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How to Choose Categories for Your Blog

“How do I choose categories for my blog?” This is a question I’m asked a lot so when Ali Hale from Alpha Student asked if he could write a post on the topic of choosing categories I was all ears!

Before you start reading this, take a quick look at something very important: your own blog. What do you see when you glance at the Categories list? If you’re anything like most bloggers, it will include categories which:

  • You used a couple of years ago but don’t use any more
  • Have only one or two posts in
  • Have names that aren’t self-explanatory
  • Seemed like a good idea at the time, when you added them for one specific post

There’s plenty of blogging advice about how to craft posts, how to gain readers, and how to start your first blog – but surprisingly little has been written about how to choose your categories. The only advice I could find was from Lorelle on WordPress:

Most people add categories on the fly or list everything they want to talk about in their categories and then work to fill them up as they go. I made a plan for this blog’s articles and I wanted to keep the focus narrow and the structure clean. I believe working from a very specific plan helps keep a blog on track and more successful. Plans can change over time, but start your journey with a good map.

I’ve just launched a new blog (Alpha Student), which has meant a lot of planning, brainstorming and head-scratching. One of the biggest puzzles has been how to choose suitable categories – which has led me to think hard about how I use categories as a reader, and how categories are typically used in the blogosphere.

I thought a good place to start was my first blog, The Office Diet, where I followed a similar process to most bloggers:

  • I entered the categories that I thought I might write on when I launched the blog without putting much thought into it.
  • I added more categories as I went along (for series, or any post which didn’t fit an existing category).

In doing so, I unwittingly made a number of common mistakes. I’m going to go through four big ones – and bring in some examples from other blogs where I think the categories list could have been more effectively planned.

And once I’ve shown you some of the mistakes, I’ll explain how you can choose your categories effectively in order to avoid making them.

Mistake 1: Failing to Plan

The mistake which most bloggers make is failing to plan at all – and, if they do plan, failing to adjust that plan to fit reality!

With The Office Diet, I knew I wanted to create a few downloadable resources for readers in the first month (January) – such as a food diary template. So I had a category called “Resources” which was supposed to hold this sort of posts. In practice, though, I’ve only written a handful of these.

I suspect some other bloggers have met similar problems, when they’ve either not planned ahead (ask yourself “Will I use this category frequently?” if you add one for a specific post) or where their plans haven’t quite matched up with what really happens.

For example, on The Simple Dollar, Trent has the categories “Décor” and “S&P 500” which only have one post in each. “Sunday Conversation” only has three posts. Although this is conjecture, I think Trent probably added those categories on a day when he wrote on those specific topics – and didn’t plan ahead for whether he’d use them again.

Mistake 2: Using Categories for Series

Lots of big blogs, including ProBlogger, Daily Blog Tips and many more use categories for series. I did the same on The Office Diet, when I wrote the “Basics”, “Healthy Mind” and “Excuse-Busting” series. I now think that this was a mistake.

Readers who come to a blog for the first time are likely to use your categories to navigate to posts that they’re interested in. Category names often aren’t self-explanatory, and if the series ran a year ago, all the posts in that category will be old. If you run a lot of series, your category list will quickly become cluttered up. And navigating through a series by clicking on a category often means scrolling through multiple pages of posts – often a pain for readers.

I would suggest that, for the majority of blogs, posts in a series should be categorised “normally” just like any other posts. Each post in the series should have a link at the top and bottom going to an index post (or even a page) which holds links to the whole series. You might also want to include a link to the previous and next posts in the series from each.

For a shortish series (under 10 posts), you could even put the index at the top of every post – the Men with Pens do this to great effect on their Guest Posting series (as an aside, this is a great read for any blogger thinking about writing guest posts). Or put it at the bottom of every post, like Sonia on Remarkable Communication is doing with her Objection Blaster Series.

Mistake 3: Categories at Different Granularities

A very common problem with categories is not keeping your categories at the same level of granularity. By that, I mean that some of your categories are probably very broad and others are very narrow. This is often caused by failing to plan: it’s a good idea to sit down for an hour or two and decide roughly how many categories you want, and how broad or detailed that means they’ll be.

