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. BH says:

    You say that categories are like the table of content and tags are like the index. Does that mean you would advocate having identical keywords and tags.

    For example, if you had a marathon and a shoe category. Could you categorize a post in Marathon and then tag "shoe" as well because it's mainly about marathon but has a bit about shoes as well?

  2. info@timeandfreedom.com says:

    I'm currently using the SEOPressor plugin. Will adding the SEO By Yoast plugin effect anything? Thank you for this article

  3. Clear and easy to understand. Thanks for the helpful article!

  4. sureyea says:

    Hi Tom really great post. one question do i need to un-check meta robots box for category and tags in Yoast SEO.

    Usually i use two categories and several tags for a single post. If i don't check it looks like duplicate content within my websites is that true.

  5. Willem-Siebe says:

    Sorry, me again. Let's say I do have my:

    1) main blog page;
    2) single author archive page.

    Both identical content. You are right that this won't cause a penalty, the article you mention (from Google!) is telling us:

    QUOTE:
    they're talking about things like having multiple URLs on the same domain that point to the same content
    Having this type of duplicate content on your site can potentially affect your site's performance, but it doesn't cause penalties.

    But, on the page about 'duplicate content' (see https://support.google.com/webmasters/answer/66359?hl=nl) it looks like they are telling a different story. The story that you won't get penalized stays the same, but they do list some options to prevent it: better prevent it than let Google decide right ;-) .

    On this point I do have a question, because they mention:

    Understand your content management system: Make sure you're familiar with how content is displayed on your web site. Blogs, forums, and related systems often show the same content in multiple formats. For example, a blog entry may appear on the home page of a blog, in an archive page, and in a page of other entries with the same label.

    Do you understand this? We both know that a category page and a homepage of a blog are usefull for the user, and should be indexed by Google… so totally normal that an individual blogpost (excerpt or full) is available on those pages. So why do they mention this. Besides that, 'knowing how your CMS works' isn't really an advice they are giving how to handle the situation they are describing.

    I'm really curious what your answer is to this ;-) .

    Kind regards,

    Willem

  6. Willem-Siebe says:

    Hi, you say about duplicate content:

    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.

    But if a page has no value of a user: with the noindex you only prevent that the page shows up in Google SERP's. The page still excist, people can view it and people can link to it…

    Let's take a one-author blog as an example, this has a link to the author archive, this is the same content as the main blog page.

    When I follow your advice to noindex this, this maybe solves the problem that it is not showing on Google SERP's, but people can still view this page of no value AND people can still link to it.

    That you mention noindex when discussing duplicate content, is not clear to me. A better choice to prevent duplicate issues would be a 301 redirect…

    Do you agree?

    Kind regards,

    Willem

  7. BrandNewTip says:

    btw how many tags per post should I use on my website?
    Too many is not good for doing seo, is it?
    thanks for instruction with seo yoast

  8. jamoroki@gmail.com says:

    I am trying to open the zipped download of SEO by Yoast. Anyone know how?

  9. manu says:

    Thanks a lot for this tutorial. Is it ok If I am using the following logic?

    • manu says:

      Sorry, the code was stripped out. Here it is

      if(is_single() || is_page()) {
      [meta name="googlebot" content="index,noarchive,follow,noodp"]
      [meta name="robots" content="all,index,follow"]
      } else {
      [meta name="googlebot" content="index,noarchive,follow,noodp"]
      [meta name="robots" content="all,index,follow"]
      }

  10. Yogesh says:

    Hello Tom
    I was totally confused between tags and categories but you article answer all my question.Its really a great article with lot of knowledge.Between i want to know how much tags should we use for a each post to index it well.
    ALso i have seen many website using more than 25+ tags for every post . . whats the reason behind that ??? Is it Black Head Technique !
    Thanxx in advance :)

  11. Hello and thanks for this great info.
    I am not understanding how to set title templates in the taxonomies.
    Do I just put in the title or do I put the words in between the %s?
    I am confused on this part completely. Thanks

  12. Alison says:

    Golden! You explained this topic exceptionally well and have truly clarified this topic for me. Thanks so much and I look forward to coming back!!

