Tags & Categories: Balancing Usability with SEO

Shawna O'Neal, Web Engineer
Posted on Apr 20, 2017

In SEO, we all know that content is key. However, what's often overlooked is how we organize that content for both our site visitors and search indexing. By using tags and categories purposefully, we can achieve a balance in addressing both.

The Good.

Tags and Categories are a great way to organize content on your site. They offer the ability for visitors to drill down through relevant content, while also providing a way to structure content for better search indexing. With more clients opting to contribute insights, data and opinions within their industries, tags and categories are becoming more common across sites.

The Bad.

Unfortunately, as content tagging gains popularity it means we're seeing more examples of tags and categories that aim for pleasing search indexes rather than the folks visiting the site.

Below: An example of poor tagging, based on examples we've seen.

The Balance.

Here's four key rules to consider when using tags and categories:

1. Above all else, SEO is content driven.

Including tags and categories for content pieces can help integrate valuable keywords organically, while also providing reasons for a visitor to stay on a site and explore additional content -- both of which are positive contributors to search ranking. Because SEO is content driven, it's important to consider how tags and categories integrate with established keywords and the language already being used.

For example, if cybersecurity is a keyword for your site, don't ditch it in favor of security within your content tags or categories.

2. This piece 'is a [category] about [tag]'.

When utilizing both categories and tags, there's often some confusion about which one a filter should be. When paired with tags, a category typically describes what the content piece is - perhaps whether it's a video, whitepaper or datasheet.

Tags indicate the high-level topics of the piece, and can frequently feature campaigns and initiatives that site visitors would want to follow. In most cases, it's best practice to treat categories as a broader filter than tags, allowing tags to contribute to finer tuned filtering.

In the top example, NS1 uses a combination of categories and product tags to filter resources. Below, NS1 again uses this strategy to display content across different site sections.

3. Search is smart.

Frequently, we see people trying to tag content in ways to 'help' search. They may include alternative spellings, pluralization, or both the long-form and abbreviated versions of terminology. With the advances in search logic available today, this is completely unnecessary and dangerously close to keyword stuffing. Content should always be tagged with the most recognizable terminology, should never duplicate existing tags and shouldn't be overly specific.

Search is smart. Let Google, Bing and the rest of the search engines deal with finding accurate results, and focus on creating tags that help guide site visitors through relevant content.

4. Be Selective.

Despite the potential SEO benefits of using tags and/or categories, things go wrong when either are designed to appease search crawlers rather than the humans utilizing them.

A common encounter with bad content tagging is content 'dead-ends' where overly specific tagging only gathers one or two articles and effectively ends the site visitor's journey. In this case, selectivity in what becomes a tag and a focus on higher level concepts will allow for a more robust set of results and the ability for site visitors to navigate through content more freely.

Similarly, the amount of tags provided can become redundant or overwhelming to site visitors. The journey through content can be made easier by providing smaller sets of choices. We typically recommend no more than 3 or 4 tags per an article.

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