I'm starting to see an alarming trend of what I feel is a major misuse of the tags.

To recap what I've said in the past, tags exist for two reasons:

  1. To help other members determine whether or not a particular question is within their area of expertise.
  2. To disambiguate questions that sound similar but are actually completely different.

Examples of #1 are , , and . These are all tags that an expert in baking, spices, or sushi-making, correspondingly, can search for or highlight to help find questions they can answer.

Type #2 depends on context. One example I can imagine is a question about curry; it may not be clear from the text of the question whether the author is referring to Thai curry or Indian curry; adding makes this much clearer.

There's been a major uptick recently in tags that are not useful and just add noise. I want to stress that these are usually added in good faith, and I am not questioning anybody's motivation - I know that they all mean well. But this particular category of tags is one that has been historically referred to as meta-tags on MSO, and these tags cause a lot of problems.

The most egregious examples I've seen so far are ones like , , , , , , , , , , and any "localized" tags such as and . Most of these are one-offs, but there are many more which are in more common use that will be listed separately as answers.

The reason these tags are a problem is that meta-tags do not describe the content of the question. They describe some other aspect of the question, like the author's skill level, or the author's motivation for asking it, or generally what "kind" of question it is (poll, how-to, etc.).

Meta-tags are actually a subset of a larger problem that I usually call dependent tags. These are tags that don't say anything by themselves - you can't tell what the question is about unless they're paired with some other tag (or several of them). These tags are a problem because people don't realize this and will often use that as the question's only tag.

I would like to formally request that any meta-tags or dependent tags be removed unless somebody can put forth a particularly compelling reason for keeping them. As per request, I'll be listing and explaining these separately as answers.


For more information and to understand why this important, please see the original MSO FAQ, How do I correctly tag my questions? I am quoting the following piece from the accepted answer:

Tagging Don'ts

  • Try not to create new tags. If you create a new tag, that tag is guaranteed not to help your question show up on any subscribed RSS feeds or interesting tag lists. Again, the look-ahead prompt can help with this. Odds are it also means you're missing an existing tag for that topic that would more-accurately categorize your question.

  • Don't try to summarize your question using the tags. The point of tags on Stack Overflow is to help other interested persons find your question by sorting it into clear, specific categories. This is not the same as indexing or summarizing the question. The differences are subtle, but important.

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I think you make good points, but this is really friggin' long - maybe post the specific re-tag suggestions separately, so I can comment/vote on that without having to block-quote the portion I'm responding to? –  Shog9 Jul 31 '10 at 19:35
    
@Knives: I didn't want to spam the question with 8 different replies. If that's what everybody wants, though, I'll make the change... –  Aaronut Jul 31 '10 at 19:40
    
@Aaronut: no, I meant as separate questions - that's usually the format for retag request/discussion, right? Good job shortening this though. –  Shog9 Jul 31 '10 at 20:26
    
@Knives: Seems like spamming questions would be even worse... and a lot of people here might not be clear on the reasons in that format. We did have a tag-reorg mega-thread on MSO too... I think normally, when everything's humming along, they should all be separated, but I wanted to bring up the subject of "how to tag" and cite some of the most notable examples of how not to tag, within the context of this site as opposed to Stack Overflow. –  Aaronut Jul 31 '10 at 20:39
    
Is there a way to remove tags permenantly? I had gone through a few days ago and did some retagging of equivalent terms (basics/basic/easy), but the tags still persist in the system for someone to re-use even if they don't have the rep to create a new tag. update nevermind -- looks like they'll age out if you wait long enough. –  Joe Aug 1 '10 at 14:06
    
@Joe: They age out, although people with rep can still create them... the only way to permanently get rid of them and make sure they never come back is to either make them synonyms of some other tag or blacklist them (admins only). I don't think it's that big a problem yet though; my concern was just that the existence (and popularity) of some of these tags was actually convincing other people to use them who would normally not have used them. –  Aaronut Aug 1 '10 at 14:41
    
Bottom line, I think there was a bit of a tag free-for-all during the private beta and we're paying for it now. I'm 90% sure that if we purge a lot of these bad tags and start fresh, we won't have as many issues going forward. (Of course there will always be some issues but we'll cross that bridge when we get there.) –  Aaronut Aug 1 '10 at 14:43
    
