How to use categories and tags properly in WordPress (for SEO and your readers!)
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Categories and tags are different ways of organizing your content in WordPress and helping users and search engines navigate your site. Here’s how to use them properly – for SEO and your readers!
Essentially, tags and categories are different ways to organise your website. Collectively they are called ‘taxonomies’. These taxonomies show your readers what topics your blog covers and help them navigate around your site and find the content they are most interested in.
Tags and categories also help search engines understand your website’s content and structure better.
So, used well, categories and tags can really help improve your SEO – firstly by helping search engines understand your website better and secondly by improving the user experience on your website.
How to use categories properly in WordPress
Categories should be used for the big main topics you blog about – a bit like the chapters in a book. Ideally, you should have a relatively small number of categories on your site – 4 to 8 is a good number to aim for. You can then use sub-categories and/or tags to split your posts into smaller groups. (See more about this below.)
Having a small number of top level (or ‘parent’) categories on your blog means you can display them all in the menu bar on your blog. This means new visitors to your site can see instantly what topics your blog covers and whether they are in the right place.
Having your categories displayed clearly in the menu bar will encourage your readers to click on topics of interest and so increase your pageviews and decrease your bounce rate.
Another reason why you should stick to a relatively small number of categories is because you will want to optimize each category archive so that the category archive stands the best possible chance of ranking on Google and so they don’t negatively affect your SEO. If you have dozens of categories this will be an enormous job! (See more about this below.)
The way WordPress is set up means every blog post must be assigned to a category. If you do not assign a category, your blog post will be automatically added to the category ‘uncategorized’. This is not good! If you have blog posts in the ‘uncategorized’ category, take some time to re-categorize them into the correct category. (See more about how to clean up a category/tag mess below.)
Sometimes a post will naturally fit under more than one category. It is OK to assign more than one category to a blog post if you think it would make sense for your readers. However, it is important to assign a ‘primary’ category to each blog post. This will help search engines understand your website better and it is also important for breadcrumbs. Whichever ‘primary’ category you select, will be the one that shows up in your breadcrumbs and also in Google’s search results page. (See below for more about breadcrumbs.)
To assign a ‘primary’ category, you will need the Yoast SEO plugin. Once you have this plugin installed you will see an option in the ‘Categories’ section of the ‘Post’ tab in the right-hand menu.
How to use sub-categories properly in WordPress
Categories can be sub-divided into sub-categories. You don’t HAVE to do this, but if you think that it would make things clearer and more helpful for your readers, then you probably should!
(Your guiding principle when using categories, sub-categories and tags should always be to make your user experience BETTER!)
Another good reason for creating sub-categories is if one of your main categories starts to get too big – you can then split that category into subcategories to make things easier to find on your website.
You can also use sub-categories in your menu bar. For example, you could have your main categories as the options people initially see, but then when your readers click on any of your main categories you show them a dropdown menu of all the sub-categories under that parent category. Again, this should have a positive effect on your pageviews and bounce rate.
Sub-categories also show up in your breadcrumbs. This is helpful to your readers as they can easily understand how a particular blog post fits into your overall site structure AND navigate to either your sub-category or your main category, depending on what they are most interested in.
And, again, sub-categories will help search engines understand your blog better – both in terms of the topics your website covers and how it is organized.
When choosing sub-categories, again think in terms of a book. If categories are your chapters, sub-categories are the sections of each chapter.
So, for example, if you have a baking blog, and one of your categories is ‘cakes’, your sub-categories might be things like ‘cupcakes’, ‘cheesecakes’, ‘bunt tin cakes’, ‘Christmas cakes’ and ‘wedding cakes’.
The key to using categories and sub-categories is ‘Less is more’. You need to strike a good balance between making your site structure clear to your readers (and search engines) but not overwhelming your readers with too much choice and an overly complicated site structure.
