Recently, I was auditing a site for one of my Pathtorch customers…
They were using multiple categories per post, a common scenario, totally harmless in itself… Something I had seen and reported on many times…
But this time it was different somehow…
As I was writing out my suggestions it dawned on me that there were common situations or scenarios that I would see over and over again.
“Why is nobody talking about this?”
At this moment I decided to write this article, a sort of manifesto against ambiguity that most advice about category pages has become.
If you have ever been confused or unsure about the best option for your category page setup, or if you’ve never even thought about it… This post is most definitely for you.
Before I go further, I wanted to make two important distinctions.
- Category pages for blogs/news/info sites.
- Category pages for e-commerce sites
I am a firm believer that in the case of the second, there is only one truly good way to set out your category pages. That’s for another time. I just wanted to make clear that I’m talking about Point 1. Categories for informational sites.
Setting Up Category Pages That Work For Search Engines AND People…
When it comes to information sites, categories are extremely important.
Information architecture simply doesn’t work well without categorization…
Information architecture being a human construct, we don’t either. And nor for that matter do Search Engines.
You can cause yourself problems today with category pages, as popular CMS’ (Content Management Systems) such as WordPress was created over a decade ago. Largely unchanged in that time, the same can’t be said for the likes of Google and Bing.
Today, the internet has over 1.5 Billion websites. Web pages? You can take your wildest guess. Trillions?
Crawling has become one of the most difficult tasks for search engines today.
Resources are stretched thin…
Tech may have improved exponentially, but so have the number of web pages on the world wide web.
Category pages are some of the most important pages on your site. So getting them wrong is costing brands big time. We operate at a time where search engines don’t want to be carrying any dead weight after all.
Setting up category pages appropriately requires two things.
- Understanding of the above
- Understanding what works today
I’ve given you the first. Now let me give you the benefit of my findings in the second point.
The Three Archetypes
There are just three main archetypes out there when it comes to categories. Ultimately, it’s important to note that any category page is just a Hallway Page or a “pretty sitemap”.
- Blogroll Archetype
- Custom Archetype
- Hybrid Archetype.
Note: The hybrid is a mixture of the above two archetypes.
The blogroll is basically just a list of posts pulled from the database of your site, listed based on at least one category template. Usually paginated at the bottom of the page.
This makes every category page identical, and usually, every article listed in the category is listed identically to how it is listed elsewhere.
Each article invariably contains an image, the headline, an excerpt and potentially a “read more” style link.
These work well… In certain situations.
The custom does away with templates. Instead, you create the category from scratch. Usually starting off with a blank page.
This gives you more control, and more able to rank the categories. However, the time and effort required for creation and maintenance can be a pain.
A custom category in a CMS’ such as WordPress is usually created as a page, then with various plugins and ‘tricks’ is then turned into a category page.
The main differences here are that custom categories usually put a focus on adding more unique content, and features less of the features of blogroll categories.
Hybrid categories are usually a mixture of the two above types.
While I have personally and have seen others use a custom category as a “base”.
Most people creating hybrid categories will create them by starting off with a blogroll and adding unique features into a more limited area.
There are some features pulled in automatically here, or at least in some templated way… However, some part of the page has been created manually.
Here’s the truth about these archetypes…
They all work great, but only in certain situations…
While most people are busy debating which works best, there are few people in the SEO industry that I know of who are busy trying to point out which to use and when.
Or which to use in what situation.
This is because doing this is really difficult.
It’s hard because these things are always dependent on different factors, needs, and considerations…
However, I wanted to give it a shot to give you an idea of a good general rule of thumb, and some things you might want to consider in different situations.
The easiest way to answer this is to set up some scenarios and talk about the best practices, pros, and cons.
When you have a blogroll homepage, you ideally want to use a Hybrid or Custom Archetype.
A blogroll homepage is just fine, except the same exact articles will start to fill up the categories on your site. This builds up internal duplicate content, which will harm your rankings if severe enough.
Not only this, but these kinds of pages are considered to be thin content and add little value to the index…
Because of this, you’ve got two problems:
- The blogroll category pages display a % of the same posts as your blogroll homepage.
- Blogroll category pages are considered thin content at the best of times, let alone when it mirrors the homepage.
Add pagination into the mix, and now you’re creating sub-folders of each low-quality category page… It’s a real problem.
This has hauled back rankings on sites over and over again.
Luckily the solution is simple… You can use the custom archetype or the hybrid archetype.
You can NoIndex the category pages. P.S. Don’t forget the pagination pages…
Hint: Don’t use Disallow in robots.txt for pagination… Period.
Multiple Categories Per Post
If you are using more than one category for each post, for whatever reason you’ll be in the same situation as with the blogroll homepage…
If your homepage is a blogroll, you’ve now got a homepage match with a category AND another category…
If your homepage isn’t a blogroll, you still have a problem here.
When you are using multiple categories per post — always NoIndex those pages & paginated pages.
If you’re using multiple categories per post, odds are you don’t want to be using the Custom Archetype. However, definitely consider the Hybrid Archetype as they are almost always superior to the Blogroll Archetype (in my opinion).
A static homepage is your typical, never changing page. Maybe it’ll recycle over the ‘most recent’ 2 or 3 articles from time to time. But generally, this page is staying as is.
For sites like this, you often see the Blogroll Archetype being used for categories, at least more successfully.
You can also use the Hybrid Archetype if you want to try and index these pages and rank for a few keywords as well.
News Style Sites
You will notice that large news sites, such as the image featured earlier in this post of HuffingtonPost.co.uk are often using the Blogroll Archetype.
What most people haven’t realized is that the teams of these sites have encountered many of the same problems we have talked about in this article…
This is because their homepages are most often very complex blogrolls themselves.
But a Custom Archetype doesn’t make sense for them. While the Hybrid approach is still maybe a little overkill.
So the best option for big publishers is to remain with the Blogroll Archetype.
While eliminating the main issues of course!
This being the excerpt, as that’s where the majority of the duplicate content comes from.
Especially important since HuffingtonPost decide to index their category pages.
Niche sites are almost unique in the sense that they are one of the few types of site that can really get away with creating custom category pages that rock.
Authority sites are usually fairly broad, and they require dealing with a growing number of categories. They also quite often use a “hybrid homepage”. So using blogroll style categories isn’t as much of an issue…
But with niche sites, there are usually a finite number of topics.
And in some cases, there can be a crossover too which is why I included the HerePup example.
Niche sites being more finite in the number of topics means that readers are often enthusiasts and hobbyists, so they like the blogroll homepage to quickly see what is new.
This also means that you’re able to spend more time on the category pages…
Making them unique, more useful and valuable.
This both avoids the common pitfalls we see with blogroll style homepages, but it also means you have a unique opportunity to attempt to rank your category pages for a wider range of keywords.
Niche sites are not the only sites out there that can benefit from using the Custom Archetype for their Categories. But in my opinion, they make the best candidate out of the box.
Picking The Right Archetype…
When you hear people telling you the best way to go is with a custom category setup, that’s simply bad advice…
Picking the right archetype for your site, that will benefit both your search engine rankings, fit the need for proper information architecture and user-experience is one of the most important things you will ever do when building a site.
Using some of the scenarios, and listening to some of the common pitfalls I’ve encountered will help you make the right decision.
And hell, if you’re thinking who the heck is this guy anyway, you can also feel rest assured that my own findings are also mirrored in the majority of the biggest sites in the world…
The archetypes don’t change, only the scenario does.
I hope you found this article useful. If so, be kind and give it a share!
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