This post was originally written for FooPlugins, but it disappeared off their site in early 2018. The information is still useful, so we’ve published below in its entirety… ya know, for posterity.
This topic was a lot of fun to investigate because up to this point, the categories on this site have been kind of neglected. I started this blog in 2011, and the categories I envisioned for the site weren’t created very mindfully. Writing the article helped me to revisit my approach to categories.
I learned some interesting things that I hadn’t known about before I started researching for that article. The biggest one was about something called “cornerstone content“. The best way to optimize your site for Google is to have one landing page on your site that is optimized for important keywords, and then, from that page, link to posts that support that landing page.
The original post, published to the FooPlugins blog, August 10, 2013
If you’re creating fresh, new content on your WordPress website (like you ought to be!), then you’ve no doubt run into the WordPress categories feature. Whether your site is devoted to nothing but blogging, or you’ve got a business website with a blog components, it’s important to do a little big-picture planning and pay attention to your WordPress categories from the beginning.
Your readers, and ultimately your bottom line (be that number of readers, ad revenue, or increased sales) will thank you!
What the heck are WordPress categories, anyway?
It’s helpful to understand that WordPress began as a blogging software, because it’s easy to see why a writer might want to categorize their posts; it helps new readers to explore the blog archives and allows faithful readers to focus on the content they’re most interested in. WordPress categories are kind of like chapters in a text book – a reader can go straight to the content they’re looking for.
Why should I use WordPress categories?
Of course, we’re not all in this WordPress game for the love of writing – everyone has different reasons for creating content. But because we all live in the Kingdom of Google, being as relevant and as well-organized as possible is what will allow us to connect with those readers (or clients or customers) who truly want what we have to offer. WordPress categories allow us to do that on a couple different levels – getting readers to your site, and keeping them there.
The first reason to use WordPress categories strategically is to improve your SEO. This means changing your perspective for a moment to include the ever-present mediator Google. Creating WordPress categories with strategic keywords in mind and then assigning your posts to the most appropriate category will allow you some control over what the Google algorithm displays in search results. Site links are only displayed when they’re relevant to users, and categorizing your posts can make those posts work together in the service of getting site links.
The second reason is to help site visitors dig deeper into your site. They might have found their way to your site thanks to a Google search, and sometimes, in those golden moments where Google achieved its goal, that’s all the information they’ll need. But when the goal of your site is to get the user to stick around (to realize they can’t live without whatever you have to offer), you’ve got to lead them along as they explore. WordPress categories do that for you in a dynamic way, combining your fresh content with your big-picture goals for your site.
How should I use WordPress categories?
There are conflicting opinions about the nuances of using WordPress categories. Some may tell you to be as specific as possible to allow readers to focus in on exactly what information they need; others will warn against using too many and diluting your readers’ attention. Ultimately, there’s not a golden number of categories you should aim for.
Sometimes, sitting around worrying about categories can be a tortuous form of writer’s block, and it’s best to just start writing and revisit categories later. But once you’ve got a critical mass of content, your goal should be “less is more” – cut away as much as possible and get to the very core of what you’re aiming to communicate both to Google and to your readers.
For instance, a fitness blogger could theoretically be well-served to combine the categories “weight training” and “fitness machines” into “gym workouts” and “rock climbing” and “iron man training” into “outdoor fitness” (there’s always the option to allow users to drill down into specific posts via tags when exacting detail is needed). The reason for this is to combine the power of all of those posts under one keyword, increasing the amount of content under each category while providing readers a greater variety of related content, which will keep them engaged.
Plus, striving to keep your WordPress categories to a minimum will help to “future-proof” your site, enforcing some discipline on your writing and keeping your relevancy high in search results.
Extending your use of WordPress categories
If you’re OCD, you’re in luck – it will serve you well in the world of WordPress categories. Once you’ve created your category list (and hierarchy), it is worth it to “cross your t’s and dot your i’s” by making full use of the power of categories. This means installing WordPress SEO plugin by Yoast, and then deliberately filling in all the fields offered by that plugin, including the category description, with your target keywords in mind (check out this in-depth article regarding using categories in conjunction with WordPress SEO by Yoast).
Of course, you don’t want to focus solely on Google-facing presentation here, as you’ll want the categories to be useful to users on your site, as well. Depending on your level of expertise (or your web developer’s savvy), you can create really useful calls-to-action within your content or in a widget by leveraging your WordPress categories. The “less is more” advice applies here, too.
If you’re trying to find a balance between search engine results and being friendly to your on-site users, you can use the (no index, follow) feature in the SEO plugin can keep your search engine profile clean while enhancing your users’ experience.
Your on-site presentation of your categories should be mindful. There are tons of options for doing this, including using custom menus, adding a category widget, or using plugins that create custom menus of WordPress categories for the purpose of offering your readers related content either in a sidebar or in the text itself. For instance, the Extended Categories Widget plugin gives you the option to display categories based on the top categories you select, or based on category groupings.
The jQuery Categories List Widget displays top-level categories, and then allows the user to decide if they want to drill down into subcategories by expanding the top-level category. To customize even more, the List Category Posts plugin makes use of the WordPress shortcode feature to allow you to list posts from a category (or multiple categories at once) in a post/page in a very specific way, filtering those posts by a variety of parameters depending on your goal.
Ultimately, while new WordPress users shouldn’t let categories stage-fright get in the way of content creation, even beginner-level users should start paying attention to them as soon as possible. Keeping your site organized both for Google and for your users will pay off in the form of more readers, a greater reach for your brand, and a solid online reputation to support growth and success.
So, commit to getting organized and start paying attention to your WordPress categories! The work will undoubtedly pay off.