Does Anybody Use Tag Clouds?

Recently I’ve really been trying to view websites through the eyes of users, and not as a web designer. As much as possible, I always try to ask myself “would users find this helpful?

Sometimes I see trends that are very helpful to users (example: phone numbers front and center on the homepage) and sometimes I notice things that were probably designed to help users but only serve to impress fellow web designers and other techies. But if you’re building a website, it’s your responsibility to do what’s in the best interest of your client‚ and what’s in their best interest isn’t always the coolest or most advanced features. Sometimes it’s just making things simple to use.

Tag clouds have been on my mind recently, and I had never really noticed them that much until last week. I visited a website that had, on the right hand of the page, the most unappealing tag cloud I’ve ever seen. That got me to wondering… does anybody even use tag clouds? Here’s my answer: yes. Web designers and bloggers do. That’s it. But that’s the wrong question.

The real question should be: do users ever click on tag clouds? Nope. Users don’t like tag clouds. Why would they? They’re obnoxious, hard to read, and far more confusing than they are helpful… which is bizarre, because the idea is that they’re intended to help users navigate a page. But they don’t. They get in the way, if they’re even noticed. Most of the time, users probably don’t pay that much attention to them because users ignore things that get in the way.

Unless someone else has some bullet-proof analytical data that can prove me wrong, I’m going to stick firmly with this. Tag clouds (and the idea of “tags” in general) are a waste of time. Matt Cutts (whom I’ve gotten both good and bad info from) is not a fan of them and recommends thinking twice before using one in this video. Jakob Nielsen has an excellent article that discusses this as well. I never use them in my websites, and I never recommend that do-it-yourself-ers use them either.

So the head of Google’s webspam team (Cutts) doesn’t like them. The web’s best usability expert (Nielsen) doesn’t like them. I don’t like them. And most importantly—users don’t like them either.

The more I think about it, it seems to me that tag clouds are just a clever way to disguise keyword stuffing. But even if that’s not your intention, they still look spammy and all they do is fill your website with useless keywords. Think about it—when was the last time you were on a web page and saw a floating mass of random words in an explosive mass and said to yourself “Hey, that looks helpful—I think I’ll click on it“? Hmm… I’m gonna guess never.

Think about it—when was the last time you were on a web page and saw a floating mass of random words in an explosive mass and said to yourself “That looks helpful—I think I’ll click on it“?

There’s only one reason to use them: they look impressive. That’s it. There are even some wordpress plugins that offer a way to convert your tag cloud into a globular, quivering orb neatly packed into a flash movie (that search engines don’t crawl anyway) that goes spinning by so fast you can barely even click on the links if you wanted to. Please, do your users a favor, and don’t use tag clouds–they’re one of those internet trends that should have died back in 2005, along with MySpace, Blogger, Splash Pages, Flash intros, Earthlink and musical homepages.

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