What's the Best Software for Tagging Files?

Updated on November 7, 2018
Simon Kravis profile image

Simon has been involved in software development since the days of paper tape.

Introduction

Finding electronic documents and emails can be a problem. The conventional approach has been to put them into a hierarchical folder structure, but with the advent of mobile devices with small screens and the requirement for minimal user cognitive load, the filesystem has become completely hidden and file managers are not part of the main operating system.

Historically, a hierarchical folder structure is easier to implement than a tag retrieval system and much more suited to fixed structures such as computer operating systems. This may explain its historic dominance. A study was conducted in 2008 compared tag and folder-based retrieval on email messages with two clients, one labeling messages with tags and the other grouping them into folders. The authors concluded that neither tagging nor folders were superior to the other for information retrieval: best results were achieved by combining their use. They also observed that users had a much richer concept of information than folders or tags or a combination of them could represent.

Tagging Software

Creation and application of tags and retrieval of tagged documents from a folder-based structure can be achieved by a very wide range of software. All the software reviewed has the ability to provide a different view of collections of documents based on user-generated information, with the potential of improving information retrieval. However, there is great variation in interface design, functionality and support level. No one product is 'the best'. All of them lack some capability which may be crucial for a particular user. Many software products are available for download or purchase long after support or development has ceased, so consulting a review may help to avoid disappointment.

Many of the products implement a file manager, which runs over a database rather than a filesystem, with elements of a folder hierarchy optionally treated as tags. The database contains links to the files in the filesystem location. Searching then replaces folder browsing. Database performance becomes a critical factor if many thousands of file links are stored. As free versions of software frequently limit the number of files stored or the number of tags applied, it is difficult to test performance in this situation.

Office

Office applications Word, Excel and Powerpoint provide access to a Tags field, into which text can be inserted on the right-hand side of the screen shown by File-> Info. An example is below:

Word File Information tab showing tag entry field
Word File Information tab showing tag entry field | Source

Windows Search can find documents with a particular string using the syntax Tag:keyword as shown below:

Finding Windows tags
Finding Windows tags | Source

This approach does not place any restrictions on tags and may be useful for individual users working only with Office authoring documents. Multiple tags are separated by commas, but there is no warning if you duplicate tags. Retrieval is via an Explorer search using the syntax "Tag:Tagname" in the search box in File Explorer. As the tag metadata is stored with the file, tagged files can still be found as long as they are in a location which is indexed. However, as most users access files other than those created by Office, this functionality is not widely used.

Document Management Systems

Most document management systems include search and tagging as well as hierarchical folder tree structuring of stored data. These systems are highly sophisticated, often including Web browser access, automated disposal, and elaborate permissions support. Some can be integrated with Microsoft Office, making the addition of tags or disposal classifications mandatory when saving a document. However, as document management systems commonly use a database rather than a filesystem to store data, performance may be considerably poorer than a filesystem, unless the hardware is upgraded substantially. Document management systems are also falling rapidly in price, with limited or “Community” versions of many systems available free. However, performance limitations and user preference for a familiar system often result in ‘off-system’ processing developing, with the document management system being reserved for the ‘good china’, working documents being kept on file shares. This may result in a poorer information retrieval overall, as documents may be found either in the document management system or on a shared filesystem.

Tag Explorer (ver 3.7.0.0)

Tag Explorer is a Windows 10 application from Dr. Cooper available from the Microsoft Store and CNET as a Universal Windows Program, making it particularly easy to download and install. However, the author's website cannot be accessed and support is via an email address, so it is not clear that the application is currently supported. The Help website cannot be accessed and support is via an email address, so it is not clear that the application is currently supported. However, the interface is simple enough to use without access to help:

Source

The Tags Folders button at top left toggles between viewing a set of folders in folder view or tag view:

Source

Clicking on a file or folder shows the tags already applied and allows for the addition of a new tag. Tagging a folder applies the tag to all files in the folder and subfolders.

