Estimated Read Time: 8 Minutes
I visited a little-known blog the other day. The author had an interesting take on a niche topic and I wanted to learn what else she had to say.
Like on most sites, blog posts were organized and presented chronologically, from newest to oldest. It was a cooking site that covered broad topics like desserts, meats and poultry, seafood, and salads. The post I was interested in was a recipe for a salad. I was hoping and expecting it to be able to easily find other “salad” recipes or posts.
Ordinarily, I would have expected the post I was looking at to be categorized under a blog taxonomy or grouping called “salads” or something similar. The post I was looking at was not visibly categorized or tagged in any way.
I looked at the top and side of the post hoping to find a list of categories and tags in one of those places. Nope. I was going to have to scroll through the blog, post by post, to discover anything else of interest to me.
I left. If the author didn’t respect my time enough to try to make it easy for me to find what I came looking for, I wasn’t going to hang around. There are, after all, lots of other cooking and recipe sites. It’s a shame though; I know Google uses dwell time – the amount of time a visitor spends on a page after clicking on a search result and before returning to the search results – as a barometer for user satisfaction. Content that signals user satisfaction tends to get rewarded with higher rankings.
What Are Blog Categories and Tags?
Blog categories and tags are a way of grouping related content so it is useful for your intended audience. They are labels you attach to your content to help people find what they came looking for, quickly and easily. Similar to the signs you see on roads and highways, they point you to where you need to go and speed navigation.
- Categories are mutually exclusive and broad subject-area groupings of interrelated items. They are like the signs pointing to different states, cities, and towns.
- Tags are more specific. While also unique, they might also cut across multiple categories. Think of them like the signs for I80, I90, and I95 on the highway. They cut across states, cities, and towns in the northeast.
Another good analogy is the categories and tags commonly seen on e-commerce websites. Amazon, for example, has book categories like Arts & Photography, Biographies & Memoirs, Children’s Books, and Mystery & Suspense. They have tags that cut across all those categories that allow you to find the same books by language, format, author, and special designations like Award Winners, Bargains, Best Sellers, and more.
Categories and tags keep visitors engaged and on your website longer. Longer visits signal user satisfaction to Google and can lead to higher rankings in search results.
How To Structure Blog Categories and Tags
Blogs are supposed to be social venues – topical, current, engaging, and helpful. Done well, blog content will mirror broad conversations occurring within your industry and give you an opportunity to build a reputation for being knowledgeable as well as earn the trust of your audience, sales and inquiries.
Successful companies structure their blog content into categories that reflect the broad topics of interest in their industry. They use tags to highlight and call out specifics that can span multiple categories.
- A food blog might have categories dealing with meal planning, recipes, tools, and food sources. Tags would speak to specific tools, methods, and ingredients.
- A news and opinion blog might want to separate their content into groupings about politics, sports, technology, entertainment, lifestyles, and fashion. They might have tags that highlight a particular person, place or thing.
- A baseball blog might talk about teams, players, owners, games, scores, and standings. It would use individual team, player, owner etcetera names and locations as tags.
- This blog uses service designations as categories. Specific tools, techniques, and tactics are called out as tags.
To help humanize a company and bolster its credibility and authority, many blogs also opt to include categories that offer behind-the-scenes peeks into their corporate culture, strategy, and value and belief systems. They might also try to demonstrate thought leadership in the form of industry opinions, insights, and events. The options are endless.
Here is an example of the Starbucks blog.
Starbucks chose to strike balance between offering useful how-to and recipe information with details about how it respects and supports its team, the environment, and fun facts and tours of their out-of-the-way or unusual stores and locations.
Category Best Practices
The first thing to remember when you are brainstorming about how to structure your content is that categories and tags are primarily for your readers. They are supposed to help website visitors find what they’re looking for quickly and easily. Think about what makes sense for your visitors, not you.
You also shouldn’t overwhelm readers with too much choice. Less is more. Just like restaurant owners like to categorize dishes on their menu by the day of the week, meal (breakfast, lunch, and dinner) or both, you should categorize your blog content around the broad subjects your audience cares most about and leave the details for tagging.
Blog categories and tags should be short (1-3 words), simple and easy-to-understand. They should be unique, few in number, and self-explanatory.
A good rule of thumb for small business owners is to try to group your posts into 7 ± 2 categories – the number of objects an average human being can hold in working memory. There is nothing wrong with using more or less than that number. Just remember not to overcomplicate it or you will confuse your audience. Keep it simple.
You can see (below) that Starbucks has chosen to use 8 unique and mutually exclusive categories with labels ranging from 1 to 3 words in length.
Tag Best Practices
Like with categories, there is no magic number of tags you should try to keep within, but generally, the smaller the number the better. It makes it much easier to ensure you’re not creating redundant or overlapping tags that would confuse and slow down your readers. It also helps prevent you from overwhelming them with too many choices.
You don’t have to use categories AND tags. A lot of blogs decide to use one or the other and not both. It’s entirely up to you. Do what’s best for you and your audience. If you’re not sure, start with categories only and expand into tags later on, when the need becomes apparent.
Take your time when picking categories and tags. It’s a lot of work to reorganize them if you decide to switch direction later on. Err on the side of using too few rather than too many. It will help streamline maintenance and clean-up efforts down the road.
Woothemes, a popular and well-respected theme development company has also published guidelines for best practices using tags in WordPress (November 2013). I recommend it.
Where To Find Inspiration
One of the best places to get ideas about which categories and tags to use for your blog, is by reviewing news sites and popular blogs in your industry. It is relatively easy to find popular news sites and blogs in your industry just by searching for “top”, “popular” or “best” and “industry news” or “industry blogs” replacing the word “industry” with a commonly used word or phrase from your own industry.
Not everyone uses categories and tags. Not everyone uses them effectively. It’s common to see too many, fuzzy, overlapping, and confusing tags. Survey blogs in your industry. Learn from their mistakes. Make your blog better.
A Word About Style
Blog categories and tags are case-sensitive. That means if you create a tag with the unique identifier “best sellers” and then another one labeled “Best Sellers” (with a capital “B” and “S”), they will be considered separate and distinct, two non-identical tags. Same goes for plurals and misspellings.
Again, it is easy to see how this might confuse visitors. If you use “best sellers” on some posts and “Best Sellers” on others, all of the related posts won’t be linked together. Visitors will have to view two separate and distinct tag pages to see all subject-related content. Some visitors won’t notice the discrepancy and you’ll have missed the chance to expose them to more of your content. Others will notice and choose to leave rather than take the time to sort through your mislabelled content.
Pick a single style for your tags and use it consistently. I recommend using plurals and title case (where you capitalize the first letter of each word).
Lastly, please do not display the default “uncategorized” tag that shows up on many WordPress sites. It shows a lack of care and thoughtfulness which you do not want shared with your audience. If you are going to use categories and tags, use them!
Understand that your blog is going to evolve over time. People rarely know everything they want to post about when they’re first starting out. Nor can you possibly anticipate all the feedback and reactions you might receive from your posts. The goal should always be to provide the information your audience wants and needs, and to present it in a way that maximizes its relevance and usability. Make it easy for readers to find what they’re looking for and you’ll go a long way toward making your site “sticky” so it earns lengthy and repeat visits as well as the potential for high rankings.