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Keywords Versus Tags Blog’s discusses how “Every Word in Every Document is Already a Tag in a way I found fascinating.

Back when web directories were still cool, AOL had an effort to build their own based on the Dewey Decimal System. They had 60 contractors in Arizona typing in web urls and assigning DDC numbers to them.

This didn’t work. But why?

Because two thoughtful, non-malicious humans sitting next to each other will tag the same URL differently…

…When you pick up the result of this exercise by a particular DDC number to get that category page, it’s junk. It’s missing a lot of stuff it should have, and it has stuff it shouldn’t.

Before we had full text search of the world’s knowledge at our fingertips, search systems would let you retrieve documents by keywords. If the item you were looking for hadn’t been given the right keywords, it was undiscoverabale. “Internet Law?” “Software Patents?” “IP Theft?” Modern search systems consider every word or phrase in the document a tag.

Yes, it is true that every word in a document could qualify as a “tag”, but they currently qualify as a “keyword” when it comes to search engines. Tags, recognized by tag search services, store their information as “tags” and not the entire post content. The tag creates an association with the document, not the document’s content. The key lies in getting search engines to recognize both tags and keywords.

Oh, wait! They do!

Every word in your blog or site is crawled and analyzed by search engines which gather that information and store it in their database. See the list of tags at the bottom of this post? Those words will go into the search engine.

Let’s clear up some of the confusion around tags and keywords.

Tags versus Keywords

A search engine sifts through your content looking for words and phrases you repeat within the content. If you are taking about “keywords” and you have used the word “keywords” in the content four times, the odds are that you are taking about “keywords” and the search engine makes a note of it. If I write “keywords” in my content, and then add a tag to “keywords”, then the search engine says, “Ah, here’s another one. That makes five times the word ‘keywords’ was used.”

Until recently, search engines didn’t recognize the rel="tag" attribute in tag links. They were just words inside of links.

Use a search engine to search for “keywords” and the odds are that your post will show up somewhere in the results.

Tag services, however, used to crawl through posts looking for the rel="tag" attribute in the links and associates those tags with the post content. A search through its database looked for tags, not content, and listed the search results of that tag, not keywords. This was true until very recently. Technorati and others added the capability to search content as well as tags, expanding their search results.

Search engines are thinking about getting on the tag bandwagon, they are adding instructions to their website crawlers to store tags in the database and associate those tags with the content. So search engines will search content for keywords, and also search their tag list for those keywords. Double hits? Nah. If used right, those tags are already in the database as keywords.

The Search for Tags and Keywords

Another good point brought up by Blog’s article is how tagging is self-policing.

On one hand tags work because they maximize participation with a simple user ask and the social use effects help rough standardization emerge around them.

The idea behind tags is that it is participatory. Everyone helps create tags. The most popularly used tags bubble to the top of the list and the least popular tags dry out at the bottom in the waste.

With tag services and search engines collecting keywords and tags into their database, the sifting process doesn’t matter so much. It only matters if you are doing your hunting through tag clouds or tag heat maps. The more popular the tag word, the bigger the word in the tag cloud. Less popular tag words, smaller sizes, with some so small, they are not even on the list.

With the lines between tags and keywords blurring, in a way, they no longer become special. It goes back to a race over which search service provides the largest volume of sites to search, and the most up-to-date information from those sites.

The only benefits I see in tags in the near future are:

  • To provide additional keywords to help search engines and tag services add up your keyword counts and classify your post content.
  • To provide additional navigation on your site, like an index reference, helping the user find related post content.
  • To provide additional information and resources by linking to off-site services, such as Technorati,, or other off-site search engines or tag services.

How you choose your tags, like your keywords, is dependent upon how you want these benefits to work for your site.

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Copyright Lorelle VanFossen


  1. Stuck
    Posted July 16, 2008 at 11:09 am | Permalink


    I was wondering, since I keep coming across your site for related wordpress info… I wonder… do you know how to or know where there are resources / a way of turning the tags into a rss feed, like UTW does?


  2. Posted July 16, 2008 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    @ Stuck:

    Understanding, Using, and Customizing WordPress Blog Feeds will help. Tags are treated similarly to category feeds. Just replace /category/ with /tag/ in the feed link.

