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Why Tagging and Categorisation is Critical for News SEO
A frequently overlooked yet immensely valuable part of success in news SEO are your content sections and article tags that indicate your site's Topic Authority.
[Updated in May 2023 following Google’s confirmation of its Topic Authority ranking system.]
One area of SEO that is increasingly the focus of attention is Topic Authority. In a nutshell, Topic Authority (TA) is an indicator of how much you can trust a website on a given topic.
A website that publishes car reviews would have a high level of TA on automotive topics, but low TA on unrelated topics like recipes or politics.
The theory is Google has confirmed that it uses a system for evaluating a website’s TA by looking at the content it publishes. Google understands the topics of your content (that’s how it indexes pages and ranks them for the right search terms), and examines the quality and expertise of each piece of content published on a site.
or so the SEO industry’s theory goes is a metric - or collection of metrics - that indicate the website’s Topic Authority. The higher a website’s TA on a topic, the better that website’s content will rank for queries related to that topic.
The various topics that Google measures TA scores for very likely align with the topics / interests that Google Discover uses to personalise each user’s feed.
For news publishers, Topic Authority seems to be one of the two main metrics that Google uses to upgrade or downgrade a publisher’s visibility whenever a core algorithm update rolls out (the other being E-E-A-T factors, many of which align with Topic Authority).
Showing your Topic Authority
What does a publisher need to do to demonstrate Topic Authority? What signals can we implement to enhance your TA on the topics your journalism is strongest in? Is it enough to regularly publish new articles on a topic and hope Google figures it out?
The answer to the last question is, unfortunately, no. It’s not enough to just publish content. There are additional signals you should implement to maximise the TA for the topics you specialise in.
The most important additional signal is how your site is structured and your content is categorised. The main sections of your news website are the biggest and most visible signposts, for both users and search engines, what your content is all about. Your website’s top level navigation should list key site sections that feature the articles that form the backbone of your journalistic output.
An example: If you have a strong sports desk, you should have Sport as a top navigation item on every page on your site. If, however, you rarely write about sport (or just take a feed of articles to fill your Sport section), you probably shouldn’t show it as a top navigation item, as it isn’t one of your journalistic strengths.
In an ideal world, site sections in your top navigation shouldn’t be the subject of internal political battles. It doesn’t matter that your Rugby editor plays golf with the CFO. What matters is ensuring your top navigation links align with your journalistic specialities.
It may be worth going through a proper Information Architecture exercise to define your site’s content categorisation and taxonomy, where the volume and quality of your editorial output plays a strong part in defining the practical outcomes.
And if you don’t know what your news site’s journalistic strengths and weaknesses are, you have bigger problems than your SEO.
So where do tag pages fit in? Many publishers see tags as an entirely different mechanism from site sections, usually because tag pages are built on a different page template than section pages. This is a mistake.
For me, tag pages are additional site sections for which there is no room in your top navigation. Every tag page serves the same purpose as a site section: it collects content around a single topic.
The main difference is that site sections are your top navigation links, and tag pages are found through tag links on article pages. Other than that, they perform the same function in terms of SEO.
There are many questions about the best way to implement and manage tag pages, so let me try to address the most common ones:
How many tag pages should we have?
In all seriousness, there’s no straightforward answer to this. Creating new tag pages is not something you should do on a whim. A new tag page should be created when you have a topic you (intend to) write about with some regularity, where there is value in collecting all articles around that topic, and that you aren’t currently capturing with a similar tag or section page.
To give a rough indication of numbers, a small specialised niche publisher can have as few as 100 tag pages, whereas a large national news publisher could have over 100,000 tag pages.
How many tags should be associated with an article?
Again, it depends. If it’s a short article around a single topic, it may just have one tag or no tags at all (if the section it’s placed in suffices as its main topic categorisation).
For longer, wide-ranging pieces of journalism, you could end up with as many as 10 tags or more.
Use whatever tags are appropriate, as long as the tag is actually a topic that’s discussed in the article. And by ‘discussed’, I mean that the topic is addressed with some measure of substance. It should be more than a passing mention that’s barely relevant to the story.
What’s the best place to list tags on an article?
I’m a fan of showing tags where users expect them: Underneath the article text. This is where most publishers list their topic tags, and it’s where the average reader will look for them.
Sometimes a publishing platform will have tags at the top of an article, either above or below the headline. That’s fine too. As long as they’re visible and clickable, so that they link to the tag page in question.