Source

New tags can only be added if a folder or file is selected. There is no list of tags already added available. Double-byte language tags are supported. Long file names are truncated – screen width for file names is not adjustable.

If the files displayed are moved to a folder not scanned by Tag Explorer using File Explorer, then clicking the original entry will not result in the display of the file. Clicking Refresh will remove the file from the listing. Folders on network drives may be included.

When a new tag is added, no existing tags are shown. This can allow the creation of tags with singular and plural forms, which can be confusing.

Summary:

Possibly useful for individuals. No centralized control of tags, help or support. Quick to install.

Tag Spaces (ver 2.9.0)

TagSpaces is a heavyweight open source application (version 2.9 released in 2017), offering tag functionality on any platform (including Web browsers) and with a number of language options. The download is a 69 Mbyte zip file, unpacking to 1300 files. There is no installer for Windows – after unpacking, TagSpaces can be run by clicking on TagSpaces.exe. Voluminous help and support are available via GitHub. The forum-like nature of support allows potential users to see what kind of problems others have encountered and the quality and timeliness of any replies.

Unlike many other tagging applications, TagSpaces has no back-end database and stores tags by adding the tag text to the file name. The tags are added between square brackets just before the file extension. Different tags are separated by spaces – no spaces are allowed between tags, and tags cannot contain characters not allowed in file names. This approach is more robust – copying or moving files by any method moves the tags along with the file.

The TagSpaces file manager offers thumbnail views for images: the PRO version (costing €39 or US$45 per year) shows them for all files and offers other additional features, such as applying tags to folders.

Source

Tags can be added by selecting a file and selecting Add/Remove tags from a context menu to show the Add/Remove tags screen:

Source

TagSpaces supports tag groups – groups of tags related to a particular topic as shown below:

Source

Summary

TagSpaces is a sophisticated product using a robust methodology. However, it does not offer any centralized control of tags, making it mainly of use to individual users. An enterprise version (presumably offering such a feature is mentioned as ‘coming soon’ on the website. As shareware with an active developer base, it seems likely to be supported into the future, but it is very much a product for knowledgeable computer users. Adding an installer so that the application appears in the Programs list and reducing the volume of documentation to focus on user tasks would probably increase its user base significantly.


Tabbles (ver 5.4.3)

Tabbles is another heavyweight tagging product from Tag Forge IVS (based in Denmark and Switzerland), with a 70 Mbyte installer. It only runs on Windows platforms. It offers individual, cloud or LAN versions, with sharing of tags between users available in corporate versions, with permissions control applicable via policies on the underlying SQL Server database. The free version is limited to tagging 500 files, with the basic version limited to 20,000 files costing €18 (US$21) per year per user. The corporate version costs €72 (US$84) per user per year, but with substantial discounts for students and organizations deemed to be ‘doing good’. Tabbles claims 2000 organizational users, making it the probable brand leader in this domain. Reviews of the product date back to 2010. Very detailed help is available, together with chat support and a number of training videos.

Its implementation follows the standard model of a file manager running over a database. The file manager is sophisticated, using a tree to represent a folder structure, with tags being treated in the same way as folders. Tagging is performed by dragging file or folders on to tags. This approach is good for adding single tags, but adding multiple tags is more complex.

There is very good integration with the underlying Windows operating system using a continuously running component called tagger. If a tagged file is moved or renamed using File Explorer, the Tabbles file manager screen is immediately updated with the new path, and if a tagged file is replaced the disappears from the files shown as using that tag. (If the file is then added with the original tag, Tabbles incorrectly warns you that it has already been tagged, but adds the tag correctly). If a tagged file is deleted, an option to delete the tag entry is shown. The file manager allows the addition of comments to files and many types of file can be previewed. File extensions are treated as a tag.

