A Complete Guide to WordPress Taxonomy SEO

Use this comprehensive guide to optimize your WordPress website in a way you didn't know was possible, and reach an entirely new audience.

A Complete Guide to WordPress Taxonomy SEO

categories and tags
Taxonomies, in the simplest of terms, are how a group of things are organized. These organizational structures can be hierarchical, like Categories in WordPress, where a Category of “Motor Vehicles” might have Subcategories such as Cars, Motorcycles and RV’s. Taxonomy structures can also be non-hierarchical, such as Tags in WordPress, where a Yoga blog might have Tags such as Strength, Balance and Calming.

How WordPress Uses Taxonomies

In WordPress, these Taxonomies (Categories and Tags) are used to organize Posts (usually used for blog posts and articles). You may see a list of Categories in a Sidebar, or the Category a specific Post is assigned to just below the Post’s title. You may also see a Tag Cloud in the footer, showing which Tags are most commonly used. Posts are also organized by Author and Date.

In one sense, this is very beneficial for user experience. A site visitor may enjoy reading about a topic, and look for other similar articles in the same Category, or by the same Author. However, the drawback is that these various archives (or collections of Posts) can often be seen by Google as duplicate content. The net result is that content that is considered to be duplicate can be de-indexed from Google, or more likely, the site’s authority gets spread too thin, and pages don’t rank for various keyword searches like they could.

Extending WordPress With Custom Post Types

Additional taxonomies can be created in WordPress for Custom Post Types. A Custom Post Type is a useful method for displaying a particular type of content, such as a Recipe. Any number of plugins can be used to create additional Custom Post Types, so that a website, for instance, may have Pages, Posts and Recipes.

These Recipes would then have one or more corresponding taxonomies. For instance, when creating a Recipe, the Author may be able to categorize by Cuisine Type (Italian, Thai, Japanese), Meal Type (breakfast, lunch, dinner), Level of Difficulty (beginning, intermediate, advanced), Dietary Restrictions (gluten-free, not spicy, vegan) and much more.

Why Taxonomies Are Ignored

What tends to happen to WordPress sites in Google search results is that archive pages (such as all the Posts that have been assigned to a certain Category) have poor presence. Rather, Google favors specific Pages, Posts and Recipes that have high-quality content.

This is entirely appropriate; Google has made it perfectly clear that they want to provide users with exactly the information they are looking for. What has happened as a result is that very little attention is paid by site owners to increasing the value of organized, curated content, in the form of taxonomies.

The Opportunity of Taxonomy SEO

SEO (search engine optimization) and content strategy for a website generally takes the form of optimizing the Pages and Posts that exist on a site, and coming up with new content ideas (blog posts, videos, infographics, etc).

That’s important, but it overlooks a big opportunity in Taxonomy SEO, where there may be dozens of archival pages that can be put into context, improved and optimized. One of the reasons that this gets overlooked is because there are not out-of-the-box tools to do this, which we will cover.

Taxonomy SEO in Action

Let’s look at an example of how Taxonomy SEO works. Organic superfood company Nutiva (a Tribal Core client) has a dedicated recipe website called The Nutiva Kitchen. We deployed tools to facilitate optimization of the Recipe taxonomy. One of the ways in which Recipes are organized are by ingredient. So when searching for “organic cinnamon recipes,” the following result comes up #1 for the search.

organic cinnamon recipes

Now let’s take a look at that page to see how it differs from a standard archive page containing a collection of Posts (or in this case, Recipes).

cinnamon kitchen page

First, the blue box contains what is standard on an archive page – a collection of all Posts assigned to this taxonomy (be it an Ingredient, Category or Tag or any other organizational structure). Just collecting these on a page, which WordPress does very well, is inadequate for making this page competitive in Google search results.

Next is the green box and green arrow. The green arrow points to an Introductory Title. This is a field that changes the default taxonomy configuration. The default title might have been something like “Search Results for Ingredient: Cinnamon.” Our ability to change this to “Cinnamon Recipes” provides better context for the content on the page and creates a better user experience.

The green box frames the Introductory Content, which is a field that can be populated by HTML. In this case, the field is populated by some useful cinnamon-related information and a credited, royalty-free image. It is by populating this box you turn an archival page into an informational page that includes a collection of related Posts (or Recipes).

The red arrow points to the Meta Title, where, combined with a Meta Description, this page can be optimized like any other Page or Post on the site.

