Tags or Folders?

Quite some time ago Ari Paparo wrote an interesting article about “Getting it right”, all the big and little details that matter to make a successful web application. I remember Blink.com that he writes about and used it to port my browser bookmarks between my home PC and my various work PC’s.

I don’t really use browser bookmarks anymore. Instead I use del.icio.us as my bookmarks are online (and searchable and taggable). I remember I gave up using Blink when my bookmarks collection reached a certain size (just couldn’t find the stuff I was looking for).

From Ari Paparo Dot Com: Getting it Right (via Scott Berkun).

When we founded Blink.com (no link love, it’s a crappy search site now) the founders and I imagined a self-reinforcing product cycle:

1. Consumers needed portable bookmarks so they wouldn’t lose them, would be able to access them from any computer, and could share them with friends or coworkers;

2. As part of the process of bookmarking sites and organizing them into “folders” users would be indicating a measure of quality and connectedness among the URLs;

3. Profit!

But things eventually didn’t work out. For my own example, I landed somewhat between steps 1 and 2. According to Ari (and the clear light of retrospect), they had some things wrong in the system design, some mistakes:

Mistake: Folders Suck

Our first iteration on using bookmarks to create a shared information library was an extension of the “public folder” concept. We believed that users would not only make their folders public, but also would categorize those folders into a directory structure. We called this the “Public Library” and created a Yahoo-like node structure on which users could post. This could have made sense since categorizing folders would be less work than categorizing individual bookmarks – after all, the folders were already “categories” of a sort.

There were several severe problems with this folder-based approach. First, people are very bad and inconsistent at organizing things. One day etrade.com will go into the “finance” folder and another day it will go into the “favorite links” folder. We were taking this fundamental flaw and squaring it – asking users to use graph their existing categorization onto a second arbitrary structure within the public library. Does my “finance” folder go into the “Business” directory or the “Personal” directory?

Then there was the issue of how deep to go when categorizing folders. If I’ve got a folder of “online brokerages” do I put it in the directory at the level of “Finance” since my folder is in a sense a sub-category of finance, or do I put it within the pre-existing “Finance -> Brokerage” directory? Users were confused, and with good reason.

I really recommend Ari Paparo’s article. He also describes why “defaults matter” and how to “make it instantly useful”.

By the way, Del.icio.us continues to surprise me: My collection is roughly one year old and consists of approximately 1000 bookmarks. Over and over it has surprised me how I can use it to find my bookmarked stuff. I can send my colleagues links to a certain category (for instance usability) and they’ll have a look at fresh bookmarks everytime they return to the website.


Like Ari, I’m sure that tags make a difference in stead of folders.

  • You can puth thing in multiple categories
  • You don’t duplicate items: Just tag them
  • An item containing multiple tags i easier to find

This idea is used in countless Web2.0 applications. Del.icio.us, Technorati, Flickr to name a few, and recently Amazon allowed tagging products on their American website.

Also, the new file system behind Windows Vista will be built so that it contains no physical folders but rely on metadata (and tagging) to locate a file. That way, a file can exist (virtually) in multiple locations. (Latest news are that the new file system will not be ready with the release of Vista. However, it will eventually arrive).

For more background on tags vs. folders I recommend the E-Week article “Tags Turning Web Chaos into Categories” by Matthew Hicks.

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