What are Blog Tags, Categories and Subcategories?
By Tyler Peekenschneider on June 14, 2017 in Digital Marketing
The year is 2017, and depending where you look and read, the SEO community is still giving out conflicting information about blog tags for content creators. Despite appearing to be a little, innocuous detail you add as a last step to publishing your post, they are the center of much debate in misuse. Do they have SEO value or not? Do I have the robots.txt allow them to be indexed? How many tags should I have in total? The answer is, it depends. But rather than framing an answer in absolute, this post will try and explain what tags are, how they can be helpful for a blog, and how they are often misused.
Tags, Categories and Subcategories Explained
- Categories: These are your set of core content types and what the bulk of your content is likely about. They are used to organize your content based on the broad primary topics and themes of your site. These should be kept to a minimum with only the recurring themes being made categories. As an example, the Spinutech website has six categories: Company News, Design, Digital Marketing, Training, Development, and New Websites.
Examples of Spinutech's blog categories displayed at the top of the blog hub page (top image) and in each blog post sidebar (bottom image):
- Subcategories: As the name suggests, these are categories within a specific category. They are too specific to be counted as a main content type, but there will be enough content about them to warrant a section within the category. As an example, under the Spinutech blog category of “Digital Marketing” we could consider several subcategories like SEO, Paid Media and Social Media. These are by no means a necessity for a blog, and you will notice that Spinutech does not have any designated subcategories as tags are able to accomplish the same thing. It all depends on how your blog is initially structured and making sure you are consistent with your chosen structure.
- Tags: These are as granular as it gets for describing a specific blog post. They are a way to describe content that can be found within multiple categories of the blog and help establish connections to other posts. Following our above example, if we are looking at a Spinutech blog post under the Digital Marketing category about SEO, we would find a few tags that could apply to other posts in different categories like “SEO,” “google,” “analytics” and “mobile.” Notice how “google” and “analytics” are separate tags despite the fact that they could be a single tag of “google analytics.” This is because we want to keep tags as very broad subjects that can be combined with other tags to create complex ideas and descriptions. Another example is with the image below where the post has a "bing" and "ppc" tag that when combined like this make the greater topic of "bing pay per click."
This is because we want to keep tags as very broad subjects that can be combined with other tags to create complex ideas and descriptions
Examples of Spinutech's blog tags that appear on a single post (top image) and the total available tag pool for Spinutech's blog (bottom image):
Limit the pool of available tags you can choose from. Create more complex topics by combining your existing broad topic tags.
Simply put, these are all parts of the same puzzle that organize your blog content. Tags are a way for users to easily navigate the content on your blog and for Google to understand the relationship between each post and how the content is connected and relevant to the site as a whole.
A common theme among the three organizing features listed above is that each one should be kept to minimum. When thinking about what categories you want your blog to feature, consider possible topics you might cover and try to group them into a few main subjects. Beyond a few topics, your navigation gets convoluted, users find it difficult to find a particular subject, and Google struggles to crawl and index the site. Likewise, when choosing tags you will consistently use for the blog, choose as few of them as you can while still representing all of the content you will create.
Benefits and Best Practices of Using Tags
Now that we have described what a tag is and distinguished it from categories, let’s take a look at the benefits and value they bring to blog structure.
Grouping Like Content
Take the time to properly set up a tag pool in order to use them as a way to group content together. This creates a consistent structure from post to post as the pool of tags you choose from will overlap quite a bit, even when the content is about separate things.
The key goal is to make it so users and search engines can better see the relationship of a single piece of content relative to other content on the site.
Going back to our Spinutech SEO post example, let’s say we have a post about local SEO strategy in 2017 that uses the tags of “SEO,” “Analytics” and “Google.” Well, we also have a PPC post about setting up an Adwords account that uses the tags “PPC,” “Analytics,” and “Google.” Notice how two of the tags are the same for each post despite being pretty different subjects. What this does is it helps search engines, like Google, understand the relationship of the content on different pages and posts. The search engine can see how each post relates to the subject of “analytics” and establish the relationship between the posts, even though they are about different subjects.
The more connections between topics, the better Google can gauge the relevance of your site to a particular subject. This is not something that will boost your rankings overnight. However, continuing this practice in the long term can have a positive effect on the site.