@Tagging free-for-alls are great! Sorry if that sounded like a corn-flakes ad, but seriously, you don't know which tags are going to be intuitive and desired by readers until they throw out a few hundred. Then you consolidate, pare, add a few, remove a few, like we're doing now. Keeping things overly organized early on would have required question-by-question enforcement, and it might have missed a lot of possible subtleties. There's a lot of stuff out there, and different tags can accentuate different aspects of it. –  Ocaasi Aug 1 '10 at 18:30
    
@Ocaasi: I never said that people did wrong by experimenting in the private beta, only that it made a mess. Lots of good things leave around undesirable by-products when you make them; now we have to take out the trash so that it doesn't confuse any more people. –  Aaronut Aug 1 '10 at 18:52
    
do you still want these tags removed? there's a handful that are still around. –  Jeff Atwood Sep 1 '11 at 23:28
    
@Jeff: I think we got rid of most of them, but if there are still any left, I certainly wouldn't miss them. –  Aaronut Sep 1 '11 at 23:59
    
I think you miss one important reason for tags (maybe hidden in the second case)-some people, not experts, may read the questions within a tag. Someone wants to research about a specific topic so it is easier for that person to look for a specific tag than to browse all the site. –  Theta30 Sep 4 '11 at 23:58
    
@Theta30, that's more or less the same use case as #1. Call it an area of learning or an area of expertise, it's still the same area. –  Aaronut Sep 5 '11 at 0:51
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5 Answers

Brilliant post.

This is now policy network-wide:
http://blog.stackoverflow.com/2010/08/the-death-of-meta-tags/

(still working on how we explain this in the tag help..)

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Woot! @Aaronut: You're famous! –  hobodave Aug 7 '10 at 7:00
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I just cleaned all of our copies of those tags. –  hobodave Aug 7 '10 at 7:19
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Removal Request: [cooking-techniques]

This is essentially just a minor variation on [technique]. I'd like to see it disappear for the same reasons. It's too vague for anyone to want to follow and doesn't tell you anything about the question. If you look at the kinds of questions tagged [cooking-techniques], you'll see that very few of them have anything in common and that most of them are either referring to a specific technique (like [grilling]) or aren't about technique at all.

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Seems pretty useless, unless it's a discussion among various techniques for a dish (i.e. slowcooker lasagna... but then [slowcooker] and [lasagna] probably suffice) –  Ocaasi Aug 1 '10 at 5:18
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Removal Request: [recipe]

Questions with this tag are one of two things:

  1. Recipe-swapping requests, which are off-topic and shouldn't exist at all; or

  2. Questions about specific recipes, in which case the [recipe] tag is essentially a meta tag that nobody would follow. People will answer those questions based on whether or not they understand the specific food in question, not whether or not the question is about a recipe.

I see no value in this tag, and it's also very dangerous to keep around because it suggests to newbies who haven't read the FAQ proposal here that recipe-swap questions are valid and on-topic.

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The tag is generic and worthless 'unless' the question is asking for recipes. That is not currently within scope of the site, but that's where it would fit, i.e. a community wiki thread with multiple ways to make chocolate chip cookies. Also, a thread asking about website which do have recipes/recipe-swapping could get that tag. –  Ocaasi Aug 1 '10 at 4:09
    
@Ocaasi: Quite correct, that is the likely tag that would be used for questions asking for recipes - which should be closed and deleted. So the tag may occasionally be recreated but should never have more than a few live questions. –  Aaronut Aug 1 '10 at 13:47
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Removal Request: [technique]

At first, when the site was in private beta with all of 25 questions, this tag made perfect sense to me - right up until the point where I saw a spate of questions with no other tags and realized how generic and useless that was.

A couple of weeks ago, this tag engulfed nearly half the questions on the site. The ratio has been going down, thankfully, because most people aren't using it anymore, but there are still a lot of old questions lying around with this tag, and new users occasionally still get roped in by it.

Embarrassingly, I was the one who created that tag, so please keep in mind that I'm essentially forfeiting a future Taxonomist badge by making this request. I just really, really believe it needs to go before it causes any more confusion.

