There are many meta questions related to the various tags. I don't understand why they're useful in the first place.

I see two situations: 1. the question author uses a descriptive title and so the tags are essentially irrelevant; or 2. the question author uses a poor title, "Why does this happen?" springs to mind, and then even with good tags, there's still no good way to know what the question is about.

So clearly the point of the tags isn't to tell you what the question is about, but a way to look at all questions with a specific tag. I feel like search engines have solved this problem (none of them look at the keywords meta tag any longer). Why not leverage this power and simply omit the tags? No more worrying if a question should be tagged with latex or tex-core or macros or packagename or any other tag.

I'm willing to entertain the idea that I'm missing some legitimate use for tags. Feel free to enlighten me (and point out how foolish I am for missing the blindingly obvious).

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    I thought the whole point of tags was that they are the index of the site: something that only humans can do, and that make finding things much easier. – Joseph Wright Aug 22 '10 at 7:51
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    Really? I find that Google does a much better job indexing the public Internet than any human could hope to. Google seems to do a better job with most websites than human-generated indices or site-specific search features for that matter. – TH. Aug 22 '10 at 8:15
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    Surely you don't imply that an automated program is better at categorizing stuff than humans. It's much faster and cheaper, sure. But better? – Martin Tapankov Aug 22 '10 at 9:10
  • Yeah, I do. The reason is rather than a person choosing up to 5 words to describe the topic, an automated program gets to mine the entire document for the relevant words--something search engines have become quite adept at. I'm reminded of the ACM document classification system for papers that appear in their conferences. The authors select some categories and keywords to describe the document...and it's totally pointless. They don't facilitate searching at all. – TH. Aug 22 '10 at 10:36
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    What you say is true, but only when a term makes sense in only one context. Even LaTeX means a few completely different things, and only the special capitalization distinguishes it from the canonical meaning. Inferring proper context is not something computer programs are particularly good at --- and people very rarely have problems with. – Martin Tapankov Aug 22 '10 at 10:46
  • True, but when I google for latex cite package, I get CTAN as the first hit. The computer has managed to discern my intent. – TH. Aug 22 '10 at 10:53
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    @TH. I think you've set up a false dichotomy. While google's secret sauce surely does involve a full page scan, it also puts a lot of weight on inbound links and from whence those links come. Thus, google's automated process is parasitic on human linking. It would also surprise me if a word in a tag was worth no more to google than a word in body text. – vanden Aug 31 '10 at 5:09
  • @TH.: While google is cool and all, it's nice to be able to land on a question that isn't quite what you wanted and then click on over to one or more promising tags. Or at least, it's handy when you've already read the question(s) in question, but forgotten the answer(s) and so want to refer back to it(them)... – SamB Feb 16 '11 at 0:35

Tags help to find unanswered questions that you can answer.

For example, if you are the author of the "foo" package, you could add "foo-package" to your list of "interesting tags". Then you can easily see questions related to foo highlighted on the front page. Even better, you can go to "Unanswered / My tags" and quickly see all unanswered questions related to foo. Or you can subscribe to the RSS feed of the "foo-package" tag.

Not everyone has time to have a look at the full list of questions regularly. And Googling for "foo" just returns old questions, most of which have already been answered. This site works only if people get good answers fast; tags can help tremendously in catching the attention of the right people.

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    Ah, there we go. I was unaware one could have a list of interesting tags. (I now realize that it's right there on the page.) – TH. Aug 22 '10 at 10:58

They build relationships.

  • Tags group questions into well-defined categories. We could use them to refine a search, connect them with users. Connect ourself with a tag where we're specialized in, subscribe to a tag. That's much easier than doing full text searches each day.

  • Tags point out relations between subjects. For each tag we can see which other tags have often been used together with it. So, the top entries in the "Related tags" list might be interesting as well.

  • I think the discussion on meta shows that the categories are not particularly well-defined. Figure or picture? Macro or command? Should latex exist? – TH. Aug 22 '10 at 22:17
  • Well-defined should be the goal, that's why there's discussion. Introducing synonyms helps. If the meanings of important terms just overlap, we have to live with it. The discussion concerning latex emerged because of the dominance of this tag, not that grouping tex|latex|other would be pointless. – Stefan Kottwitz Aug 22 '10 at 22:33
  • The tag wiki(s) should also help, especially now that anyone can easily propose text for any tag. Admittedly, it's a bit tricky to revise ones proposal, or even refer back to the source, before it is accepted, but it is quite enough to make the difference for me between thinking "why even bother?" and "just" writing an entry. – SamB Feb 16 '11 at 0:40

Tags are supposed to help your search for an answer when it's hard to write a short question, or when a question is asked in different ways.

For example, suppose there is already a question How do I change link styles in hyperref?. If you have the same problem, you're most likely to search for words like "colors", "hyperlink", "change default colours (note the different spelling!)", "hyperref", and probably some more. You'll probably never search for "style", or simply "link".

Now, what's the probability that you'd find this particular question if there are tens of questions?

Tagging helps when the question has not been asked in the most straight-forward and obvious way. Haven't you experienced the same yourself when using your favourite search engine with a rather long query, and get only useless results? Then you change some wording and you get exactly what you need on the first hit. This is where tagging comes into play --- to reduce your search space as much as possible before you've ever written your query, so that there's a chance you'd find existing poorly worded posts instead of writing your duplicate question.

  • Generally, adding the tag to your search query is sufficient. – TH. Aug 22 '10 at 8:12
  • Isn't the purpose and reason for tagging the very same reason you asked this?! Now you say that tagging actually helps. I'm confused. – Martin Tapankov Aug 22 '10 at 9:09
  • Then I wasn't clear. My point was that adding the keyword to the search is sufficient. If the tag doesn't appear in the body of the question, it is most likely not relevant. For example, how many questions are correctly tagged as Tikz but don't contain Tikz somewhere in the question? I suspect not many. Searching for Tikz would find those answers tags or no. – TH. Aug 22 '10 at 10:30
  • Something else just occurred to me. When you type in the title of a question, SE either complains that you haven't entered enough unique words, or it shows you a list of related posts. Clearly it can already find similar posts without looking at the tags at all. – TH. Aug 22 '10 at 10:38
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    And how many questions are not tagged tikz, but still it appears in a comment of somebody? Take for [this][1] question --- it's not exactly about Tikz, but it's mentioned in the body in entirely different context. Suppose you'd like to find stuff about the package cite. Would you think that if you simply search for "cite", most of your results will be relevant? This is where tags are useful --- when there's ambiguity in meaning depending on context. [1]: meta.tex.stackexchange.com/questions/407/… – Martin Tapankov Aug 22 '10 at 10:42

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