WordPress categories and tags can have a major impact on your site's ability to rank in search results. Fortunately, SEO for WordPress categories and tags isn't all that complicated once broken down. So, that's exactly what we are going to do.
Let's start by looking at the most common questions our SEO coaches get asked about this particular subject.
- Should we allow the search engines to crawl and index categories and tags?
- Are we adding too many categories or tags to our blog posts?
- How do we optimize our category and tag pages?
- Are categories or tags better for SEO?
Let’s take a step back to the beginning to better understand WordPress SEO for categories and tags.
What are Categories and Tags in WordPress?
Categories and tags are two built-in taxonomy systems in WordPress. Taxonomy systems –a.k.a. taxonomies– are what WordPress uses to group similar content together. The category and tag taxonomies in WordPress give you a simple way to organize your content by topic.
By default categories and tags only apply to posts. You can install plugins that will allow you to assign them to pages.
Categories and tags can be used to filter content on the backend of your WordPress site. This makes it easier to find individual pieces of content. More importantly, categories and tags allow you to organize and filter content for visitors to your website.
The user-facing pages that they group content on are called archive pages.
For example here is the REI category archive page for the category “hike.”
REI has a blog that covers all sorts of outdoorsy subjects. By adding hiking related articles to their “hike” category, they make it easy for their users to find content about hiking. Both users and search engines love these pages. Just as there are category archive pages, there are also tag archive pages that accomplish the same goal.
Categories and tags are also incredibly handy in the e-commerce world. Let’s say a user shopping for women’s hiking boots might want to see all their options on one page. By adding each product page featuring women’s hiking boots to the “women’s hiking boots” category, REI makes it easy to see all the relevant products in one place.
And, they give Google a great women’s hiking boots resource to show in search results.
Why are Categories and Tags Important?
Category and tag archive pages can be great landing pages for people using search engines.
By grouping content topically, instead of chronologically, they create a better user experience for people who know what topic they want to explore. And, they make it easier for those users to dive deeper into the subject that interests them.
This keeps users on your site longer, provides them with more valuable information and makes them more likely to return to your site. Those factors also play into how your site ranks in search results.
Because these taxonomy systems are built right into WordPress, they make it a powerful CMS for SEO. Search engines love the structure and context that categories and tags give your content.
All those reasons make categories and tags an important tool that you need to know how to use if you are building or managing a WordPress site.
What is the Difference Between Categories and Tags?
There is one primary difference between categories and tags. Categories include a parent and child relationship. There is a hierarchy amongst categories and subcategories. Tags, on the other hand, have an equal relationship with one another.
Categories vs. Tags in WordPress
Let’s use this image below as an example. Pretend that each pen is a piece of content.
Categories organize your content by color. The category “green” is highlighted below and every green pen is a piece of content added to the “green” category. The “green” category archive page will feature each of those pieces of content.
Subcategories, or child categories, group content by the particular shade of a color. The solid box below indicates the “forest green” subcategory and the dashed box indicates its “green” parent category. Our “forest green” subcategory archive page will show the four pieces of content added to the “forest green” subcategory. All the content in the “forest green” subcategory still belongs to the “green” parent category. As a result, it will show up on the “green” category archive page, too.
You can use your tags to group content by topic irrelevant of what category or subcategory they are in. Let’s say each of the pieces of content highlighted below is tagged with “last of six” because they all share that quality. The tag archive page for “last of six” would feature each of those highlighted pieces of content, regardless of their category or subcategory.
WordPress describes the difference as:
- Categories allow for a broad grouping of post topics.
- Tags are used to describe your post in more detail.
One More Example
Another way to think of categories and tags is in the context of a book. Your categories are the main parts or sections that break up the book. Part 1, Part 2, Part 3. Then your subcategories would be the chapters in each of the parts or sections. They break that part or section into topics or subjects. Finally, you have your tags, which are all the terms in the index.
These elements of a book make it easy for you to find something you want to read about. Categories and tags do the same thing.
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How to Use Categories and Tags in WordPress - Best Practices
Keep Categories and Tags Simple
When naming your categories and tags, keep them to a few descriptive words. Longer phrases will create a poor user experience for those seeing them.
Limit the Number of Categories and Tags you Have
Try to stick between eight and ten categories on your site. Any more than that is going to complicate things and lead to potential issues like thin content. If you have a giant blog, you might exceed that.
Remember that your categories can be umbrella ideas that contain subcategories. Keep them broad and add subcategories as needed. Don’t go more than three tiers of categories deep. If you do, you’re asking your users, and the search engines, to do too much clicking.
Limit the number of tags you have as well. When deciding whether you should create a new tag, make sure its archive page will have at least several pages of relevant content. If not, you are going to end up with thin content.
Limit How Many Categories and Tags You Apply to Each Post
There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to how many categories and tags you should apply to each individual post.
As a general guideline, try not to exceed five categories or ten tags. If you have a long blog post covering many topics, you may need to use more. Shorter blog posts may use less as they cover fewer topics.
Keep it as simple as possible and only apply them to content that is topically relevant. This will create a better user experience on each archive page.
Avoid Duplicate Categories or Tags
Don’t create duplicate categories that pull in the same content. Hike and Hiking can be the same category or tag. You can use different anchor text when displaying links to the category archive page but stick to a single category or tag name for each topic.
