The Tag Game – Optimizing Archive Pages in WordPress

Being a multi-purpose and easy to use CMS, WordPress has gained widespread popularity – and not only as a blogging platform. Thanks to the variety of available plugins, even non-technical users are able to enhance its functionality with ease. Much has been written about WordPress SEO, with particular focus on the topic of its performance. But there is an aspect that doesn’t seem to get enough attention: the proper usage of WordPress taxonomies and the optimization of the archive pages for SEO purposes.

What are WordPress taxonomies?

Just as the linnaean taxonomy has been established to classify all living organisms, the taxonomies in WordPress serve the sole purpose of organizing your content, by merging them into related groups. From the SEO perspective, there are two default WordPress taxonomies that we should consider important: tags and categories. These two things are used to create archive pages which might appear in SERPs. WordPress also gives you the ability to create your own custom taxonomy, if needed.

Categories vs tags – the endless confusion

Since the introduction of the “tag” functionality in WordPress 2.3, there has been a lot of confusion about how it should be used. At first glance, having two options for organizing your content might seem a little bit misleading. Therefore, it shouldn’t be surprising that the site owners often fall into one or more of the following traps.

Common mistakes committed on WordPress taxonomies:

  • Confusing tags and categories – in this case tags are often repeated after the category name. For example, if a blog contains categories such as: sport > cycling, both sport and cycling will be included among the tags of every related post. Obviously, in such a case the cycling category archive will look exactly like the cycling tag page, which is a clear example of duplicate content. Honestly, using tags in such a manner doesn’t make a lick of sense. For example: 

  • Using tags to describe the content of an article – sometimes tags are used in a way that highlights the general topic of a post. As in the case of this article, you would probably choose tags such as: WordPress Tags, WordPress Categories, WordPress Taxonomies, etc. At first glance, this might seem convenient. However, if you think about it, you don’t really want to create archives that are optimized for the keywords from the main topic of your article. Obviously, you want that article to rank for them.

  • Tag stuffing – some authors seem to think that tags should be treated as a tool to stuff as many keywords as possible. For example, when writing a post about Wawel Castle, the person would use tags such as: Wawel, Wawel Castle, Castle, Wawel Castle Krakow, etc. Sometimes it’s caused by the lack of knowledge about how tags should be used. Others might think that by including a lot of keywords, their content would be valued more by the search engines. Unfortunately, the only result you get by doing so is a set of low-value pages, all poorly optimized for very similar keywords. Such pages would fight not only for the rankings among themselves, but also against your precious post. Here is an example:
  • One tag, one post mistakes from point 2 and 3 often result in a situation when a tag archive page contains only a single post. This isn’t appropriate because: 1) tags are meant to group content. If there is only a single post, then it’s not a group; 2) a page that contains only one post probably isn’t going to present much value for search engines. It might be classified as thin content, and therefore it doesn’t have much chance to appear in high positions on SERPs. Here is an example:

  • Letting the users decide – probably the worst thing you could do when it comes to tagging. On some websites based around user-generated content, the selection of tags is left to the users. In theory, this should allow for the easier finding of specific content, but in practice it results in a combination of all of the mentioned mistakes, taken to the next level. By letting the users decide, you give away the control of your own website’s structure, and in return you get complete chaos. Among the tags, you would find similar keywords in all possible combinations, including spelling mistakes. From the SEO perspective, that’s a disaster. And would you really think that such havoc would be more user-friendly than having a wide set of well-thought out tags that the users might choose from? For example:

Should the tag archives be non-indexable?

Because of the aforementioned issues, noindexing the tag pages often seem to be considered as an advised practice. If the pages wouldn’t find their way into the Google index, they wouldn’t harm your SEO, right? Well, kind of. While it’s true that noindexing the tag archives wouldn’t do you any direct harm, the Googlebot would still have to crawl them. This might have a significant impact on its crawling budget, after all you might have dozens or even hundreds of tags on your website. Also, if not indexed, such pages wouldn’t contribute to the website’s visibility either. Don’t you consider it a wasted opportunity? I do. So, maybe, instead of putting the noindex meta tag, it would be far wiser to enhance the archive pages and optimize them for SEO purposes? I would give it a go. But, before we start on the subject, you have to understand the difference between the two taxonomies: tags and categories. Only then will you be able to avoid all of the mentioned mistakes.

What’s the purpose of WordPress categories and how to use them?

The categories are usually the first and most important element of your website’s navigation. Thanks to the category archives, users wouldn’t feel lost within your website’s structure. In other words, you can say that the categories perform the role of your website’s table of contents. They group your posts by topic. Also, keep in mind that you shouldn’t create a category that wouldn’t include enough content. Imagine that you are browsing through a website about online marketing. Among many categories you can see one called “SEO”. Since you have some interest in the topic, you decide to visit the page. Unfortunately, after clicking you discover only a single post. That’s a disappointment, and you would probably assume that the website’s author doesn’t know a lot about the topic.

