Friday, January 19, 2007

Tag or Label?

Tags are one of the defining elements of Web 2.0. When Google started gmail, it used the term label instead of the term tag. When Google developed the new version of Blogger, it also again used the term labels instead of tags.

I wondered why Google used this term instead of the other popular one. My first impression was that Google is trying to have its own terminology, same thing for instance as when Netscape Navigator had "bookmarks" while Internet Explorer has "favorites", another similar pair of terms in the two browsers is "reload" and "refresh" and so on.

When Google used the term label instead of tags in its new version of Blogger I said to myself this might be to continue on the same tradition of gmail. But I noticed something that made me get puzzled. I found that in Google Docs & Spreadsheets, Google does not use the term label and used the term tag instead! That was really puzzling to me and got me thinking in a different path asking myself if the two terms actually had different meanings.

Perhaps Google is still using the term tag in Google Docs & Spreadsheets as a continuation from its predecessor Writely. I suggest that Google would unify its terminology and use the term label there as well. Or do you think Google should instead go with the rest of the world and use the popular and almost standard term tag in gmail, Blogger and any other of its services?

By the way, Google uses the term labels in Google Bookmarks while it uses the term tags in Google Reader. Is this making the situation more puzzling or is it giving any clues to the existence of some subtle difference between a label and a tag?

In Google Video and in Picasa Web Albums, Google uses the term tag. Are you starting to see a common thread now and a consistent pattern emerging on when to use the term tag and when to use the other term label, or is it getting even more puzzling?


Christopher & Shalan said...

I think labels have a 'personal' connotation (which makes sense for personal email), whereas tag has a more social connotation - that we're working towards common terms for things (and organically, slowly at that).

Lucas said...

Like christopher said, there's a huge difference between the 2 things.

Tags must be shared. Label is just a non-taxonomical way to organize personal stuff.

(ok, i dont blog at, i have a custom wp domain. Because of this i wasnt able to comment with custom id and i needed to use a google account to comment at ur blog, and ur blog just sucks for this.)

Hermes said...

I remember when they were still folders ... is I getting old ??

mike said...

Labels are for shirt collars.
Tags are the things you tear off before you wash the thing the first time.

NB I didn't know Google was in the clothing business.

Inyuki said...

As far as I remember, the term "label" was initially intended as a substitution for the term "folder", hence, labels are "tags for files", and the term "tag" seem to be used in a more wider sense, as a "marking" for any kind of content.

I am not sure why they use the term "tag" for Google Docs (previously "Writely").

Kenneth said...

<this is a tag>Though it don't really have much semantic meaning</this is a tag>

This Is a label: Also without much meaning

Anonymous said...

Google should be told, by the U.S government, to use the term "tag", or be forced to pay $500,000 each day until they do.

Marli said...

No offense, but really who cares? I'll give you a hint: Google doesn't. Think about that. While you are all debating the semantics of something as trivial as the terminology of a word applied to an object, Google is actually focussing on the product as a whole, and how it fits into their online strategy. Do you think a Google engineer actually sat there and thought, "you know, I think I'll use the term 'tag' for this, instead of 'label' cause, you know, I'm hell bent on confusing everyone enough in order to hatch my evil plan of world domination without them noticing"? I doubt it.

I know this may sound a little critical, but I'm drunk and its 5am... I just think the fact that this topic is even being debated (and slashdotted) is really rather pointless.

There are a lot bigger things happening in the world, guys, maybe you could write about those things instead?

Anonymous said...

I agree with Marli...

Drnk or not.

Frank said...


Both "tags" and "labels" really compete with "concepts" from the ontology-based Artificial Intelligence world, as represented by the W3C RDF (Resource Description Framework).

Basicly, the RDF stuff doesn't work because it requires everybody to agree on the very same ontology in order to allow conclusions beyond a single web site. Tags seem to be easier.

But the guys from Google have probably the highest AI budget in the world, so that they might associate some of their statistical/ stochastical algorithms with labels and interpret labels in "contexts" or whatever in order to implement this famous "show me what I mean" feature.

I'm really interested in this stuff because we're planning to implementing something similar in our project management system. Please let me ( know if you've got an opinion or hints for us...


KermodeBear said...

Ditto, Marli. To-MAY-to, To-MAH-to. I find the term 'label' to be better but ultimately a rose is a rose by any other name.