Blogs which are narrowly focused on a niche will probably have narrow, specific topics as readers are likely to be looking for expert advice in particular areas. Blogs with a very wide remit need broad categories to help readers weed out the areas that aren’t interesting to them.

On Problogger, I would suggest that the categories list has some items which cover too narrow an area. For example, “Yahoo Publishing Network” is very specific when compared with categories like “Advertising” and “Blog Networks”.

Mistake 4: Inconsistent Category Naming

I’d bet good money that, at some point, you’ve come across a categories list on a blog and wondered what the heck some of the categories meant. Perhaps most were self explanatory, like “Reader Questions” or “Content Writing” but then you came across “Special”. Special what? Try to make sure your category names can be understood without the reader having to click on them to figure out what they might mean.

Or maybe you see a blog which has a nice neat list of one-word categories, then one which is five words long so gets a disproportionate amount of space compared to its importance. (Usually, the shorter the name of a category, the broader its remit and the larger the number of posts it contains.)

This is a tiny point – but be consistent with capitalisation. One of my favourite blogs, The Change Blog, capitalises all the categories except two (“blog carnival” and “personal growth”) – to me, this looks a little odd.

Another problem is when some of the categories have quite formal names (“Finances, Frugality, Investment”) and others are slangy or chatty (“Quick tips”, “Easy wins”). The way in which you name your categories is important in setting the tone for your whole blog. On most blog templates, the categories list displays on the front page: that means you need to put at least as much thought into the wording of your categories as you do into the wording of your headlines.

Doing It Right

Now that I’ve been through the common mistakes people make with categories, you might be looking at your own blog in dismay – or rethinking your plans for the one you’re about to launch.

I mentioned earlier that I’ve just launched a new blog which took a considerable amount of planning. You can see the categories page at www.alphastudent.com/categories (I chose not to list the categories on the front page).

Rule 1: As Few Categories As Possible

Due to my blog design, I needed to keep the number of categories down to make sure they fitted comfortably in the list. I also wanted room to show the latest post from each category.

Most bloggers would benefit from using as few categories as possible. This avoids blog clutter in your sidebar, and avoids presenting readers with a forbidding list of dozens of different topics.

Alpha Student has a wide remit – “Helping you make the most of your time at university” – and covers everything from advice on exam technique to lists of flash games to play when you need a break. I decided on the categories:

Academic
Career
Financial
Personal
Practical
Social

When you’re planning your blog, think about how many categories you really need … can two of your topics be conflated into one?

If you’ve got an existing blog, take a look at your categories list and note any which are superfluous.

Rule 2: Don’t Be too Specific

Try not to be too specific, at least to start with. I deliberately kept my topics very broad. I could have broken down “Academic” into “Essays”, “Exams”, “Lectures”, “Seminars” and so on. When your blog is new, having dozens of categories means that lots of them will only contain one or two posts for a while.

Even if your blog’s been going for a while, you’ll find that some categories are too narrow – anything which contains under 5% of the total posts on your blog can probably be ditched.

Rule 3: Think Ahead

I know that with Alpha Student, I’ll want to run some series. For example, I’m going to do a series on essay writing with posts on topics like “Planning your essay”, “The first line of your essay”, and so on. But I don’t want to introduce a category just for a short series.

So I’m planning to categorize all those posts under “Academic”, which means readers browsing the academic section can find them easily. (Bear in mind that the majority of your readers won’t sit down and follow a whole series from beginning to end – they might only read one post from the middle.)

I’ll also have a single post announcing the series which will contain a list of the posts in the series, linking to each one. The individual posts in the series will link back to this index post.

How do you (or how will you) manage series on your blog?

What about competitions, giveaways and other one-offs? Think about how you can make these easy for readers to follow without using a category.

Over to You

As I said at the start of this article, little has been written about choosing categories for your blog. I’d love us to start remedying that here!

What are your thoughts on this topic – do you have a particular plan behind the categories on your blog? Do you think that categories aren’t really that important? Is there anything you wish you’d done differently with the way you’ve used categories?

Ali has just launched Alpha Student, a blog aimed at helping students make the most of their time at university.

About Darren Rowse

Darren Rowse is the founder and editor of ProBlogger Blog Tips and Digital Photography School. Learn more about him here and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn.

