The Right Way to Use Categories and Tags in WordPress to Boost SEO

The Right Way to Use Categories and Tags in WordPress to Boost SEO

Categories and tags offer up opportunities for increased engagement and traffic that most bloggers waste.

There are many benefits to creating and maintaining a well thought out category and tagging system when blogging. For one, the user experience can be vastly improved by well-constructed navigational elements. But secondly, categories and tags offer an opportunity to increase traffic to your site via search engines.

One client of mine runs a large blog that attracts around 250,000 unique visitors per month. Around 5% of those visitors are referred by tag pages listed in search engines. And those visitors are far more engaged than the average, with higher time on site and page views, and a lower bounce rate. That’s an extra 10,000 engaged visitors per month, and this is for a site which is poorly optimized for tagging.

So, if you’re interested in improving the user experience and boosting traffic to your site, read on to find out how you should optimize your categories and tags in WordPress.

What About Duplicate Content Penalties?

Before we start, let’s push this little issue to one side.

Google (and other major search engines) will never penalize a WordPress site for having archive pages that publish and point to the same content. They confirmed this way back in 2008. When Google comes across duplicate content, their algorithm will adjudge which version is the original, and place that above the alternative options.

There is in reality just one valid reason why you might choose to noindex taxonomy/archive pages — when the pages are of no use to searchers (e.g. date based archives). If a page is of potential use to a searcher, it should be included within the index.

I would recommend that you keep your post’s content to excerpt length when published on taxonomy and archive pages. Not only will this resolve any duplicate content/devaluation issues, it will make for more easily browseable pages.

How to Categorize and Tag

If you are in any doubt as to the difference between categories and tags, read Everything You Need to Know About WordPress Tags. But in a nutshell, if categories are the table of contents for your blog, tags represent the index. And as you will know if you have ever read a book with an index, it can really come in handy.

The key to categorizing and tagging your content is rooted in the old contradictory axiom, “Less is more”. You must strike a good balance between offering as few options as possible, whilst giving the reader a choice that they will be satisfied with. Furthermore, you must always remember that each and every page on your site should have a useful purpose. You shouldn’t tag a page for the sake of tagging a page — you should do so because grouping posts by that particular tag could be of use to a reader.

An easier way to think about it is this — all categories and tags should represent a keyword that a reader would potentially search for. For example, if I’m looking for a chicken recipe, I might search Google for “chicken recipe”. In that example, “Recipes” could be a category, and “Chicken” could be a tag. Both are useful and functional taxonomies.

Don’t go overboard when categorizing your content. A post should typically be in no more than one or two categories, and tagging should be limited only to the most relevant topics covered in the post. Furthermore, if you find no obvious way in which you can tag a specific post, don’t tag it. Not every post needs tagging.

Finally, I recommend that you use title case when creating your categories and tags. Just bear this in mind for the time being — I’ll explain why later.

Utilizing Categories and Tags on Your Blog

First of all, let’s address something that is so uncommon in the blogosphere, that I almost feel it must be a taboo of some kind — linking to categories and tags from within your pages and posts.

Not only do I consider this okay to do, I actively encourage it. Remember — you are creating categories and tags that are of use to the reader, so why not link to them? Say I’m on a health and fitness blog, and I’m reading a post on running. Half way through the post I encounter this text:

If you’re into running, we recommend that you check out our running section here on the blog.

I might open that up in a background tab (which will of course reveal the “Running” category on the blog). Now let’s say I’m particularly into marathon running, and I come across this text later on in the post:

Some say that marathon training is more difficult than the marathon itself.

The above could be a contextual link that points to the tag archives for “Marathon Training”.

Both links above are great examples of how you can interlink to both category and tag pages in a way that benefits the reader. Generally speaking, the more you interlink on your blog, the more engaged your readers will be, so take every opportunity to keep them on your site.

One side-effect of linking to categories and tags repeatedly (by interlinking and/or navigational links) is that link juice will be passed to those archive pages, which means that they will have a chance of ranking in Google. Because you are focusing on producing a limited number of highly relevant and useful categories and tags, each page has a chance of establishing itself for keyword terms.