Some sites have an additional link path for their tag pages, a bit like an HTML sitemap specifically for tags, usually linked from the footer of the site. I like this approach, as it creates additional discovery paths for Google (and users) to tag pages.
Having said that, if you stick to best practices around tags you shouldn’t have to rely on a secondary mechanism to allow Google to discover your tag pages. Tags should reflect your journalism, so tag pages should be discoverable for Google through the articles published on your site.
Should we link to tag pages from within an article?
Yes. Strong internal linking helps your site on multiple levels. Links from within the text of an article carry more weight for Google (as they’re more likely to be clicked on by an average user), so they send more value to the tag pages and contribute more to your Topic Authority.
Read more about internal linking here:
Should tag pages be crawlable and indexable for Google?
Yes, absolutely. Google needs to be able to see the tag pages and index them as unique pages on your site.
If Google can’t crawl or index your tag pages, any value your tags might have for your site’s Topic Authority is wasted. Without crawling and indexing your tag pages, Google won’t be able to evaluate your Topic Authority for those tags.
In case you’re worried about crawl budget spent on those tag pages, this really only becomes a potential concern if you have over 100K tag pages and very deep levels of pagination. It’s not something most publishers have to worry about.
How many articles should a tag page contain?
An analogy I often use when it comes to defining tags and sections is ecommerce. Look at your tag pages as if you were an ecommerce website: a product category that contains only a small number of products is an indicator that the ecommerce site doesn’t specialise in those products. Whereas a product category that has thousands of products is a strong signal that this category is a speciality for the ecommerce site. Google likes to rank specialists, as these sites give users the best selection of products.
The same applies to news. For any given news topic, Google wants its users to get the best content. Google wants to rank news publishers that have shown consistent levels of expertise and authority on that news topic. And that means a publisher needs to demonstrate Topic Authority by showing a good level of high quality content on the news topic.
Section and tag pages are your method for demonstrating Topic Authority. Tag pages with a small number of articles don’t demonstrate authority - they demonstrate the opposite: A lack of authority.
As a general rule, if a tag page has fewer than 5 articles it should be considered for deletion. Sometimes there’s still value in keeping a tag page with a low number of articles, primarily when you foresee that it will be used more often in the future. But in most cases, near-empty tag pages are more of a hindrance than a help.
How can we deal with similar tag pages?
It’s easy to end up with tag pages that overlap. For example, you can have a tag page for ‘Joe Biden’ as well as ‘President Biden’, ‘46th President’, ‘President of the USA’, etc.
In some cases you’ll want to keep these as separate tags, as they can change their containing articles. For example, a tag for ‘President of the USA’ will start containing different articles once Biden is succeeded by the 47th President. And you’ll want to keep a ‘Joe Biden’ tag for that exact reason, so you continue to have a tag where you can collect articles about Biden and his post-presidential career.
But if you have those two tags, you may not need a ‘President Biden’ as well as a ‘46th President’ tag, as they basically mean the same thing. You could merge those two tags, or delete them both and rely on your ‘Joe Biden’ and ‘President of the USA’ tag pages to fulfil their purpose.
Try to avoid having separate tag pages for the same topic. I frequently see publishers with tag pages that are basically different phrasings or spellings for the same topic. For example: ‘climate change’, ‘climate crisis’, ‘climate emergency’, and ‘global warming’.
Choose one primarily phrasing - ideally the one that is most commonly used in your target market, which you can check with Google Trends, or the phrasing you prefer to set the right context for the story - and use that for your tag page. Merge all the other overlapping tags into that one tag page.
What’s the best way to merge/delete tag pages?
Often, simply deleting the tag page and serving an appropriate 410 or 404 HTTP status code on the URL is sufficient, provided you ensure those deleted tags also disappear from the tagged articles. You don’t want to end up with loads of internal links that point to Not Found error pages.
Sometimes you’ll want to merge tag pages, in which case you need to 301-redirect the removed tag URL to the merged tag URL.
I don’t recommend using rel=canonical meta tags to try and soft-merge your tag pages. A canonical meta tag is just a hint for Google, and is often overruled by the strength of your internal linking.
What’s the best URL for a tag page?
A webpage’s URL isn’t a big ranking factor, as I explain in this article:
You can implement tag pages in whatever way makes the most sense for your platform. Tag pages can sit in their own separate folder structure; i.e. /tag/[tag-name], or can be part of a site section like /sport/rugby/irish-rugby.
In practical terms, having tag pages in their own folder tends to be most robust, as it prevents duplicate tag pages from being inadvertently created. If you use a section-specific URL structure, you could end up with tags for ‘climate crisis’ in multiple site sections, for example: /world/politics/climate-change as well as /lifestyle/travel/climate-change.