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Comments

  1. Hey, Ali, thanks for the link and a great post! Figuring out how to do categories, navigation and links to series has been a thorn in our side for a while. It seems there’s no “best” way, and even plugins are more trouble than they’re worth.

    So the Guest Posting series that you highlighted here was our answer. It’s a Best Of, so that’s the navigation, and each post links to the next in the attempt to help readers follow along.

    And… congrats on your guest post!

    (First!)

  2. Well I run theblogacademy.com and as it’s a lesson based Blog, I orgainise my categories into weekly lessons with the main focus of the week as the category.

    I think that too many categories can be confusing and I don’t think enough people spend time looking through them all. I would say no more than 10/15 categories would be suitable.

    Does anybody agree with me?

  3. Sid Savara says:

    Hi Ali,

    Nice post. I agree with some of your points, but I disagree with not being too specific. I actually prefer blogs that are very specific and have categories like “Adsense” versus just “Making Money From Your Blog” (as an example). Since multiple categories are allowed, at least in WordPress, you don’t have to pick just one per post.

    Or people can use tags to accomplish the same thing (which is what I am doing, but I may migrate it all to categories)

    For example, I may not care about academic – but I am a writer, and I may enjoy specific “Essay Wring Tips” – even though I am out of college.

  4. Joseph Z. says:

    I think that when blogs use tags and categories, the categories are great for broad use, while the tags can serve to narrow down the focus. You can tag a post in the “Academic” category as “series” and both will help people find it (I’m pretty sure that WP has tags and I know Blogger does).

  5. Debo Hobo says:

    I have been waiting for a post like this. My categories are all over the place. Now I know what to do. Thanks!

  6. Excellent! This is the most comprehensive yet concise post on blog categories I’ve ever read. It really does all begin with planning.

  7. Bloggeries says:

    Solid advice. I’ll be sharing this story. I like the one of not being TOO SPECIFIC. Many people do and find it hard to then fill the categories. I also think less is often more.

    Thanks!

    @bloggeries

  8. Sarah H. says:

    Ali, thanks for this great set of tips! I’ve been a casual reader at Problogger for some time now and have recently started up a new blog. This particular topic of categories is quite timely as today I am analyzing the global structure of my blog-to-be, which of course includes categories. A few days ago I made a long list of potential categories that were very specific. After reading your post, I realized that each category would likely hold only a handful of posts over time, so I decided to investigate how I could make some changes. I discovered that all my specific categories fit nicely into 4 broad categories. I will use tags to ‘divide’ these categories up more specifically. And as you suggested, I now feel like I have a better handle on planning for my blog’s future. Thanks so much!!

  9. Hamdani Amin says:

    When I redesign my blog recently, I determine what I am going to write and what I had been writing so far. Next I determine, what is my site goal.

    Based on this, I determine what the best category, at the minimum possible (from more than 15 initially down to 7).

    The new category is not so specific but also not general. You can easily expected what kind of post under each category. Lately my reader can also expected which category will have a new update and on what frequency (1 day to 3 days).

  10. Jeff says:

    Great tips for a new blogger like myself. I’ve been mostly adding categories as I needed them. I’ll have to take some of these tips into account and look at reorganizing my categories.

    http://www.2lincolns.com

  11. Love this post! I’m heading over to my blog right now to look at my categories and probably change some things…

  12. Ali Hale says:

    @James I agree there’s no “best” way, I think you guys have it pretty well figured out. Your guest posting series was one of the easiest to navigate that I’ve come across (and I’m sure this guest post on ProBlogger is partly due to your excellent advice.)

    @Sid and @Joseph Great points, particularly about the use of tags — something I decided to leave out of this post so as not to overcomplicate it. I agree that there are times when readers *do* want very specific topics, and I may well introduce tags on Alpha Student if it looks like that will help people find what they’re after.

  13. Graham says:

    Great topic. I really didn’t have a plan for using categories so for 3 months I didn’t. I publish weekly so it took a while to see a pattern emerge for my categories. Now I have 5 categories (one being site announcements) and each post goes into one of the categories. This helps me keep a good variety of posts going so I don’t do too many food focused entries in a row.