It is also worth remembering that for every category and sub-category you create you will be creating a corresponding category archive which will need to be optimized. A good way of deciding if a category (or sub-category, or tag) is truly necessary is asking yourself ‘Will the corresponding archive page be useful to my readers?’ If the answer is ‘no’, then don’t create it!
How to use tags properly in WordPress
Tags are a completely different way of categorising your content. Unlike categories, you don’t HAVE to use tags. And unlike categories, they are not hierarchical – you can’t have sub-tags!
If categories are a bit like the chapters of a book, tags are more like the index page. The point of tags is to group content together that has something in common, but falls into multiple categories.
So, for example, say you have a food blog and your categories are ‘starters’, ‘mains’ and ‘desserts’. Your tags might be things like ‘vegetarian’, ‘vegan’, ‘gluten-free’ and ‘dairy-free’. They could also be things like ‘Mexican’, ‘Italian’, ‘Greek’ and ‘Spanish’.
As I said already, you don’t HAVE to use tags and many bloggers choose not to. However, they can be useful to enhance user experience by linking to tag archives.
For example, if I make a gluten free cake on my food blog, I can quickly and easily link to all my other gluten free recipes by linking to the tag URL: www.easypeasyfoodie.com/tag/gluten-free
This will be good for user experience, as a reader who is has a gluten intolerance will quickly and easily be able to see all my gluten free recipes in one place.
However, one big mistake many bloggers make is that they assume that tags are keywords and that by assigning as many tags as possible to a blog post, they will somehow increase the chances of that blog post getting found in search engines.
Sadly, the opposite is true.
If you create lots and lots of tags, you are creating lots and lots of what search engines see as ‘thin content’ pages. Because for every tag you create, a brand new ‘tag archive’ page is created on your site. Often these are pages that are not very useful to anyone – especially tag archives which only have 1 or 2 blog posts in them!
What’s worse is that these ‘thin content’ pages are not optimized (unless you have gone in and optimized each and every one – see below for how to do that). These ‘thin content’ tag archive pages are essentially diluting your overall SEO. This is especially true if you have more tags than blog posts – which is more common than you might think!
In an ideal world you would have just a few tags, and each tag archive page would be beautifully optimized for search engines. Done correctly, tags can be incredibly powerful for SEO and even rank in their own right in search engine results.
However, we live in the real world and most bloggers have hundreds – if not thousands of unoptimized ‘thin content’ tag archives. If this is you, I have good news – there’s a quick fix!
Head over to my guide to setting up the Yoast SEO plugin correctly and scroll down to the SEARCH APPEARANCE section and number 4 TAXONOMIES. There I show you how to no-index your tags.
Remember you don’t HAVE to use tags, so it doesn’t matter if they are no-indexed. But the benefit of no-indexing your tags is HUGE. You now don’t have a load of un-optimized, ‘thin content’ pages being indexed by search engines and crowding out your ‘real’ content. But you do still have the ability to link to tags and manually index individual tags that you HAVE optimized and DO want to rank in search engines.
Another important consideration with tags and categories is you should not have a tag that has exactly the same name as a category. This is not only completely unnecessary, but will also lead to content duplication issues. (You will have both a category archive and a tag archive with the exact same content!) So, if you have any tags that are exactly the same as a category or sub-category, I advise you to delete one or the other. (Do this as part of your re-organization process – see below.)
What are tag and category archives?
Every time you create a new category, subcategory or tag. You create a new archive page. On these archive pages you will find all the posts in that category or tag.
For example, on Productive Blogging I have a category ‘SEO Tips’. If you navigate to www.productiveblogging.com/category/seo-tips, you will find all the blog posts in the SEO tips category.
Similarly, if you navigate to www.productiveblogging.com/tag/convertkit you will find all the posts I have tagged ‘ConvertKit’.
By default, these archive pages are just a list or grid of posts – no title, no introduction, nothing to help a reader who stumbles across that page to know what on earth they are looking at! Definitely not a great UX.
For best UX, you need to provide your readers with a title and introduction to help them understand what that category (or tag) is all about. What’s more, just like individual posts, these tag and category archive pages need to be optimized for search engines.
