This post is about using tags for SEO in WordPress, but it applies to any publishing software that uses tags.
Lets start with the basics : Should I use tags or not?
There are two main arguments I hear repeatedly. Unfortunately they are at loggerheads:
1. Pro Tags argument: Tags are great for SEO. The more tags, the more indexed pages in Google (not so much the case anymore)
2. Anti Tags argument: Tags cause duplicate content issues (more likely since Google’s Panda updates)
I’ve changed my tagging behaviour in the last 6 months. To understand why lets look at why I used to be firmly in the Pro Tag camp.
The history of tags in WordPress
The original purpose of tags in WordPress was as a navigational aid. The idea was that you tag each post with relevant tags and then display them in a tag cloud. The more posts with the same tag, the larger the font size of the tag in the cloud. Click on a tag and you get all the posts relevant to that tag with the tag as the page title and in the url of the page.
Then SEO’s found another use for tags:-
Each tag creates a new page with a new page title (whatever the tag text is). I could write one post and have say 6 different tags on it. I’d effectively created 7 pages to be indexed by Google. Add in a category or two and I’d created even more.
To show you just how ridiculously well this worked here is an example of an experimental blog post by one of Ireland’s very best SEO’s Ivan Stojanovic. You can see the original post here.
There are just 9 words in the text of the post and about 80 tags (I’m too lazy to count them all today).
Had the list of recruitment agencies been in the body of the blog post there would have been little to no chance of it ever ranking well for anything. However, at the time this WordPress post appeared on page one of Google searches for a surprisingly high number of the recruitment agencies listed.
In theory Google should have slapped a penalty on the site for this, but there was a clear relationship between the Title of the post, the content, the url and the fact that all the tags were actually recruitment agencies. It should be noted that clicking on a tag brought up the post content but not the entire tag list again. It’s also worth having a read through the comments.
Although that is an extreme example with over 80 pages created for Google to index from content of just 9 words, it’s a fine example of the power of WordPress for SEO – from a 2008 perspective anyway.
Even when it was that simple to rank in Google people still got it wrong. There were lot of cases of people using non-relevant / related tags which was something that Google did pick up on even back then. Tagging a post with a keyword that was only used once in the text was also useless.
Enter the Panda
The world of search engine optimisation was rocked by the release of Google’s algorithm update named “Panda” in February of 2011. There have been multiple updates since (the last of which was just last week although Google have not confirmed it was a Panda update yet). Panda targets thin or duplicate content on sites. Worse than that it will penalise a whole site for just a few iffy pages.
Empty directory pages (Page title: Window Washers in Sixmilebridge. Page content: nothing) and the like were the first to fall. But at this time Wordpess users who were knowingly spamming Google with tags got worried too. I was one of those.
Blogs that were spammy overall got hit hard. BUT, halfway reasonable blogs with lots of tags didn’t seem to be so badly hit if they noticed any difference at all. So where does that leave us now?
WordPress SEO and Tagging Now
I have seen a very definite change in how tag pages perform. Unfortunately there is not a definitive black and white answer to whether to use them or not but here is what I’ve noticed and what I’ve been doing about it.
1. Tag pages are still showing up in Google results…. but not as often as they did previously. There are a few things to consider with tags. If a tag is shared by multiple posts then the resulting page is not a direct duplicate of one single post. Another thing to consider is whether you are showing full posts or just snippets in your tag pages. A snippet is going to be of little value as a page, but is less likely to cause a real duplicate content issue. However multiple snippets on a tag page will start to be real content.
2. Multiple pages with a single subject do not do well. About a year ago I was writing pages on Pregnancy Yoga. I divided the pages into an overall synopsis of Pregnancy yoga, a FAQ about it and a page giving 10 reasons why it was good for you (assuming you’re female and pregnant – although it won’t hurt you if you’re not ). This made for easily digestible interlinked information for users and gave me multiple pages which I hoped would crowd the front page of Google with several pages from the site appearing in the top results.
Oh how wrong I was. The pages started off well and then after a week or so they tanked. Baffled for a while I then worked out what was happening. Google have been trying to give better results by not posting multiple pages from one site in their top listings. So they were not going to go with all of them.
That meant that their algorithm had to chose which page was most relevant and use that. I’m a real live human with a modicum of intelligence and I would find it hard to chose what was the relevant page to return under the circumstances. Add in a blog post (with tags) announcing the start of the pregnancy yoga classes and it was a mess. Google’s poor dumb algorithm basically went “f*$&k that!” and dropped all the pages to page three to be seen only by the really dedicated to finding information.