  14. Great unqiue post! I have 3 types of categories on my blog. Phase, Topic, and series.

    In my About section I talk about how my blog will evolve through three phases: The Impementation, Trial and Error, and The Sustainment. Every blog I post will fall into one of these categories.

    Then, I have a handful of pre-selected topic categories that will fit most every post also, but narrows down the posts to more specific topics like “Starting a Business” or “Lists”.

    Finally, every once in a while I will have a series that I will put in a category with the series name, for easy reference. These categories end with the word SERIES so people know what series I’ve had in the past.

    I think this works well for my blog. As a reader, I rarely look to the categories to navigate the blog. I think this is because the categories are used differently from blog to blog.

  15. Mike Nichols says:

    Thank you for a great post, Ali!

    I have very specific categories (but not too many), because my blog is in a very narrow niche. Yet, I have one or two that are overly broad, and I intend to fix that by reassigning categories and carefully considering new ones. And there are a couple that have few posts, and I’ll be reconsidering them, too.

    I use tags to define the details, rather than categories. And I assign only one category to a post. That way, my readers can look at a broad swath of posts (categories) or very specific subjects (tags).

  16. Great article on choosing articles for your blog. I would have to say that it seems that categorizing is a progressive event. Over time I have learned to label this-that and that-this. Its like forms of discussion and interaction. You can’t have a debate, discussion, conversation, or interaction without a common knowledge and understanding about what your talking about with someone. So, if I use categories that know one understands, they get me no where, as far as people interacting with my blog. As I continue to blog and interact with other communities, I have learned to choose different terms and wording for my categories that would effect greater interaction.

    Best regards, Matt Thompson | Mattheosis.com
    Original Orthodox Hubby @ Home Dad

  17. Nice article. Just for reference, Chris Pearson over at pearsonified.com has a good one as well about how to use categories to effectively to guide readers to the content you want them to see. Good stuff.

    For myself I’d agree that you do want to limit the overall number of categories. Too many (say, more than a dozen) and you’ll make yourself crazy and your readers feel fragmented.

    I disagree that you have to boil the category names down to something very generic, however. Blogs rest on personalities, and the choice of words to categorize blog thoughts can reveal much. And entertaining category name can lead the reader in.

  18. Nice article. Just for reference, Chris Pearson over at pearsonified.com has a good one as well about how to use categories effectively to guide readers to the content you want them to see. Good stuff.

    For myself I’d agree that you do want to limit the overall number of categories. Too many (say, more than a dozen) and you’ll make yourself crazy and your readers feel fragmented.

    I disagree that you have to boil the category names down to something very generic, however. Blogs rest on personalities, and the choice of words to categorize blog thoughts can reveal much. And entertaining category name can lead the reader in.

  19. Cindy King says:

    Hi Ali, I really appreciated reading this.

    After 5 months of blogging every day on two different blogs I had a problem with categories, and spent 2 weeks reorganizing them.

    When making my categories I identified the key reason why someone would want that piece of information and the pain point or emotion behind it. This helped me to re-focus my categories.

    The reasons are more important to me than in-depth or not – it depends on who is coming to your blog. And if you plan them right it makes sense and is easy for both you and your readers.

    One of my blogs is fairly straight forward and has only 5 categories, but the other one is a how-to blog and has lots more (can’t remember off hand). I actually thought I’d like to go back and tweak those categories the other day…and now you have given me some good inspiration.

    I find that having good categories makes the blogging process easier. Thank you!

  20. Thanks for this timely post Ali, I have been trying to declutter my blog categories lately – gone from 22 to 14. Now I will try and see if I can whittle it down any further after reading your tips!

  21. Mike says:

    I have just cleaned up some of my categories that were too specific as a bonus I cam across some topics that I wanted to write more about and only had 1 or two articles

  22. Sonia Simone says:

    Great topic–I had lots of categories over on Typepad (and used multiples for every post). ‘m now in the process of cleaning them up and paring them down to one per post now that I’ve moved to WP. This will be very helpful in that process! (And yes, I’ve got inconsistent capitalization too. Tsk tsk tsk!)

  23. Derrick M. says:

    Wow. I just launched my blog this week and I was literally just thinking not less than 5 minutes ago about how awkward and not relevant my categories were. This post confirmed my suspicions. My categories are irrelevant and awkward. Also, I gave my blog 10 categories cause it seemed like the standard amount to have based on what I’ve seen.

