We're now in what could be called the Search 2.0 era--signaled by the rise of Google, Yahoo, and MSN, and similarly, the downfall of search forefathers such as Alta Vista, Excite, and Webcrawler. It parallels, with Web 2.0, this glorious age and hype machine.
First, a disclaimer: I hate the term Web 2.0. It reeks of dot-com geek elitism (as a Manhattanite, it takes an elitist to know an elitist), and it quickly runs the risk of making itself obsolete (there are already 654,000 results in Google for "Web 3.0," a term which has no meaning whatsoever). A Web 2.0 site can best be summed up as an online application incorporating at least two of the following features: streamlined design, community functionality, Ajax (a scripting technique allowing for dynamic interactivity, such as the smooth panning and zooming in Google Maps), and tags.
Tags are the most important part, for our purposes. Search marketers, at least those doing search engine optimization, were some of the first to grasp the importance of tags. Metatags, title tags, and their ilk were the core focus of Search 1.0. Now, with Web 2.0, tags are back, with a twist: instead of marketers and Web developers choosing them, the control has shifted to the consumers.
Consider, as a case study, Yahoo's My Web. Register there and you can save bookmarks, share them with others, and browse others' bookmarks (if they make them public). If you're a My Web user and you're logged in to Yahoo, searching on yahoo.com will bring up a Yahoo shortcut with a link to the My Web results for that query above the natural search results. Click that link and you're directed to the page of My Web links, with sponsored results along the side. This is just one example of users' tagged results landing high placement; be prepared to encounter more like it.
Here's a guide to some things you can do with tagging, and the site you should visit in each category:
Sharing Bookmarks: This is one of the most frequent breeds of tagging sites. In the Web 1.0 version of saving bookmarks (in a browser), you couldn't share links, couldn't access them from other computers, and couldn't annotate them with any additional information. Now these features and others are standard issue in countless sites that integrate with browsers, via toolbars and other links. Gold standard: Del.icio.us, now part of the Yahoo family, is one of the easiest to use and is well integrated into other applications.
Storing Bookmarks: Some sites, like My Web, are designed to share links, but others are meant to be more personal. Gold standard: Google Bookmarks. Google has the most to gain here, as changing how people bookmark will be one more way it can wean people off Internet Explorer. Additionally, for a prediction that's not too far out on a limb, expect Google to integrate its bookmarks into personalized search results where relevant. For instance, for a user logged in with a Google account who bookmarked the Digg-like site marktd.com and tagged it "marketing news," a search for "marketing news" will bring up a link to the bookmark above the natural results.
Voting on Content: In Web 1.0, the publishers picked the best content and featured it. That's still the case on some of the most popular news sites, such as the Drudge Report. Now, however, users vote on what links rank first, offering a glimpse into an era of the democratization of publishing. Gold standard: Digg, where users give the thumbs up to a story, or bury it. Land a story on the Digg homepage and you can drive a surge of new traffic to your site, but there's one catch: you actually need to have something to say. Unlike the major search engines' news sites, press releases won't rise to the top.
Tagging Images: To optimize images for search engines, it helps to add "alt tags," the text that describes what the image is. Now images in photo albums and other stashes can also be tagged with descriptors for easy sorting and retrieval. Gold standard: Flickr, which has become a favorite among bloggers and keeps improving its functionality. Flickr images are now being included in Yahoo's search index.
A single tag on its own isn't that impressive. It's a molecule, a grain of sand, a stem cell. Yet, when tags come together in communities and then diverge into specialized functions, the organisms they create can alter how we access information. Tags are very much alive; adopt them now, while they're still cute and playful.