Also, you don’t want to have a “hike” category and a “hike” tag. That will create two different archive pages that have duplicate content. They will also compete against one another in search results.
Display Category and Tag Archive Pages
You have the ability to keep your categories and tags behind the scenes or let your users see them. In most cases, we recommend you let your users see them. They typically improve their navigation experience.
Include links to your category and tag archive pages in breadcrumbs, menus, and sidebars. You can have multiple links with different anchor text that all point to the same archive page.
You can also include your categories or tags in what are known as tag clouds. Here’s an example of what one of those looks like:
Do You Need to Use Categories and Tags?
You are required to categorize your posts in WordPress. If you don’t, they automatically get categorized under “Uncategorized” which doesn’t do anyone any favors. On the flip side, you are not required to add tags.
Use categories and tags if they are going to benefit you or your users. An intentional approach to using them will make sure that they don’t end up doing more harm than good.
Optimizing Category and Tag Pages for SEO
Ask yourself, “How can I improve the user experience of our category and tag pages?”
Remember to think of these pages as landing pages. The default user experience for these pages in WordPress is generally decent in most themes. With that said, they usually have room for improvement.
The user experience can be improved by adding introductory text. The search engines and users like this content to help them understand where they are on the website. It also lets them know what to expect from the curated content below.
We recommend two to five sentences of introductory text for each archive page. The copy needs to be unique to each page and should include your keywords. When properly optimized, your archive pages have the ability to pack a punch in search results.
Title Tags and Meta Descriptions
Each category and tag archive page also needs a unique page title and meta description. This will allow Google to place it in search results and help users know what it is about when they see it appear in Google.
What are the Common SEO Pitfalls with Categories and Tags?
Categories and tags are often misused which can lead to downstream, unintended SEO implications. Try to avoid these pitfalls.
Unmanaged Categories and Tags
With many authors and no restrictions, categories and tags can get added at random. A haphazard approach creates several challenges:
- Thin and duplicate content emerges when the same category or tag is used twice with subtle differences. For example, singular and plural use of a word when there should be just one variation.
- Categories that should have a hierarchical relationship instead are flat which leads to a lack of the kind of site structure that Google loves to see.
- Categories that should be tags or tags that should be categories. Remember that categories and subcategories are broad ways of classifying content. Tags classifying content in detail.
Think about using a master spreadsheet to document all your approved categories, subcategories, and tags. You can then reference this as a baseline if people end up adding miscellaneous tags and categories that you need to get rid of.
Duplicate or Thin Content
This type of content emerges when a blog has too few posts to justify the number of categories and tags. As such, a tag or category archive page can have just one or two posts making the content nearly the same as the original post.
Lack of Purposeful SEO
It’s common for category and tag pages to be missing basic on-page SEO elements that we just discussed in the optimization portion above. Neglecting these elements will detract from the value category and tag pages add to your site.
Noindex Category and Tag Archive Pages
Yoast and other multifunction SEO plugins make it simple to add noindex meta directives to your category and tag archive pages. Sometimes you don’t want search engines crawling and indexing your category and tag archive pages. Especially those with thin or duplicate content.
So how do you know if you should or should not have noindex tags on your archive pages? Visit each individual category or archive page and ask yourself:
“Is what I’m looking at truly valuable to users?”
Here’s what you do depending on your answer.
If you Answer NO - Apply Noindex Tags
If your archive pages have thin or duplicate content, or they don’t offer a valuable user experience, you don’t want search engines crawling and indexing them.
Ask yourself why the category or tag exists in the first place. Maybe you should get rid it unless you are planning on fleshing it out with a bunch of great content in the near future.
If you aren’t planning on adding content, maybe you should. Your users would appreciate it.
And if you don’t have plans to get rid of certain categories and tags, or add more content to them, it’s time to add noindex meta directives to each archive page.
If none of your category or tag archive pages add value, go into Yoast or your SEO plugin and set the entire taxonomy type to noindex.
If you Answer YES - Don’t Add Noindex Tags
If your answer is yes, your category or tag archive pages likely have lots of great content, introductory text, and solid on-site optimization. Make sure you DO NOT apply noindex meta directives to these pages. This keeps them open for search engines to crawl, index and show searchers.
Even if they just have lots of great content and no introductory text or onsite optimization, it’s worth letting search engines crawl and index them.
Categories vs Tags: What’s better for SEO?
By definition, one is not inherently better for SEO by default. It is all about how you use categories and tags as tools as we've described above to organize your content in a user-friendly, meaningful way. If you accomplish that, then you are also doing well by the search engines.
Categories and tags can be a powerful SEO tool when you use them the right way. However, if you don’t approach them intentionally, they can get disorganized and throw a wrench in your SEO.
Map out how you want to structure them beforehand and make sure that your entire team is on the same page when it comes to how you are going to use them.
If you follow the recommended best practices and on-site optimization tips included above, they are bound to help you drive more traffic, sales, and leads.
Erik loves breaking down complex SEO topics into understandable instructions anyone can follow. In his role as an SEO coach, he guides Pathfinder SEO customers through the SEO process on a daily basis, giving them helpful tips, instruction, and advice along the way.