    I don’t need 10 Categories. I think 5 or 6 would suffice quite nicely. Anyway, thanks for the post. Right on the money as always.

    Best,
    Derrick aka Uncle Fatlips.

  24. MouthyGirl says:

    Ironically, I just went through the categories on MG last week and dumped quite a few of them, and have vowed not to start another category unless it’s very worthy.

    Great post.

  25. Shafar says:

    Very helpful and interesting article. Thanks

  26. Martin says:

    You’ve made some great points in this post.
    However, your comments only seem to releate to the top-level categories. What about sub-categories?
    Similar rules apply to the creation of sub-categories, but how many levels deep is appropriate?
    I use sub-categories, but don’t want to go more than two levels deep with categories on my site, as that can get too messy to navigate
    (Discussion of sub-categories may not be as useful, as not all blogging software supports sub-categories.)

  27. Matt says:

    Yes the categories are really important especially for e-commerce website and SEO, you need to select in the same time the right keywords and the right product to display.
    I am recreating my navigation bar menu for my Magento e-commerce website and this article does helps.

  28. Jon says:

    Thanks for the post. I learned from the four mistakes people make with categories, however I wish the post had given more examples of what does work.

    I’d love to see a follow-up post that dealt more with that aspect.

  29. Ted Murphy says:

    I built a blog a year ago that started out with 2000 posts that needed categorizing. This was a blog tracking all VC deals and grouping them to get investment ideas. Anyway, I ended up with over 250 categories. You can get a feel for them in this page:

    http://vcastocks.com/index.php/vca-themes/

    One part of the experience that might be useful to you and your readers was the way in which I used sub-categories (this was using WP). Check out the javascript chart on the left column of the home page, you can see that 16 overall sectors for VC investments drill down into Industry groups that in turn drill down to “vca themes”.

    Anyway, I did a lot of work with categories,and some of it may be useful to others.

  30. Dominique says:

    Great article on choosing categories. I think i too need to streamline and choose carefully the topics I want to feature on my blog. I think there are too many categories at the moment.

  31. Kok Choon says:

    The category will grow to a point – a bit messy, I think I will re-organize them into the sub category later, but it is better to have plan at start, this will minimize the problems.

  32. As we speak, I’m going thru this process right now. It’s a lot more difficult to narrow things down into a clear, concise format than to include every possibility.

    Actually I’m going thru the same thing with “pages” to include (or not include). I’m a minimalist so I want to keep the categories/pages as clean and easy to read as the blog design itself.

    Re “Do you think that categories aren’t really that important?”… Absolutely, most of us are time challenged and anything that gets us to where we want to go more quickly helps. Well labeled, easy to understand categories is a definite plus!

  33. What about sub-categories though? Is it viable from SEO point of view and would it be a hindrance?

  34. impNERD says:

    Great article. Generally, I keep the categories divided up into technology, web development, downloads, and reviews. Yes, a lot of times the reviews overlap, but I like to keep them separate.

    Since most writings are within web development, I tend to just use tags quite often to separate them into groups: seo, internet marketing, copywriting, design, etc.

  35. Young says:

    There are so many things to think before adding a Categorie!

  36. Choosing a right array of categories was one of the crucial points when I was working for the launch of my blog (“Mejorando”, spanish word for “improving”, a blog about personal development). I know I didn’t want an impossible list of categories (when I’m on the middle of some of them, I forgot what was on the top), and also didn’t want subcategories (usually they’re not so useful, and add a lot of clutter).

    Then I decided to use only 4 key categories: Personal Development, Economy, Productivity and Health. They’re broad enough to cover a lot of topics, and if posts fell into more than a one category, I put them in both (for example, last topic about the right use of your emotions was filed under Personal Development and Productivity).

    I found in this point that the “less is more” motto is particulary right. And also you have the benefit that new users access with less clics (interaction) to much more information, so they can found something interesting about your blog more easily.

  37. L-Jay says:

    Great ideas above – but like always, here’s a different approach:

    Categories for advertisement:
    I actually use my categories list to advertise what I have on my blog. This gives the reader an idea of what sort of information they can find and what will be posted in the future. In blogging they always say people love a good ‘list’ because they are quick and scannable for your reader. Something too broad is generally too vague.

