I'm a university student building a web application for a project with three collegues , I took the database portion.

Our site is basically a link sharing site and supports tags, what is an efficient way to store tags in Mysql database ? I thought of these ways :

1- table for tags : the relation between link and tag is many-to-many so I must break it with an intermediate table, I can't think of an SQL statements to fetch links with specific tags example : the user might search for links tagged with (php , mysql ) or (hardware-issues , gigabyte).

Also even if I did , it needs join , we're making the site global, that means the database will be very very huge some day , I don't think we can bare a join.

2-putting tags as an array in links table : I can put an array of strings, this means only one select statement(better than join I think) but manipulating the array will be hard, the link's poster might edit the tags on his/her link, I can figure out a way to deal with this but I'm not sure if this is the most efficient way , of course it's not normalized and the database will grow faster but I think on a server , speed is more important than size.

So is there a better way ?

1 Answer 1


Why do you think that you will not be able to bare a join? In fact if I understand correctly, your other idea is to put a list of tags into a varchar column (am I correct?) and search links by searching text in that column and that will definitely be much slower since you will have to full-scan the links table for every search.

Joins are normal, every-day operations in relational databases and are not something that you should avoid.

So say you have 3 tables,

links(link_id, url)
tags(tag_id, tag)
tags_links(tag_id, link_id)

You want to find all links with tags in (php , mysql)?

select l.link_id, l.url 
from links l 
    inner join link_tags lt on (l.link_id = lt.link_id)
    inner join tags t on (lt.tag_id = t.tag_id)
where t.tag in ('php', 'mysql')

links.link_id and tags.tag_id must be primary keys. In tag_links you can put primary key on combination (tag_id, link_id) - the supporting index will make searches by tag_id fast. You can an should also index the link_id column in that table, so that you can find all tags for a given link fast. Also, put an unique index on tags.tag column so that you can find tag_id from tag fast (and tags should be unique anyway, so you're enforcing an important business rule with such a constraint and index).

Try that out, fill some imaginary test data into such a schema, say, 1M links, 10k tags and 10M tags_links, and test the performance. I think you'll be surprised with the results.

  • "where t.tag in ('php' , 'mysql')" that means a link tagged with ('php' , 'mysql' , 'linux-server') will be one of the results which I don't want in all cases , in some cases(based on user choice), links that tagged with only ('php', 'mysql') are the desired results
    – niceman
    Apr 18, 2015 at 11:21
  • You'll have to do a correlated sub-query to achieve that, i.e. select l.link_id, l.url from links l inner join tags_links lt on (l.link_id = lt.link_id) inner join tags t on (lt.tag_id = t.tag_id) where t.tag in ('php', 'mysql') and not exists (select 1 from link_tags tl2 where tl2.link_id = l.link_id and tl2.tag_id not in (select tag_id from tags where tag in ('php', 'mysql')))
    – zgguy
    Apr 18, 2015 at 11:41
  • well there is another issue "in ('php' , 'mysql')" means a link tagged with only 'php' will be one of the results, it shouldn't be in all cases
    – niceman
    Apr 18, 2015 at 11:56
  • Just one more thing... if searching by the exact set of tags is your normal use-case, you'll probably want to store those tags (make sure they are sorted so that their order is deterministic!) in a varchar column in links table, index that column and search by exact text in that column. But you should not opt for denormalization easily; always start with a normalized schema and denormalize only when you must (when you have clear empirical evidence that the normalized solution does not meet performance requirements).
    – zgguy
    Apr 18, 2015 at 11:58

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