    A.R.

  13. Shahnawaz says:

    Dear Tom Ewer; I want to thank you very much, this great for me and my website, It is not best but too much batter way to increase traffic. tags and categories are the most important to getting more traffic.
    Thank you very much because I am finding to sol this problems from 2 months. Now I am feeling relax.

  14. Paul Sarwana says:

    Thank you for the post, Tom. This is by far the best web page that explains about how to use category and tag. Before reading this I thought category and tag are like keywords. You show me that that is not the case.

  15. serenamariani@gmail.com says:

    Hi Tom,
    thanks for this useful article- as a rookie, I was doing the haphazardly tagging thing (although not to the point of choco-goodness ;) . My bad! I am doing a bit of an SEO cleanup and have been told to streamline my tags and get rid of the underused/silly ones. Problem is, if I simple delete them from the WP dashboard "Tags" menu, I am left with lots of 404s in my sitemap for links of the type
    http://www.blogname.com/tag/deletedtag

    Do you know of a way to avoid this and actually get rid of those pesky tags? Thanks a lot

  16. Oh9.org says:

    Okay, so I always pretty much used tags. And yes, when I look at my analytics it seems like there is indeed higher engagement.

    What I really wonder about, is about the tag cloud. Is it useful to put it somewhere on your page?

  17. Haku says:

    So, I want to try and be sure on this. If I am using this plugin (Simple Tags) to automatically link to a tag's page when I use it in my post, I won't be penalized for having, say, 15+ tags that get used in this manner? I'm talking about tags that refer to a Genre/Language etd, etc.

    For example:
    Genre: Action, Comedy, Sci-fi
    Language: English

    And of course many more things could be used like that. I have an upcoming blog focusing on things like TV shows, books, and short stories (and more) so I don't want to hurt myself by auto linking.

    But this means that every post done in this manner will have quite a few links going back to tag pages (1 link per tag per post at most)

    • Tom Ewer says:

      Hey Haku

      As long as you are tagging conscientiously it sounds to me that these links would provide value to the end user. I see no reason why Google would penalise you for that.

      Cheers,

      Tom

  18. Jack says:

    first i really appreciate your information, but i am really confused now, just built a site through wordpress, and do a lot of search online about whether it is good to index tag and category page, but got different answers, not a SEO guru ,so i kind of made a disicion just out of my feelings, got to say that it is tough when it comes to SEO, anyway i love ur blog, pretty sure i will come back on a regular basis. nice job

  19. Tim Brownson says:

    Hi Tom, only just found this site when searching for "should you use tags in wordpress or does google see it as duplicate content".

    My SEO guy has done an astounding job getting me back on the front page of Google for the term 'Life Coach' after my previous company had almost got me de-indexed for black hat tactics.

    He ran some SEO tool, the name of which escapes me now, and after a week pulled up a great long report basically saying I was knee deep in duplicate content.

    I didn't have any real duplicate content, i.e. intentionally and about 900 posts so I was confused. Anyway to cut a long story short it seemed that WordPress was generating a unique URL for every tag and ever time I published in more than one category.

    I spent a couple of days stripping them all out and after I did watched the site climb back up the rankings again. I can always tell when I hit the front page because it's like night and day in terms of cold inquires coming in.

    So anyway, I'm totally confused now. What you're saying makes sense and it never really made any to me that Google would slap me for using such a staple of blogging. On the flip side I trust my guy (he's done SEO for some huge corporations and helps me as a favor as much as anything) and since we did that a couple of months ago I have seen an improvement that I cannot put down to anything else because I haven't changed anything else.

    I know I'm late to the party here, but any feedback would be appreciated. Could it be my theme that is quirky and confusing Google, I use Atahualpa?

    • Tom Ewer says:

      Hey Tim,

      The first thing I would say is that if something has worked for you, rely on your own personal experience!

      Having said that, I am adamant that using tags responsibly and having them indexed by Google should have no adverse impact on your rankings. There could be a thousands reasons why Google was unhappy with your site and correlation does of course not necessarily lead to causation.

