. They have decided to come out with . Google Bookmarks isnt going to work very well. The label idea just isnt right for bookmarking.

    If you were going to use a real bookmark to mark your place in a book would you label your place or tag it? I sure as hell would tag it!

    Anyway the bottom line is that ‘tagging’ is already a fairly established style of doing things. Why change because Google does?

  10. Chris’ comment to GregElin hits on this. “Tag” carries a more open connotation than “label,” though it has the anti-social baggage of its origins in graffiti.

    Keeping this within context of sharing: Readers may not immediately grasp the value of tagging or labeling; but the net value for all of us is likely greater with “tag” than “label” because readers will intuit the usefulness of a tag within a larger community faster than a label.

    As Lloyd said, he labels folders, spices and the like. But these are not social artifacts. They are personal in nature and use. “Tag” is better for the teeming web.

  11. Which, in summary, is I think reflective of how we see the web versus how Google does… They believe in “Search above all else” — which is fine if you’re Google, but not if you want portability or independence. Tagging and its social applications are much more personal and network-centric… in a sense, a “people technology”. Philosophically, tagging is closer to my ideal of a participatory web than labeling, which is something you do to birthday presents whose wrapping paper is often thrown away.

    Tagging is directly related to the social existence or import of the object, labels simply identify what’s inside without playing into a great interpersonal context.

  12. While Google is very influential, that doesn’t guarantee that their choice of Labels over Tags will stick. Which services are used most by influential early adopters. Clearly, tagging is the term they’d use first.

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