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I see validity in this tag. e.g. the question(s) about knife technique –  hobodave Jul 31 '10 at 21:43
    
@hobodave: We have a [knife-skills] tag that's starting to gain traction, and several other [cutting] questions that I'm considering retagging as [knife-skills]. Isn't that a much better tag? [technique] could refer to any technique at all - in fact, virtually every question could arguably be defined as a question about some kind of technique. The big question is: What does the [technique] tag mean in isolation? Would you ever put that in your "interesting tags" list? –  Aaronut Jul 31 '10 at 22:53
    
Agree that technique is too broad. Almost everything is technique, and with already pushing 100 entries, it's going to turn into a catch-all. To me, those are the only tags that seem pointless (although I still think they're fairly harmless). –  Ocaasi Aug 1 '10 at 5:19
    
I guess I'm convinced. The thing is I really have specifically looked at all questions tagged [technique] on a few occasions. I'd +1 like the others, but apparently since I did it and changed my mind 9 hours ago, I can't upvote it anymore. –  hobodave Aug 1 '10 at 7:10
    
@hobodave: I just made an invisible edit, you should be able to vote again now if you want. –  Aaronut Aug 1 '10 at 13:55
    
@Aaronut: Just stumbled across cooking.stackexchange.com/badges/11/taxonomist looks like someone else got credit for creating as well as the badge –  hobodave Aug 1 '10 at 20:26
    
@hobodave: Well, my face is red. I knew I had a Taxonomist but I could have sworn it was for [technique] and not for [preparation]. Oh well - honestly, I don't like either tag, but I haven't figured out what to do about [preparation] yet, since it's been used as a catch all for "How do I make the perfect X" questions with no other tags. –  Aaronut Aug 2 '10 at 12:34
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I'm also going to be manually removing the following, which I wanted to call out but felt had too few hits to ask for a mass retag:

  • [health] and [nutrition] - these subjects are off-topic by definition and we do not want to encourage them!
  • [best-practices]
  • [flavor]
  • [comparisons]
  • [recipes] (I may reconsider this once I see the actual questions, but questions with this tag are probably either asking for recipes, which is off-topic, or discussing recipes, in which case the tag is superfluous)
  • [subjective] (these questions are either objective enough to be answered or subjective enough to be wikied and/or closed)
  • [temperature]
  • [learning] (we already have [resources])
  • [seasoning] I will manually merge with [spices], unless it is actually about seasoning cookware
  • [food-differences]

This is going to be tedious, so if anybody wants to get the jump on me, feel free. I'll update the list if I see any more worth mentioning here.


Edit: After seeing How to fix food that got extra salty?, I think that @Ocaasi is correct about [flavor]. It's a real sub-topic and I think there would be people who are specifically interested in questions about controlling the basic flavours (bitter, sweet, sour, salty, savory) of a food. But we'll probably have to remove that tag from individual questions every now and then, because I suspect some people won't fully understand what it's for. I'd really like to hear ideas for a more self-explanatory tag.

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I'll wait for a few responses before letting loose with the retags - if somebody has a very convincing argument against this then I'm more than willing to listen. But as a SO veteran, I've kind of seen this all before, and have a pretty good grasp of what sorts of tags actually help and what just adds noise. –  Aaronut Jul 31 '10 at 19:21
    
I disagree with a few: [Flavor] is about understanding the palette and the effects different ingredients have on taste. I think it should stay. [Comparisons] and [Food-differences] should be consolidated, but this is an example of a meta-tag that I think should stay; they're a unique type of question that's interesting to search through, since it introduces topics of common confusion/ambiguity. [Temperature] is a good tag, especially with the use of thermometers, sous-vide, ovens, etc. Learning should be merged with [resources] or [basics] depending on the skill-level. –  Ocaasi Aug 1 '10 at 4:14
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@Ocaasi: As I've stated before, simply because two questions have something in common does not mean that they need to be tagged that way. I cannot even begin to conceive of somebody who considers himself especially good at answering questions about "comparisons". As for [temperature] - thermometers, sous-vide, and ovens are all totally different subjects that totally different people will be interested/experts in; they should all have their own tags and we don't need the generic [temperature]. –  Aaronut Aug 1 '10 at 13:50
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[learning] I was intending to simply retag to [resources], and [basics] I'm on the fence about; it does help a certain class of people find questions that would appeal to them, however, it's very similar to the [beginner] tag that has sometimes been used in an "abusive" manner in the past on Stack Overflow. I wouldn't want to see too many questions being retagged as [basics] - it's kind of demeaning to the author. I was planning to start a separate discussion about that, but, one thing at a time. –  Aaronut Aug 1 '10 at 13:52
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@Aaronut. Of course they don't 'need' to be tagged that way. But could it be useful if they were? I will repeat my basic point: Tags are not only for experts. This is not a site only of experts. Tags are for readers too. Readers have varied interests which tags can help tie together. Some experts have varied knowledge, which tags can help tie together. As long as you assume without question that 'the purpose of tags is to labels areas of expertise', we'll be talking past eachother. Expertise is not the only issue, nor is it always a tightly grouped phenomenon. –  Ocaasi Aug 1 '10 at 18:34
    
