How To Approach Categories and Navigation in Blogging

Why is it that when you're creating a linking structure for a website you call it “navigation”, but when it's for a blog it's sometimes called “categories”?

Should you approach blog navigation different than ordinary website navigation?

Why is it that when you’re creating a linking structure for a website you call it “navigation”, but when it’s for a blog it’s sometimes called “categories”?

It’s one of the many oddities of Blogs—blogging is trendy, it’s different from building websites, it’s a different kind of medium. Just don’t ask us why it’s different…I’m not sure you’d get the same answer from any two bloggers.

Blog Categories Aren’t Special

The first step to building a strong navigation in a blog is to stop prefacing “blog categories” with “blog”. In other words, put less thought into making a blog feel like a blog, and more time thinking about how a user is going to use the website.

Categories are simply a means of organization. Organization is an essential part of a well structured website. Labeling and cataloging content allows users to quickly make choices, find what they want, and get on with their day. This is truth for nearly any website.

However, just because all websites require some means of organization doesn’t mean we should approach each site the same way—which seems to be a huge problem with blogging. Rather than trying to figure out how content can best be organized for a specific audience, blogs tend to depend on the abused keyword-based category navigation.

Navigation Is Key

Sometimes our first step in creating blogs is to start naming categories for our posts. Platforms like WordPress make this super easy to accomplish with a beautiful back end and instant-access to thousands of free themes and designs to choose from that take advantage of typical category structures.

Rather than jumping right into categories, consider three things:

  1. What kind of content will you be presenting? Is it all published in the same format (ie: video/text/image)? What’s the frequency of new posts?
  2. How will a user find a specific post on your blog using typical categories? Can you think of a faster way to find that same post by some other means of organization (by date, title, format, etc)?
  3. Are there any similar websites that may offer unique solutions that work well for a particular type of blog?

In many cases, traditional categories will be the best way to organize a blogs contents. You may discover that there is a better way to classify your content—maybe you should even offer multiple ways of organizing your blog.

Digital Photography School Navigation

Navigation from Digital Photography School

The navigation from Digital Photography School is an example of a blog that makes use of several types of organization. On the surface, it uses typical categories such as “Photography Tips & Tutorials” and “Cameras & Equipment”, but these links are designed to be a part of the primary navigation. When an option from the primary navigation is selected, additional options allow a user to organize the content in other ways like by date, or by popularity. This may have been a design choice made after seeing how people used the site. Many times you’ll discover that there are better ways to organize your content after gathering statistics about the usage of your site. The important thing is to pay attention and test changes.

Don’t Make Categories Separate “Just ‘Cause”

Again, less thinking about categories and more thinking about navigation. Think about your blog in terms of Primary Navigation (the main stuff), Secondary Navigation, and Utilities (the less important but good to have stuff—contact, about, etc).

One example of a typical navigation configuration.

Looking at navigation in this way allows us to break a lot of barriers and really design a useful site structure based on what makes sense for the user. What would a user want to see on the front page to get them on their way? On the next page, what relevant content should they see?

Crafting a navigation system that is specially tailored for your audience may require more design work, and definitely involves more testing, but it doesn’t take a user experience expert to make a choice for what works better. Try several designs and see which your users respond best to.

About the Author

David Leggett

David Leggett is a designer, developer, and builder of things. He currently resides as Director of Marketing and Design at Python Safety.

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14 Comments

  • Paul Anthony Reply

    Great stuff guys,

    I think treating a blog more like a website is a lesson many of us could do with learning to get better results from our blogs.

  • Nurwanto.COM Reply

    we need mapping first before make category as navigation :)

  • Mac Reply

    Great examples of a commonly overlooked aspect of blogs. Nice article.

    -Mac

  • David Leggett Reply

    @Win32: I’m guessing you’re using the WordPress platform, as I know that I’ve seen this discussed many times in the WP Forums.

    There are ways of getting “category” removed from the category archive pages, but it may be that DPS did something else entirely. What they may have done is created a page template for an archive, and then simply create a new page called “Cameras”.

    I couldn’t tell you for sure, just saying that there would be several ways of doing it ;)

    Thanks everyone :)

  • Rob Reply

    Nice post. In regards to win32, should be easy enough to show with a simple modification in your htaccess file. I belive WordPress lets you customize how pages are archived as well.

  • user3000 Reply

    Nice article. I have to say I’d prefer to see something, especially from “UX” Booth that talks about the unnecessary clutter involved with blogs.

    For example: Digital Photography School is far too full of linkable content. The navigation here isn’t a good example of how a blog can use categories. It’s an abysmal example of a cluttered and confusing user interface – as are many blogs. For some reason it has become acceptable 1) to allow for repeated and unnecessary navigation on the same page 2) while intermingling the blog’s content with ads and off-site content.

    It’s pure cluttered confusion.

  • Louis Reply

    Nice info.

    I personally like the “decategorizer” plugin that strips out the word “category” from all urls, so the site looks, well, more like a website and less like a blog.

  • Louis Reply

    I didn’t realize someone was asking about the “category” in the urls. Here is the plugin that can do that:

    Decategorizer

    Not sure if DPS is doing it that way though.

  • Jennifer Song Reply

    @Win32: hey, it is a little tricky but obvious when you know it. Go inside your WordPress admin page, then Settings -> Permalink Settings, in “Optional” section, enter “.” (without quotes) in “Category base” input box, and “Save Changes”.

    Now you have it!! The category permalink will not have the “category” in it. Enjoy.

  • Bradley Hebdon Reply

    Great post! One thing to add is how Tags are there to be used as a means of navigation. A lot of folks fall into the trap of using Categories as Tags, and their category list becomes an ever-growing list of granular labels. This eventually destroys any separation between the purposes of category vs. tag-based navigation.

    On my blog, UXbyDesign.org, I had originally fallen into the trap of defining too many categories. So a few months ago, I took a step back and figured out what kinds of posts make up my blog and how I see that going forward. I figured them out as follows: “News”, “Features”, “Reviews” and “Interviews”.

    I then relied on tags to identify what the news, feature, review or interview was about, or the kind of information it contained. For example, the tags on an interview I did with Michelle Koh on the Palm Pre, are “Usability, Design, Michelle Koh, Palm Pre” etc. You’ll notice I did not apply “Interview” as a tag, because that was defined as a category. I now have a IA/navigation in place, and my blog’s content can grow in volume within a scalable and defined framework.

  • Megan Buchanan Reply

    Bradley, great suggestions.

    Having stumbled upon this article, I was dismayed that it didn’t provide and direction regarding tags vs. categories. So glad I read through the comments!

    Time to reorganize and clean out the clutter…

  • andrew fields Reply

    I like your post, i find it really informative and interesting. Apparently it would be better if you include the discussions on how tag is use by means of navigation.

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