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Design Tips for Building Tag Clouds

by Jim Bumgardner, author of Building Tag Clouds in Perl and PHP
06/08/2006

Editor's note: In "Building Tag Clouds in Perl and PHP," author Jim Bumgardner says that to some, tag clouds would seem to be a fad. But as he demonstrates in this new, downloadable PDF from O'Reilly, the skills you learn in constructing your own tag clouds will also enable you to create other kinds of innovative, Web-2.0-style interfaces. To give you a sampling of what you'll find in the PDF, we've excerpted this section on tips for designing the most effective tag clouds.

Tag clouds can be used effectively, and provide real value to a web site, or they can be tacked on as an afterthought, simply because they look cool, or to make the site appear similar to other, better web sites that offer them. Ultimately, you need to keep in mind their dual function, both as a graph of current activity, and as a navigation aid. Here are some design and implementation tips:

Choose the Right Language

I like to write code in lots of different languages, and I believe in choosing the right language for a particular job (rather than using any one language for all jobs). I think higher-level scripting languages like Perl, PHP, Python, and Ruby are all good choices for making tag clouds. They tend to be supported on servers and they have associative lists (which make counting tags much easier). Lower-level languages that don't support associative arrays (such as C++ or Java) are not as good for implementing tag clouds, because you will end up writing considerably more code.

Make Your Tag Clouds Visible to Search Engines

You can make tag clouds fairly easily in Flash/ActionScript and JavaScript, and you can make them look much snazzier-flashier, even. However, I don't think these client-side languages are as good a choice as the server-based scripting languages. Why? Because you want search engines to see your tag clouds. Both of these technologies would effectively blind most search engines to the content of your tag clouds. If you do pursue a Flash or JavaScript solution for the interface, consider including the actual tags in a comment block in the HTML.

Frequency Sorting

You can, if you like, sort tag clouds by word frequency (Figure 19). Personally, I don't think it's a good idea. Not only does it reduce the "cloudy" nature of the word list, but it also denies your users an additional organizational axis. Most tag clouds use either random or alphabetic sorts. I prefer the alphabetic sort because it provides a quick way to eliminate or identify a particular tag.

Avoid Random Mappings

In Jim Flanagan's Zeitgeist plugin, the words are colored randomly, and the colors have no significance. While some people like this, I believe that if you desire clarity in the interface, you should try to make each mapping meaningful, and eliminate random information that adds no value. For example, you could associate color with time, or omit the color mapping entirely.

Make Tag Clouds Relevant to Your Users

Tag clouds are best when they are relevant to the user's particular interests. For example, a tag cloud that shows popular tags of the last few days is likely to be more interesting (to the breathing) than a tag cloud that shows popular tags "of all time." Also, if you filter for recent activity, the content of your tag clouds will change every day, rather than remaining static.

Tag clouds can also be used to accompany and annotate search results. When a user searches for a particular tag, you can display a cloud showing related tags. This result will be much more interesting to the user than a tag cloud showing only the most popular tags on the server.

Try Different Mappings

Tag clouds are only one, specific kind of weighted list. There are many kinds of mappings from visual features to underlying data that have not yet been exploited. How about trying some weighted lists that don't look like common tag clouds? For example, you could map font size to time, showing more recent tags in large sizes. Or, in a historical database, you could map font to decade or century, using progressively older- fashioned fonts for older data.

Jim Bumgardner started using computers while studying analog electronic music at CalArts in the early 80s. In the mid-90s, while making interactive multimedia CD-ROMs for Time Warner, Jim created The Palace, a pioneering avatar chat system. Today, Jim makes interactive TV software in Los Angeles and is an instructor at Art Center in Pasadena.

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