Optimizing Categories and Tags for SEO

Now let’s get down to the nuts and bolts of the matter — optimizing your taxonomy pages so that link juice flows in the right areas, and editing onsite SEO so that each taxonomy page looks useful to the reader.

You need to get your hands on the free SEO by Yoast plugin. If you don’t already use it, say hello to the best SEO plugin for WordPress, hands down. Whilst there are an awful lot of beneficial things you can do with this plugin, in this article we are going to focus solely on optimizing your taxonomy and archive pages.

First of all, navigate to the “Titles & Metas” settings page:

SEO by Yoast

On the first tab of that screen, under “Sitewide meta settings”, check the “Noindex subpages of archives” checkbox:

SEO by Yoast

Our aim is to rank one page for any given taxonomy, not several. If Google indexes taxonomy subpages, it will probably not do a great deal of harm, but could potentially take away from the strength of other pages. Given that there is no benefit in these pages being indexed, you may as well ensure that they are not.

Next, navigate to the “Taxonomies” tab. Here you will be able to set title templates for each taxonomy type and choose whether or not they should be indexed and/or followed by search engines. The way in which you present the title of each taxonomy page is important in making it clear to a search engine user that the page is of use to them. Here are the settings I use:

SEO by Yoast

As you can see, the “noindex, follow” boxes are unchecked, which means that the search engines will both follow these pages and include them within their index (which is exactly what we want). Furthermore, I have created a title template that, trusting you have named your categories and tags well, will be readable and informative to the searcher.

Based upon the above template, a title for a tag on an imaginary blog could read as follows:

Michael Crichton | The Best Sci-Fi Books Blog

If you’re interested in Michael Crichton (and sci-fi), a title tag such as that showing up in your search engine results page (SERP) would be quite compelling. This is why I previously advised you to use title case when naming categories and tags — a lowercase tag would look far less presentable in the SERPs:

michael crichton | The Best Sci-Fi Books Blog

Whilst I don’t typically advise that you include your blog’s name in title tags for posts and pages, it is perfect for providing context (and additional relevant keywords) for what might otherwise be a mysterious category or tag.

If you’re having trouble in creating title templates, click on the “Help” tab to see a list of variables that you can include (such as &&term_title%% and %%sitename%%).

Once you’re done setting your title templates for categories and tags, click onto the “Other” tab. You will see options relating to author and date archives. If you’re running a single author blog, you should disable author archives. And personally I always think that you should disable date archives, unless the date of a post is in some way pivotal to how people might search for your content.

Wrapping Up

If you take the time to create and maintain a limited set of highly relevant categories and tags, you will see benefits in time. For instance, I launched a new blog just a couple of weeks ago, and although Google has only crawled it once (ten days ago) and I have only received a handful of visitors, I have already received a couple of search referrals via taxonomy pages.

Forget about “tag stuffing”, or creating a vast list of unhelpful categories. Focus on usability and ease of navigation, and you will reap the rewards.

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134 Comments

  1. Sean says:

    Can you help me? So for this particular blog post I put nutrition as the category and for the tags I put protein, carbohydrates, post workout. Would you do the same?

    http://seanneumannfitness.com/post-workout-nutrition/

    Thanks again this article is great! going to read it over a couple times.

  2. Dan says:

    Tom,
    Nice article. Would wonder what you comment might be on the use of SEO features for categories and tags that Yoast SEO affords and what you think it's effect is on SEO. Personally I give all my categories and all my tags SEO titles and descriptions and have noticed a positive impact on SEO.

    • Tom Ewer says:

      I certainly don't think it will do any harm, and a meta description for categories and tags is good for usability (i.e. people will be able to get a better idea, at a glance, how the page can best serve them).

  3. Robb says:

    This is exactly what I was looking for. (…you must have tagged this one just right.) ;-)

    Robb

  4. Kathleen says:

    Morning Tom!

    I think I understood.
    I'd like to progress and develop my blog.
    I am not a geek or a techie, we have to remember that the bulk of people writing blogs are chatting about their latest gourmet dining experience, new baby or knitting patterns.
    Please keep up the good work, but don't forget the poor folk who are not up to speed with geek speak!
    You lost me at 'optimizing taxonomy'!

