or why most blogs are a hot mess
By the early 2000s a series of free hosted blogging platforms brought blogging mainstream.
People start chronicling experiences, thoughts, learning, etc., online.
Blog platforms had (have) to provide default content organization so automatically logging posts reverse chronologically in a traditional date-based archive structure was (is) the go-to.
The net effect? Needles in haystacks
If you blogged daily for 3 years you’d have over 1,000 posts.
The default organization is posts being archived by date. This leaves more posts siloed with each passing day in your growing library of content.
Your best all-time posts needled in the haystack of whatever year-month they were written. And you’ve probably had the experience of trying to find an idea that was in a post using the site’s search or Google.
Enter taxonomies like categories and tags
Of course, other taxonomies besides chronological exist. Let’s discuss the most common ones: “categories” and “tags”
In a best case scenario, even with detailed content plans, the odds are slim that you would know what that year of content looked like upfront or even halfway through.
More realistically, people just sort of wing it. Some use categories, some tags, some both, or depending on preference, mood, etc., neither.
It gets messy. Overlap between pseudo-synonymous categories gets created, some used inconsistently. Then there are dozens of random tags, most of which only get used once or twice, added as little afterthoughts on posts.
With each new post, the mess gets bigger and hairier to untangle.
Not only that, if you use a CMS that generates archive pages and paginates them (like most blog platforms do) then you could have some real thin and duplicate content type issues.
You know organization matters for you, your users, and top of funnel traffic from search engines. And you know most blogs don’t get it right. So let’s quickly review the basics for our two common taxonomies:
Are tags and categories different?
WordPress (org) on categories and tags
‘category’ taxonomy lets you group posts together by sorting them into various categories …[they] tend to be pre-defined and broad ranging.
‘tag’ taxonomy is similar to categories, but more free form. Tags can be made up on the fly, by simply typing them in… Posts tend to have numerous tags, and they are generally displayed near posts or in the form of tag clouds._
WordPress encourages tags for on the fly groupings and categories for planning.
Categories are hierarchical and tags are not
Another key point – categories can have subcategories and subcategories can have subcategories while tags (and labels) stand alone without hierarchical relationships.
Some good analogies I’ve gathered for better understanding
Chapters vs Index
Categories are like chapters; they provide a general overview of the topics you blog about. Whereas tags are more like the index at the back of the book… (Edublogs, 2009/2013)
Authors vs Contemporaries If I reference an author frequently in my writing, I could tag them. If I write biographical information on a handful of different contemporaries, like the transcendentalists, then it’d make more sense to categorize their content by name. (Anonymous Genius)
Types of Recipes vs Ingredients You could categorize types of recipes by season, eg. “holiday recipes”, “summer recipes,” and then you could use tags for ingredients allowing users to quickly find other recipes that use “cilantro,” “lime,” “jalapeño,” eg. my favorite combos.
Product Categories vs Variants Yes, product categories are categories. But variants can be colors, sizes, or material – what’s worth noting here is that these variants can’t be hierarchical, whereas you almost expect subcategories with product categories. (Anonymous Genius)
Where everyone stops agreeing
The above is pretty widely agreed upon. That said, as soon as you get into “SEO,” information architecture, and content strategy tips, it gets in the weeds, fast.
It. is. bad.
Some common misconceptions:
- only use one category per post
- only have x to y categories (I saw 3 to 5 a lot)
- use tags or categories, but not both
- don’t use tags, Google ignores tags
- “noindex” your tag and category archive pages
Yoast, makers of our go-to SEO edits plugin, even quote WordPress.com’s definition of categories and tags (Yoast makes WordPress.org plugins).
Slightly better but still bad:
you should only create a category when you expect to have several posts within that category. I’m talking like 10-20 articles at the bare minimum. […] try to keep one article in one category, with a max of two categories. Yes, you can tag everything that matters, and that’s okay, but focus on the core point of your article, and that’s it. DIY Themes
I do not recommend using more than 5-7 categories… Regarding tags, I think you should use as many as is necessary to keep your information organized without getting messy. (Amy Lynn Andrews)
it’s perhaps not the best idea to assign more than 2-3 categories to one post… categories are meant to indicate the genre of the post… Tags… go much more in depth and indicate the individual things that the post talks about. Therefore, you can – or are even expected to – use multiple tags with a single blog post. (Theme Isle)
The truth about tags and categories
Unfortunately, there is no right or wrong answer, good rule of thumb that applies to all, or magic bullet here.
Every 500 posts or so, you should review how you organize your content.
The best solution for you will account for time, budget, and situation
If you have no time, no budget, and heavily use taxonomies, yeah, you could probably “noindex” those archives to at least protect your site from being overrun with the thin and duplicate content issues that archives dynamically generate.
If you have no time, but a budget to get the most out of your categories or tags, hire someone.
If you have time, but no budget, and want to get the most out of your categories or tags, start with Google Analytics.
This segment will give you starter conditions for filtering your data in a way you can make sense of it. If you import it, you can change the source of traffic and the “URL contains” strings so they match the URL structure of your taxonomies. If your taxonomy is “section” then just replace /category/ with /section/ and save the segment.
Right away you will see if you have any Google traffic coming directly to your category or tag pages.
If you’re like most, you probably get 0% to 2% of traffic from search to all your archive pages combined.
I’m currently working on reverse engineering successful content reorganization strategies and found some sites that leverage taxonomies so well, most of their search traffic comes through them.
So stay tuned!