If you’re a WordPress user, or using many other CMS (content management systems), you’re offered space to enter categories and tags to your post. Maybe you don’t use them — which is a missed opportunity. Maybe you use them wrong — which can hurt your SEO. Do you believe categories and tags kill SEO?
Now, at a WordPress meetup group this week, I heard the absurd statement that SEO involves writing for machines. That may have been true a long time ago — say before 2009 — but it certainly isn’t true today. Today, you have to balance writing for both machines and humans and the algorithm Google uses to rank your pages (SERPs) involves many factors to assess a page’s ability to serve both these masters. Factors such as social media engagement (shares, comments, and likes), as well as time on site and bounce rate show how humans respond to your content, while factors like keyword density and links point to factors important for assessing quality for both humans and machines (after all, a high keyword density shows articles more relevant to the search while at the same time scoring higher with machines and links show how carefully researched the post is). Few algorithm factor measure pure machine SEO.
Given the role of categories and tags in appealing to humans, I determined to tackle the thorny problem of whether categories and tags kill SEO by doing some research — which I’ll share with you.
What are categories and tags, commonly referred to as taxonomies (can you further confuse a beginner by having a few more names for the same thing)?
According to WordTracker,
… if categories are your table of contents, tags are your index. Conscientious categorization and tagging of your posts will not only make it easier for visitors to find what they want, but it will also boost your onsite SEO. While Google may not rank category and tag pages high in the Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs) (although it certainly does happen), it will be able to get a much better grasp on the keywords that are most relevant to your site by examining them.
Now, over the years, I’ve heard every version of why you shouldn’t use taxonomies or at least “no-index” them (making them somewhat invisible to Google and other search engines), so I set out to investigate what leading experts said.
Here’s the biggest myth out there to explain how categories and tags kill SEO:
It used to be common for websites to “trick” the Google bots into thinking they had a lot of content by simply duplicating content across the site because that’s a lot cheaper and less troublesome than creating fresh content. But, Google got wise to this long ago — probably around 2009 — and increasingly penalizes sites that do this.
To avoid penalties, legitimate webmasters began to fear any duplication on their sites. Hence, the myth that categories and tags kill SEO. According to Matt Cutts, the reigning expert on duplicate content, taxonomies shouldn’t result in penalties for duplicate content. Period. [As a tangent, (and what kind of professor would I be if I didn’t divert on the occasional tangent) don’t obsess over folks who steal your content. Sure, it’s annoying, but Google is smart enough to figure which is the original and which is the copy and only penalizes the copy, again according the Matt Cutts.]
Now, if you just operate with supreme caution or want to avoid problems should Google change its mind in a future (animal-named update — Panda, Penguin, Hummingbird ….) simply use a plugin like WordPress SEO by Yoast to display archives of categories and tags as excerpts rather than complete text. Of course, excepting is a good practice anyway to improve the user experience. That way, searchers interested in your take on, say, “content marketing” don’t have to search through pages of text to find what they want. They simply search titles and excerpts.
By way of example, take a look at my archive page for a new category — Analytics in Action (which publishes every Friday — or at least that’s the goal).
Now, what experts DO recommend is reducing the notion of duplicate content by using only 1 or 2 categories and a few tags — although using excerpts reduces the impact of even this chance of duplicate content.
In fact, done right, categories and tags don’t kill SEO — they help. Here’s a really good post highlighting a good strategy for categories and tags.
Experts disagree about whether you should set up taxonomies as “no-follow” which removes any danger of duplicate content by making the pages invisible to Google. Some, like the ManageWP Blog argue for “no-follow” for taxonomies, Others, like Avalanche Media, recommend leaving them as “follow”. To confuse the matter even more, Tom Ewer says one thing on the ManageWP Blog (cited above) and something different in his own blog.
Again, this is a duplicate content argument, which we primarily debunked earlier. So, there’s little reason for the “no-follow” because you’re not creating duplicate content. There is a reason for using a “follow” — your category or tags might show up in a search, thus bringing more traffic to your site AND visitors might search the category or tags to find other posts if they find a particular post valuable.
What to tag
Tags are like the index in a non-fiction book — they provide a more nuanced understanding of the topics covered in the book and provide a reference for readers interested in a particular topic.
When I first started, I read a lot about categories and tagging. Here are some of the things I’ve heard are good tags:
- your post keyword (now keyword phrase)
- any person or company name — the argument is this makes it easier for them to find and encourages them to share
- major topics in a particular post
- any word or phrase your target audience might look for
By the same token, there are tags to avoid:
- synonyms — Google now understands these so using synonyms does create a duplicate content problem
- words that are better framed as categories — it you’re using the same tag often, consider making it a category or sub-category.
I was trying to think of some final words, but I think this from WPBeginner says it best:
Your site is about your users not search engine bots. The goal of every search engine is to think the way users think when valuing your content. If you make your decisions based on usability, you will almost always find yourself reaping the SEO benefits.