    Kind regards, and thank you
    @poshpedlar

    • Tom says:

      Thanks for your thoughts Kathleen. There definitely is a wide array of bloggers out there. If you have specific questions about this post I would be happy to answer them! Optimizing taxonomy refers to making a group of terms as functional and effective as possible.

      Cheers,

      Tom

  5. gypsychick@aol.com says:

    Hello Tom! I've read and printed your terrific article. But I'm a new blogger and basically an idiot so if this question is too dumb, please ignore me. My blog covers a year after losing Mom. As it rolled along, it became fun, wacky and positive as opposed to sort of grief management. After three months I do want to use categories and tags in an effective way. In the simplest form, would my categories all be something like MOM and tags that are the basic subject of each post? Like "Holidays" "Funeral" "Gypsies"? Thank you and again, please ignore me if this is so basic that you're shaking your head.

  6. Good example with Chicken Recipe since we do have that tag to consider and thinking of reducing the amount of tags.

  7. Roy Moses says:

    Good stuff over here!

    I feel now like I have been using tags for no reason and every post has a different tags that just have a relation to what they are about… I am going to cut back on the tags and try to merge them a little bit, thanks!

  8. Roger says:

    I am confused with the "how to" use the categories and tags. But upon reading this post, the only thing that is on my mind now "is not to use tags" for every post that is not closely related to other post's topics.

  9. Kristian says:

    So what category is this article under? Maybe I'm blind.
    I see "You Might Like" but that's not the same as a full list of other articles in the same category as this one ;-)

    • Tom Ewer says:

      Don't get me started on our categories and tagging ;-)

      This is definitely a case of do as I say but not as I do! We're working on something big here at the blog that will change everything though…

      • Kristian says:

        Sorry, couldn't help my self!
        It's a very good site though and I've recommended it to a couple of friends.

  10. Alonso says:

    Great Post. Very informative. Now I have to go back to 500 post and included tags.fml.

  11. Paul says:

    Great article.. but there is one aspect thats still confusing for me. For example using Moz Analytics for my site..

    site/category/podcast
    is flagged as duplicate for:

    site/tag/podcasts

    so which should you do?

  12. Andy Saks says:

    Great article, very helpful. I'm still confused about one basic thing: how do I get the tags I have set up to appear on their associated blog pages? I use WordPress and have added tags to a bunch of recent posts, but the tags don't appear on the post pages after it's published.

    Do I have to program code into each individual blog page? Into the WP Editor? Check a box in the WP Admin? Where and how to activate tag visibility?

    I've looked far and wide online and no one explains this, I must be missing something obvious… all help appreciated. Thanks -

    • Tom Ewer says:

      Hi Andy,

      That's a theme issue — i.e. your theme isn't set up to show tags. You can change your theme's files manually to include tags but it requires a little PHP fiddling. It's not really within the scope of this article I'm afraid, but if you ask on the WordPress.org forums I'm sure someone will help you out.

      Cheers,

      Tom

  13. Chitraparna says:

    Hi Tom,

    The article is immensely useful.

    My question: does it harm a blog's SEO if I delete any category? Let's I have some posts in A category and I want to shift them to B. Once I do and delete A, will it create any duplication problem, 404 errors or anything else unknown? Please guide.

    BTW, can you please update the screenshots? I see new additions by Yoast on the tabs specified here.

    Thanks a ton.

    • Tom Ewer says:

      Hey Chitraparna,

      So long as all the links update appropriately, there shouldn't be an issue. Google we de-index the now non-existent pages and reindex accordingly.

      Cheers,

      Tom

  14. Anil Saini says:

    I'm new user of WP. Actually i started blogging with Google's blogger platform. And blogger have not such option of category. This really help me to understand deference b/w category and tags. Thank you so much Tom Ewer. :)

  15. John K says:

    Great post Tom. I have blocked tag,category and archive thru yoast seo plugin as i thought it will create duplicate contents in google's eyes. But you have shown the right way to use it.
    Also, the use of 'title template' in tags and category is excellent advice.
    Thank you.

