Using Tags to Search in ThoughtFarmer

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This is a guest blog post by Ephraim Freed. Ephraim is Intranet Project Lead at Oxfam America and a ThoughtFarmer customer since 2008.


Tag clouds aren’t all that helpful, especially on intranets. The real value of good tags is that they make content findable through search queries. Thomas Vander Wal gave me a great suggestion about tagging. He said that when teaching people how to come up with useful tags, get them to ask themselves the question: “What terms would I or someone else use to search for this page (or file)?”

Why? Because tags are most useful when they help the right material get found. Search engines index the terms in titles and text of a page. Web search works so well these days because web sites now offer text that includes all the right key words. Professional web writers have figured it out, but it’s hard to get every employee to write like a pro.

This is where tags come in: they supplement the terms in the title and text of an intranet page with more keywords that help the page to show up in relevant searches.

Good search = content keywords that match users’ search terms

Good search is not just the result of a magical search engine, but of good use of relevant words in content. Even with Google’s link-based algorithms, words are still the most important element of search. No search engine today, no matter how good, can make a page findable if it doesn’t include the terms that people would use to find it.

If you want good search you need good keywords in your content, and tags help to insert the right keywords without having to hire a web search optimization content writer.

The role of the intranet manager is shifting as intranets become more social, collaborative and interactive. While ensuring good, findable content is still an important part of managing an intranet, the nature of that work is changing. On a social intranet that allows employees to tag content freely, managing user-defined tags is important.

By fixing spelling errors in tags, adding relevant acronyms and creating multi-term tags, the intranet manager can increase content findability throughout the intranet. Ensuring that existing tags offer all the right key words means an intranet manager can have a broad effect on findability for content throughout the site.

3 tips for making killer tags that improve findability

I try to review our intranet’s entire tag list (almost 2,000 tags) once a month and I focus on these tag improvement tasks:

1. Fix spelling errors

Fixing misspelled tags can make many pages more findable with one fell swoop. If one user adds the tag “develpment” to a page, the next user who wants to add that word probably won’t notice when they start typing “devel” and the tag that comes up is just one letter off. But when someone tries to search using the term “development,” pages that have the miss-spelled word as a tag may not come up in search results.

2. Add multiple versions of a word to a tag

For a word with multiple versions, each of which could just as easily be used in a search query, the person adding tags to a page faces a dilemma: add all the different forms of the word, or just guess at the most popular one. This, however, doesn’t have to be an issue. The intranet manager can review tags and edit specific ones where multiple forms of word could easily be searched for. A perfect example: change the tag for “tag” to “tag, tags, tagging.” Now, all three forms of the word can be added to the page as keyword terms with just one tag.

3. Create reverse duplicates of acronym tags

I discovered that I could never know whether my users would add an acronym as a tag, or spell out a whole term. Would a user add “WTO” or “World Trade Organization?”

The solution: make sure there are two tags, each of which contains both terms. The first tag can have the acronym followed by the full term in parentheses, e.g. “WTO (World Trade Organization).” The second tag can have the term followed by the acronym, e.g. “World Trade Organization (WTO).” The end result will be that whether a user decides to add the acronym or the full term, she’ll end up adding both, and this will help make the page more findable.

How ThoughtFarmer makes good tagging possible

The ThoughtFarmer intranet software has a fabulous tagging system that enables all of the above tag improvement tasks.

Multi-word tags: ThoughtFarmer allows individual tags to include multiple words with spaces. You don’t have to insert underscores or periods or worry about adding a dozen separate individual words.

Capitalization in tags: Because ThoughtFarmer allows capital letters in tags, acronyms can be written properly and proper names are easy to add and recognize.

Characters such as commas in tags: Because commas (and other characters, such as ampersands) can be included in individual tags, creating easy to read multi-term tags is easy and seamless.

Type-search-ahead tag matching: When a user starts entering a tag she wants to add to the page, the tagging dialogue box will show a list of all matching tags in real time. This means that once one user adds a new tag, all other users will be able to re-apply that tag without needing to fully re-type it. This feature also helps with tag discovery – users will see additional tags in the matching field that they may not have originally thought of.

Tag admin panel for editing user-added tags: And a final element is the tag administration panel in ThoughtFarmer. This panel lists every single tag added within the site and allows the site administrators to edit tags individually. Once a tag is edited, the new version appears everywhere that the tag was used. One fixed tag spelling can make a hundred pages more findable. Administrators can also delete mistake and duplicate tags.

Icing on the cake: Tags well integrated in ThoughtFarmer

The icing on the folksonomy cake that is this blog post is that ThoughtFarmer does a great job of integrating tags into the site search. A ThoughtFarmer site can offer three distinct search buckets: All content, the People Directory, and the Group Page Directory:

And tag clouds and tag lists are seamlessly integrated into each of these search interfaces.

If you’re using ThoughtFarmer, I hope these tagging ideas help you get the most out of your social intranet site. And if you’re using any other software that includes tagging, I hope these tagging concepts help you increase the findability of all your important content.

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Join The Discussion

  1. Christina

    Thanks for taking the time to put this together. Sharing it on our (TF-powered) intranet =) We haven’t harnessed the power of tagging yet.

  2. EphraimJF

    Hi Christina. I’ve seen fairly slow take-up of tagging and have put a lot of effort into educating folks about tagging practices that are really helpful.

    Tagging can be a powerful tool in making search much more robust, and that includes general content searching, searching the people directory and searching the groups directory on a ThoughtFarmer intranet.

    But there are a lot of little details to how one writes and uses tags that can have a big impact. I’m still learning a lot about it and especially about how to help users get the most out of it. Please let me know about any great insights you discover!

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