Tabbles File Manager Screen
Tabbles File Manager Screen | Source

However, the file manager does not have the display options or display speed of File Explorer and the contents of a folder are displayed as a series of screens with Next Page and Previous Page, which can be a slow process for folders containing thousands of items. Files and folders are not grouped separately as they are in File Explorer. However, the integration with Windows means that tagging is available via a right-click context menu from File Explorer.

Source

Files sharing a tag (or tags) can be shown by clicking on the tag list shown in the file manager.

Source

Tabbles also offers auto-tagging, allowing tags to be applied automatically on the basis of file attributes including content, in a similar fashion to Microsoft Outlook rules:

Source

Whilst auto-tagging based on words appearing in content is appealing from a theoretical viewpoint, the ambiguities of language are such that the simple appearance of word in a document is not usually sufficient to classify it correctly.

An Outlook add-in is included allowing tagging to be applied to emails viewed in Outlook.

Clicking Tag brings up the tag selection screen.

Source

Tagged emails appear together with tagged files with an envelope icon when selecting a tag.

Summary

Tabbles is a mature product with a multitude of appealing features, many based on its high level of integration with Windows. However, its use of the file manager/database model means that tags are not attached to files. Tagging a file on a removable drive and then re-attaching with a different drive letter results in loss of the tag.Its preview facilities are limited - if you need more than a thumbnail view of an Office files before tagging you'll need to open it. It offers multi-user operation via the cloud or a Local Area Network.

The limitations on the free version (up to 500 files tagged) would be exceeded by many individual users, but €18 (US$21) per year for the basic version for individuals is a reasonable price. For organizations, the un-discounted cost of €72 (US$82) per user per year has attracted some negative comments on the Capterra B2B software site, but reviewers are generally very happy with the product. Whilst the capability to share keywords between users and control permissions for this activity is attractive, permission control requires knowledge of SQL Server administration which may not always be available in small organizations.

SetTags (ver 2.0.47)

Like TagSpaces, SetTags (from Aleka Consulting) does not use a back-end database for tagged file paths. It uses Windows shortcuts in a dedicated folder structure to store tags and uses the shortcuts' ability to track moved or renamed files. Tags are also stored as text within file names, making it possible for any user without SetTags installed to find tagged files using the native operating system.

SetTags is available with desktop, cloud or workgroup licenses. Workgroup and cloud licenses allow central control of tag names. A desktop license costs A$29 (US$21) per year, with a free 30-day evaluation period. Workgroup and cloud license prices are A$69 per user per year (US$49), but the licensing model of limiting the number of users over a 24 hour period rather than the number of installations means a lower cost of ownership than licensing via the number of users.

SetTags can be launched by right-clicking on a file, a selection of files, or a folder and selecting Send To->SetTags. Files and single folders can be loaded into SetTags by dragging from Explorer.

SetTags displays loaded or tagged files via a simple file manager. A tag description field allows a more detailed description of the tags, or use characters not allowed in file or folder names to be displayed.

Tags can be applied by dragging from the tag list onto loaded folders and a preview pane gives information about the file or files you are about to process with a single click. It also has a slideshow mode, where the preview occupies the entire application screen. The interface can be driven by right-clicking in the tag list, or by showing control buttons.

Tagged files can be easily exported as a Zip archive, making the application particularly useful for providing a group of documents (such as scanned documents) to an external organization.

The main SetTags screen showing input data is shown below:

Source

An input folder (or files) can be selected from the File-> Open Folder or File-> Open File(s) menu items. The tags to be applied can be created (or edited) from the button below the main list. When a file (or files) or a folder are loaded, the Add from Slideshow button is enabled, allowing tags to be added from a slideshow view of any files loaded. When one or more tags are selected, the Add Tag(s) button in the Actions group is enabled and tags can be applied to all loaded by clicking it.

To add tags to a selection of loaded files, clicking one or more tags and then selecting some files from the grid enables the Add Tag(s) button in the Selected Files group above the grid:

Source

Files with a particular tag can be viewed by clicking the Show Tagged screen in the Actions group:

Source

Tags can be added or removed from a Slideshow view of loaded data.