How to optimize tag and category archives for search engines
To optimize category archive pages, navigate to POSTS => CATEGORIES and click EDIT on your first category.
Write something that will explain to readers what they are looking at and what kind of posts they should expect to find in that category. If you have a lot of posts in that category, you may like to highlight some of the most popular posts. If it’s quite a technical category, it might be a good idea to tell your reader which posts to start with. If you have a product or a free opt-in relating to this category, this would be a great place to highlight it!
The next thing to do is to go to the Yoast meta box, at the bottom of the page, and write a short meta description for your category. (This is what you want search engines to show in the search results).
You might also like to change the SEO title. By default it will be ‘YOUR CATEGORY NAME Archives’ – which does not look great in search results, so it’s best to change it to something more attractive and with better keywords.
For example, I changed my SEO Tips category title from ‘SEO Tips Archives’ to ‘SEO for Bloggers’. Not only does this look better in search results but it is also a better keyword phrase – no-one is going to be typing ‘SEO Tips Archive’ into Google, but tons of my target audience for this category (bloggers who want to know more about SEO) will be typing in ‘SEO for bloggers’. Your category archive titles are BIG opportunities to rank for your most important keywords, so use them wisely!
You should do this for all your categories and sub-categories.
If you have a small number of tags, you should also do this for all your tags. If you have a lot of tags, then I recommend no-indexing your tags instead.
How to use breadcrumbs properly in WordPress
Breadcrumbs help your readers to navigate your site more easily and helps them to understand where on your website they are when they land on a random blog post.
Breadcrumbs usually appear immediately above your blog post and look like this…
You can see from this picture that a reader landing on this post about cornerstone content knows that this blog post fits in the category ‘Blog Content’. They can click on this category to see more blog posts on this topic.
This is hugely helpful to readers and so is a real benefit to UX and therefore SEO in general.
Breadcrumbs also help search engines determine the structure of your site more easily – so a double benefit for SEO!
Google loves breadcrumbs – in fact Google loves breadcrumbs so much, it even uses breadcrumbs in its search results page.
Breadcrumbs in search results give searchers an easy-to-understand overview of where the post sits on your site – and this in turn makes your search result more enticing to users.
Using breadcrumbs also reduces your bounce rate, since breadcrumbs guide readers to other parts of your site.
To add breadcrumbs to your blog, follow the instructions in my guide to setting Yoast up properly. In this guide, go to SEARCH APPEARANCE and scroll down to section 6 BREADCRUMBS TAB.
If you have a Genesis Framework theme, you will need to go to GENESIS => THEME SETTINGS => BREADCRUMBS and enable breadcrumbs on single posts. (I would not advise enabling breadcrumbs anywhere else unless you have a good reason to!)
What to do if your tags and categories are a bit of a mess
Unfortunately, most bloggers don’t learn how to use tags and categories properly until they have been blogging for some time… by which time their tags and categories are in a bit of a mess!
If this is you, don’t despair… but do take action. Improving the organization of your tags and categories will improve your UX and your SEO, so it’s well worth putting the effort in to get it right.
And please remember as you do this that the most important thing to think about when assigning categories and tags is ‘What will be most helpful to my readers?’. If you keep that question in mind the whole way through, you won’t go far wrong!
Step 1 – Draw it out!
The first thing you should do is get out a large piece of paper and draw out what you consider to be the ideal category structure for your blog… What should your top-level categories be? And what should your sub-categories be? Use that metaphor of your blog being like a book… What would the chapters be? And how would you divide those chapters into sections?
Or, if you find it more helpful, imagine that you HAD to divide all your content into just 6 categories and you HAD to put those categories in the main menu bar on your website… How would you do it? What would you want a reader to see in your menu bar when they first arrived on your site? What would tell them they were in the right place? What would they be most likely to click on to find out more? Then imagine that when they clicked on each of those options, they were presented with a dropdown menu with 6 sub-categories – again, what would you want them to see there?