      Cheers,

      Tom

  20. manik says:

    Hello,

    Do I need to display the tag under post? or if i will hide them from visitors by not displaying then will search engine find these tags link?

  21. Raj says:

    Excellent information about categories and tags,this useful info. clear my all confusion about how to use this two categories and tags perfectly in my wordpress blog.

  22. Great post! Thanks m8!

  23. Mark says:

    Thanks Tom,

    Excellent post. There's so much conflicting advice on this issue but I'm sure you're right.

    I was a chronic over tagger and I have recently no indexed and no followed all my tags one one of my sites.

    My rankings for my posts themselves do seem to have improved but my traffic levels have crashed as my tags were generating lots of traffic.

    I've also carried out a review of exactly which tags were generating the traffic and I'm going to 'switch those back on' but also just stick with a user focused tag set.

    I was wondering, if do index but no follow makes more sense in terms of retaining link juice to the main pages, or are you then just penalizing the tag pages instead of the posts?

    ALSO I REALLY like the theme on this site. Is it available anywhere?

    Thanks again.

    Mark

  24. RB says:

    Tom – Very insightful! Opinions vary on tag/categ indexation but I agree with reasoning here.

    Do have a question. Currently, in Yoast, I have” title template” for tag + categ are populated with (%%term_title%% Archives %%page%% %%sep%% %%sitename%%), while “meta description template” is (%%category_description%%) and (%%tag_description%%) respectively. I should point out that it’s a new blog with no real content just yet and my goal is to have elements set up correctly for smooth sailing. That said, as categories and tags get added, do I need to be filling out their descriptions so that yoast’s “description templates” pull thatt info? What is the benefit of naming categories? Lastly, if I don’t name and with my current set up, what would a search result end up looking like (what will meta be?)

    Thanks in advance!
    R

    • Tom Ewer says:

      Hi RB,

      Creating meta descriptions for your taxonomies certainly isn't necessary (I don't do it) but it won't do you any harm.

      I'm not sure what you mean by "naming categories."

      Cheers,

      Tom

      • RB says:

        Thanks Tom! I won't bother with meta descriptions for taxonomies then.

        What I meant by "naming categories" is entering a "Description" for them when created, otherwise (%%category_description%%) wouldn't pull any info.

        Would you know how the "meta description" in a search result of a category appear if no description is entered? I imagine it would pull the first blog entry associated with that category? Using your example:

        Running – Health & Fitness blog
        http://healthandfitness.com
        April 13, 1013 – ????????

        • Tom Ewer says:

          Hi RB,

          Google pulls what it deems to be relevant content from the site and displays it in the meta description. It won't necessarily just be the text at the top of the page.

          Cheers,

          Tom

  25. Lasse L says:

    Thanks Tom,

    A great article, which gave me some answers I've been searching for a long time! I'm using SEO by Yoast, but your explanation are the best i read untill now, thanks again!

    I use some tags on my site, but have been very confused regarding the question about duplicate content, but can understand there's no need to worry. The article from Google, which you are refering to, are dated in 2008. Does the recent Panda updates changed anything regarding this?

    BR from a SEO newbie. :-)

  26. Nathaniell says:

    Thanks for this post. I have always, and accidentally used way to many tags. With all these recent Google updates, I'm really trying to do as you said, "less is more" type blogging.

    BTW, for anyone who is doubting this strategy, it must be working because I constantly run into ManageWP's blog in Google looking for stuff. I'm also a member of the service, and think it's great that ManageWP practices what they preach.

    Thanks guys.

  27. Cam says:

    Hi,

    I was wondering why a post should be in no more than one or two categories?

  28. Joshua says:

    Thanks Tom! It's funny how long I've gone not really paying that close attention to the differentiation between tags and categories. Great article.

  29. Nick Graff says:

    Thank you Tom! That was more than I expected. I never thought of linking to my categories or tags. I will use that. Thanks!

  30. Ranvir Singh says:

    Greetings,

    I have a newbie question here:

    Do categories and tag metas need to be visually displayed via blog posts for search engines to sniff out? I purposely hide my category metas on blog posts and only display tag metas to keep the posts nice and clean.

