Categories give WordPress blogs and bizblogs structure. Everything from what content shows up on what page to searching for specific content on a site is determined by categories and how they’re used. Every WordPress post has at least one category, and you can create as many categories and subcategories as you want while a single post can be included in multiple categories. A blog without categories would be one, long, undifferentiated stream of posts with no way to group similar topics. Given everything that depends on categories, it pays to create and use them carefully.

Know thy content

New bloggers often make the mistake of thinking that categories are labels. I’ve seen blogs with dozens of categories, some of which are virtually identical to others and some that have just one post in them. When I first started blogging, I made new categories every time I introduced a new “major” topic. What I didn’t know was that category structure should have been one of the first elements of the site’s design. You need to know what major topics you’ll cover and how they relate to each other. It’s even more important to know if a topic will be used in some special way on the site. For instance, on an e-commerce site you probably wouldn’t want product descriptions showing up among the main blog posts. But you might want a “featured product” to show up in a highlighted location on your front page. With a “featured product” category you can do that. Furthermore, you probably would want to create all product descriptions as post content associated with a “product” category so the site could build the product description pages dynamically—which would result in less work than updating a static page every time you wanted to add a product description or edit an existing one. By planning ahead, you’ll know what categories you’ll need to accomplish your goals.

Thinking logically about categories

Categories and subcategories should reflect a logical hierarchy that most visitors can understand intuitively. If your site is all about dogs, then some obvious top-level categories might be “breeds,” “training,” “care.”  Each of these top level categories might have additional  subcategories or tags to help cross-reference and group finer divisions. So under the “breeds” category, you might find subcategories for individual breeds, such as “bulldog”, “collie”, “dachshund”, etc… It would make less sense to make a category for each breed unless you had a great deal of content for them. Once you have created the highest level categories, you can create logical subcategories or tags to further subdivide your content.

Categorize your permalinks

Permalinks are the individual URLs assigned to each post in WordPress. Since you have the ability to dictate how the permalink is created, you should make it work to help people navigate your content. Default permalinks reflect the date of a post, or worse a meaningless squiggle of characters, but for most blogs the date is less important than information relevant to the post, such as the post’s category and title. What this means is that the URL a visitor sees in the browser bar will reflect the content on the page. The best permalink structure includes both “category” and “post title”. (Due to a quirk in the WordPress core, we also preface these permalink elements with the “year” the post was published because it speeds up the site response.)

Use keywords in blog titles instead of category names

Since top-level category names are often very general in nature, it makes sense that they might not be good keyword candidates. The category name “Support” for instance, is too broad to be an effective keyword. Rather than creating lengthy category names that are awkward to use in navigation, rely instead on using relevant keywords in post titles. Your URLs will still have keyword punch so you won’t lose SEO value.

Putting it all together

Careful selection of categories should depend on your site’s main topics and how you want to use and group content. WordPress categories give us an amazing tool for presenting information in creative ways that can inform and engage your visitors. Good planning and category name selection are therefore one of the essential design elements of any website.

(I should add a note here that since WordPress 3.0 integrated custom post types and custom taxonomies—which extend the potential for special posts and categories to be used independently of the traditional blog post—the use of “post” categories as the defining structural element of a WordPress site has been somewhat diminished. Many plugin and theme developers utilize the new custom capabilities to achieve their goals instead of relying on post categories. Here at AIM, we’ve gone a step further, applying the power of custom post types and custom taxonomies to create a range of content and design features, which you can read more about in the description of our Netoro WordPress framework features.)