How to use WordPress Categories and Tags for better SEO

A straightforward approach to making your website more manageable, improving user experience and boosting your SEO.

Does your business use Categories and Tags on its website? If so, how do you use them? Why do you use them even? Here’s how to stop your Categories and Tags from sinking your site’s performance in search.

Comparing Categories to Tags

Categories and Tags are both types of Taxonomy. Without going too deep and geeky, because I’m trying to focus on practical take-aways here, let’s go with a simple definition: taxonomies are ways of classifying things or grouping them together.

I like to think of Categories as big bags of content (broader topics, if you want) and Tags as being more focused and defined (narrower topics). Sites that use both Tags and Categories, therefore, would have more Tags than Categories.

categories and tags
Categories and tags in WordPress

WordPress has the facility for Categories and Tags set up from the get-go. Your WordPress site may have additional taxonomies set up, too. These can be useful, but I’ve seen many sites where nobody knows what they’re for, and they never get used.

If that’s the case, make sure that you understand why your website was set up with those unnecessary and unused taxonomies. Then, perhaps your developer can remove them along with the supporting plugins. The result will be an easier and less confusing to use website and possibly better SEO, too.

Compulsory or Optional

In WordPress, every post and page has a category. That’s the way of the thing. It may be called Uncategorized, but it’s still a category. You can add additional categories whenever you like during the site’s life.

However, I recommend you make a list of no more than five or six categories when you launch the site, or start using categories on a site that doesn’t yet have them. Later, as your website grows, try to restrict the total number of categories to around seven, certainly no more than ten.

WordPress allows you to assign a post to more than one category, but it won’t help with your SEO. My recommendation is that you always stick to one category per post unless you can make a solid case that having more than one category will help your readers.

In contrast to categories, tags are optional. You can forget them, or add as many as you like. Although, I’d like to convince you to restrain your tag usage unless you have a large site with a lot of content.

Categories, Tags and URL structures

Flat, categorised or siloed? A flat structure ( dumps all your content into one great receptacle with no imposed order. It doesn’t take any expert analysis to see how it’s less desirable than a categorised structure.

Yet, I have more than one website with a flat structure, and they perform perfectly well on search. Still, they are comparatively small, so they’re easy to understand.

While it has little or no direct effect on your SEO, it’s a good idea to have your URL structure (permalinks in WordPress) set up like this: Permalinks like this can help improve user experience as it’s easier to understand your website and its content. From Google’s point of view, setting up a siloed structure helps it understand your site’s content.

permalink settings 1
WordPress permalink settings

But while it’s a good idea to include /category/ in your URL structure, if your site already has a flat structure, I’d recommend you leave it that way. My philosophy in SEO (and life) is ‘If it’s working, leave well alone’.

Messing with websites (as opposed to making planned and understood steps) can lead to weeks, if not longer, of pain. If you need to make the changes and understand the steps you must take, then I won’t stop you from going ahead.

The problem with Tags

Many people think that by adding more and more tags in WordPress, they will be improving their SEO. The idea is that more tags mean more key phrases targeted. But, in practice, for most sites, more tags mean more muddle.

More tags generate more tag archive pages, which can create pages of duplicate content. Search engine spiders then have to be blocked from reading archive pages—no spidering, then no indexing and no SEO advantage.

From a user point of view, tags can help, of course, when they support content discovery. But as you use more and more tags, you run the risk of confusing your readers with tens or even hundreds of tags sitting in the margins of a blog page. Tags only make sense when people can use them, of course.

tag cloud
Too many tags cause confusion

What’s more, clicking on any number of different tags may surface the same content. While you could argue that it makes the content more available, it will also cause mounting irritation. Where’s the use in that?

Too many tags often dilute your content. A tag associated with just one or two pages has very little use for the search engines or for your customers. And, once you accumulate many, many tags, they’re hard to manage—I’ve seen singulars and plurals on sites. Which do you choose when you publish a post, chair or chairs?

I urge you not to use Tags unless you clearly understand why you’re using them, their purpose in your SEO and user experience. Keep your site’s taxonomy straightforward unless you have a huge site requiring extensive organisation.

Using categories for SEO

I have six categories on this website—Content, SEO, Google, Digital Marketing, Small Business, and Opinion. Opinion is a later addition to my original five, and I still have room for growth without overloading my readers. And, of course, I have no tags.

The first six categories reflect my service offerings and some of my target clients. Opinion is the one category that is only of use for the blog and has only one post so far. It may have been a mistake, but I can put it right later if necessary.

Do your categories reflect areas or themes that your readers or customers will find helpful? Do they help you plan and create valuable content? If your categories aren’t helpful, you may consider making some changes. Perhaps adding one or more (not too many) may help better understand your content and reflect your product and service offerings.

In summary

The lesson is that you should simplify your taxonomies. Having too many Categories and Tags can harm your site’s SEO and user experience. And your team’s user experience when they use your WordPress back end.

Bear these points in mind:

  • Taxonomies such as Categories and Tags aren’t SEO ‘ranking factors’
  • Categories and Tags can help search engines understand your site
  • Categories and Tags can help your customers understand your site and find helpful content more easily
  • Do not dilute your content by using too many Categories and Tags. No more than ten categories; tags only if you absolutely need them
  • Check that your Categories are congruent with your customers’ needs and your products and services
  • Block your Category and Tag archive pages from being spidered to avoid duplicate content problems

Got your taxonomies in a twist?

If you need help structuring your content for the best SEO, maybe we should talk?

Drop me an email [email protected] or set a time to talk. No obligation.

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

David Rosam, photographed by the River Arun in Littlehampton.

David Rosam has been working online for more than 25 years, after a career in direct marketing copywriting for the tech and financial services industries.

Today, he specialises in Content-Leveraged Search Engine Optimisation—from audits, through research and strategy to implementation.

He was probably the UK’s first SEO Copywriter.

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