    Does this mean I have unlikely chance of search engine robots not picking up my content or can search engines still see the meta tags and categories behind the scene?

    I hope this question makes sense.

    Thanks in advance, this post was awesome.

    R

  31. Nina says:

    I was tagging my posts but I didn't have much of a clue what these were actually for until I read this article. I really appreciate that you've given some real gems of information here: the Yoast settings and interlinking to the category and tag pages. This really makes a lot of sense. Thanks!!

  32. Deny says:

    I use All in one seo and i customized my tag name and slug for seo propose and i get excellent result!

  33. mahadzira says:

    Tq for the tips. Before this i was crazy on linking and tagging. Your advice on tagggin and yoast plugin sure help me much..tq admin

  34. Great post Tom. I used to probably over tag a bit, but I pulled back on that. I even find that many tags out rank the posts in search engines. ;P

  35. Joao Rostli says:

    "category pages with introductory text" and "resource pages" ?
    What about a post about this? Very interesting stuff.
    <a href="http://www.nfc-phones.org/summary-list-of-all-available-nfc-phones/&quot; rel="nofollow">My website</a> needs a lot of your tips.

  36. Keith Davis says:

    Enjoyed reading this one Tom – flowed very easilly.
    Categories and tags have always baffled me.
    I use categories, but have never used tags.

    Mike Schinkel in his comment above said:
    "I’ve been explaining these same ideas to people for years but I gotta say I’ve never heard it explained more clearly and concisely than this"

    And I have to agree with that.

    Thanks for posting this one.

  37. Scott says:

    Thanks for this post it will help a lot, my blog is almost 4 years old and my tags and categories are a complete mess

  38. I've been explaining these same ideas to people for years but I gotta say I've never heard it explained more clearly and concisely than this: "If categories are the table of contents for your blog, tags represent the index." Kudos!

    • Tom Ewer says:

      Hey Mike,

      Thanks, but I can't take credit for that way of explaining it — I read it first over at Lorelle on WordPress :)

      Cheers,

      Tom

  39. Wow, i found this site because of an entry in facebook. Fantastic, i will try this.

  40. For a Small WordPress site it's good..but for a larger WordPress blog I recommend to keep categories and tags as noindex but dofollow and use resource pages rather.Which will have better conversion….
    An example link: http://www.shoutmeloud.com/wordpress-guide

    • Tom Ewer says:

      Care to share the reasoning behind your opinion Harsh?

      P.S. That link is broken.

      • Tom
        For many reasons:

        1) When we try to tank categories and tags…. They keep changing…I mean pages.. So there will be Keyword dance depending upon Keyword density and other on Page factors..Even generating backlinks to categories and tags pages won't be that easy..

        2) When we have resource pages:
        We control the content and instead of showing all the content from a particular category…We can only link to best of content from particular tag/category…. We can also control the ON page SEO…And since it's a valuable resource page…It's more likable to get natural backlinks and even you can easily get backlinks for such pages by guest posting or pitching it to others….

        One easy way to make most out of:
        Create a resource list page.. For example, 101 ways to manage WordPress site..
        You can have ratio of 50:50 where first 50 links are from your site and rest 50 are the best of link from web… This way you will get benefit of outbound link SEO…

        Do let me know if you still see that link as broken.. What message you getting?
        404 not found or something else??

        • Tom Ewer says:

          Hi Harsh,

          You've made some great points. I also like resource pages, but I don't necessarily think it's an either/or situation. For instance, I quite like category pages with introductory text, which I suppose is a sort of hybrid of the two. Also, resource pages require ongoing upkeep, whilst category pages are updated automatically (with fresh content, which Google loves).

          The page is working now :)

          Cheers,

          Tom

    • Vaidas says:

      Hello Harsh and Tom,
      can you please explain in more details what do you call the resource pages? Is it the page which is filtered by the category and tag together? Is it possible somehow to make google indexing such pages? Maybe there is a way to write meta titles, descriptions and keywords for such pages?

      Thanks in advance..!