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For every content project I’ve been involved with, categories and tags have had a role to play. Sometimes, there are clearly defined systems, which make a positive contribution to the user experience. However, it must be said that very often something goes awry. There is no set plan, and users find themselves confused by numerous and options. Over a period of years, this can lead to a sort of digital rabbit warren that can be expensive to sort out. Thus it’s important to have a defined approach to categories and tags to order your content.
Any users of WordPress will be familiar with categories and tags, but a number of sites I’ve worked with have struggled to differentiate between the two. Typically I define the two as follows:
In the book Card Sorting: Designing Usable Categories, Donna Spencer uses wine as a vertical to explain the variety of classification schemes:
Of course, most content is best fitted into a ‘topic’ scheme. But within that, we should aim for top level categories that are the same level as each other.
In the case of Debenham’s blog, we can see an instance of confusing categorisation within the top level navigation. Debenhams (and indeed many other blogs in fashion e-commerce) often try to replicate lifestyle publishers in their blog categorisation. On the surface, the below content categorisation appears okay:
But these categories are extremely broad. ‘Lifestyle’ contains all content which isn’t Fashion, which isn’t its true definition. On first thoughts, ‘News’ could mean a broad range of up to date content, but on closer inspection it is company news. Meanwhile ‘Advice’ could fit into all of the other categories, but it is not clear what kind of advice this is. Get the Look: Joey Essex is clearly Advice, but it doesn’t appear in the category.
While Debenhams gives the impression of a flat categorised navigation, it is confusing for the following reasons:
It’s difficult to properly visualise this navigation in a hierarchy, largely because it includes three different levels of navigation at the same level, and mixes topics with page types.
An easier way to present this to the user would be in simple tiered navigation. Page types would not be needed on the navigation, because they would be easier to find through a broader range of possible topics.
You could categorise by article types, but it’s important to be consistent and specific within your navigation. Always think of your categorisation as a hierarchy of how users can find content.
Broad categories throw up a range of possibilities, and often lead to content creators digressing from brand essence or defined strategy. Be specific, and try to focus on the things you’re best at, and you’ll more likely find an audience. Lots of other companies, particularly publishers, are more likely going to fulfil broad spectrum content well, so it pays to be defined.
What a defined category and tag plan will create is a system that is easy for users to navigate to other relevant content, and easy for your developers to customise when necessary. Vogue.co.uk uses this system well.
If a user enter the website and clicks News, then sees a story she wants to read:
She can easily get to other related content. It's this sort of system that you should aim for when creating a blog or any other content platform - your categories and tags should be built with the user in mind. Specifically - what role will my defined categories and tags have in presenting the best information to the user?
By James Carson
James Carson is a Content Strategy consultant and owner of Carson Content. He was formerly Head of Digital Marketing at Bauer Media, where he oversaw digital integration and content strategy for some of the UK's largest media brands including FHM, Grazia and heat. You can talk to him on Twitter, Google+ or LinkedIn.
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