@Ocaasi: Identifying an area of expertise is not equivalent to being only for experts. I may want to learn all about [potatoes] or [french-cuisine] even if I know nothing about it at present. But there's nobody out there who wants to learn all about [temperature], because that tag is completely meaningless on its own. –  Aaronut Aug 1 '10 at 18:44
    
But it's still a useful category. Questions about temperature share salient characteristics about a critical aspect of cooking: food-doneness. Every cook/chef deals with this issue, often in a variety of contexts, and often in multiple contexts which differ daily depending on the recipe, cooking technique, and available equipment. To use your premise, maybe I want to learn all about the correct temperatures of properly cooked ingredients. Or the ideal temperatures for baking various dishes. Or the best temperatures for sous-vide cooking. Or all of these. [Temperature] would connect them. –  Ocaasi Aug 1 '10 at 19:18
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@Ocaasi: I repeat, questions sharing a "salient characteristic" does not justify the creation of a tag. Tags are not a way to somehow link everything that could possibly have something in common, because if they were used that way, the tag system would be a confusing mess. A tag should only exist if somebody would subscribe to it, and people will only subscribe to it if it can tell them, without any additional information, whether or not it's a question that's in their field. A question about sous-vide cooking temperature has nothing to do with a question about oil smoke points. –  Aaronut Aug 1 '10 at 20:20
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Remember, please: The site already has a fulltext search. We don't need tags to help people find a specific question. Tags are primarily a mechanism for helping people filter questions, and every time you create a new tag, you should take that into consideration. –  Aaronut Aug 1 '10 at 20:23
    
You're right, but we can use tags to help people find related questions. Even with fairly straightfoward tags, we're still going to wind up with hundreds of them (just from ingredients alone). Maybe I just don't use tags the same way you do. I think this issue is pragmatically minor, because there are apparently few tags that are actually controversial (temperature, recipe-problems, food-differences). As you started doing, we should take them one by one. The bigger issue is thread bumping, as any organized effort will mess up the active thread list. –  Ocaasi Aug 1 '10 at 21:34
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@Ocaasi: The problem is that every question is indirectly related, and everybody has a different idea of how they're related. You say they're both [recipe-problems], I say they're really about [flavor], Bob thinks it's more important that they're [how-to] questions, Jim wants it known that they're [beginner]-level questions, Bill the scientist cares more about the involvement of [collagen], and at this point we've got no room for the tags which are actually important - say [stock], [mirepoix], [sauce], and [french-cuisine], which actually tell us who it's aimed at. –  Aaronut Aug 2 '10 at 12:58
    
5 tags is room for all types. First 1-2 Broad tags [Grilling] [Chicken]; then 1-2 specific [Marinade] [Cooking-Time]; last 1-2 Horizontal/Meta [Food-Science] [ (maybe it's about the internal effects of resting meat) A question that identified a frustrating or persistent obstacle would get [recipe-problems], a question focused on understanding an underlying process would get [food-science], a question primarily about creating a certain taste or pairing would get [flavor]. (I think [how-to] is a bad tag and should be merged/deleted.) (con't... –  Ocaasi Aug 2 '10 at 18:16
    
... Meta tags may be somewhat subjective, but they are not arbitrary. The questions and answers will emphasizes one more than another. If there's overlap/disagreement, then not every possible tag makes it through; that already happens. Perhaps, and I don't mean that negatively, there's an occupational bias on SO sites against subjectivity. But I see subjectivity all over, from the voting process to the inclusion or exclusion of topics, to the selection of even simple tags (like if there are more than 5 ingredients). And it usually works, because users are trying to make the site better. –  Ocaasi Aug 2 '10 at 18:27
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@Ocaasi: You're not addressing the key issue here which is that everybody has a different idea of which indirect tags are more important. And I must again reject your dichotomy of "horizontal" and "vertical" tags; tags are horizontal by definition, otherwise we'd have a category hierarchy. [food-science] is a genuine field of knowledge, [recipe-problems] is not. Somebody is going to be interested in the former; nobody will be directly interested in the latter. [recipe-problems] is just a catch-all tag, an "I couldn't think of any other tags" tag. –  Aaronut Aug 2 '10 at 19:23
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