You’ve written your post, and your mouse is hovering over the “Publish” button, but you can’t help but feel like you’ve forgotten something…
Don’t worry, WordPress will remind you: “You must select a category before publishing a post.”
And that reminds you, you should pick add a few tags as well.
But when none of the categories seem to really fit your topic, and you’re not sure what tags to add without repeating yourself, what are you supposed to do? File it under “Miscellaneous”?
That’s how many of us go about choosing our categories and tags: just creating them ad hoc as our blogs develop.
But by creating them that way, you’re missing out on a ton of benefits. Taking the time to use categories and tags correctly can boost your SEO, raise your the average time-on-page of your visitors, and provide an overall better experience for your readers.
The categories and tags you create become the skeleton of your website, clueing in both readers and search engines to its structure and content. And because they’re so integral to your website, they’re difficult to change later on without losing backlinks, search engines rankings, or littering your website with 404 errors.
But sticking with a bad category and tag system will have even worse results, leading to user frustration and lower search engine rankings when they find your site impossible to navigate.
By getting a better understanding of what categories and tags are for and how they work, you can use them to your advantage to make your site more easily navigable for your visitors and search engines alike.
Why are Categories and Tags Important for Blogs?
The first online “web logs” were basically public journals posted online. Like in a physical diary, each entry was listed in reverse chronological order, with no other way to navigate content.
That worked great for diaries for hundreds of years, but when blogging exploded in popularity in the 21st century, we realized we needed a better way to structure our content and link related posts.
Categories and tags were created in WordPress and other blogging software to give readers more options for browsing content than just chronologically.
Categories and tags not only help readers to navigate your website, but they also have the benefit of making your blog more “sticky” for new visitors. If you’ve ever used a “related posts” plugin, you know the benefits of letting readers know how to continue to read about the same topics on your website. Instead of hitting the “back” button to search for more info, they see that they can find it all on your website.
SEO Benefits of Categories and Tags
While the primary purpose of categories and tags are to help your readers navigate your blog, using them properly will also give you an SEO boost.
This works in a few different ways. Firstly, having all those internal links will guide search engine crawlers to discover all your site’s content by following those links, so that there are no isolated pages left unindexed. The anchor text of those internal links — your category and tag names — will clue the search engines in to what topics your website is about, allowing you to rank for those targeted keywords.
And all those internal links will spread “link juice” around your site: If you have a very popular post on your blog that a lot of authority websites link to, using categories and tags will link that post to other related posts on your blog, boosting your website’s ranking as a whole.
What’s the Difference Between Categories and Tags?
Using categories and tags will give you a lot of the same benefits, and they’re both taxonomies used in similar ways in the WordPress dashboard. Sometimes it’s difficult to decide if a certain topic should be a tag or a category — and many blogs will even use them in the same way.
In understanding the difference between categories and tags, it’s helpful to think of your blog like a book.
Categories work like the chapters of a book: All of a book’s content is organized into chapters. Looking at the title of each chapter will give you a good idea of the topics the book covers and how it’s organized. If the book author or editor wanted to change, add, or remove any chapters, it’d be a pretty big structural change for the book.
Tags work more like the book’s index. Indexes are a much longer list of more specific topics the book mentions. If a topic is in the index, it’s probably covered (albeit briefly, maybe) in more than one area of the book. A book’s index is usually much longer than the table of contents, and adding or removing an item doesn’t affect the structure of the book.
How to Use Categories and Tags
Now that you know all about the purpose of categories and tags, here’s how you can use them to your advantage to help your readers navigate your blog, and to get more targeted traffic from search engines.
Categories: DOs and DON’Ts
Remember, categories are like your blog’s table of contents.
- DO think carefully about the topics your blog will cover, and how your readers will expect your content to be organized. You can add new categories later, but it would be difficult to reorganize your website’s structure by changing your existing categories. If you’re unsure how to categorize your blog post topics, try using a brainstorming exercise like mind-mapping to visualize how all your topics and subtopics are related.
- DO structure your categories so that all of your posts will belong to at least one category. WordPress requires each post to belong to at least one category before you can publish it.
- DO consider using sub-categories to organize more complicated, hierarchical topics. WordPress allows up to three levels of categories. If you decide your blog should have sub-categories, consider using breadcrumbs on each post to orient visitors in the hierarchy of your website.
- DO use clear, descriptive category names, and avoid clever names. A visitor who has never been to your blog before should have a clear idea of what kind of posts they will find by clicking on your category names.
- DO capitalize your category titles. It’s common practice and helps your readers to understand that they’re categories.
- DON’T use too many categories. How many is too many? Unfortunately, there’s no right answer for every blog; it depends on your content. If you find yourself needing to create a new category every time you write a post, you should rethink how you’ve structured your topics.
- DON’T use more than one category for the majority of your posts. It’s best to limit most of your posts to one category, since that’s what your readers will expect (they may be confused if they click on a different category and see many of the same posts). If you must use more than one category for a single post, limit them to two or three at the most. If you find that many of your posts fit into several categories, you may need to re-think your website’s structure.
- DON’T create a category that you won’t write about again in the future. Use categories to topics you’re planning to expand on later. If you’re only going to write a few posts about a topic and then never revisit it again, consider linking them together with tags instead.
Tags: DOs and DON’Ts
Use tags like the index of your blog.
- DO use tags liberally. A tag doesn’t need to be a summary of the entire post; it could describe just one section. If it can be applied to more than one post, go ahead and create a tag for it.
- DO have fun with tags. Unlike with categories, which users depend on more for navigation, you can play around a bit more with tags. Try using longer phrases, hashtags, quotes, jokes; as long as they fulfill their purpose of linking like posts together and helping readers navigate your site.
- DO use descriptive tags that can stand on their own and still be clear. For example, an ecommerce website would be better off using the tag “programmable coffee makers” instead of just “programmable.” Think about the permalinks and anchor text for internal links you’re creating and how search engines will understand them.
- DON’T capitalize tags. It’s common practice to capitalize categories, but use lowercase for tags. This isn’t required, and by no means universal, but it’s fairly standard and helps to maintain the distinction between the taxonomies for you and your readers.
- DON’T create a tag that only applies to one post. Tags shouldn’t be too specific (for instance, a duplicate of the post title). The purpose of tags is to link related posts together, not just label them.
- DON’T use tags that are just duplicates of your categories. They’re already linked together, so there’s no purpose to this. Tags should be more specific than categories.
- DON’T use too many tags. How many tags are enough? Again, there’s no right answer for every blog. You’ll find answers all over the place, from 2-3 per post, to 30 or more. Just try to be consistent for each post, and keep in mind that each tag you create will generate a new archive page on your website— how useful will that page be? If you have a very large amount of posts, you may want to consider getting rid of or merging tags that only link 2 or 3 posts.
Seem like a lot of rules to memorize? The main thing to keep in mind is the book metaphor: use categories like chapters and tags like an index, and you’re on your way to a well-structured blog that will help readers and search engines to understand your content.
Article thumbnail image by Monkik / shutterstock.com