Ryan said...

Not related to the naming convention of tagging, but I've also wondered why Google has eliminated labels/tags entirely from Google Reader. It lets you organize your feeds, but only into folders.

Seems an odd departure from Gmail, where there are no folders at all, but rather the "labels." Google Reader has folders but not labels.

GothicX said...

For personal stuff we should use labels to remember important things, and tags to define things we want to share with others.

I think this is the correct use of them.

McChris said...

While I think this inconsistency is a little weird, I think there may actually be some thought behind it. "Label" is a standard information-architecture term of art for identifying classes of content. An IA creates a system of labels to describe what kind of information appears in a site. For me, "tags" are usually associated with folksonomy systems like where end users classify resources. Labels are top-down, created by the author or designer, while tags are bottom-up.

Evan said...

It is a good question but I think your examples make it clear:

A label is created by the user for the user.

A tag is created by others for others.

It is really a powerful different, and it is impressive that google understands and has acted on that difference.

One is to be shared, and the other is not. One must be general to aid searching (girl, blue eyes) and the other can be specific without being exact (Laura) for my girlfriend, instead of her full name.

Nice article! Let me know if you agree!

sidewised said...

Labels=filing cabinet

Eric said...

I think the "tag vs. label" thing has more to do with cultural influences. A significant number of Google folks come from a machine learning background, and at least from the ML papers I've seen the term "label" has always been used for assigning descriptions to data. I don't think there's any strong implications of hierarchy or "top-down" vs "bottom-up" with "label:" it's just a way of saying a data point has some characteristics.

Laibeus Lord said...

I actually said the same thing about it in my different blogs since last year and it is only getting worse every patch and product they introduce.

Google Reader for example. After patching the new GUI, all previous tags/labels were suddenly changed to “folders” and so I have to redo everything to keep things simpler and manageable.

The new Google Reader mixes “folders” and “tags” and lists both in the left-pane menu, which makes the menu useless because it becomes chaotic with the overcrowding of repetitive stuff. :/

Takriti said...

Interesting article, nice to be published in Slashdot. I propose the term وسم in Arabic (seeوسم)

Anonymous said...

Yeah, well, the rest of the world has always called these things "keywords". It's pretty well known concept in any library catalog around the world. But it's kind of pointless to make a buzzword out of a normal word, hence tag.

vvoody said...

It doesn't matter what they named.

dinis said...

Tags and labels are *not* the same thing.

When you use labels in Gmail, you don't create a new label for each message on your inbox. Labels replace folders - like Inyuki said in the comments - so you eventually have a finite number of labels. They are different than folders because you can assign more than one label to each message; however, and like lucas said, labels are just a non-taxonomical way to *organize* stuff.

Tags, on the other hand, more than organizing, they *describe*. Think of Flickr: photos are described using tags and can also be organized in sets: and labels on Gmail work like sets on Flickr.

Still, there are problems with Google's terminology - such as the Reader and Bookmarks - but labels and tags are not the same thing.

OtherFarm said...

project A doesn't know what project B is doing... typical. coding guidelines!!!

Anonymous said...

Hey guys, the answer is very simple. You're all forgetting history.

Gmail came out around the same time as
When Gmail chose "labels" and chose "tags", tagmania had not even started yet.

Of course, they're the same thing. But they were independently popularized and released around the same time, with just different names.

End of story.

Anonymous said...

In Picasa for Windows they call it Tags.
In Picasa for Linux they call the same thing Labels.
No, it doesn't make sense.

Otis said...

My take is that there is no functional difference, and they only use the word labels because I think non-techies (aka normal people) will get it better. Language is important people!

I think using language to explain the concept of 'tags' is HUGE, as I've never met a web 2.0 savvy person who knew what a tag was. Seriously. Even people who use the internet all day have no idea. On the site I'm working on,, I called them 'shelves' as the users are organizing books. Nobody has complained so far of not understanding what a 'shelf' is. But I can bet if I called them 'tags' I would have had lots of questions..

Ashraf Al Shafaki said...

Is it that one can only label ones own creations while he can tag any creations be they his own or other people's?

I have come up with this idea, but have not tested it yet in my mind by going through all Google's products. If you find a case where a Google products breaks the rule I am suggesting above, please let me know.