Although the concept of tags has become commonplace on the internet in the last few years, there are still many people that don't know what they are or what the point of them is.

You want to make it clearer for someone that has no experience with tags.

  1. How would you label the tags? (e.g. "tags", "tags / keywords", etc.)
  2. What tooltip / help explanation would you give for them?

Edit: The tags will be used for books, and are given along with a description of the book. They will then be used when looking for books as people can then look at all the books tagged as "french" if they want to see french books. So mostly another method of searching besides full text search.

10 Answers 10


Many good answers, here are my thoughts:

Why is it that users don't understand tags or/and don't know the difference between tags and categories? I think it's because tagging is quite an abstract idea and not really applicable in the real world.

So instead of trying to find the correct term, I'd try to tell the user what it is in "real world language". For your case I'd suggest: "Filed under:" followed by the tags (for other cases, like on a blog for example, "Topics" would be a good alternative).

  • There were many good suggestions here, but this was the one that I felt dealt with my problem.
    – JohnGB
    Oct 21, 2011 at 17:25

What to call them depends on use; "tags" in scientific or other publications are more often called keywords (but are used as Index Terms) and are often the actual topics or important words in an article rather than meta tags. For example Barack Obama is a good keyword, politics is more like a tag or category.

Tags are handy in that they give a visual metaphor for the action of "tagging" something, just like you're sticking a little piece of paper on whatever content you're marking up. I believe this is part of why Tag has become the most prolific term within more web-savvy users.

Categories is a good term if only one or few tags are going to be used to apply to an item, especially when the tag sorts or filters the content

Labels is easily the most relatable term as labeling things is common in real life. You label your CDs, label your lunch at work, it just makes sense. If there's no better semantic fit for the term, label is probably the way to go.

For a tooltip it of course depends on which term you use and more importantly how the user will be using the tag. If tags are to help other users find your content, tell them that. If tags are to help the user find their own content, tell them that; one might tag items differently for themselves as opposed to others, they may have their own vocabulary that makes lots of sense to them, but are meaningless to others. Explain what the tag is doing, don't try to explain the whole concept of meta content.

As per your update I feel the most clear term would either be categories or sections, to borrow from bookstore terminology. Sections isn't a conventional way to refer to tagging content but it is logical in the book world as bookstores and libraries are often divided by section.

Unfortunately section does imply a physical divide, which may be less helpful if each book belongs to a great deal of specific tags; however it does make perfect sense to say you're browsing the "French" section and thus only French books appear, doesn't it?. It does have the plus of feeling very bookwormy however, which depending on your application could be some simple but logical fun.

  • Another one I've seen is "topics." Oct 18, 2011 at 0:20
  • 2
    I think tags should be called tags, but these words may be helpful in creating a good tooltip. Oct 18, 2011 at 0:24
  • I think menus should be called menus but that doesn't stop most people from calling them "the little thinger at the top of the screen there"
    – Ben Brocka
    Oct 18, 2011 at 15:55
  • 1
    Yes it does. Oct 18, 2011 at 16:44
  • 1
    @Geert-Jan interesting, reminds me of what StackExchange does with tags with the tag wikis and pages summarizing them. Instead of being promoted to a tag, tags organically gather questions, and once at critical mass someone will likely write a tag description and a tag wiki, creating a sort of automatic community. It's most noticeable on SO for example, as tag communities are fairly distinct things.
    – Ben Brocka
    Oct 20, 2011 at 13:21

We have an application that helps you track how much money you spend on healthcare. You can tag your expenses; in our application, we call the tags "category tags". The context-sensitive help reads:

Tags are just words or phrases that you can use to help categorize your health spending. Tags can be anything: names of family members, names of doctors, reasons for healthcare, whatever you like. Your tags can change as your needs change.

In usability tests, about half of participants understand "category tags" without consulting the context-sensitive help. The rest understand after reading the context-sensitive help.