  16. Great article, thank you! I have always used catagories pretty well, but this will certainly help me do an even better job. I needed a better understanding of how catageories and tags differ and now I have that. Thanks again.

  17. why my site is not come in search with diffrent tags…

  18. Danielle says:

    YAY!!! After all these years, A CLEAR, THOUGHT OUT, and WELL WRITTEN article about the importance of tags and categories!!! Plus you integrated the Yoast WordPress Plugin, and showed us how to properly set it up! Thanks, and Happy New Year!

  19. finally an explanation that I can understand. I have not been using tags because I really did not understand exactly what they where for. A lot of other pages I have read on this scare me away with the duplicate content issue. Now I see they can actually be beneficial for me especially with the type of site I have.

    Thank you so much for this article Tom

  20. Reddy Rk says:

    That a very Good Idea, very usefull.. thank's

  21. Daniel says:

    Its really easy to make and i like this configuration, due to help google to find you without over optimization

    Thanks a lot

  22. Lee Wilde says:

    Very useful information, thanks. I really wasn't sure what the difference was between categories and tags before I read this.

  23. Hi,

    I recently submitted a question to the support forum but seems nobody responded it. The original question was posted here: http://wordpress.org/support/topic/seo-metadata-for-archive-page-using-custom-post-type-cpt?replies=1

    Basically I am finding some difficulties to configure the meta descriptions and title for the custom post type page displaying all the custom post type posts.

    I already configured the Titles & Meta -> Post Types -> Title template, Meta description template and Meta keywords template for the custom post type but this is not taking effect for the page (like the archive page (?)) listing all the custom post types.

    Any advice will be strongly appreciated. Thanks.

  24. I have a new WP website and am afraid to click on the Plugin updates? My fear is that something will drastically change my site. Is this a legitimate fear?

    • Tom Ewer says:

      Hey Rossana,

      Not to say that anything won't definitely go wrong, but you shouldn't worry too much. What you *should* do is make sure that you have a backup before you update. That way, if anything does go wrong, you've got something to fall back on.

      Cheers,

      Tom

      • Hi Tom. I was using WordPress SEO By Yoast. I finally could find the way to troubleshoot the issue. Seems we need to fill the Custom Post Type Archives section (need to scroll down to the see this section on this page SEO -> Titles & Metas -> Post Types). I have updated the thread in the WordPress.org support forum.
        Thanks.

  25. elvinson says:

    i lost my categories traffic , almost half.. how to gain it back …any tips

  26. Javed says:

    Thanks for the great article. I just set everything accordingly. Hope for more visitors now. Thanks again.

  27. Ooops, I got wrong way in tagging my posts. That's why my posts would not appear in Google SERP. Thanks for the tips, Mate.

  28. forex says:

    now i'm indexing categories and tags again

  29. amj says:

    i am new in this thing, but i have a question, is it important to use tags or keywords the same in my article ?
    tags or keywords should be in the article too ?

  30. Pijush Mitra says:

    You clear my doubts about categories and tags. Thanks ;)

  31. BBrian says:

    "if categories are the table of contents for your blog, tags represent the index" … great line, thanks!

  32. TVD says:

    Good article, but there is no mention either here or in the help tab of what any of the taxonomy variables do. What's the output? What's %%term_title%%, etc? I can't find that anywhere. Tons of Google searches, too.

  33. pavelsarker says:

    nice& really so helpful

  34. Joe says:

    This is good stuff, thanks. I got to this post because I just saw in Google Webmaster Tools that I have duplicate title tags for my blog roll. Hopefully I fixed this by clicking no index of subpages of archives. Now, I like what you say about optimizing Categories & Tags. How do I get these codes that you place in the title template? I have no idea what that stuff means, or where to find it, or how to write it.

  35. Skip says:

    Really great read and it gives me a lot of confidence that I'm roughly doing things right. I'm thinking about installing a plugin that auto-links words within a post to tag archives if the 2 are the same. The nature of my site means this may be useful because my tags are normally iPhone apps and so inappropriate linking is unlikely. This article gives me more confidence that this could be a good idea. Thank you!

  36. Great post! I will stop using too many tags LOL!