Proper nouns ≠ Tags

Words of warning. The following post is hotly contested internally among us CoPress folk. Very likely this is controversial to the greater community as well. But at the risk of having people with pitchforks or angry twitterers show up at my door, I’ll go ahead and share my opinion.


I’d like to propose a simple rule:

Tags should never contain a proper noun.

This is a maxim is intended to avoid frustration from both users and content creators by implementing tags in a useful way.

Tags are the darling child of the social networking, web 2.0 community. The concept is simple really: words or short phrases that, as metadata, can be attached to anything on the web to enable easier searching, better SEO, and greater user ease of use. But, when misused they become overwhelming, hard to use and irrelevant.

Here’s the logic behind the rule to never put a proper noun in a tag: the term you’re entering is likely already in the article and therefore searchable. If it’s already there, then putting it into the tags is not only a repeated, wasted effort, but it is going to confuse the reader by culttering up the tag cloud.

  • Wasted effort. If you’ve already put the proper noun in the article than the information is already there. Likewise for photos, the information should already be in the caption. Why would you spend the extra time trying to get the information in two places?
  • You’re giving the reader too much info to sort through. A ton of information is good for computers, but if you want tags to be user-friendly (often the argument for putting proper nouns into the tag cloud), you need to limit what you choose to use.
  • The whole post is already searchable. If you’ve got the person’s name or the place in the article, caption, description, whatever it is you’re writing, the data is searchable. Tags are there to add additional information that you couldn’t writing directly into the post.
  • There’s no way you’re going to be able to remember every single proper noun that could possibly be affected. Let the semantic web (when it finally comes about) take care of that for you.

What should be tagged

Tags are meant to be used for conceptual information that you would never write in the post, but you’d like to attach to your data.

For example: If you take a picture of three friends at Disneyland, you don’t need to tag it, “Larry, Moe, Curly, Disneyland, Mickey Mouse, Magic Kingdom.” Instead tag it, “Outside, Group Picture, Portrait, Silly.”

The former list you’d easily put into a half decent caption. The latter would likely never actually be written anywhere else.

Try building a tag library that contains names and places is nearly impossible. How can you ever possibly account for everyone/thing that you could ever need? Stick to concepts and generalizations.

It’s a good rule

There are, of course, exceptions. If a proper noun becomes a concept onto itself, then it likely belongs in you tagging scheme. For example, during the Mumbai terrorist attacks, people were tagging their tweets on Twitter with #mumbai. Yes, a city name is a proper noun, but as a concept, #mumbai was the best common way to describe what was going on.

SImilarly, if you’re writing a article about social networking, then “Twitter,” is a good tag to include. As the service has become so popular that it has a host of meta-information out there.

Let me boil the rule down for you Twitter users. When you go to tag your next blog post, photo, video, github project, or any other piece of data online, ask yourself: “Would this tag make a good #hashtag on a post?”

CORRECTION: This post initially used the term “pronoun” instead of “proper noun,” as intended. All references in the headline, text and URL have since been corrected.


  1. Joe Moore says:

    I will have to disagree with you… speaking strictly of newspaper websites, I have tags that are both generic-ish (like arts, theater, music) and tags that are very specific (like club de’ville, the on-campus place for bands and such). I also use tags to identify each issue (83:12 = volume 83, issue 12). I know I could add a custom field, but that gets tedious when I have to add 30-40 articles a week.

    I see several types of tags for a newspaper site: the location, the people involved (eg. basketball team), who it effects, and any sort of sub-category. For instance, I use an arts tag for arts-y things. We have an Arts & Culture section, but I want to differentiate arts from culture. I also think it’s a nice thing for related posts plugins to be able to latch on to and use.

    Tags are a way to add metadata. Is “woman’s basketball” going to be in the article? I sure hope so. But what if someone wants to see all the woman’s basketball posts at once? Tags make that easy.

    In summary: I agree with you in a way, but I like to think that the tags on my site are for me. Tags aren’t mean to be universal (at least in my mind); they’re site-specific and site-oriented.

  2. I’m going to have to disagree too, Joey. My apologies.

    I think I’m one of those people who does use copious amounts of proper nouns to tag my posts (and images, videos, etc.). I do include conceptual information most of the time, or keywords that better synthesize the big concepts of the media, but proper nouns are critical for another reason: they another method of search. If, for instance, I were to search “tagging” to find this post, there’s no guarantee that this specific post will come up first. By using the keyword “tagging”, I’m ensuring that I get a hand-selected, chronological list of posts that are more likely to be about that topic.

    Same thing goes with “Oregon Daily Emerald.” If I were to search for that phrase, I’d get every post with those words, but they wouldn’t necessarily be about the Daily Emerald. If I use the tag, however, I know that someone else has explicitly thought that the article was about the Daily Emerald.

    Tags are a method of search (and they’re especially useful when added together)

  3. Joey Baker says:

    I started to write this reply a few days ago and then my browser crashed and I never got around to it so, apologies for the lateness.

    @Joe – I think we largely agree. Tagging with “Women’s Basketball” is probably a good thing. It’s generic enough that it identifies a category of story and, hence, a tag. You would never tag a story with individual player names though.

    But, I’m not sure what good it does to tag stories with the issue date. That seems like a hold over from the print days when we though in issues. I’d chalk that one up as a time suck and move on to more important things.

    @Daniel – We’re going to sorta agree. If you have a proper noun that has become a concept (the Daily Emerald Strike) then a tag to reflect that is a great idea. But tagging photos, videos etc with the name of everyone involved is just a waste of time. We have other metadata for that. Descriptions, captions, geoencoding, etc…

    The idea that it’s “another method of search” is really just redundancy. And the great thing about this digital stuff is that cross-referencing to yourself (in this respect) just isn’t necessary. Save yourself the time – put the metadata where it belongs, once, and move on.

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