Tagging 101 For Newsrooms

Examples of inconsistent tags

If your newsroom has a blogging platform or a content management system that allows you to assign keywords, doing it right and consistently can lead to really interesting ways of sorting, filtering and displaying content.

As trivial as this concept may seem to those of you who read this blog (and are probably of a more tech-savvy breed), you might be surprised to learn that tagging is a concept that doesn’t come easily to newsrooms — and I don’t mean that from a skill set or tech-savviness standpoint. If you have dozens or hundreds of people contributing pieces of metadata to a single system, there will inevitably be inconsistencies that dilute the quality and usefulness of your tagging system.

Before you can get people to use tags the right way, you need to understand what they are and why they exist:

  • An easy way of grouping related posts
  • A way of telling readers what a post is about
  • Metadata that helps people find our content

The No. 1 key to successful tagging is consistency. As an example, The Seattle Times launched a local news blog on WordPress in October 2011. By November, a mere month later (with roughly a dozen contributors to the blog at that point) we had 898 tags. Because of our inconsistency in tagging, we diluted our topic authority: 69 percent of our tags (621 of 898) had only one post assigned; 82 percent of our tags (738 of 898) had one or two posts assigned. The image at the top right shows some examples of duplicate tags, inconsistencies and even misspellings. Where we could have built strong index pages of similar-topic posts, we instead had four or five of the same index pages with only one or two posts each.

Rules of thumb

  • Be consistent: Don’t tag first and last name on one post, then only last name on another. You can see which tags are already in use with the autofill option. (via Sarah Millar on Twitter — thanks, Sarah!)
  • Think reusability: Create relevant tags that can be reused on multiple posts.
  • Think about longevity: Before you tag a post as “Wounded seal pups,” think about other terms that we’re more likely to have repeated content about. “Marine life” might be better.
  • Try not to be redundant: Don’t use similar tags on the same item (Power outage, power loss). Pick one! Looking at tags that have already been used or popular search terms for guidance.
  • Proper nouns are good: Tag names of public figures so people can follow news about them over time, job changes, etc. Tag important brand and company names. (via Kelsey Proud on Twitter)
  • Use nouns over verbs: For example, bicyclist over bicycling; homicide instead of killed.
  • Use full names instead of acronyms or abbreviations. Seattle Police Department instead of SPD or The New York Times instead of nytimes. There are some exceptions like IBM, HP. (This tip via Armchair Theorist’s top 10 tagging best practices)
  • Decide whether to use singular or plural and stick with it. If you don’t, things can get real messy, real fast (as I quickly learned from The Seattle Times example). I prefer plural nouns because of you filter to a landing page, you’re looking at all “movies” instead of the singular “movie.”

And, of course, it’s going to take some manpower to manually go through and clean out inconsistencies now and again, as well as reminding those who contribute content about these best practices.

What’s possible when tagging is done right

As I mentioned at the start of this post, you can create interesting ways of filtering and displaying content if you do tagging right. At the most basic level, you can pull in related posts or create indexes that display all content within a tag for users to browse.

MNDaily.com’s timeline topic page

MNDaily.com has topic pages that displays content on a timeline above, then lists those items below.


Build out custom topic pages

The New York Times has custom topic pages for certain issues and people. Although I’m not sure whether this is necessarily powered by tagging or keyword assignment, it very easily could be.


Build out an index of news topics

The example below isn’t particularly compelling, but that doesn’t mean you couldn’t make one that is.


Complex content filtering

In a news context, this could mean letting users filter by type of crime and neighborhood, or type of complaint and school district, so they can find all the news about a particular interest. The example below is how you can filter by multiple tags on delicious.com.

What are your tagging best practices?