Good User Experience
Continuing from the above point of being able to group like-content, grouping content also helps with the overall user experience. Keeping tags to a minimum helps users more easily find common subjects and related articles to a particular tag.
Getting Tag Pages Indexed
One of the most common questions related to tags is “should I NoIndex my tag pages.” Which is to tell search engines like Google "do not index this page and archive it in your ranking database." As mentioned earlier, for every tag that is created, a corresponding page is created on the site that is a feed for all content with that tag.
Examples of pages created for each tag for Spinutech's blog:
So the answer to that question?... It depends.
That may seem like an underwhelming answer, but there are no hard and fast rules for how to apply categories and tags. There are best practices, like we have discussed, but not for which route to go as long as you are consistent from the start. So in some general scenarios, keep these in mind:
- If you have a blog that has a very diverse portfolio of pretty unrelated subjects, think of big sites like “BuzzFeed,” and heavily used categories and subcategories, you might consider NoIndexing your tags. Your category and subcategory pages already act as “hub” pages that can be indexed and rank well in search results for keywords related to those topics. Having tags also indexed for such a wide range of content topics will not yield much benefit.
- If you are a business in a particular industry or run a blog on a specific topic, you might want to have your tag pages be indexable and have them act as the “hub” pages for each tag topic. The content of these blogs will likely crossover much more and the overall relevance of a post will be more related to all others. There are likely fewer tags in this scenario which means search engines will have an easier time indexing and understanding all the connections tags bring to each post.
To sum up, tags can be a powerful tool when indexed. They can act as a landing page to drive traffic in search results for searches related to the tag’s topic. Keep in mind that this can also be accomplished with subcategories. There is no right or wrong way to go about it, but remaining consistent is vital to organizational efforts.
Now that we have a better understanding of what tags are and their benefits to a blog, we can take a look at some common misuses that hinder content efforts on a blog.
Using Tags for Keyword Rankings
Say it with me: "TAGS ARE NOT MEANT TO BE USED FOR KEYWORD RANKINGS!" This is the number one mistake you will see time and again. It's akin to the days where SEO was all about stuffing a page with as many keywords related to a topic as possible. Those days are long gone, but the general idea seems to live on in marketers’ heads. It no longer works for page optimization and it certainly doesn’t work for getting a blog post to rank.
Do NOT use tags for the purpose of ranking for keywords. This does not work.
Too Many Tags
Having too many tags is detrimental in a couple different ways for both user experience and how search engines crawl and index the site.
- Users: Limiting the number of tags any given post can have will help users identify topics they would like to read more about. If there are too many then a user can be overwhelmed by how many tags there are and end up endlessly clicking through tags. This is a user experience problem, as you want to guide the user as much as possible with their decisions on where to click next.
- Search Engines: Limiting the number of tags helps with things like crawl efficiency and avoiding page bloat. With too many tags, search engines will take longer to crawl the site and will have trouble indexing important pages and posts. Also keep in mind that for every tag there is a page added to the site for that tag, with too many tags you will have an excess of pages that have little to no value.
Too Specific Tags
As mentioned many times throughout the post, good content organization requires a minimal and consistent tag pool to choose from. If you have very specific tags like “Google Analytics for SEO,” then you are siloing this content topic by itself. This makes it hard for both users and search engines to find related content. Search engines will have difficulty understanding the relationships between content that would have been naturally created with more general tags of "google, "analytics," and "seo."
Tags Not Relevant to the Site
Just because you mention something in your post does not mean it needs its own tag. With too many tags you run the risk of having tags that are not related to your business. Big content aggregator sites can get away with it, but if you are running a blog for a business, it’s essential that your tags reflect relevance to your industry. It is fine to write some content that isn’t typically part of your industry and you create a one time post about it. But please do not apply a tag just because it is mentioned. If you a car dealership and write a post that mentions the World Cup, you do not need a tag for “world cup.”
The key takeaway from all of this is to simply: be consistent with your approach. When outlining a content plan for a blog, make sure to take time and consider how it will all be organized. Starting with categories and working your way down to tags, think about the structure and how both users and search engines might navigate around the blog.
It is also never too late to revamp your structure. If you have gotten to a point where you have too many tags or your categories no longer encompass all of your content, you can revisit this stage of planning and map out where you can make changes to your existing content structure.
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