Categories, labels and tags on websites or blogs: best practices
updated: July 2020
While reviewing blogs and checking them for inclusion in the Indian blog directory, we find that majority of bloggers do not effectively use the facility of labeling (tagging) or categorizing blog posts. Some bloggers use labels indiscriminately, which hurts the blog/ website rather than helping the blogger or visitors.
Before we move further, let me clarify the terminology:
Definition of category and tags or labels, and their differences
- Categories: Broad subject groups under which you can put your blog's content. E.g. on a blog on cooking, you can have categories like continental cuisine, fast food, Chinese food, Indian food.
- Tags / labels: Narrow subject groups. E.g. on a cooking blog, a post on fast food can have have tags such as: unhealthy food types, hot foods, spicy foods, New York street food, etc.
- Another difference between the two is: Categories can have sub-categories. Tags do not have sub-categories.
As stated above, categories and tags both are used for grouping posts according to some common subject/ feature. They both therefore serve the same purpose (that is, grouping of posts) in slightly different ways.
Different blogging platforms have their own ways of doing this job. Wordpress has the facility to put posts in different categories and apply tags on posts. Livejournal has tags only. On Blogger platform, we have labels on posts. Community blogs often use tags to place individual blogs in different categories. Blog aggregators and blog directories use categories that are often assigned manually at the level of blog submitter or administrator.
Among the most popular blogging platforms, on Wordpress you can apply categories and tags to a post. At least one category is mandatory (if you don't apply a category, Wordpress puts the post under 'Uncategorised' category). On Blogger, you put labels (just another name for tags); there is no concept of category here. The option to put category and tag/ label is available on the post editor on major blogging platforms.
Importance of tagging or applying categories on blog posts
Almost all subjects on which blogs are written can have a number of variations. On blogs, putting all posts on just one narrow topic would be very difficult. Now, when you have posts on a number of topics, the reader will see only the most recent posts. Suppose on a food blog on all types of recipes from all over the world, you want to see posts only on English recipes, what do you do? Perhaps ask Google to search that blog: a very inefficient way to do that. Another way would be to have sections: each having posts of one type. That would mean that if a post has elements of two types, it will appear only in one.
Putting labels or tags (or categories) on posts makes the job of grouping similar posts very easy for the blogger as well as the visitor. Moreover, the same post can be visible under different heads if it has content that fits different categories.
Categories and labels together allow you to create combinations like a grid or table. Look at this example to understand how categories/ tags/ labels help in discovery of matter on a website/ blog:
Suppose we have a blog on cooking and we have these 4 posts on it:
1. The superb taste of tandoori chicken. [Tandoori chicken is a spicy preparation in which chicken pieces are roasted and then spiced.]
2. How to prepare finger-licking yakotiri. [In yakotiri, chicken is roasted and then prepared in Japanese style.]
3. Roasted mushrooms: the simple yet fulfilling dish you can go for when you are short of time.
4. Have you eaten vegetarian wellington while in London? [This is a mushroom dish from England.]
I expect that this blog will have many dishes from different countries and of different types. The blog would perhaps have a large number of dishes that can be grouped as non-veg/ veg types and according to the country - that's why these deserve to be categories. For specific/ special features of dishes, we will use tags. So, let us put the following categories/ tags to these posts:
Post 1. Categories: Non-veg, Indian | Tags: spicy, chicken, roasted
Post 2. Categories: Non-veg, Japanese| Tags: chicken, roasted
Post 3. Categories: Veg | Tags: mushroom, roasted
Post 4. Categories: Veg, English | Tags: mushroom
Let us now show on the blog the lists of categories as follows:
Categories [country-wise]: Indian | Japanes | English
Categories [by use of animal products]: Veg | Non-veg
Labels: spicy, roasted, chicken, mushroom, hot
Now, one can find all posts from differnt countries and of different types by clicking on the desired category/ label displayed on the blog. If he clicks on non-veg, he would be served post no. 1 and 2; if he clicks on roasted, he would get post no. 1, 2 and 3; and if he clicks on mushroom, the result would show post no. 3 and 4.
Tags help the blogger also in an indirect way: when the blog has a large number of posts and the blogger needs to find old posts on a particular subject (for referring to it/ linking to it/ recalling what one has already written on that subject), tags come very handy.