Categories can have a hierarchy

Categories can be divided into main categories and subcategories, which would enable an even more specific arrangement of your content. This might be very helpful, especially as your website grows, and to ensure a better user experience, new categories have to be introduced. To give you a better understanding of how it should work, try to imagine your posts as different articles of clothing laying all over your room.

What a mess! You have to put them all into the wardrobes! But, to be able to quickly find an article of clothing afterwards, you have to sort them by using some logical terms. So, you come up with an idea to have one wardrobe for outerwear, another for underwear, one for trousers, etc. These wardrobes are your main categories. However, that isn’t enough. There is still chaos in every wardrobe, so you need to sort your clothes further. You pick up t-shirts, shirts, jackets and sweaters, and put them into separate drawers within the outerwear wardrobe. You just created a set of subcategories.

Here are some basic rules that apply to the category pages:

  • Categories work like wardrobes and drawers, in which you put all of your website’s content;
  • A well-thought category structure should help your visitors to understand the general subject of your website;
  • When navigating to the category page, a user should have a general view of what they expect to find under the given category;
  • The category terms should be general enough to accumulate a lot of content, but at the same time give enough specific information about a post’s general topic.

What are tags and why should you even consider using them?

By utilizing the categories, you already have a good solution to classify your content. However, there is more than one way to skin a cat, as they say, and this is the exact reason why tags have been invented. Yet, for the sole purpose of this article, please leave the poor animal alone, and instead of butchering it, just try to describe the creature.

What is a cat, then? For sure, we can classify it as an animal and as a mammal. Those terms would work perfectly fine as a blog category and subcategory, since every mammal is also a part of a bigger collection of animals.

However, there are more terms we can use to describe a feline. A cat hunts its food, so we can call it a carnivore. And many people consider kittens cute enough to keep them inside their own homes – so it’s also a pet. This is where things start to become complicated. If you think about it, those terms wouldn’t work as subcategories within mammals. There are a few problems:

  • not every carnivore is a mammal;
  • not every pet is a mammal;
  • not every pet is a carnivore, and vice versa.

And then, how would you even handle the non-mammal carnivores on your blog? Would you create another carnivore or pet subcategory under e.g. reptiles? Or, maybe you should use these terms to create separate categories under animals? But this would result in a cat appearing in different parts of your category structure, and that’s far from a perfect solution. Why?

To explain it more clearly, let’s just crawl back to our textile-based analogy. You have a set of wardrobes, and clothes are further categorized into different drawers. Just as in the case of our hypothetical cat, there are other terms that can describe already categorized items. For example: wool clothes, casual clothes, elegant clothes, and much, much more. However, you aren’t able to place one article of clothing inside two, or three wardrobes. So, how do you enable a more comprehensive categorization? Well, instead of tearing your precious silks apart, you can simply label them within the drawers by using different and descriptive terms. And, what’s even better, one piece of clothing can have multiple labels attached to it. This is how the tags work. Isn’t it simple? And what about the cat? We can tag it with carnivores and pets, while still keeping it under animals > mammals at the same time. A clear win-win situation.

How to take an advantage of tags

You see, tags should be used to categorize content in a different dimension, while at the same time increasing the range of your website’s ranking keywords. If you already understand the difference between tags and categories, now you can enhance your website’s architecture. By choosing the right keywords for your tags, you can create a wide set of unique pages that would complement your website’s categories, instead of duplicating them. If well-designed, a tag archive pages can bring you organic traffic, while simultaneously becoming helpful for users. And all of this comes with relatively low effort – as most of the page’s content is already there.

While creating your tag pages, keep in mind the following principles:

  • Tags work as labels, enabling a more comprehensive categorization of your content.
  • A well-designed set of tags should complement your categories instead of duplicating them.
  • Unlike the categories, tags don’t present any hierarchy.
  • Generally, tags should be more narrow and specific than categories, and tag archives don’t have to include as many posts.
  • On the other hand, an archive page that contains one or two posts would rarely present much value to search engines – so in such a case, don’t expect high rankings.
  • Tags shouldn’t be created out of several variations of a single word or phrase.