By putting all your tags in their own /tag/ or /topic/ folder structure, you avoid such inadvertent duplication.
How do we optimise tag pages?
As I stated above, tag pages are basically section pages, so they should have appropriate on-page SEO elements in place. This includes:
Unique title attribute containing the tag name, ideally with additional context, i.e.:
<title>Irish Rugby News - [News Brand]</title>
Visible H1 heading with the tag name, i.e.:
<h1>Irish Rugby News</h1>
Crawlable and indexable pagination up to a suitable level of pages, with a decent number of articles listed per page (I recommend a minimum of 20 articles per page).
Sometimes publishers enhance their tag pages with additional content, such as a short description of the tag page’s topic or a bio if the tag is for a person. This definitely helps, but can be tough to implement at scale and isn’t absolutely necessary.
If you do want to do this for your tag pages, focus on your most important tags first.
I hope this helps clarify the purpose and best practices around tags and topic pages. If you have any more questions about tagging and categorisation, please leave a comment below this newsletter. I’ll do my best to provide a helpful answer.
Since it’s been such a long time since my last newsletter, there’s lots to cover:
2022 News & Editorial SEO Summit
After our first-ever News & Editorial SEO Summit in 2021 turned out to be such a success, I hoped that it wasn’t a fluke and we could match that for our second NESS online conference.
I’m glad to say that the 2022 NESS event was another smashing success, with over 600 attendees from all over the world. We had a peak number of well over 500(!) people log in to the live event, with loads of participation in the comments and question sections.
I thoroughly enjoyed the whole event and found myself glued to every word from every speaker. I’m immensely proud of what we’ve built here with NESS, and hope we can maintain this level of quality for all future events.
The awesome Jessie Willms and Shelby Blackley from WTF is SEO wrote a two-part summary of the event, which I highly recommend if you want a recap of the top learnings from NESS22:
Our media partner Search Engine Journal also published a lovely post-event recap, which is worth a read.
John and I are already planning the 2023 edition, and we have ideas to bring more value to the news SEO community - stay tuned!
Interesting SEO News & Updates
Google has updated their documentation, removing the 110-character limit from the (News)Article structured data ‘headline’ attribute. I better update all my training material too.
Press Gazette has a great roundup of online news in 2022 with a series of graphs.
Both NewzDash and WTFisSEO have published predictions for 2023, with contributions from a range of awesome folks in publishing and SEO. Oh, and a wee bit from me as well:
WTF is SEO: What’s next for News SEO? 2023 Predictions
Google has published a lovely gallery of search features and their appropriate names, so you’ll never have to use the wrong name again for a specific search result element.
Shalom Goodman from the Wall Street Journal wrote a short thread on Twitter about some key features of successful live blogs. Definitely worth a read.
My friend Dan Smullen published an awesome piece on Search Engine Journal about keyword research for top stories.
I really liked this piece from Chris Green about SEO metrics and how they connect to one another.
As Google continues to roll out one update after another, the folks at NewsDashboard have looked into their impact on news publishers.
If you want to look at Google’s search result as they appear in different countries and languages, Valentin Pletzer created a perfect web app for that: valentin.app
Lastly, indulge me in a wee bit of self-promotion.
In December the wonderful folks at Glide Publishing Platform organised a seminar in London where they put me on stage to talk about the current state of SEO for news sites. The similarly wonderful folks at Press Gazette were among the attendees, and published this detailed write-up of my talk and the Q&A that followed.
I’ve a few more in-person talks scheduled for 2023 already, all at awesome events that you should definitely attend if you can:
21 February: SEOday (Kolding, Denmark)
23 March: Friends of Search (Amsterdam, The Netherlands)
10 & 11 May: YoastCon (Nijmegen, The Netherlands)
29 June: Nottingham Digital Summit (Nottingham, UK)
There will undoubtedly be more events added to that list, I’ll keep you all updated in upcoming newsletter editions.
That’s it for the first edition in 2023 of my newsletter. I’m not a ‘New Year’s resolutions’ kind of guy, but I will make an effort to publish newsletters more regularly than I was able to in 2022. Plenty more topics to cover, and if you have a suggestion for a topic I should write about, please let me know. I’ll try to stick to a somewhat regular schedule this year, but can’t make any promises!
As always, I would greatly appreciate it if you sent this on to anyone who might find it helpful. Thanks for subscribing and sharing!