Source

When operating in Workgroup license mode, the tag names are stored in a commonly accessible database which only one user may modify, although any user may read them. In Cloud license mode, all files tagged and the Facet folder must be stored in the cloud local folder which is synchronized with a Web master folder.

Summary

SetTags’ shortcut-based approach is attractive where files may be moved or tagged files need to exported to users who may not have the program installed. It has comprehensive preview facilities, and tags which it applies are visible from environments where SetTags is not installed, such as mobile devices. Its functionality is logically consistent and easily accessed. The individual license cost of A$29 per year is reasonable, and the concurrent user licensing model for workgroups and cloud may reduce costs for organizations.

Elyse (ver 4.0.1)

Elyse, from Silkwood Software, describes itself as a cross-platform, tag-based file manager, operating over a database. After installation, a demo database loaded with tags and tagged images is opened to assist users in learning the software, which is very capable, but complex. The unlicensed version of Elyse can operate with up to 30 tags. A license to remove the tag limit costs US$10. The application has a detailed help file, but no link or email for support, although the Silkwood Software web page contains a contact email address.

The application screen is divided into four parts as shown below:

Source

No action can be taken until a new database is created via Database-> New Local Database. The screen is then as shown below, with menu items to load files and create tags available:

Source

After creating tags and loading files via the Tag and File menu items, files can be assigned to tags by dragging files onto tag lists with results as shown below:

Source

The browsing tree options can then be used to filter the database content. Files can be displayed by clicking on the thumbnail in the 3rd pane. Image files display a caption field. Tag Groups can be constructed by creating a group with the Edit->Tag Group option, and then selecting multiple tags, and adding to the tag group via a right-click option.

Folders may be added directly to the Browsing Tree pane by dragging, allowing access to files either by folder location or by tag.

As Elyse maintains all its information in a database, changing file names of location via another file manager (such as File Explorer for Windows) result in the links breaking, so that clicking on a file in the 3rd pane results in an error message.

Summary

Elyse is a very capable application aimed at individual users, but it comes with a substantial learning curve. It claims to be multi-user by using a public Postgres database, but whether it offers central control of tags (allowing only privileged users to edit, create or delete tags) is not clear. Without the tight integration with Windows offered by some other products, it is vulnerable to changes in file and folder structure by other file managers. However, its low cost (US$10 for more than 30 tags) is appealing.

AllTags (v 2.2)

This free product, from Germany-based developer Gabriel Victor Herbert, offers tagging for individuals rather than organizations, using a file manager/database model. Its stated aim is to allow users to handle large numbers of files efficiently by replacing file and folder names with tags. The user interface requires some experimentation to perform the tasks of adding tags to files or a group of files, as no predefined tags are included. Tags are options are generated from the file name on loading a single file. The folder name is used as a tag when loading a group of files from a folder.

AllTags offers a search-based file management function, rather than a browser based on a hierarchical folder system. Opening a file results in it being saved to a local store with the tags included in the file name.

Tags are split at whitespace characters, which gives unexpected results, as does the presence of characters not allowed in file and folder names in tags.

The interface uses symbols rather than text for many functions, with text descriptions shown when the controls are hovered over. However, not all controls have text descriptions shown in this way and operation is often a matter of trial and error.

The help file is terse and only comprises answers to a number of questions.

Summary

AllTags’ mode of operation will be very unfamiliar to users of a conventional hierarchical filesystem and the unsigned installer results in a warning message appearing when the product is installed on Windows 10. These features may deter some users. AllTags may find a niche with power users, but its unfamiliar mode of operation and lack of support for a multi-user environment will limit its popularity.