Improving taxonomy pages for better SEO

Now, that you have a better understanding of the matter, you can think about ways of improving the rankings of your archive pages. First, having the correct website structure helps a lot all by itself. If your tags and categories are well-thought out, then it’s the first step towards success. However, having simple post listings for archive pages might not make them valuable enough for the bots. Therefore, further steps can be taken to improve the pages’ value:

  1. Consider the archives your landing pages. You want them to rank high in SERPs. They are important, not only for the searching bots, but also for the users. If you have hundreds of posts on your blog, your archive pages are the most simple way to navigate through your content. Make them as functional as you can.
  2. Use the YOAST SEO plugin. This will enable you to set up a page’s title and meta description, as well as additional elements – such as Open Graph and Twitter Card data. All of that will improve the archive pages presentation in SERPs and on social media. And as long as you decide to index your unique, well-designed archives, the plugin would also enable you to include them in the sitemap.xml file.
  3. Link internally. Internal linking is an important aspect of your website’s optimization process. To put it briefly – the more links pointing to your content, the easier it is to find, both for bots and users. Put links to your archives in the post’s content. The labels at the end of the posts aren’t enough, you can place some links to related taxonomies directly inside the text. Remember a proper anchor text, as such links look much more natural. Make your archive pages as accessible as they can be.
  4. Add some unique content to your archive pages. It doesn’t have to be long. Just add a short introduction; a single paragraph at the beginning of the page. Remember that the main purpose of archives is still to list all the related posts, and a description that’s too long might distract the users. The introduction is a perfect place to include internal links: links to related categories, subcategories and tag pages. Just think about how useful this might prove for your visitors! And at the same time, the bots would love your website’s structure.

How should you handle the other archive pages?

While being the most important, categories and tags aren’t the only archive pages in WordPress. After taking care of those two, you should also consider what to do with the following:

Monthly archives

On many blogs you can find a widget menu where you can browse through the blog’s monthly archives. This was the initial way of how WordPress managed the content in its early days. However, over the years the function of the monthly archives have been replaced by much more useful taxonomies that enable the categorization of the content according to the topic. However, monthly archives are still available on my websites and are ready to be discovered by bots.

From the SEO perspective, monthly archives present two main problems. Firstly, those pages are poorly optimized. By default, their page title would be the publication date, which makes a really pointless key phrase to rank for. Furthermore, especially on websites that have existed for years, there will be dozens of archive pages. Even if we decide to noindex them all, a large amount of the bot’s budget still gets wasted on crawling those pages.

You should ask yourself a question: do you really need monthly archives on your website? Do you think your visitors actually use them for navigation? Is it useful for them? Unless it’s some kind of a news website, I guess the answer will be: no.

The best practice for monthly archives would be to remove all of the widgets, as well as any internal links pointing to them, from your website’s structure (don’t let the bots discover the URLs). Also, it’s worth mentioning that by using the YOAST SEO plugin you can entirely disable the monthly archive functionality.

All that said, there is a way to make the monthly archive useful. Imagine that you are running a website reporting local cultural events. Users might search in Google for: events in Wrocław, February 2018. Obviously in such a rare case your website would benefit from indexing monthly archives. However, to make them useful and valuable, you would have to edit your monthly archives page titles (the YOAST SEO plugin would take care of that), to include keywords (such as: events in Wrocław), not only the publication date. Also, apply all the steps mentioned earlier to make your monthly archives as rich as possible.

Author archives

By default, WordPress is creating author archives by mentioning the author’s name in the page’s title and listing all the posts associated with a given author. That doesn’t seem impressive. What’s even worse, if there is only one single author, then their page would have exactly the same content as your blog’s homepage (a clear duplicate). One way to overcome the problem, especially on single-author pages, would be to noindex the author archives and remove the links from your website’s structure, as it would save part of the bot’s budget (and if the archive is a 1:1 copy of your homepage, then you don’t need it anyways). But still, there is an even better option available. Just look at Rand Fishkin’s user profile on moz.com:

You see how much content this page contains? Besides the post list, there is also a short user bio, his personal and contact information, full lists of comments, and also links to his social media profiles. It’s certain that such a page would present a higher value than a simple post listing. Definitely, it should be indexed. While we’ll never know if androids dream of electric sheep, I’m convinced that if Googlebot could, it would dream of having more lovely author archives such as this one to crawl.

Custom taxonomies

One of the functionalities that WordPress offers is the possibility to create your own custom taxonomy pages. Why would you ever want to use them? Well, custom taxonomies might become quite useful if you need to categorize your content even further in a more specific manner. For example, on your website you might have both articles and a variety of products to sell. By creating a separate taxonomy called products you would avoid mixing your article’s tags with the product tags. Similarly, when you are running a website about music, you might consider creating a custom taxonomy called Genre. This way you will be able to display additional information, e.g. Genre: Heavy Metal under the post reviewing the last Iron Maiden album.

When creating your custom taxonomies:

  • Make them distinctive from other taxonomies – there is no point in creating a custom taxonomy, if you can just as well go with a category or tag.
  • Remember to enhance your custom taxonomy archives, as described in the previous part of this article.

IN CONCLUSION

As you can see, there are various actions you can take to improve the value of your archive pages. You should start from the most basic: selecting an appropriate collection of categories and enhancing them with a wide selection of tags. Then you can start improving your archives functionality. Don’t limit yourself to tags and categories and remember other archive pages. Make them as functional as you can and, believe me, both the users and search engines will appreciate your effort.