For the longest time, I’ve paid little attention to the categories and tags on this site. I played with the features a bit, but didn’t really understand them well enough to feel like I knew what to make a category, what to make a tag, how to do it consistently, and so on.
As often happens, I figured it out “naturally”, by just using the site and over time the purpose became more clear. Then for a long time I just didn’t feel like going through the tedium of going through all the old posts and re-doing everything. I hated feeling like “If I had to do it all over again, I’d do things differently”, though, so eventually I had to do something about it.
I’m here to share the lessons I learned.
Know your purpose, or if you don’t know your purpose, find it
When I started this site, I wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted to use it for. I knew I wanted it to be a site for promoting and blogging my professional activities, but beyond that I wasn’t sure how I wanted to do it. This was something that developed for me over time, as I became more comfortable. At first I was very risk averse about putting up any content at all. Putting my real name up on the web made me feel inhibited and over-cautious. I didn’t want to make a mistake, embarrass myself, offend someone, lose my job, etc.
As time went on, I began to get over these fears, and it allowed me to post more frequently, feel more free about saying what I want to say, and knowing what I wanted to talk about. I surmise that most web sites develop their purpose over time, and refine what they do. I couldn’t have known how to do everything before I started.
Doing it is an essential part of the process of learning how to do it.
This means making mistakes, and you shouldn’t let yourself be inhibited from making them. Learning from them quickly and doing things better is more important. But sometimes lessons take a while to sink in, and when that happens it is not always the best thing to start making changes right away. You don’t have the time and you quickly lose energy if you put yourself through a comprehensive overhaul several times in quick succession. So before doing a drastic overhaul, take time to think about it, and before you do the whole thing, do a small part of it first and see how it works. Iterate a few times until you think it’s just about right. Then do the overhaul.
Here’s how I think about WordPress Categories: If my WordPress site was a book, the Categories would be the headings I would use for my Table of Contents. This isn’t quite right, but it’s a close enough way of looking at it.
If your site has a relatively narrow purpose, you should have relatively few categories. Categories should be broad. Think of your categories as sorting bins for your posts. Your posts fit into or under them. It’s OK if your posts fit into multiple categories, since there’s often overlap. You can create a hierarchy of categories as well, which can be helpful if you have a number of closely related category topics.
If you find that you are constantly writing posts that fit into the same group of categories, you should think about whether those categories would be better off consolidated into a single, broader category, and perhaps your former categories re-done as Tags.
Tags are like index keywords that help describe the major ideas that are contained within your post. You should think about the content of your post, and what the main ideas or topics were, and tag appropriately. This is not a SEO game, where you want to try to guess all the variations of words that people search by and include them. So skip the -s/-ing/-ly game.
Tags should be short, single words or phrases of two or three words. Try to avoid redundancy, but some small amount is probably OK. WordPress separates tags with commas, so you don’t have to worry about using spaces. It’s OK to use spaces between words, rather than running words together.
I frequently see tags being misused as a sort of meta-commentary on the content of the post or page. This is witty, entertaining, gives some personality to the site. I’m not sure that it’s helpful, but the occasional humorous tag might be amusing.
Witty tags work when you’re reading at the bottom of a post, or reading the summary or digest of an article before you click to Read More. But the intended way for your readers to use tags is to find other related content on your site that is of interest to them. If you over-do the witty tags, you’re not giving the reader useful ways to find a reason to spend more time reading your site.
How your site’s users use Categories and Tags
How, indeed? You can guess, and you can assume, but the truth is unless you have some system of measuring that can watch your readers behavior while they’re on your site, you don’t have too much of a clue how a site’s users actually use the category and tag features.
With WordPress sites, typically it’s the authors who are doing the tagging and categorizing. Readers merely consume them. Some sites, where there is an element or even an emphasis on user-generated content, give users the capability to creating their own tags and categories. If your site does this, you absolutely need to observe and track your users’ behavior. It’s fascinating, amusing, and will give you a lot of insight.
If you retain sole control the category and tag features, you need to think about what your readers need and how useful you are making your site through these features. If you can, try NOT to have to rely on guessing or “common sense” to tell you this — find ways to observe user behavior (though logging, perhaps), or solicit user feedback, and use that to influence your planning and decisions.
Another useful thing to do is to monitor the way people are searching your site, or the search engine query that brought them to your site. The most common search terms your users used to find you should jump out as terms that you should use for tags, possibly for categories as well. And if you’re advertising your site, or using advertising to generate revenue on your site, knowing what terms users are searching for is crucial to drawing traffic and generating revenue.
WP-Admin and the Category/Tag Renovation
My experience with this was that it could have been faster and less tedious. It’s probably my host more than anything, but it seemed that reloading the post, tag, and category administration pages took longer than I had patience for. Clicking update, then waiting a few seconds for the refresh, times however many posts I updated, adds up.
If I wanted to apply the same changes to multiple posts, there’s no way to do this through the web interface. A “mass action” feature to allow adding/removing the same category or tags to multiple posts at once would be very useful.
I could have attempted to directly manipulate the database through building a custom update query, but I didn’t want to sink time into doing that, didn’t want to run the risk of messing it up, and in any case, it’s probably beyond the capability of most WordPress bloggers, so I don’t recommend it. If you have an absolutely HUGE site that needs hundreds or thousands of changes to be made the same way, look into it. If you’re just dealing with dozens, just do it manually.
The other thing that would have been helpful was some kind of redundant tag merging. It’s not uncommon to apply very similar tags inconsistently over the history of your site.
For example, I used the tags “GameMaker” and “Game Maker” quite a bit. I had a few other GameMaker-related tags, which included a specific version, such as 8.0, 8,1, etc.
My first attempt at merging these was to simply re-name the “Game Maker” tag to match the label of my “GameMaker” tag. This did not merge the tags, though; it just created two identical tag labels, which were still separate as far as my WordPress site was concerned. A reader clicking on the “GameMaker” tag from one of my posts would only find about half of the posts I’ve written about Game Maker. Not good!
In order to fix this, I had to remove the redundant tag from my tagging system. To avoid losing the posts that I wanted to be tagged, though, I had to go through and re-tag those posts with the correct tag. At that point, I had a bunch of posts that had BOTH “GameMaker” tags — the correct one, and the incorrect tag that I’d re-labeled. I still needed to remove the incorrect tag to get rid of the redundancy, but looking at my Posts I couldn’t tell which was the redundant tag! So, I went back to the tag admin page, and changed the label of the incorrect GameMaker tag to “dup”, and then went through my posts and removed the “dup” tag.
It would have been much simpler, easier, and faster, if I could have simply navigated to the tag admin page, selected both the “Game Maker” and “GameMaker” tags, hit a button to merge the two tags, and specified which label I preferred to keep. I hope they include that feature in a future WordPress release.
I’m sure there’s still more room for improvement with the way I’ve done it, but I’ve managed to clean up my categories considerably, and applied tags much more consistently through all of my posts. It took a couple hours, but I hope it is worth it. I see a few benefits worth mentioning:
- Users will have an easier time finding content that is relevant to their interests or related to something they came to the site to read.
- It will increase the amount of time users spend using the site.
- It will decrease the amount of time users waste on the site.
- Better organization will convey to users that the site is of good quality.