(You don’t necessarily have to put all your categories and sub-categories in your menu bar – sometimes that is not the most appropriate choice… And you don’t have to stick rigidly to 6 main categories and 6 sub-categories under each category – this is just an exercise to help you pick the best category structure for your blog!)
Step 2 – Reorganize your site
Now it’s time to take that new structure you have planned out and re-organize your website to match it.
Start by creating your new categories and sub-categories. You can do this by going to the left-hand menu and selecting POSTS >> CATEGORIES.
Next, go into each blog post and assign it to the correct category/sub-category. If you assign it to multiple categories then make sure you choose a ‘primary’ category.
Finally go back into POSTS >> CATEGORIES and delete all the redundant categories that you no-longer wish to use.
NOTE #1: Every category and subcategory you delete will also delete the corresponding category archive page and create a 404. This is fine – Google have repeatedly said that deleting pages and serving 404s is totally OK, and in fact normal. However, if you have previously LINKED TO a category archive which you have now deleted, this will now be a broken link. Directing your readers to broken links is not good for UX and therefore not good for SEO. I always recommend that after doing major restructuring work to your website you run www.brokenlinkcheck.com to check for broken links and fix any you find!
NOTE #2: Some bloggers have categories in their URLs – this is not good! If you have categories in your URL and then reorganize your category structure, you will end up changing every blog post URL – which would lead to many, many broken links and lost backlinks. If you have categories in your URL, I advise that you first remove categories from your URLs and put in appropriate redirects (Get a good developer to do this unless you know how to do it properly!) Only once this work is done should you reorganize your categories and tags.
NOTE #3: As with every major change to your website, I always advise you first take a backup of your site before you begin work. This means, should you make a mistake or end up in a mess, you can quickly and easily undo it all by reverting to the backup!
Step 3 – Optimize your category archive pages
Once you have your new category structure in place, you can set about optimizing each category archive page. You can find your category archive pages by heading to POSTS >> CATEGORIES and you can edit each category archive page by clicking on EDIT. Make sure you give each category a sensible headline and intro text, then use the Yoast metabox to help you optimize each category archive page. In particular, make sure you give your category title a sensible SEO title (something people are likely to be typing into Google!) and meta description. Don’t worry if you cannot get green bullets here… that is very normal with archive pages. Just do the best you can… and always keep what is best for your reader in mind!
Once you have optimized all your main category archive pages, work on optimizing all your sub-category archive pages.
Step 4 – Enable breadcrumbs
If you have not already enabled breadcrumbs on your site, do that now.
You will find that your categories and sub-categories will now show up in your breadcrumbs, which will help your readers understand and navigate your site better.
After a few weeks you should also find that your categories / sub-categories show up in Google searches, like this…
Step 5 – Decide if you will use tags
Now is the time to decide whether you will use them or not. Using tags is very much optional. Use them if you think it will help your reader and don’t if you think it won’t.
If you decide not to use them then simply delete any tags that you have previously created, check once more for broken links at www.brokenlinkcheck.com and you are DONE!
If you decide to use tags, you have a few more steps…
Step 6 – Delete tags of 1
The whole point of tags is to group similar content together. This means tags of 1 are completely pointless! So, your first task is to go to POSTS >> TAGS and delete any tag which only has 1 post in it (and probably those which only have 2 or 3 too, while you are at it!)
Step 7 – Delete all other pointless tags
The next step is to delete all other pointless tags. This includes:
- Any tag which is exactly the same as a category or subcategory
- Any tag which is a duplicate of another tag (e.g. on a food blog, you only need one of ‘carrot’ and ‘carrots’)
- Any tag which serves no purpose (always ask yourself ‘What is the point of this tag?’, ‘Will the tag archive help my reader?’ ‘Am I likely to want to link to the tag archive?’ ‘Would I want this page to come up in search results?’ – if you can’t justify a tag, delete it!)
