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How To Pick Blog Categories and Tags That Grow Traffic and Rankings

Blog content is typically organized by publication date, categories and tags. The meaning of publication date is self-evident. Categories and tags, not so much. The way they’re used seems to be pretty haphazard as well, sometimes resulting in visitor frustration and delays.

This post defines blog categories and tags. It recommends best practices for their implementation and use and draws a link between blog categories and tags and search engine optimization (SEO). Understanding that link will help you keep visitors happy and grow your website traffic and rankings.

Blog Categories and Tags, Garlic and Copper

John Haydon at Social Bright draws an analogy between categories and tags and grocery store aisles and ingredients.

Image of fruits and vegetables in a grocery store. Makes the case for an analogy about how to pick blog categories and tags.Categories are like the aisles or sections in a grocery store. Tags are like the ingredients contained in foods within those aisles. There is only one ethnic food section in the store for example, but garlic (an ingredient) can be found there, in the fruit and vegetable aisle, in the spice aisle, and in the frozen dinners section.

The same parallel can be drawn with a home improvement or hardware store. Categories are like the aisles in a home improvement store. Tags are like the ingredients contained in products within those aisles. There is only one plumbing section in the store for example, but copper (an ingredient) can be found there, in the doors and windows section, the electrical aisle, and the lighting and ceiling fan department as well.

Blog categories are a convenient way of grouping posts that all deal with similar and broad subject areas like meats, fruits and vegetables, driveway maintenance, and building materials.

Tags are more specific. They reference narrow topics that might cut across multiple broad subject areas. Think of them as being like an index for your blog or an ingredient list for your menu or building project.  

How To Pick Blog Categories

The first thing to remember is categories are primarily for your readers. They’re supposed to help website visitors find what they’re looking for quickly and easily. When you’re thinking about how to pick blog categories and tags, think about what makes sense for your visitors, not you.

You also shouldn’t overwhelm readers with too much choiceLess 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.

Blog categories should be simple and easy-to-understand. They should be few in number and mutually exclusive.

A good rule of thumb is to try to group your posts into 7 ± 2 categories – the number of objects an average human being can hold in working memory.

Blog Category Examples

Here are examples of how some very successful blogs have grouped and categorized their content:

  • Social Media Today is a popular content marketing blog that creates and curates conversations around marketing, technology and social networking. They group content into four main categories (seen at the top of the page): social networks, marketing, technology and media, and social business. I commend them for being so disciplined in their approach to categorizing their vast content.social media today blog categories
  • Sprout Social, a social media blog for business, uses seven: advertising, analytics, community management, customer care, mobile, product updates, and sprout engineering.
  • Business2Community creates “an open community where business professionals can establish their thought leadership, increase exposure for their business/organization, and network with others”. They use seven categories as their main menu choices at the top of the site.
    snapshot of the business2community main menu showing categories
  • Hubspot, an inbound marketing company and sales platform, uses nested categories. There are only four at the highest level: marketing, sales, insiders, and opinion.snap of hubspot blog categories
  • B-SeenOnTop (the author of this post’s blog) groups content into five categories including content marketing, organic SEO, local SEO, search engines and social media.

In all these examples, blog creators resisted the temptation to create a long list of topics. Instead, they thought about their audience’s information wants and needs in advance, and grouped content according to those broad subject areas. You should do the same.

How To Pick Blog Tags

Tags, like categories, should make it easy for people to find what they’re looking for. They should be short (one to three words), unique and self-explanatory.

There is no magic number of tags you should try to keep within, but the smaller the number you can keep it down to 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.

Blog Tag Examples

Picture of tagged dear tries to get across the idea that you should pick tags carefully, that they're hard to change after they've been in use for a while.

Image complements of commons.wikimedia.org

I use a couple of dozen different tags on my posts. They are words that represent a mix of topics including goals (authority building, link bait and stickiness), tasks (video optimization and blog promotion), tools, templates and deliverables (keyword research and SEO audit). They are all short, unique and self-explanatory.

One of the best places to get ideas about which tags to use for your blog, is by reviewing popular blogs in your industry.

You can find popular blogs in your industry by searching for “top”, “popular” or “best” and “industry blogs” replacing the word “industry” with a commonly used word or phrase from your own industry. You can also look at buzzsumo, a tool that identifies and filters top content by date and type. Just search for some of the more popular keywords used in your industry and filter by articles. Then visit the blogs that get the most shares.

buzzsumo example of how to find popular blogs

Not everyone uses categories and tags. Not every one uses them effectively. It’s common to see people using too few, too many, or fuzzy, overlapping tags.

Survey popular blogs. Learn from their mistakes. Make your blog better.

Take your time when picking categories and tags. It’s a lot of work to reorganize them if you decide to take a different approach later. Err on the side of using too few rather than too many. It’ll help streamline any clean-up efforts down the road.

Woothemes, a popular and well-respected theme development company published best practices for using tags in WordPress in November 2013. I recommend it.

A Word About Style

Categories and tags are Titles and tags are case sensitive. Snapshot shows different case options with the title one selected. case-sensitive. That means if you create a tag with the unique identifier “garlic” and then another one labeled “Garlic” (with a capital “G”), they’ll be considered separate and distinct, two non-identical tags. Same goes for plurals and misspellings.

Again, it’s easy to see how this might confuse visitors. If you use “garlic” on some posts and “Garlic” on others, all of the related posts won’t be linked together. Visitors will have to conduct two searches and view two sets of tag posts to see all related content. There’s also a good chance that your visitors won’t notice the discrepancy and you’ll have missed the chance to expose them to more of your content or they’ll leave frustrated, not having found what they specifically came looking for.

Pick a single style for your tags and use it consistently. I recommend using plurals and title case (shown above right) where you capitalize the first letter of each word.

The SEO Connection

By now, you might be wondering “what does any of this have to do with SEO”. It’s a good question.

To rank highly in search results, your content has to be deemed relevant and popular by search engines. Popularity is measured, in part, by links, repeat visitors and the number of pages and amount of time they spend on your site.

Using categories and tags increases site stickiness – the number of pages and amount of time visitors spend on your site. It does so by making it easy for visitors to find what they’re looking for. If they land on a post that talks about the health benefits of garlic, for example, and see that you have a category or tag that groups a bunch of articles on the same topic, they might just want to stick around a bit longer and peruse those as well.

Satisfied visitors are going to be far more likely to bookmark, link to or share your content. Bookmarks increase the potential of repeat visitors. Links are like votes for your site popularity, and sharing gets you more exposure.

Plan Ahead

Blog content is typically organized by publication date, categories, and tags. When you’re thinking about how to pick categories and tags for your blog, think strategically and plan ahead to achieve the best possible outcome – repeat, long staying visitors that bookmark, link to, and share you content so you can earn high rankings, visibility and exposure for your blog and business.

Understand that your blog will evolve. 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 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 achieving that goal.

If you have any additional tips or suggestions, please share in the comments below. Comments, as well as questions, are always welcome.

Author: Donna Duncan (33 Posts)

I help small to mid-sized businesses & web design firms leverage SEO and content marketing to achieve their Internet goals. I offer self-service coaching, advice, and services.


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