Best practices for applying category and tag/label on a post
1. Decide the categories for the entire blog beforehand.
When you start a blog, you would have thought of the subjects or topics that you'll cover on the blog. Now give yourself some time in deciding how would you like to group the posts. There will be many ways to do so, and it will help you greatly in the long run if you choose the best way for doing so. For example, if you want to open a blog on European History, you will perhaps have many posts on history of each nation in that continent - so, these can be the categories. Or you might think that it would serve people better if you group posts according to time periods: pre-historic, medival, modern, etc. Or you may like to have nations as main category and time period as sub-category.
This categorisation is important whether your blog is on a platform that has in-built system for categorisation (e.g. Wordpress) or website builder/ blogging platform that allows only tagging of posts (e.g. Blogger).
Making a list of categories from the beginning helps in many ways. Same applies to labels also to a good extent; however, new labels may keep arising as the blog grows. If you do not decide categories and labels beforehand, applying them later on old posts might become a big, painful task.
2. Do not put too many categories and labels.
While categories and labels help in navigation, too many of them can lead to confusion. When you display too many tags together, that clutters the blog and can look irritating. A long list of tags or a too big tag cloud does not serve the purpose for which tags are put on posts.
Make categories such that a post can have a maximum of 2-3 categories. Similarly, limit the number of labels on a blog (say, with 50-100 posts) to 15-20 so that a post does not have too many of them.
The picture below, taken from a real blog, shows abuse of these facilities. It has a category cloud with too many categories, a tag list with too many tags and a drop down for selecting a category.
3. Name the categories and labels properly.
As far as possible, make the category names very clear and distinct. There should not be overlap between categories. Also, do not have labels that are synonymous or depict the same thing in different ways. In addition, do not have categories as well as tags with similar wordings.
Keep labels just one-word long if possible. Make the labels longer only if that adds value.
For categories and labels, think of the word that people will like to search the blog for (i.e. keyword). Another way to check whether a word or group of words qualifies as a good category or label is to think if you will have many posts around that word. If not, do not use that word. In multi-word labels, put that keyword in the beginning, so that the label comes in right place in alphabetical listing.
Some bloggers think that they should put a tag of important expressions that come in the post. That does not serve much purpose but only bloats the tag list. See the listing in the picture here. Many categories in this finance blog do not convey the subject: Commentary, Uncategorized, Readings, video, Yahoo... In addition, some of them are overlapping.
4. Make best use of categories and tags by displaying them prominently.
You can display the categories/ tags in many ways, e.g. in the menu bar, as a list, as a tag cloud or on a standalone page. Each has its own beauty and limitations.
Functionality comes first: the display should be such that it helps visitors find the blog's content by topics and sub-topics. Most blogging platforms have widgets (=gadgets) that allow you to display labels differently. Once you have decided that, think of color, linking, placement (top, bottom , side columns) and placement relative to other widgets.
Menu bar is perhaps the best navigation aid on the blog. It is mostly just under the title. On Wordpress, you can place the category widget here. On Blogger, you can put a label widget here and put only the most prominent labels in the menu.
Menu bars can have sub-categories hidden under them as drop down menu. Wordpress and various CMSs and website builders have an easy way to make sub-categories.
Label lists work fine for tags as long as they there are not many entries. You can have labels in alphabetical order or in order of decreasing number of posts associated with them. You can also display the number of posts alongside the label.
In the label cloud, all labels are stuffed into rectangualr or circular areas or into a cloud shape. The shape can float or slowly roate, but that does not serve any purpose. In most clouds, a label is bigger in size if more number of posts are associalted with it.
We find a label/ category page in some blogs. This is a standalone web page on which posts of different categories are listed either manually or through some script. It is not the most efficient and straight-forward way of categorisation. In fact, it becomes more of an archive page than a category listing.
Categories, tags and SEO
There are conflicting views on whether putting keywords in categories and labels helps or hurts search engine optimization.
When you display categories and labels on the blog, a set of web pages is generated, with the content of original posts - that creates duplicate content issue. Therefore, many blogging platforms tell search engines not to index these web pages. That removes any hurt that would have happened due to labeling of posts and displaying them on the blog.
There is also a view that since labels and categories inform about the subject of that post, that helps the search engines the way meta description and similar other meta tags do. However, many SEO researchers do not subscribe to this view.
The most logical view is: keep the names of categories and labels relevant to their subject, without trying to stuff keywords into them. Whether keywords benefit or hurt, well-written categories and lables should benefit at least in being helpful to the visitor - the very purpose of their being.