Some Best Practices for Taxonomy SEO

  1. Use the excerpt field on your Posts so that the description that appears on the archive page is unique from the content on the Post itself. You are much better off crafting a couple unique sentences describing the Post, rather than WordPress grabbing the first 50 or so words.
  2. Use the Featured Image functionality on your Posts, so that that image is pulled on to the archive page, which will increase visual appeal, progression rate and time-on-site.
  3. For the Introductory Content, use a compelling image and write 200-400 words. Think of this page as an informational page, not an archive page. Focus on providing visitors good context and useful information based on the searches that would bring them to this page.
  4. Some SEO plugins and WordPress themes may by default make your taxonomy structure “noindex,” meaning Google is instructed not to index these pages. If you are using the ubiquitous Yoast WordPress SEO, this can be toggled in the admin by going to SEO | Titles & Metas | Taxonomies.

Tools For Implementing Taxonomy SEO

Unfortunately, there is no simple answer for implementing Taxonomy SEO at this point (although we will update this Post as tools become available). The challenges are:

  1. There is no default ability in WordPress to change the Title of a Category or Tag to something user-friendly, although a plugin like Yoast WordPress SEO can help with this from a template standpoint. For instance, a Tag for a Yoga site might be “balance” and that would display as “Search Results for Tag: balance”. Even if you could strip out everything but the Tag name, you would not want to rename the Tag something like “Read more about balance in yoga” because of how that Tag title appears elsewhere in WordPress Pages and Posts.
  2. The active theme for a WordPress site is responsible for activating and displaying the Description field on Categories, Tags and Custom Post Type taxonomies. By default, this is turned off, so more often than not, a theme will not enable this.
  3. To activate the Description field, it requires a modification to the active theme. Unlike WordPress core, where any code changes would always be made in the exact same spot, and thus a good candidate for a plugin, where to make the change in a theme could be in one of many different files, in many different locations.

Thesis Theme Framework

There are some themes and theme frameworks, such as Thesis, which offer Category and Tag optimization out of the box. Thesis calls the Introductory fields “Archive Title” and “Archive Content,” respectively. Thesis also does another thing very well: it enables HTML in these fields (not enabled by default), so that you can easily add rich text, images and more.

Allow HTML in Category Descriptions Plugin

If you can get the Introductory fields in place, but cannot format them properly, then you may need to enable HTML. There is a plugin that handles this elegantly, at least for Categories. Download the Allow HTML in Category Descriptions Plugin and give it a try.

Yoast WordPress SEO Plugin

With thirty billion downloads, and installs on six million planets across the Milky Way, it is highly likely you are using the Yoast WordPress SEO plugin if you are using anything for search engine optimization. This gets you only part of the way to properly implementing Taxonomy SEO.

When editing a Category or Tag, Yoast WordPress SEO will give you some very important fields: SEO Title (or Meta Title), SEO Description (or Meta Description), Canonical (for setting the correct URL for indexing), Noindex This Category (changed to index when properly SEO’d) and Include In Sitemap (which should be set to Always Include when properly SEO’d).

However, the plugin does not give you the Introductory Title nor the Introductory Content which is so critical to creating a high-quality informational page.

Show Archive Descriptions Plugin

This plugin shows a lot of promise, but it is very early in development and not totally baked. The Category and Tag title configuration needs to be separated out, the CSS needs to be stripped but configurable, and the Sidebar widget needs to be removed. Regardless, the Show Archive Descriptions Plugin may be a solid answer in the future that obviates the need for additional development.

The Custom Development Option

While it would be nice to have a plugin for all occasions, implementing these Taxonomy SEO tools on an existing WordPress installation and theme may require custom development. Here are some reference articles for your web developer or more tech-savvy site owners (implement at your own risk, back up your site, yadda yadda):

  1. Allow HTML in WordPress Category & Taxonomy Descriptions
  2. How to Display Your WordPress Category Description in Your Theme
  3. HOW TO: Display the WordPress Category Description In Your Theme

Conclusion

Taxonomy SEO is not the easiest customization to get in place, but it opens a tremendous opportunity. You can write high-quality content and convert dozens of archive pages on your site to informational pages that improve the user experience on your site and introduce your visitors to a wealth of relevant content via the included links on the pages.

If you have come across other solutions for implementation, or other themes that implement the introductory fields similar to Thesis, please leave a comment, and I will update this post as an ongoing resource. Good luck!

(image credit: Brian Smithson / CC2.0)

About The Author

Tyler Suchman founded Tribal Core in 2002. He loves helping purpose-driven companies and organizations that make a difference in the world.



3 Comments

Jon Brown » 21 Nov 2014 »

Wonderfully written post. Thank you for sharing this. I’m going to be pointing a few SEO focused clients here to read and learn.

Tyler Suchman » 21 Nov 2014 »

Thanks JB, now I just need to get a comments thread notification plugin in place!

Tyler Suchman » 26 Nov 2014 »

OK, comment thread notification in place. Nice improvement from the Jetpack suite.

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