Step 8 – Create any new tags you feel you need
As you do this exercise, you may think of useful tags that you don’t currently have. If so, create those tags in POSTS >> TAGS. However, be sparing – remember less is more! Only create a new tag if you really, really need it and know it would really help your readers.
If you do decide to create some new tags, make sure you also add them to all relevant blog posts.
(This second exercise in itself will cause you to only create tags you really, really need as this would be a very long and tedious job if you created lots of new tags!)
Step 9 – Optimize (or no index) your remaining tags
Now you have another important decision to make… Are you going to optimize your tag archive pages or no-index them?
I suggest if you have a large number of tags, you no-index them. It will not be a good use of your time to spend days (or even weeks!) optimizing dozens of tag archive pages.
If, however, you only have a very small number of tags then it probably does make sense to spend an hour or two optimizing your tag archive pages to make them more helpful to readers and more likely to rank in their own right in Google.
To optimize your tag archive pages, follow the exact same procedure as you did with your categories and sub-categories.
To no-index your tag archives, use the instructions in this post >>> How to set up the Yoast SEO plugin PROPERLY!
If you have worked through this entire post and done a good job reorganizing your tags and categories, you will now have a much better organized blog and a much more user-friendly site as a result. Massive well done to you!
The good news is you should hopefully start to see the fruit of your efforts – in terms of better search engine rankings and better search engine traffic before too long (Do bear in mind though that it can take 3-6 months to see the results from any SEO improvements, so you may need to be a little bit patient!)
However, the bad news is fixing your categories and tags is just one small part of SEO.
If you want to fix all aspects of your SEO, you will need to do a lot more! To help you do this, I recommend enrolling in my course, SEO Jumpstart, which will take you step-by-step through all the key aspects of SEO, showing you exactly what you need to fix AND how to do it. You can find out more about this course here >>> SEO Jumpstart
If you are not in a position to be able to enrol in SEO Jumpstart right now, then I have an alternative option for you. You can download my FREE DIY SEO AUDIT. This audit is a self-guided set of worksheets that will help you audit your own blog and discover what you need to fix if you want your blog to rank better on Google and get more Google traffic!
- How to optimize your blog’s site structure for SEO
- A beginner’s guide to SEO for bloggers
- 17 SEO mistakes to avoid
- SEO Jumpstart – A jargon free SEO course for bloggers!
- SEO Jumpstart Success Stories [Part 1]
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Hi Eb! Just a quick question about categories- l do need to reorganise mine and create subcategories. Having said that l have about 600 recipes on my blog, and going through each one of them to add to any new categories seems like such a task. Is there a better way to do this?
Hi Daniela! I have good news for you. Yes there is. Go to POSTS >> ALL POSTS and you can see all your posts as a list. Then for each post, select QUICK EDIT and you can change the categories there. This still means you will have to update each post individually, but this way is a lot quicker than laboriously having to got into the main editing screen for each post. You can also filter ALL POSTS so you are just looking at one category at a time, which may make things easier too. Lastly, if you just want to change the name of a category, you can do that via POSTS >> CATEGORIES. Hope that helps! Eb 🙂
Thank you so much, Eb! My categories have way to many recipes added to them and I think it will be a lot easier to split them. Would updating so many recipes in a short amount of time have any negative impact from a SEO point of view? I wasn’t sure how Google likes recrawling so many recipes in a short amount of time.
If you are just literally updating the categories (and making them better in the process) then it shouldn’t negatively impact you from an SEO point of view. It’s impossible to guarantee that, obviously. But there is no logical reason why it should. If you were making bigger changes to your posts – more text / better photos, for example, then that can sometimes cause a drop in position / traffic… as Google tries to figure out what you’ve done and if it’s good. But, assuming the changes you’ve made are good, your traffic should improve in the long-term (again, there are no guarantees, but improving content is a good thing in Google’s eyes so *should* result in more traffic in the long term.)
Thank you so much, that’s very helpful! I wish I knew all these things some years ago when I set the blog up!
You are very welcome! Eb 🙂