Friday, 5 June 2009

SharePoint and Tagging Content

Plenty has been written in the Blogosphere about Web 2.0 and more recently the idea of Enterprise 2.0 in which the kind of functionality that we're now used to on Wikipedia, Facebook, Twitter, Delicious and so on are used within an organisation's intranet and extranet to improve collaboration. You'll also see Enterprise 2.0 called enterprise social software. It's not a surprise; most people reading this will be users of many of these services and know how helpful they can be for keeping in touch, finding obscure information, and meeting new "friends". It's really easy to see how such technologies would be useful on an intranet, particularly in a large, global organisation where employees can feel lost or isolated. When users know about blogs, wikis and social networking, they'll be comfortable with similar tools for sharing knowledge with their colleagues should they should start using them rapidly.

SharePoint, particularly MOSS, is an ideal platform for Enterprise 2.0 and supports many of the features required straight out of the box. Take a look, for example at the list of features in the Wikipedia article on Enterprise 2.0 (a list which was taken from Andrew McAfee):

  • Search: allowing users to search for other users or content.

    SharePoint has market-leading search functionality for locating content and MOSS includes people search for locating users.

  • Links: grouping similar users or content together.

    In My Site you can identify colleagues and those who have things in common with you. Content can be grouped in lots of ways.

  • Authoring: including blogs and wikis.

    SharePoint includes site templates for blogs and wikis. They're very rapid to set up. There's very rich functionality for collaborative authoring of documents.

  • Extensions: recommendations of users; or content based on profile

    MOSS has lots of ways to do this in My Site.

  • Signals: allowing people to subscribe to users or content with RSS feeds

    Any SharePoint list or document library can have an RSS feed.

  • Tags: allowing users to tag content

    Bad news: SharePoint is a little lacking here and it's this that I want to discuss in this article.

Take the default SharePoint blog template as an example: When you add or edit a post, there's no field for tags. You can place the post in a category, but that's not the same thing because the categories are pre-determined and you can't create a new one on-the-fly. Also you can only put the blog entry in a single category, but you often want to tag it with several different words.

In Web 2.0 there are two kinds of tags. The ones added to content by the author are stored with the content. For example, I've tagged this entry with the word "SharePoint" so that when you click on SharePoint in the word cloud, it will appear. Then there are tags that readers add to the content. Since they only get read access to the site, readers can't store their tags with the content. Instead they save a list of links on a site like Delicious and add tags to those links. I'll deal with these two types of tagging separately.

Author Tags

Of course it's straight forward to add a new column to SharePoint for tags. It's just a text field after all. In the blog homepage click Manage Posts, then under Settings, click Add Column. When you edit a blog entry you'll be able to edit this new field. In most blogging tools, this would be a comma separated list.

Display is a little harder. It would be relatively simple to write a Web Part that displays the tags for an item. This would work when a single blog post is displayed (The view where comments are visible) but you wouldn't see it in the list of all posts. To display tags here, under each post, you'd have to write your own Web Part to replace the Posts Web Part, and include a list of tags for each post. This isn't advanced programming but it would take a little time to get right.

Perhaps more importantly there is no tag cloud display in SharePoint out of the box. I know you've seen a tag cloud before because there's one just to the left of this text. It shows a list of all the tags used in the blog and each is sized according to how often it has been used (SQL Server is the most popular tag as I write). Again, it isn't hard to create a Web Part that does this: you'd need to loop through all the entries in your blog, evaluating and counting the comma-separated terms in your Tags column. Then you output text and probably render style attributes to size each term.

I'm not showing you example code for all this because plenty of people have already written some. Notably the people at whose tagging controls are part of the Community Kit for SharePoint. Here's their Tag Cloud control running in the standard SharePoint blog site:

Two things to point out about these controls: firstly, they don't just work with blog posts. You could use them with announcements, contacts, or just about any content type including your own custom content types. Secondly, they're open source, which means you can use them as a starting point for more ambitious functionality. For example, you can have a tag cloud that linked to content from across a site collection or even across your whole enterprise. You'd have to be careful about indexing and so on to achieve good performance but with care this could be a really useful control to show users hot topics in your organisation.

User Tags

Delicious-style, user tags are in some ways more interesting than author tags because they work in your community of readers and this is really what Web 2.0 and Enterprise 2.0 are all about. It allows you to find people with similar interests to your own and find links that they like: these will probably help you.

SharePoint is already excellent at finding people, particularly when My Sites are widely used. You can find people with similar skills or who have worked on similar projects or have other things in common with you. You can search by name, department, skill, or any other managed property. So what we need is a simple way for users to save their favourite links and tag each one. These can be displayed on the user profile.

Each user will need a new list in their My Site page, with columns for the URL, the tags (probably in a comma-separated list as before), and then maybe Name and Description. Delicious has Title and Notes fields. There's a good blog entry on deploying list templates to My Sites here if you need help with this.

So far, so simple. Now users can find people like them and see their favourite links and tags. We must make this system effortless to use because it will only be helpful when lots of users add all their favourite links and continue to add them as they find new ones. Users' links are stored in their browser favourites or bookmarks so it's essential to give them a tool for importing these into their My Site profile. How would this work?

On Delicious you export a list of favourites from the browser using its standard tools. You then upload this to the server and tag the imported links. If a link is in a folder, for example one called "SharePoint", that name is added as a tag. But you should then review all the imported links and add tags as you need. This kind of solution would be easy to implement in SharePoint in a Web Part. You would add the ASP.NET FileUpload control to the Web Part. When the user clicks "Upload" you can get this file from the FileUpload.PostedFile property and parse it for all the links and folder names. For each link you'd add a new entry to the user's list in their My Site.

If you build such a solution, you should give careful attention to usability. For example, having uploaded a hundred favourites, a user won't like editing each one individually. You should give them a form with arrow controls that enable them to move to the next and previous entry with a single click. You should give them a list of the other tags they've used before: a single click on the tag adds it to the list. You should use Silverlight or AJAX to maximise the responsiveness of the form and cut down on page reloads.

Finally, consider how to make these tags available and interesting to users. Again a tag cloud control will be really helpful, but this one would have to evaluate many more tags spread throughout a large number of My Sites (each of which is a separate Site Collection). Think carefully about performance and indexing to ensure this cloud runs fast. Again, I'd use the Community Kit for SharePoint code as a starting point. I'd also suggest a hierarchical control to enable browsing tags by user, without having to open multiple My Sites, and other displays such as "Lastest 20 tags", "Most popular 20 tags" and so on. Placing these controls on key intranet pages should help users communicate and generate a buzz around hot topics.


So SharePoint 2007 does indeed do full Enterprise 2.0 functionality with a little bit of custom coding. I think we can safely expect SharePoint 2010 to improve on this. It's almost certain to have a Tag Cloud control built-in for example. But it may be a year or more before your organisation upgrades and as I've shown here, we can make big strides right now without a massive effort. Also, you should be considering the Enterprise 2.0 concepts because they enable users themselves to make their intranet a compelling place to surf. This will be a big topic in SharePoint 2010.


Wikipedia Enterprise 2.0 Article


Community Kit for SharePoint


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dan rogy said...

My current project requires ability to display choice column value via color or image associated with a choice

But Sharepoint standard packaged misses that control

I am looking for available solutions on market

I came across

Does anybody has experiece using it?