With del.icio.us, people are able to tag any link they choose for easy retrieval later. What makes tags more powerful than a Web bookmark is that they can be shared easily with other people. If someone tags a story on Iraq, for example, that link is added to a list on del.icio.us of other Iraq content. Anyone on the service who wants to read about Iraq can then find a list of stories that have been tagged and see who tagged them. Today more than 85,000 people are using the free service. "Tagging is about the most important tool of last year," says Clay Shirky, an adjunct professor at New York University's Interactive Telecommunications Program.
The trend represents a new approach to organizing and finding information online, and industry watchers expect it to draw people away from the traditional Net search offered by Yahoo and Google Inc. (GOOG ). Tagging won't replace Google et al. But people may turn to tags more frequently over time, reducing their use of established search engines.
The risk? It could cut into the search-advertising revenues that are all-important to Google and Yahoo. No one has estimated the potential toll, but losing even a few minutes of people's time each day could be costly. "Search is no longer the only way to find things," says Howard Rheingold, author of Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution.
Tagging, however, lacks the algorithmic wizardry of search engines. But it lets people work together organically to create the context traditional search typically misses.
Tagging proponents such as Shirky maintain that no one company can afford the cost of applying standard tags to everything on the Web -- that only many individuals tagging every day could help structure the vast reaches of Net content. And these individuals and businesses are devising ways to make it easier to find just the right information via tags.
People are providing their own likes and dislikes as guideposts to help others pick their way through cyberspace. Tagging is bringing a new kind of order to the chaos of the Web.