  3. Stuck
    Posted July 16, 2008 at 7:15 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Lorelle,

    It’s close to what I’m looking for, I’m really looking for a piece of code that will not only produce the tags given for a particular post, but to also post the rss feed icon which is also a link to the feed…

    I got some help from the wordpress moderators on their forum, but the code he gave me doesn’t work. 😦

    Not sure if this code will come out properly or not, with the < and > remplaced with [ ].

    [?php $terms = get_the_terms($id,'post_tag');
    if (!empty($terms)) {

    foreach ( $terms as $term ) {
    $link = get_term_link($term,'post_tag');
    $feedlink = get_tag_feed_link($term->term_id);
    $term_links[] = ‘[a href="'.$feedlink.'"][img src="/feed-icon.png" /][/a][a href="' . $link . '" rel="tag"]‘ . $term->name . ‘[/a]‘;
    if (!empty($terms)) {
    echo ‘[ul][li]‘ . join(’[/li][li]‘, $term_links) . ‘[/li][/ul]‘; } ?]

    Looking for something like that, but a workable one.


  4. Posted July 17, 2008 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    @ Stuck:

    It isn’t my site. ALL sites and forums strip out code in posts and comments unless they are presented properly. See Writing Code in Your WordPress Posts and Writing and Publishing Code in Your WordPress Blog Posts for tips on how to do that.

    As for this issue, you will need to get help from the WordPress Support Forums. I’m not familiar enough with the code involving tags to give you an answer, and the way you’ve had to play with the code to make it publish, the problem could be as simple as a quote mark or colon or semi-colon gone astray, which I can’t distinguish here.

    Good luck.

  5. Posted December 8, 2010 at 4:23 am | Permalink

    Excellent article, thanks for making this clearer, I have always had issue know how to use tags and keywords properly until now

  6. Posted January 20, 2011 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for that this wasn’t the article I was looking for I actually stumbled across it by accident. The thing is I didn’t know anything about tags until now. I’m quite news to creating websites and still learning.
    I’m struggling with SEO but articles like this making things clearer for me. Maybe one day I will rank high with google. Chhers

  7. Posted April 11, 2011 at 4:34 am | Permalink

    Thanks for giving a clear idea about the “tags” and “keywords”. I had a great confusion about these two words, but now I can utilize both of them in my postings.

  8. Sandy
    Posted August 7, 2011 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    This has helped me understand tags and keywords better but I still have a question. I use AIOSEO for for self-hosted website. I’ve been told that if I’m using that I should not fill out the tags for each post as it would be considered duplication. What are your thoughts about that? Thanks

    • Posted August 7, 2011 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

      You’ve been given wrong information. Duplicate content is an issue specifically for spam and scrapers. If you are using excerpts on tags, categories, and other multiple post pages, you are fine.

11 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] Lorelle is perhaps not writing about the cat/tag war but has a good text around the difference between tags and keywords. I find it interesting and just want to point it out to you guys aswell. here is the link. […]

  2. […] At this point you may already be confused — meta-tags, keywords, tags, which one is which? To emphasize: meta keyword tags tell search engines what is on your page, while tags (via UTW and JKW) make finding content easier on your site by assigning keywords to each page that describe it in someway. You may have noticed: there is very little difference between meta keywords and tags. The only real difference is one of placement: meta tags go in the head of a page, while keyword tags are visible to users for navigation. I’m not the first to come to this realization. […]

  3. […] a standardized keyword system. Tags are identical to keywords, or at least the lines between them are increasingly blurred; which is why I find her insistence that cats are not tags to be puzzling. She summarizes the sole […]

  4. […] personalities, has written volumes about tags, and comes across rather skeptical. She describes tags as a standardized keyword system. However, she also insists that cats are not tags. Lorelle summarizes the sole benefits of tags (in […]

  5. […] Now, keep in mind tagging and keywords are not exactly the same. Tagging is just another way to organize an article in your’s sites navigational system. However, sometimes the search engines do pick up these tags. In fact Lorelle, writes a great article even way back in 2006 that I think is still quite relevant called Ke…. […]

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