TagFlow (ver 0.5.1)

This is currently a beta shareware product, originating in France, with Windows and Mac versions. It is an ongoing project to “create a (free) complete solution to manage, sort, organize, save, share and archive digital documents with a concept of smart tags”. As a file manager, it needs a lot of development to be competitive with Windows File Explorer, although it does include integrate user-created tags with tags automatically generated by elements of the path to files added (in the same way as Elyse) and uses search in place of a hierarchical folder structure. Its main screen is shown below:

Source

Summary

TagFlow is a work in progress, with a worthy and ambitious aim, but it is not yet at the stage of being recommendable. At the moment it lacks the maturity to be very useful to anyone who is not a developer wanting to make a contribution, but in a few years’ time, it may be worth investigating.

Rummage

After installation and starting Rummage (from Computer ConQuest), a Page Not Found message does not inspire confidence, but the current version is described as an Alpha release. The product does not appear to have been updated since 2014. It requests access to Contacts, indexes files in any selected folders and generates tags based on file path elements, file type, date and size, and allows additional user tags to be created. The main screen is as shown below

Source

After uninstalling and re-installing, the program did not start.

Summary

Although it has ambitious aims Rummage is not recommended through lack of robustness. As it appears not to have been updated since 2014, it is likely that development and support have been abandoned,

Tagg

The installer for this product is blocked by Windows SmartScreen as being from an unknown publisher. Proceeding anyway and clicking on the web links in the Help menu items or Purchase details triggered a fraudulent web site message from an anti-malware program. The publisher web site Tagtool.com contains only advertisements for other products.

The program hung frequently during testing and could not be uninstalled.

Summary

Not recommended. Possibly a vector for malware.

Tagged Frog

This intriguingly named free application is from LunarFrog. It is a simple, light application which has the following main screen:

Source

The Help->Getting Started button shows the company website, but does not show any help. However, there is a small amount of operating information at http://lunarfrog.com/projects/taggedfrog/quickstart which indicates that the product supports automatic rule-based tag application. Tags can only be added to loaded files (or items). These can be selected by dragging files onto the light green part of the screen or clicking Add Items. However, the interface is complex enough to make it difficult to use effectively without help. As the executable is dated 2010, it is likely that the product is no longer being actively developed.

Summary

With adequate help, this could be a very competitive product, but as it is not provided the product cannot be recommended.

Google Photos

As ever, Google is the elephant in the room. Google Photos is a mainly automatic tagger operating on JPEG photos uploaded to Google servers.

With consumers now expected to take more than 1 trillion photos per year, mostly on mobile phones, the issue of effectively managing these is a now major one and represents possibly the biggest application of tagging. Google Photos has come up with a solution for making photos accessible from any device by storing them in the cloud and using auto-tagging based on time and location data, which are routinely captured. It also applies image analysis for face recognition and for coming up with tags describing the image content.

The results for auto-tagged time are impressive. The photos view shows photos listed beside a timeline on the right-hand side of the screen. Moving the slider shows images taken around the selected time:

Source

Other views of a photo collection group by people, places and things in the Albums view:

Source

Clicking on the People icon shows an index of all the different people found in the collection, with options to merge pairs of groups that Google thinks might be similar:

Source

Clicking on any one of the people then shows all the photos containing that person. The results are surprisingly good and improve with user feedback.

The Places display is more reliable, being based on GPS coordinates stored at the time the photo was taken:

Source

However, the location may not be as precise as might be wished, as it is based on part of text string retrieved from a gazetteer using the GPS Latitude and Longitude as input. In the above example, Maldon, Essex, and Maldon, Victoria are separate groups but are given the same name.

The Things grouping is the least reliable. Being based on automated image analysis, it finds classifies images on the basis of objects which may not be the main subject of the photo. Additionally, its classes may not be the ones desired, but it still provides a useful level of performance.

What Google gets out of this colossal store of images (they claim a billion photos are uploaded to Google Photos each day) is not clear. It may be able to identify brands which are associated with you or people whom you photograph and use this to place certain ads before you through other channels. Perhaps the ads that have permeated into YouTube will eventually appear when you use it to upload or view your photos and you will have to pay not see them. Currently, the service is free if you don't mind a slight reduction in image quality, As a cloud service, there's a maximum file size of 75 MBytes or 100 megapixels. Google Photos will also store videos

Some reviewers have raised privacy concerns over the storage of personal images and videos on Google servers. It is certainly the case that you will have not have the degree of control over access to your photos and videos that you have if you store them on a local device.

