Friday, 12 December 2008

Are tag clouds the new mullets?

This week I have been mostly indulging in tag clouds. With every new widget or technology, there is the potential for it to be a short lived fad rather than a lasting gift. The question I asked myself was “Do tag clouds really improve web browsing?” and I set about discovering whether, as Jeffrey Zeldman proclaimed, tag clouds are the new mullets.

If you don’t know what a tag cloud is, you can check out the bite size wiki entry for a handy description. Tag or word clouds are visual representations of data, used to organise content by meaning, relevance or popularity. It is a neat way of showing people what is important, often using word size as the barometer, such that the most popular words are the biggest in the cloud.  WAYN, the social network for travellers, uses it on the homepage to flag popular destinations which then take you to an optimised landing page for that destination. Flickr was one of the early pioneers and you can see the user friendly design in the ‘Explore’ section of the website.

I’ve seen tag clouds in many forms over the past 12 months, mainly on industry sites and personal blogs. What interests me is that retailers are increasingly using this technique to enhance site navigation and search, or searchandising if you want to be natty and oh so Web2.0. Tag clouds are a cool way to support site browsing and have many applications in a retail environment, provided they are integrated in a way that enhances rather than distracts the customer journey. So, to briefly name but a few…..

Enhance site search

Highlight popular search terms, showing people what other visitors have searched for, helping people find the most popular terms quickly.

Display product features prominently

Improve a product details page, highlighting the most relevant and popular features of the product to help people make the right buying decision.

Showcase content from customer reviews

Closely related to the last comment, customer review solutions like BazaarVoice enable review clouds so that the most popular and frequently used words contained in customer reviews can be browsed to help identify what other people are saying and learn more about products and services. It also enable customers leaving reviews to select attributes from the community to make writing the review easier.

Highlight featured content

A good example is on the blogs on Technorati. Here the tags relate to the content of the blog to help you determine the relevance of the content. This is helpful when navigating the site, looking for new blogs. Simply click on the tags that you are interested and get results that match your requirements. In the words of John Barnes, it “gets to your thirst, fast”.

For the best on-screen example of tag clouds in action, visit Smashing Magazine. Here you’ll find a deluge of screenshots of tag clouds from various websites….if you still don’t get the concept after reading this blog, give up!

If anyone has a view on the commercial benefit of tag clouds for retail websites, please post comments and suggestions. If you have any examples of websites using tag clouds to good effect, please post the URLs to this blog. In the meantime, get tagging!

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