January 4th, 2007


User Tagging and Search - my new perspective

I sit before you a changed woman. I am quite aware of the power of social tagging but had dismissed it in regard to search engines. I was wrong.

The power of external metadata repositories, and how much they can add to search retrieval and relevance ranking is still new to me, but it came out of my experiences working with large corporations and government institutions. I simply can't find a better solution to some significant problems. The most obvious reason for external metadata is where vocabulary changes but the content is still valuable, such as chemical research. Another case is identifying the actual date of a document's content, rather than the file modification date or, worse, a dynamic date generated by a web server.

Which led me to considering user-generated tags for documents, and my personal "Eureka!" moment. For situations with real communities, such as intranets, and limited ability to change content, allowing users to tag documents provides an incredibly powerful tool for improving search results. These tags could be indicating topics, authors, departments, regions... whatever users feel is important. Not only does this add current vocabulary for retrieval and ranking, but showing user tags in search results improves everyone's understanding of the results items, which is one of the main problems in search.

These tags would be an example of the 'network effect' -- as more people do it, the value is exponentially greater. Sure, there will be cases where a mediocre item gets tagged first, so people gravitate to it. But many more valuable documents will be tagged, and some problem documents (limited in scope, draft, obsolete or otherwise problematic documents) will have warnings attached. This kind of document-by-document editorial tagging is almost impossible in any large corporation, so it simply doesn't get done. By allowing people to identify information they use to do their work, we empower them, saving time and money for them and their colleagues.

So. Has anyone done this? If so, how did it go? Are any search engines implementing user tags?
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