In my opinion one of the more powerful and underutilized tools of a blog or website is the ability to tag your pages and posts. That said, effectively using tags isn’t easy or straightforward. In this post I’ll take you through some examples of how to use tags and get the most out of them, the pitfalls to watch out for, and some advanced strategies you can use with them.
First we need to take a step back and understand that there are several ways you can arrange your website/blog. The first is by subject, which most blog and CMS platforms call “categories.” The second is by date, which occurs as most blog/cms systems put things in year, month, and date groupings. A third is by tagging, which consists of the notes or descriptions you put on your posts or pages.
All of these different classification methods bring about one of the hallmark problems of blogs and CMS’s: duplicate content. Let’s assume that you publish one page. That page will exist on the page, but also on the category archive page, year archive page, year-month archive page, year-month-day archive page, and the archive page for any tag that you attach to the page/post. This can create issues as the search engines have to figure out what page they should really list in the SERP’s. First I suggest blocking all of the date archives from being indexed by using the “noindex” directive in the robots.txt (note Google is the only search engine who currently supports this command). I also use the “noindex/follow” robots tag on each of the date archive pages. Basically we are telling the robots don’t put these pages in the SERP’s but follow through and get the pages. We go with the exact same settings for the tag pages. If you are running wordpress you can use the Robots Meta plugin from Joost de Valk to get this done. This only leaves us with the duplicate issue on category and individual pages. To combat this problem, only show limited sections of your posts on the category pages. The thesis theme has this functionality built in. If you aren’t using thesis, you can use the teaser plugin to get a similar result or remember to use the “more” tag 100% of the time.
OK now that we’ve got the duplicate content issue resolved, why would anyone want to use tags in the first place? Can’t you achieve the same results with categories? Yes and no. Here’s an example of how I would use categories and tags: let’s say you have a celebrity website with categories like “baby bump,” “fashion,” “news,” “rumors,” etc. You are also going to have celebrities who are always in the news like Paris Hilton or Britney Spears. What I would do is create tags for each celebrity and, whenever I did a post about the celebrity, I’d tag it with his or her name.
Another example. You have a travel website with categories like “adventure travel,” “family travel,” “skiing,” “cruises,” and so on. I would set up tags for countries, states, or cities, like Bahamas, France, or Colorado. You could have a white water rafting page in the adventure travel category tagged with Colorado. You could have a Skiing in Vail post in the skiing category also tagged with Colorado. You can also have a family travel article about visiting the Museum of Science and nature and Botanic Gardens in Colorado. Those three separate articles would be interconnected by using the Colorado tag.
Here’s where the magic of tagging comes into play. If you use the cross linker plugin, you can set it up to automagically link any word like “Colorado” to the tag page for Colorado. So if the person reading any of the three Colorado articles clicks on “Colorado,” they visit the tag page and see all of your posts about Colorado. I’ve found that in-posts links get much higher click throughs than “tag” links at the end of an article. You could set it up the same way for Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, or any other word/tag you used. What this does is create an alternate navigation path that’s both really useful for readers and keeps your content exposed to the search engine spiders. You could link the word individually as you write each post, but I find it easier to manage a website when I cut down the maintenance wherever I can.
Another advantage is that tagging is a much more effective way to choose which ads to display. If I’m only using categories like “family travel,” it’s hard to know which ad to serve. Do I use Disneyland tickets, family cruises, or city based Go Cards? However with tagging I can be much more specific by only serving cruise advertising to the pages/posts with the “cruise” tag. If you want to get really specific you can have general “cruise” tag and a separate “family cruise” tag. You just have to decide how granular you want to get.
There are some downsides to all of this, of course. You have to maintain your tags because they have a tendency to get out of hand, especially if you have more than one author, and they play fast and loose with the rules. For example you could end up with “cruise,” “cruises,” and “cruising,” which really are all the same thing and should only have one tag. A secondary problem that can take things off the track is capitalization. With wordpress all of the following URL’s will have the same content:
If you’re blocking the tag pages from being indexed it’s not a huge issue. But it can come into play with an advanced tactic I’ll be talking about next, so I bring it up now as a problem to be aware of. To be honest the tools for administering and editing tags is pretty limited. The best one I’ve found if Simple tags. It isn’t perfect, but it gets the job done.
Advanced Tag and Cross Link Utilization
Using tagging this way creates a problem: you squander internal anchor text on pages you are blocking from the index. In the examples above, you would certainly want a page about Colorado to appear in the index, but maybe not the tag for a small city with little value and traffic. In the example above you would set up the word “Colorado” to link to “http://example.com/tag/colorado/”. However, what if you set the cross link to a normal page like “http://example.com/colorado/” instead of the tag page? Then you could create a page with some editorial copy, install the EXEC PHP plugin, and use it to issue a WP Query and automatically list posts tagged with Colorado. You will need to know PHP to make that happen, but it’s not too hard.
Another trick. If I’m creating “head and tail” content, I’ll set up the cross link to point to the “http://example.com/keyword/” page/post. However, if there isn’t any content there yet (ie only the “tail” pieces of content exist) I’ll use the redirection plugin to temporarily redirect to the tag page. I’ll take the redirect down once the “head” is written. This can get kind of tricky, so you should only use it if you are confident about what you are doing.
To recap and bring everything together, here’s what you need to remember:
- By using tags you can provide a more granular way to break down the content on your website.
- This break down can provide alternate navigation paths to your content for both humans and search engines.
- This break down becomes more useful to humans if you link words/tags within the main body of the content.
- This break down is extremely effective for serving very targeted advertising or affiliate links.
- Care should be taken to minimize duplicate content and duplicate/similar tags
Lastly one of the original purposes of tagging was to help blog search engines like Technorati understand your content; however, to be honest, that value is so non-existent it’s really not worth mentioning. When was the last time Technorati or ice rocket brought you any traffic?
photo credit: Mykl Roventine