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Tags are not the answer for search?

Autonomy CEO Mike Lynch has been quoted by Tom Foremski as saying that the widespread social search phenomenon is misguided, because tags don’t work. I guess that I am getting old, because I have less and less patience for such black-and-white approaches. Of course tags are not the answer. Nothing is the answer.


Search relevance is not about having one thing that works or doesn’t work. If it was, we wouldn’t call it “ranking”—we’d call it “sorting.” The secret sauce of relevance ranking algorithms rely on dozens or even hundreds of factors. Doing content analysis alone doesn’t cut it. Nor links. Nor tags. Nothing works, if you just look at that one factor.
Because I am older than dirt, I remember the debates back in the 1980s about what was the right way to find information: search or hypertext. What do you think that answer was?
Now Mike Lynch is a very smart guy and he knows this very well. He is trying to make the point that tags don’t replace all the rest of this stuff, I hope. And that if we did a better job of semantic analysis, that maybe we wouldn’t need tagging.
But I think that is too black-and-white. It’s clear that tags are helpful for non-text content, such as videos and images. Just as some tags are inaccurate by mistake and some are inaccurate intentionally (spam), the same problems occur with content and with links today. Just as some good content does not get tagged, so it is true that good content doesn’t get linked today. In other words, whatever people complain about with tagging applies to everything else in the secret sauce, too.
No, tags are not the answer. They are not magic. They are part of the secret sauce just like everything else. Perhaps someday we won’t need to do any work to get the right content to appear, but I don’t think that day is all that close. Until then, we should keep an open mind about using as many possible ingredients in the secret sauce as possible, rather than marking things as “working” or “not working.”

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Mike Moran

Mike Moran is an expert in digital marketing, search technology, social media, text analytics, web personalization, and web metrics, who, as a Certified Speaking Professional, regularly makes speaking appearances. Mike’s previous appearances include keynote speaking appearances worldwide. Mike serves as a senior strategist for Converseon, an AI powered consumer intelligence technology and consulting firm. He is also a senior strategist for SoloSegment, a marketing automation software solutions and services firm. Mike also serves as a member of the Board of Directors of SEMPO. Mike spent 30 years at IBM, rising to Distinguished Engineer, an executive-level technical position. Mike held various roles in his IBM career, including eight years at IBM’s customer-facing website, ibm.com, most recently as the Manager of ibm.com Web Experience, where he led 65 information architects, web designers, webmasters, programmers, and technical architects around the world. Mike's newest book is Outside-In Marketing with world-renowned author James Mathewson. He is co-author of the best-selling Search Engine Marketing, Inc. (with fellow search marketing expert Bill Hunt), now in its Third Edition. Mike is also the author of the acclaimed internet marketing book, Do It Wrong Quickly: How the Web Changes the Old Marketing Rules, named one of best business books of 2007 by the Miami Herald. Mike founded and writes for Biznology® and writes regularly for other blogs. In addition to Mike’s broad technical background, he holds an Advanced Certificate in Market Management Practice from the Royal UK Charter Institute of Marketing and is a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. He also teaches at Rutgers Business School. He is a Senior Fellow at the Society for New Communications Research. Mike worked at ibm.com from 1998 through 2006, pioneering IBM’s successful search marketing program. IBM’s website of over two million pages was a classic “big company” website that has traditionally been difficult to optimize for search marketing. Mike, working with Bill Hunt, developed a strategy for search engine marketing that works for any business, large or small. Moran and Hunt spearheaded IBM’s content improvement that has resulted in dramatic gains in traffic from Google and other internet portals.

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