I'd do something like this:

[book description]

this book relates to: [tag] [tag] [tag]

Please note, English is not my native language, so I'm not sure those are the correct words. However a label like that wouldn't need explanations (tooltips), and if tags have a "clicky" look I'm sure it's safe and tempting for a user to click it and see what it does (provided there's a way to go back to the book).

At least I think that's how I've learnt to use tags. (edit: for sure I wouldn't send them to Wikipedia's explanation, lol)

  • Il tuo inglese è perfetto! Oct 18, 2011 at 16:49
  • @PatrickMcElhaney eheh thanks, same for your Italian.
    – bigstones
    Oct 18, 2011 at 17:00
  • Google Translate did a good job. :-) Oct 18, 2011 at 17:02
  • A very nice human suggestion. Also perfectly good English :)
    – JohnGB
    Oct 18, 2011 at 18:39

If someone has no idea what tags are and how they work then what you call them is the least of your problems. e.g. "labels" is something that Gmail uses.. but I don't see how ordinary users would be able to tell the difference between a "label" and a "title" of an item.

No, for complete novices you'd have to actually show labels in action. For example propose a few labels for them automatically and ask them to add more labels. Show them what tags are, don't tell.


How about Genres? It's not exactly semantically correct, but it will likely be easily understood by readers even if they aren't particularly tech savvy.

  • Wouldn't that limit it to a single tag? Maybe it's just what I think of when I see genre though.
    – JohnGB
    Oct 18, 2011 at 18:38
  • No, trust me you can have a book that fits all of: Timetravel, Vikings, Romance. Especially if SF or Fantasy is involved most books these days don't fit a single genre.
    – aslum
    Oct 18, 2011 at 19:10

Since it is about books one idea could be to look at how libraries classifies them. Borrowing jargon like subject access points could be helpful. Although personally I've never really used that to find books at libraries. So it might only make sense to librarians and people who spend a lot of time in libraries; searching for books.

Genre is what is most often used in the real world to navigate between books, however as already said that implies just one genre for a book. In a bookstore each book is found under only genre. Which is the problem of many of the real world analogies, most of the time we find things under one tag/categories/genre/... and not several. So using any analogy might give the impression that there can only be one to users. So in the end I would probably stick with tags. Mostly because it does not have a many associations as the other suggestions.

Categories is already in use and having an author as a tag makes sense but having a an author as a category seems a bit of a stretch. Categories/Topics and genres are all a bit more limited I feel in what they can contain.

As @Assaf Lavie says, the most important thing is to show how tags are used. If the are visible in the interface and their usefulness is users will probably pick them up. A search field dedicated to just tags could be one solution.

For a tooltip I would have something like this: "A [tag] is a word that describes the book or it's content. It could be the author, the language, the topic or what the book is about. They can be used to find books while searching."


For an explanation I would give, "A tag is a label you can apply to a subject to classify that subject. The tag can be used as an aide in searching for topics on that subject. It is a way to categorize content into different buckets of information."

A tooltip would be "The category for the current content."


Since the material that are searched are books, an idea could be to borrow categorization as familiarized by traditional bookstore:

"Excuse me, where are French books?"

"in the top shelf".

Every tag is named as "shelf", and you have an easy life copywriting the search ("look for more books in the French shelf"). Since your bookstore is virtual, books can sit in multiple shelves at the same time. How cool is that?

As for the tooltip, I don't think you need one if you use that naming and a fixed cluster of tags. If, on the other hand, you are planning to create a "folksonomy", you might have to guide your users on what to do. Ben Brocka's answer provides good tips on this.

  • This isn't about a bookstore - It is about explaining tags to customers. Ben had some good things to add, as did some others.
    – JohnGB
    Oct 22, 2011 at 2:04

As others mentioned, i would stick to tags and pray along way (next 10 years) that people will finally get to understand it. In this case, the word "descriptor" or "keyword" comes to my mind but im not sure if it would just further confuse people or not...

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