Nested Tagging is the Future

I’ve always thought that adding tags to files, iPhoto photos and blog content was a useful form of categorisation; but nothing more. After using Evernote’s nested tags for the past month, I now believe that this is how we will organise our digital media in the future.. simple, yet completely game-changing.

Folders and sub-folders

We are all trained to organise our files into folders. This makes a lot of sense. We can create a folder for our work files and then perhaps create subfolders for staff, accounts, legal, etc. We place our photos into a folder and then organise them into subfolders such as holidays and family; with more subfolders beneath them. This is how we learn to be organised so that we can find the files we need when we need them. Just like a physical filing cabinet.

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In some ways, however, this method developed out of technical limitation rather than through better organisational skills.

FAT16, FAT32, and so on

In early versions of computer operating systems (e.g. DOS and early Windows), there was a maximum limit of 512 files that could be stored in a single folder. Anything more than that would need to be placed into subfolders. This limit increased to 65,534 when Windows went to 32-bit (FAT32 is still used on some USB memory sticks). Today this limit is 2 billion on the Mac and 4 billion on Windows and Unix.


Tagging has been used in content management systems such as WordPress for some time as a way of further categorising the content that you produce. It has existed in apps like iPhoto for a few years now also; but the ability to tag files at the OS level was only introduced in OSX Mavericks (2013) and has been available in Windows since version 7 but in a limited implementation (you cannot tag all file types).

Evernote changes world

In Evernote, you can create notebooks that act in a similar way to folders in an OS. You place notes into these Notebooks although you can only nest them two deep. You can add any number of tags to your notes so that you can categorise your content more completely and you can of course search for notes using the tags as well as keywords etc (e.g. all notes tagged as “business cards” containing “marketing”). So far, no big deal right?

Evernote also has a “tag manager” that allows you to nest tags. What this means is that you can create a taxonomy for your tags that can completely replace the physical folder/notebook based structure. And this capability is what is game-changing.

Release the constraints

Currently, a physical file can only exist in a single folder and so where you place that file is important. In order to be able to find this file again, you create an organisational structure of folders and subfolders that mimics a real-world filing system. But this is now completely unnecessary.

With tags and the ability to organise your tags into a nested structure (a taxonomy), it no longer matters where that file exists physically. You can locate the file instantly using the tags or even browse your files using tags instead of folders using Finder (Mac) or Windows Explorer (Windows).

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This also means that the same file can exist in multiple hierarchies but not be duplicated physically. You can store all of your files in a single folder (e.g. Pictures) and use tagging to locate, sort and organise them.

Furthermore, as tags are stored with the file as part of their “metadata”, they persist beyond your own system. When you send that photo from the charity ball to a friend, all of your tags go with that file and will appear in their tag manager. If they are using the same tags (e.g. Photo), then it will automatically be filed into their own unique taxonomy. Any new tags will appear as “uncategorised” and they can simply move it where it makes sense for them or delete it.

This will happen

After using this nested tagging method in Evernote for the past month, I really believe that this is the future of document management and it could be easily delivered by both Apple and Microsoft. We already have tags stored with files, all we need is a tag manager – that’s it. Something that allows us to determine the taxonomy for our tags and the ability to browse files by that tag hierarchy. We could scrap this filing cabinet metaphor and start to work with digital files in a far more meaningful and effective way.


  1. Here are my 2 cents below.
    If I miss something, I would be grateful for feedback.

    1) Evernote tags are not hierarchical, they are flat

    Tag hierarchy was provided just for more convenient visual representation.
    Example 1. There are no tag relationships actually
    Try select tag “Photos”, notes tagged with “Day trips” will be out of board
    Example 2. There`s no namespacing
    Evernote will not allow you to create “Day trips” tag inside another parent tag, like “Trips of my son”.

    2) Using folders/notebooks is useful as a way to have default info representation usable for browsing the data available, not searching. Because of (1), in evernote, tags can`t be used to substitute folders.

  2. The tags themselves are flat – this is true. But the tag manager reflects this hierarchy (oddly, the tag manager seems to only exist in the desktop versions btw). But it is disappointing that parent tags do not become containers in their own right – would be a simple problem to resolve (i.e. your Photos, Day Trips example). For me, the main benefit of this (and I agree it is not quite there yet) is that files/photos/notes can and should exist in more than one container – more than one hierarchy. This was the point I was making really and using Evernote as an example – that we are in a digital world but still using an analog paradigm (one file can only exist in one folder at a time). Thanks for your comments.

  3. You could not be more right and I think it would be technically easy to implement at the OS level or in any app. which supports tagging. This is just about the relationship between tags, or, the tagging of some tags and modifying interfaces to show those relationships. What I cannot understand is why the industry, 1) has not adopted this approach, 2) did not do so a long time ago (SharePoint for example is a mess in almost every organization it is used) and 3) Evernote does not appear to be embracing the advantage they have achieved for themselves? I was thinking about fully investing my document management in Evernote until I saw that nested tagging is not supported on iOS.

  4. The paradigm shift effected by gmail (folders –> labels) is probably the best historical reference on this topic. I certainly agree with your post and I’m currently testing Evernote, but the tag hierarchy system in Evernote is almost completely useless beyond visual organization in the tag manager. Crucially, there’s no inheritance of tag hierarchies in searches. There’s also no way to import/export Evernote tag hierarchies as far as I know. Also, Evernote has limited potential as a tag-based file manager because each account is limited to 100,000 notes.

  5. Tags in Evernote are simply database filters – if they are in a hierarchy, you can select a subset of tagged notes based upon whichever level you are at in the hierarchy and get all the notes there and those of the children, and their children, etc. Another unknown related hack is that you can also do the same subset selection without needing the tags to be in a hierarchy, that is, use control select (in Windows) 3 tags and find the notes only that have all 3 tags. This is the future of personal unstructured data becoming organized simply by tag selection and why Evernote blows OneNote away in early 2017, at least on Windows – it would be nice if they ported this to mobile platforms. The hierarchies just make the AND selection more permanent (of course you can modify hierarchies easily – I’d say “by simply using drag and drop” however right now that specific functionality is a little klugey in Windows, but workable. Non-existent in mobile). Finally, the use of hyperlinks within tables to create what Bullet Journalists might call index/reference pages, or others have called Table of Content pages, can link several related notes into a extremely useful structures that don’t need tags or searches or the merging of notes to function robustly in sets of topics, issues, processes, projects, etc. These hyperlinks can be to other notes, documents, cloud documents or even other OneNote notes! If you’ve experimented with other applications before and don’t want to copy/paste/import that content into Evernote, using hyperlinks can solve a lot of legacy management issues.

  6. Databases are too heavy for most users to wrap their minds around. Evernote has managed to harness the power of a database into a simple user interface. However, nested tags is the one thing that makes them distinct from every other software. They have opted to not develop that into their mobile platforms. I think it is a serious mistake.

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