WordPress Categories vs Tags: A Simple Guide

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WordPress Categories vs Tags

Like some of my tutorial type posts here at SideGains, I’ll often write about things I’m investigating or learning. It seems reasonable to me that if I need to find out about something, then others probably need to do the same too. So… today I’m drilling into WordPress categories vs tags.

In this post I want to explore the issue of WordPress categories vs tags. I’ll explain the following:

  • What are WordPress categories and tags?
  • The benefits of categories vs tags?
  • My strategy for using categories and tags?

At the end of the post I’ll add a little summary as a kind of quick takeaway for you.

Why Am I Writing Specifically About WordPress Categories vs Tags?

When I started SideGains I went tag crazy. I added a bunch of tags into all posts across all categories. After a couple of months I stopped tagging posts as I’d created hundreds. I didn’t feel I had control over them and didn’t have enough content at the time to justify using the number of tags I’d created.

Fast forward 6 months and now I’m in a different place. I have a better understanding of my WordPress categories and can see different relational patterns in my blog posts that ought to be connected together in a more granular way than just by using categories alone. So that’s why I’m here at this point right now, writing about how to approach it.

What are WordPress Categories and Tags?

WordPress categories and tags have some things in common… but they work in very different ways.

Both are a means to providing a clearly understandable structure to the relationship between your blog posts. However, they do so in very different ways.

WordPress Categories

As a general explanation, WordPress categories group content together in different sections. They are a way to connect broadly related content subjects into a logical grouping.

Categories have their own pages, within which each of the posts within that category are listed. So when you click on a category link, you arrive on a page showing all the posts within that category.

For every post you make on your WordPress blog, you HAVE to assign it to a category. This is something required by most blogging systems to give blogs a way to order their posts.

To force this to happen in WordPress, each installation includes a default category called Uncategorized. If you don’t create categories for your posts, WordPress will assign each one you publish to the default Uncategorized category and every post will appear under that one hierarchical branch.

Categories connect related posts in a hierarchical way. To outline this, think about your navigation menu and the main topics served by it. We tend to use navigation menus to group together content that is broadly related and this is most commonly handled by categories.

For example, the posts within each of my WordPress categories are connected at the broadest level. In my Tutorials category I have have posts that explain how to do things, such as:

You can see from the titles that these posts would naturally fall under the Tutorials category.

In my Blogging category, I have posts such as:

These too are broadly related, sharing the common theme of blogging. However, in both of my examples, aside from the general topical connection each post shares within their category, each focuses on a different aspect of the category in which they fall.

Find out how to create a WordPress categories menu.

Read more about categories at WordPress here.

WordPress Tags

Where categories group broadly related posts together, tags group posts in a more specific way. A tag is effectively a keyword (or keywords) used to group posts that have a more specific relationship.

As such, WordPress tags connect related content across categories. The principal benefit of this is to make it easier for visitors to find related content if it doesn’t reside in the same category.

By creating tags for related content and adding them to multiple posts that have something in common with one another, we create a more refined type of categorization and link specifically related posts together directly.

As with categories, WordPress makes a page for any tag you create, and this too displays all posts assigned to it. You can think of tags more as refined categorization.

Where tags differ from categories though is that they are optional. You don’t have to create tags for WordPress to function as you do with categories. However, not using them isn’t useful for your visitors as they might:

  • Find it less easy to find related content.
  • Perhaps leave your blog earlier than they might otherwise (related content show on. post can encourage visitors to remain on your blog).
  • Help them to learn more about a specific subject.

So… where WordPress categories house a collection of broadly related content, tags refine categorization by linking content that is more closely related, even if they live in different categories on your blog.

Read more about tags at WordPress here.

The Differences Between Categories and Tags

You can assign a post to multiple categories and tags. However, we tend not to assign posts to multiple categories… and certainly not into every single one.

As a general rule, your posts will not naturally fit into every category you have. They may fit into more than one but you shouldn’t do this unless the post is strongly connected to each category it belongs to.

If you find you are able to assign posts to multiple categories, it’s possible that your categorizations are a little off and need to be rethought. As a general rule your posts shouldn’t be able to straddle several categories.

Tags work in a different way and as such you can assign as many as you want to a post, as long as the post is relevant to the tag topic. This is because it’s highly likely that posts in one category will have some relationship with posts across your entire category set, even if tenuously so.

For example, let’s look at the posts from my Tutorials category I used in my earlier example above:

  1. How to Start a Blog.
  2. How to Add the Pin It Button to Your Blog.
  3. How to Set Up a Google Account.

The following are posts from other categories:

  1. How Much Does it Cost to Start a Blog? (Blogging category)
  2. Gulp… My Pinterest Account Was Suspended for Spam! (Social Media category)
  3. How to Submit a Google Reconsideration Request (SEO category)

You can see that:

  • How to Start a Blog is potentially related to How Much Does it Cost to Start a Blog.
  • How to Add the Pin It Button and Gulp… My Pinterest Account was Suspended for Spam are Pinterest related subjects and so are related.
  • How to Set Up a Google Account and How to Submit a Google Reconsideration Request both involve Google Accounts.

For each of the posts I’ve used as examples from my Tutorials category there is related content in other categories that would perhaps be difficult for visitors to find without a direct link to them from the post they’re reading. This is where tags become extremely powerful.

My Strategy for WordPress Categories vs Tags

As I said in my intro, I stopped using tags a while ago as I felt they were getting out of hand. If you’re not careful you can start seeing connections between posts all over the place and pretty soon you’re at the thousand tag point!

So for me now, I am revisiting all my posts and adding tags to them in as restrained a way as possible. Yes I want to refine the connections between my posts, but I don’t want to them to be so diluted that the connection is weak. I also don’t want thousands of tag pages that actually don’t add that much value to my visitors… and this is the point.

Your WordPress categories and tags should be designed to help your visitors understand how your content is organized and make it easy for them to travel from one useful post to another.

If someone arrives at your blog through a post they want to know more about, I want to provide them with links to other articles that might encourage them to spend more time with me. At the same time I don’t want to confuse them with so many options they feel overwhelmed.

It’s all about the visitor and the experience they have here!

Summary

  • WordPress categories and tags are a way to group related content.
  • Each post must belong to at least one category.
  • Each post can have as many tags as you want.
  • Both categories and tags create pages that house the posts assigned to them.
  • Categories group broadly related posts.
  • Tags connect specifically related posts.
  • Posts can be assigned to multiple categories, but only if they logically fit within them. It’s unlikely that your posts will fit into every category you’ve created.
  • Use as many tags as you want, but don’t go tag crazy! Only connect related posts with tags that are related.

That’s it for now.

Paul

Do you have anything to add. Drop a comment below on your view of using WordPress categories vs tags.

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