When blogging (or simply learning) about WordPress it is easy to get caught up in the latest novelty. What’s the best new theme, plugin, resource, etc.? While those posts are fun and even necessary for keeping up with the ever-changing landscape that is the world of WordPress, today I’d like to talk about something much more fundamental to the usefulness of websites and digital platforms in general: Taxonomies.
First, what is a taxonomy? A taxonomy, simply put, is a way of grouping things together. You might remember this term from biology class; living organisms are divided into groups such as “kingdoms”, “classes”, “orders”, “families”, “genus”, “species”, etc. Each of these groups contains sub-groups which as a whole help define the hierarchy of a single taxonomy. This makes the classification and study of life on Earth easier to manage.
It’s the same idea with WordPress, though fortunately they’re much less complex. In WordPress taxonomies are used to help organize content on your website so that it is displayed (and searchable) in a convenient way that makes sense. Below, I’m going to do a brief overview of the default WordPress taxonomies and their best practices. Then, we’ll talk about how you can expand on the usefulness of taxonomies by creating your own as you see fit.
Default WordPress Taxonomies and their Best Practices
There are three types of WordPress taxonomies that come standard with every new install: categories, tags, and link categories. The third, link categories, is now hidden for new installs and requires a special plugin for them to function as normal. For the most part, link categories have been replaced by custom menus and because of that I will not be covering them in this guide. If you would like to look into them more I’d recommend starting here.
The first two however, categories and tags, are essential to the WordPress platform and in many respects can make or break the blog experience. Why? Because they’re designed to help you organize your blog content so that specific information on a broad topic or topics can be easily located. Something that when done well you barely notice, but if done poorly will most likely result in someone quickly bouncing from your site altogether. Obviously, that’s not something we want our blog visitors to do so let’s look at how these two taxonomies work and some simple best practices for getting the most out of them.
Category: As I alluded to above, your blog should have one very broad topic. (Not to be confused of course with your angle on said topic. For instance, Elegant Themes and WPMU may have very different ways of approaching the topic of WordPress but they are both nevertheless blogs about WordPress.) That topic, for your own sake and the sake of those looking for relevant content on your blog, should then be divided into increasingly more specific channels. Categories are the first and broadest of those channels. Ideally your blog’s categories will be pre-defined during your blog planning process. Adding new categories on a regular basis probably indicates a lack of focus on just one or a very few broad topics.
Example: WordPress (Very Broad Blog Topic) > Resources (Category: A Broad Subset of WordPress Related Content)
Every new install comes with one category: Uncategorized. Obviously this is meant as a default “catch-all” category but should not be used regularly once you have determined your blog topic and created appropriately helpful categories of your own. New categories can be created by navigating to Posts > Categories in your WordPress admin area. If you want you can even create sub-categories by setting an existing category as a parent.
Example: WordPress (Topic) > Resources (Category) > Premium (Sub-Category)
Example: WordPress (Topic) > Resources (Category) > Free (Sub-Category)
As you can see, both of the above subcategory examples would make sense under a Resources category; if you felt that the added layer of organization was helpful. One layer of subcategories is probably all the farther you would want to take this particular taxonomy though. It is at this point that generalities need to begin giving way to specifics. Tags are the perfect kind of taxonomy for this.
Tag: a tag is meant to be specific, but not unique. Additionally, tagging a WordPress blog post is not the same as tagging on Instagram or Tumblr. If you have a wall of tags on a single post, you’re doing it wrong. Tags on a WordPress blog post should be sparse and specific. They should make sense within the context of your topic, category, and sub-category (if present). Usually, the best tag is also the keyword or keywords you’re targeting with your post.
Example: WordPress (Topic) > Resources (Category) > Custom Taxonomies and WordPress Taxonomies (Tags)
Finally, when executed properly your categories and tags should work with your blog topic and each individual post title to create a logical line from broad topic to unique article. In this way, not only will your search results be accurate based on keywords but if someone were strictly to click around your menu options beginning with Blog > (Category) > (Sub-Category) > etc. they would quickly be able to find the content they are most interested in.
Example: WordPress (Topic) > Resources (Category) > Custom Taxonomies and WordPress Taxonomies (Tags) > WordPress Taxonomies: A Guide for the Average User (Unique Article)
Custom WordPress Taxonomies
Once one gets that hang of using the default WordPress taxonomies, meticulously organizing your content can become an obsession. A healthy one, in my humble opinion. After all, how can it possibly hurt to make your site more accessible, more useful? I think the WordPress community at large feels similarly because ever since WordPress version 2.3 (we’re currently at version 3.9.2) it’s been possible to create your own custom WordPress taxonomies. But, you might ask, why would I want to? Between categories, subcategories, and tags the average user has everything they need to organize their blog.
Well, to that I would say that it’s been a long time since version 2.3 came out and in the intervening iterations of WordPress the platform itself has evolved to be seen as much more than just a blogging platform. It is now widely considered a content management system (CMS) and many of the most common uses for WordPress today are for small business websites, corporate websites, artist portfolios and so much more. The big shift in these of course is that the blog has become secondary while the use of taxonomy for different types of content has remained.
Custom WordPress Taxonomy Examples
It’s hard to talk about custom taxonomies without also talking about custom post types as they are so often used together. What are custom post types? They’re the exact same thing as a post or a page, except added to WordPress by you or a plugin via the register_post_type() function. Some common examples of custom post types are portfolios, products, and reviews. If you are interested in learning more about creating and using custom post types I encourage you to check out a recent post we published called Creating Custom Post Types in WordPress. Below I’ve provided some front end screenshots of custom post types and their custom taxonomies in action.
Ok, with all of that said (and show), it should be noted that custom post types do not have a monopoly on the usefulness of custom taxonomies. You can choose to add any custom taxonomy you choose to a regular ol’ blog post. Perhaps you regularly review movies and do not have or want a custom post type for these posts? This would be a perfect example of a time when adding the taxonomies “Actor”, “Director”, “Genre”, and more would be perfect.
Tools for Creating Custom WordPress Taxonomies
For those of you comfortable with editing your functions.php file I will refer you to the WordPress codex’s page on how to add a custom taxonomy. When I titled this post, I assumed that by average user I was mainly addressing those comfortable with installing and configuring their own themes and plugins, but not necessarily adding code to the core WordPress files. For the average user I think using any one of the following plugins will be a quicker and easier solution.
- Simple Taxonomy
- WCK – Custom Fields and Custom Post Types Creator (includes Taxonomies)
- Types (includes Taxonomies)
- Custom Post Type UI (includes Taxonomies)
Taxonomies, while perhaps not sexy in the same way as a flashy new theme or plugin, are essential to organizing your WordPress content and presenting a well crafted website to the world. Categories are meant to be broad, tags specific. When used together (in accord with well crafted blog topics and unique posts) they should form a clear cut, logical line of thought that any visitor can quickly navigate in order to find the content they are most interested in.
You can create custom taxonomies for your regular blog posts or connect them to custom post types like portfolios, products, or reviews. Creating custom taxonomies can be accomplished manually by following the instructions on the WordPress Codex or via the plugins listed above.
If you have any questions about this guide or something to add, please drop us a line in the comments below!