    Categories for Stickiness:
    I have a long list of categories that runs down my front page, usually along my latest post. This is so a reader can have another choice/place to go after they have finished reading the post (or want to swap half way through.)

    Categories for Aesthetics:
    (I hope) my categories gives a sense of order about my blog. I have tried to make the categories free and inviting – a visual picture in itself – with easy lines and lots of space.

    Categories for Breathing Space:
    My categories add visual space to my blog to try and give my readers a rest from all the intros, RSS/subscriptions and ads crammed in up the top.

    There are others but, so much to do… lol.

  38. amirulcyber says:

    darren you should write article about this more earlier.thnks for this info.

  39. Darren, You are such a good writer, how log did you take to write such a long article?

  40. Ted Murphy says:

    note to Abhinav Sonkar re sub-categories:

    I’m not sure whether sub-categories are OK for SEO — my blog doesn’t have enough traffic to really figure that out. I took a look at my “Interactive TV” sub-category to answer that question.

    Here is a page showing the “Interactive TV” area within the “Digital TV and Movies” section of the “Entertainment” sector on my blog:

    http://vcastocks.com/index.php/category/entertainment/digital-tv-and-movies/interactive-tv/

    The keys for SEO are url, title and content — all clearly show the Interactive TV verbiage. That subdirectory is part of my sitemap, as well. However, when I search for Interactive TV on Google, no joy — there is no mention of this page from VCAStocks. Its not even in the Google database.

    Its an important question, and all I can say is that my SEO result is a big zero. I suspect this is because nobody has ever linked to that precise subdirectory. If you had a dozen links out there to the subdirectory, I think it would be fine.

  41. Pierre says:

    Over at BirdSmack we use categories primarily for humor purposes. It’s hard to resist clicking on a category named, say, “Fake dog balls”, even if it only has one post for now. Of course our site is filled with disguised middle fingers, so we have a unique situation.

    Anybody else using categories for humor?

    One downside is the clutter factor. We’d love to have say 20 random categories printed instead of the full list.

    Anyone know a good resource for WP noobs that explain how to print 20 random categories instead of the full list?

  42. John says:

    Darren

    Good suggestions and quite timely for me. I often add my posts to several categories and I have been thinking that I need to stop this practice. Any suggestions on doing or not doing this sort of thing?

  43. Dave Smith says:

    Good advise on naming categories and not having too many of them on a blog.

    One word of caution. If you are using keyword specific categories and putting them in your permalink structure you should be aware that if you change categories or delete a category all the posts in that category will create errors in search engine results since that specific URL no longer exists.

    Eventually they will be reindexed but it could take some time.

    The best action is what you suggest, plan them out ahead of time.

    You are right there isn’t much out there about choosing, naming or using categories on a blog.

  44. RhondaL says:

    Great timing for this post! The WP theme on my new blog (http://www.thehorseyset.net) has only four categories and I’m considering re-naming them, especially while I’m building content and re-naming them won’t be a massive undertaking.

  45. Infinitus76 says:

    When I started my blog I put a little thought in the categories. Since my blog is about history I decided that the categories would be various centuries, thus keeping things in chronological order. I use tags to organize things by specific people, wars, events, etc. It has been working well so far.

  46. Louis Liem says:

    I use as few categories as possible and I use tags to handle the widening of each article in a category.

    If I start a new blog, I’ll start with only one category and then I observe within every new article published, if it’s related to the article before. If it is, I’ll group them into a category. In the next post, I’ll also see if it fits to the category I created before. If it is, there it goes.

    You’re welcome to see my alternative in naming categories here: http://www.homebiz.bukiki.com/tags-category-name-tips/

  47. Hey Ted,

    That’s the doubt that I am having.. just a question to your specific case though.. are you sure it is not blocked by robots.txt file? Just ensure it mate!

  48. Ted Murphy says:

    Good question — I actually did not setup a robots.txt file. Wishful thinking on my part!

  49. Terrific post. I’m off to rewrite my categories!

  50. gout says:

    Not easy, we need practice and consist to be expert…thanks for advising