Summary

Despite its limitations, Google Photos does a remarkably good job of tagging images with no user input, and its performance will certainly improve over time. For mobile phone users who have installed the Google Photos app, any photos or videos they take can be automatically uploaded. Google Photos also provides a backup for this data.

Manual classification can be achieved by creating albums (conceptually equivalent to tags) and dragging photos into them. They can then be easily shared by forwarding a link.


The Wrap

There is no one best product for tagging. Searching for products on Google will give you a lot of results, but many of them are products no longer supported or still in development.

If you’re an individual Windows user, Tabbles is the most mature of the offerings, with multi-user options. The license (if you exceed the free limit) is reasonably priced at US$21 per year. SetTags offers comparable capability and easy export of tagged files to external users at a similar price

For non-Windows platforms, the free TagSpaces is the best developed, but it assumes a reasonable level of familiarity with computers.

If you need to tag documents in the cloud and have tagging available on multiple devices, you need a product which attaches tags to files rather than storing them in a database. This restricts the field to TagSpaces and SetTags.

For organizations, the field broadens. Tabbles has a multi-user mode, but if you’re not an organization eligible for their worthiness discount, the cost of US$84 per user per year is significant. SetTags offers a price based on concurrent rather than potential usage, which could provide substantial savings.

If you're only interested in tagging photos and don't mind placing your photos on Google's servers, Google Photos offers free, good quality auto-tagging and easy sharing of the results, but manual tagging is difficult.

Recommended Tagging Software Summary

Application
Supplier
Platform
Multi-User
Functionality
Price
Notes
Office Authoring Apps
Microsoft
Windows
No
2 stars
Included in Office
1
Document Management Systems
Various
Various
Yes
4 stars
Included in product
2
Tag Explorer
Microsoft Store
Win 10
No
3 stars
Free
3
TagSpaces
tagspaces.org
All
Not yet
3.5 stars
Freemium
4
Tabbles
Tag Forge IVS
Windows Vista & newer
Yes
4.5 stars
Freemium
5
SetTags
Aleka Consulting
Windows Vista & newer
Yes
4 stars
Free Demo
6
Elyse
Silkwood Software
All
No
3 stars
Freemium
7
Google Photos
Google
Cloud
No
2 stars
Free
8

Tagging Software Notes

 
 
1 -Office Authoring
Incudes Word, Excel and PowerPoint. Only files from these applications can be tagged. Duplicate or variant tags easily applied
2 - DMSs
Tagging often included, with sophisticated permission control. Free versions may have poor performance.
3 - Tag Explorer
No help or support, but quick installation as Universal Windows Platform app. Available from MS App Store.
4 - TagSpaces
Robust shareware model. Download from www.tagspaces.org.Users assumed to be highly computer-literate. No installer.
5 - Tabbles
Mature product. Email and auto-tagging available. Free for up to 500 files tagged, US$21 individual user/year, US$84 user/year for multi-user, US$21/yr with discount.
6 - SetTags
Good preview, cloud-ready, tags readable without installed program. Demo license for 30 days of 100 files, US$21 year for individual, US$49 user/year for multi-user.
7 - Elyse
Complex interface. Free for up to 30 tags, US$10 for unlimited.
8 - Google Photos
Photos only. Good auto-tagging, poor manual facility. Provides cloud backup

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    • eliasnissim profile image

      Nissim Elias 

      8 days ago from Tel Aviv

      I was just looking for one of these tools and your wonderful post came in handy and on spot.

      Now I have to study your work.

      Thanks,

      - Nissim Elias,

      Follower of music trends and Music explorer

      allmusicrating.com

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