Fix your category pages for users and SEO

The Publishers Playbook Newsletter

In the last couple months, The Code Company has worked on three fairly large projects that have all involved in-depth SEO analyses by different consultants/agencies. One of the most interesting recommendations they’ve all had in common is their poor use of the category archive pages. 

As it goes, once you’ve learned something, your frequency bias kicks in, and now everywhere I look I see people failing to make the most of their category archive pages. 

What is the category archive page?

To clear that one up, what I’m talking about are the automated sections on your website—created by WordPress or any CMS—that by default show a chronological list of articles that fall within that category. 

How many pages have you seen like that

The opportunity is that when effort is put in, these pages have the potential to be highly valuable to both your users and to search engines like Google. For your users and search engine bots, if they’re on a specific category page, they’re likely to be interested in more content from that category. 

Categories in general 

Before talking about the actual pages and that opportunity, it’s probably worth stepping back for a second and discussing the concept of categories and how they relate to site menus. Though sites grow and content changes, rarely do the categories and taxonomisation of that content evolve.

I came across an article recently called Navigation Schemas vs. Taxonomies. It can be quite a dry topic, but it reminds us we should not be thinking of categories and site navigation as the same thing. 

Categories shouldn’t be functional. 

By that I mean a category shouldn’t typically be something you assign to an article to get it to appear on a part of your site. Having a category of “News” isn’t going deep enough. News may be the type of article or where it belongs on the site, but it doesn’t give any extra context to the article for your users or search bots. 

How to fix category pages

If a category is worthy of existence, then it should be worthy of a decent landing page.

A default WordPress site will generate a URL that shows all posts sorted by date for that category. Which is really a throwback to WordPress’s origins as a blogging platform.

Here is general advice on how to think about category pages and fix them—to benefit your users as well as search engines. 

Think of the category page as its own home page

Your category archive page should be somewhat curated, with some or all of your more evergreen content featured. This page should also have indexable content in addition to the articles, if you can’t write a paragraph or two about the category, you should question having this category.

The category name shouldn’t be the title or primary heading. Describe that category. What other content can you bring through to that page? If you have related products, services, ecommerce, events, or whatever–there’s a perfect opportunity to connect the dots.

Category pages 2.0

Looking to the future, the way I’m thinking of approaching this becomes a process of figuring out the ideal navigation system first and then building those pages, which may be collections of categories, tags and other taxonomies. 

There’s plenty of other technical and UX tips we’ve observed and implemented, and we’re just starting to see those dividends. Mostly around greater time on site, average pages per visit, and Google giving more weight to these once ignored sections. 

They key takeaway from this is that there is probably a lot of simple adjustments you could do quite easily with your current website and how it’s set up. Start by thinking about these category pages as their own entity and the rest should make more logical sense. 

Ben May

Ben is Managing Director of The Code Company. He is passionate about working with publishers on clever and innovative ways to solve complex problems. He works with The Code Company team on all projects, bringing his perspective and problem solving skills to deliver great outcomes.