I’ll be the first to admit that ‘tags’ didn’t totally make sense to me when I first started blogging. My initial exposure to blogging - if I remember right - was more than likely LiveJournal and Blogger, but from there I eventually started using tools like Movable Type and WordPress on my own domains. These tools aren't just great for blogging; they also work quite well as Content Management Systems (CMS).
To me, these full-featured blogging platforms offered a sense of professionalism over utilizing other standalone services. I could post directly to my own website as opposed to sending people away to a different URL to view my blog.
In any case, when I started blogging with Movable Type and WordPress, I found out pretty quickly that - surprise - I didn’t know everything there was to know about blogging. Don’t get me wrong; both platforms are quite intuitive and simple to use, but I really didn’t know how to make the most of my content to maximize search traffic and usability.
As it turns out, how you use tags can play a pretty significant role in getting more out of your content. I really only recognized this fact about 8 months ago.
Tags are not Keywords
I've made a few mistakes as it pertains to tagging. Going back in to your old blog posts and editing later can be quite time consuming (a little quicker in WordPress than in Movable Type), so if you can get it right the first time, life will be easier.
This was the first mistake I made: I generated a list of keywords and copied them directly into the ‘tags’ field for every new blog post I published. At first I didn’t think that there was much of a difference between the two. While it's okay if there's a bit of overlap, you could very quickly saturate the number of tags across your blog and end up having to scale down and de-dupe later.
Tags are not Categories
Another common mistake (and I’m guilty of this as well) is to create identical categories and tags. This is actually counterproductive for your overall navigation scheme. People can click on tags to find other posts with similar references, but they can also click on categories to find other relevant posts on your blog. You end up using two different tools for the same purpose.
Additionally, you could be using your tags as secondary keywords. In other words, your categories (primary keywords) are broader titles under which you file things away, but you can use tags (secondary keywords) within those categories to connect them with other items that may be filed under a different category. If you can target additional keywords or key phrases with tags, why would you label them the same as your categories?
How to Use Tags
Now that I've addressed what not to do with your tags, let's get in to best practices. Perhaps the best way I can illustrate my point here is to use a real-life example.
I have a movie and video game blog where I post about a variety of different games and movies from various eras. As such, it makes sense for me to tag posts with the year of the title, the developer, the platform (PlayStation, NES, etc.), and relevant actors or actresses.
Even that might be too much, but let’s say for example that I tagged all my Rocky reviews with ‘Sylvester Stallone’. Let’s say that I reviewed another movie with Stallone in it, like Rambo. If someone were to click on the ‘Sylvester Stallone’ tag, they would find all of my reviews and posts having to do with Stallone (if I’ve tagged them correctly).
All of my movie reviews would be filed away under one category, but the tags could bring disparate content together that might be filed away under another category (like ‘movie news’ or 'video game reviews' for example; and yes, Stallone was in a video game). Furthermore, I’m not likely to have a category for ‘Stallone’ unless my blog is dedicated to action movie stars or something similar, so tagging 'Stallone' would not interfere with my navigation.
Develop a Tagging System
Here are a few final tips for your tags.
Firstly, you don’t have to use tags in the navigation bar or sidebar of your website. Although I did briefly touch on the fact that people can click on your tags to find related content, allow your menu bar and - if necessary - your category list in the sidebar handle navigation. There's nothing saying that you can't use your tag cloud in your sidebar or footer if that suits your style.
Secondly, limit your use of tags to a manageable number. If possible, you want to use the same ones over and over, and if you don’t, you could end up with a bunch of posts that should, but don’t, connect well with each other. This could take a toll on your navigation.
Finally, tags can either replace or compliment your search function (if you have one). Again, this depends on how well you tag your posts, but clicking on a tag is sort of like doing a search for a specific keyword on your blog and finding relevant results. It can help your audience find other content on your blog they might be interested in.