By combining all the pages into one and changing the title of the blog post and removing tags all of a sudden the pregnancy yoga page was at number one in Google for “Pregnancy Yoga Wicklow” and several variations on it. It obviously made an impression because competitors copied what I’d done, but perhaps without the finesse because the page I wrote is still up there at number one.
Back to the point – Similar tags mean Google has a hard time distinguishing what to serve from your site, particularly if the content is duplicate as a result of several similar tags coming from the same post.
3. Nobody is using tag clouds now. Tag clouds add lots and lots of links to every page of a WordPress blog. There was a time when Google couldn’t handle more than about a hundred links per page and indeed their guidelines still state that keeping below that number is preferable.
When it comes to passing page rank internally it makes sense to keep the number of links to a minimum. If a page has a Google Page Rank of 5 and the page has 5 links then in theory a Page Rank of 1 is sent to each of those (followed) links. It doesn’t work quite like that but it will suffice to get the point across that 100 links would mean that you are only sending 0.05 to the internal pages you are linking too. That doesn’t take into consideration the fact that nofollowed links also leak “juice” or link positioning but it’s still abundantly clear that anybody still using tag clouds is not doing themselves any favours.
4. Because nobody is using tag clouds they are no longer a useful form of navigation. Sure you can click on a tag under a post (more links on the page), but it’s not as useful as say a “related posts” section which does the same job better. If it’s not useful to the user then the only reason for using tags is to try to game Google. If you’re doing that then you can expect to fall foul of a Google update at some time in the future if you haven’t already.
5. Categories make a better filing system. Categories are a filing system. There is no need to use tags as well. Or you could use just tags and not use categories, but why do that when it is an inferior method?
What I’ve done on this site to address tags and what happened as a result
On this site I’ve used the WordPress SEO plugin by Yoast. I’ve used it to noindex all the tag pages (and also archives etc that would give duplicate content). Then I sat back to see what happened…..
1. I lost traffic. Yes, that’s right. Remember I said that tag pages still show in the SERPS. Well if you remove those pages from the index then nobody can click on them. I would be lying if I said I didn’t panic at all, but I didn’t act on that panic and re-index the tag pages.
2. I started to steadily gain rank with the remaining pages. With zero duplication issues I started to gain rank for searches like “SEO” and “Search Engine Optimisation” – see the graph on the right.
The graph is not up to date. I am currently higher for both search terms, but you can see the clear if erratic climb from the graph. This graph also tells me that Google algorithm changes have influenced results too (particularly on one competitor in a negative fashion) and that Google likes regular updates to blogs. I don’t blog nearly regularly enough on this site and that is partly behind the up and down progress.
3. I regained traffic. As my ranking started to increase I started to get more traffic than I had lost by removing tag pages from the index.
Conclusions and strategies for using tags in WordPress
One site is not enough to be conclusive proof but I have replicated this with different timing on different sites enough times to be convinced now.
In an ideal world I would remove all the tags from all the posts that have them. This would reduce the number of noindexed pages which would be a good thing.
If I removed all the tags then I would no longer have to noindex them.
If I were to use tags again I would do it with the following caveats
1. Tags must be significantly different to the post title. I don’t want to confuse poor Google. If my post is called “Electricity” and I tag it with “Electrical”, “Electricity Facts”, “Electricity Prices” and “Electricity Supply Board” (all related searches), then I am likely not to get the best out of that post for long term (over a day or two) ranking. Most posts fade into obscurity over time, but why help rush the process.
2. Tags must be contextual to the content of the post. If I have a post called “Electricity” and it mentions Thomas Edison a fair bit throughout it then it would be contextually correct to have a tag of Thomas Edison. The post would make just as much sense under that heading. If however I had a tag called “solar power” but solar energy was only mentioned once in the post then in my experience that would be a mistake. There just isn’t a strong enough relationship between the tag and the text.
Think of tags as alternate titles to your post and if they no longer make sense then dump them.
3. Tags must not be duplicated by a category heading. That would just cause a duplicate content issue so don’t do it.
WordPress Tags do still work. Let’s not forget that. But you need to be very careful with how you use them in order to benefit your site rather than be hindered by their use.
When I am training people to blog with WordPress I still tell them about the advantages of using tags, but I do warn them of the potential dangers too these days. It’s not 2008 any more!
Finally; What am I going to do about having lost traffic by removing tag pages from Google’s index?
I’m going to write more content that targets keywords I want to rank for or that I used to rank for and now don’t. The end result will be better for users. Previously, if they clicked on a tag page from Google there was a high chance that the information they were looking for was only briefly mentioned in the post they landed on. That led to high bounce rates and short stays on the site. From now on users should only get information relevant to the search query they entered in Google. As an added benefit, if it’s good for users, it’s usually good for Google too.