I hated tag clouds because I didn't understand them. I didn't understand the benefit of those clouds. Today I've understood the huge benefit and actually think they are a must-have. They make using the internet more joyful.
I'll try to explain why I think every website profits from being browsable. I'll show examples where websites lost this feature and are more or less useless to me, and even lose profit. And I'll try to provide ideas how to solve the situation.
It changed my mind ¶
Today I visited the website of Daniel Michaels. His site was listed on searchmysite.net, and I was curious what another developer with same first name is writing about. I opened his site, navigated to the blog, and had to scan a couple of his blog posts. Only then I understood his site is mostly about Python. And only because I already know some keywords like "Flask", "requirements.txt" or "PyPi" and he used Python in some titles.
That moment I realized the huge benefit of tag clouds. No matter if they are a real cloud with different font sizes indicating the amount of content, or a sorted list with a pure number, like on my website. These clouds allow you to discover the actual content of a website at a glance.
That's the benefit of tag clouds. They allow visitors to immediately discover the amount of content for specific topics. And they also work as a filter. Visitors are able to only browse content they are interested in. My own website covers some different topics. You can either visit all posts related to TYPO3, or something else, in case you are not interested in TYPO3.
Let me try to provide some inspiration.
One inspiration is my own website. The start page has a list of all topics with the number of actual blog posts. Each blog post has the topics as links to browse other articles of the same topic.
Other sites might have good old tag clouds where all topics are shown in a "cloud" with different sizes. The bigger a topic, the more content is available. These might be auto generated based on keywords of your articles.
Another inspiration is Wikipedia. Navigate to the bottom of their article about tag Clouds. Most articles on Wikipedia have topics at the bottom. They allow you to browse related content. Some articles are way more categorized. Check out the end of the TYPO3 CMS article. You will see a navigation component with different levels. It starts with the main topic "Web frameworks" going down to programming languages and available frameworks. You will see you can use TYPO3 for blogging, it is written in PHP, is free open source software and is an actual content management software. You are free to browse the content based on any of those topics.
From documentation to knowledge base ¶
I have an example where websites went from browsable to not browsable. Let's examine knowledge bases compared to documentation. In case you worked with big software like something from Atlassian, you might have noticed a shift from handcrafted documentation to knowledge bases. I hate knowledge bases if they are the replacement of documentation, but why? I'm not against knowledge bases, but I'm against a knowledge base being the replacement for documentation of a product.
There is a fundamental difference between documentation and knowledge base, just like with filter and search. And it is the exact same. At least all knowledge bases I've discovered work the same. They have a big search input, and you are forced to know what you are searching for. If you don't know the proper keyword, you are lost.
Good documentation works completely different. They are handcrafted, have a proper structure, and guide you. You can discover features and browse the content. You can get an overview of the quality of documentation. You are able to decide whether you want to try this software, or choose an alternative because you don't understand the documentation.
I have the feeling that many companies noticed they are not able to deliver proper documentation. Instead of fixing this issue, they put a knowledge base somewhere. Even worst, some use forums and hope their customers help out. That way the either don't make their content browsable, or even don't have content at all.
Losing profit ¶
I wrote I'll tell you where companies lose profit. Here it is: More or less every bigger online shop. When I started online shopping, I exclusively used EMP. I was used to their printed catalogue. And shopping is either: I need something specific. Or it is: Let's see what they offer. Most of the time it is the second. And that's where online shops make money. It is the same as offline shopping. You walk into a store and just have a look. In the end you paid some money and got useless stuff. IF you only care about a specific thing, e.g. a new cable because your existing broke, you won't spend additional time to browse for books.
EMP had the same categories on their website. You could browse their stuff, e.g. browse all metal music or male T-Shirts. That's not possible today. You can either browse CDs, Vinyl, etc. or a genre. Only if you browse a genre and open "All filter" you will discover a hidden "category" to nail the metal music down from "everything" to CDs. It is way too hidden and complicated. Their content is no longer browsable.
Even worse are online shops like Amazon. Disclaimer: I don't use Amazon since some years any more, but opened their site to check if my knowledge is still valid. Sure, they provide categories on the left, but only a handful of options. It is not possible to browse all books from an author. You are forced to use the search. A search is fundamentally different, it is not browsable, doesn't allow discovering. It always reduces visible parts to their matches. It is the opposite. And sure it might be a hard work to make huge amounts of products properly browsable.
My wish ¶
Please allow visitors to understand your content. Allow them to understand what your site is about. Is it about a specific product, specific topics, or does it have content from a wide range of topics?
Also allow visitors to browse your content. E.g. add tag clouds to your website. And I don't mean you should use the different font sizes. There are so many designs for tag clouds today. Choose whatever matches your website. But please allow visitors to get an understanding of the content of your website. Allow them to browse content based on topics.
That's pretty simple for most blogs. Most blogging systems already have such a solution, you can tag blog posts. Other sites can adapt the way. E.g. create a proper navigation and guide users. And try to tag different sites and add a small navigation with currently assigned tags. That way visitors can browse your site.
The inspiration also showed how Wikipedia makes itself discoverable and browsable. Be creative. Probably every site owner should think whether his content is actually visible and browsable. In case it is not, please fix this issue. And a pure search is nothing that helps. A search does not provide a way to browse content. A filter will do.