WordPress Categories vs Tags: What's the Difference & How to Use Them?

Business

If there is one thing that can confuse some people when they first start to write content for their site, it's the battle between understanding WordPress categories vs tags.But even the most experienced WordPress.org users struggle to follow the basic principles of structuring their content, and this can lead to confusion for your readers and search engines.When setting up your pages and your (blog) posts, it's important to have the correct structure set up for your content as early as possible.

By Ahmed khalifa

**Note: Please note that this website does not run on WordPress.org anymore. But since I've been involved with the WordPress community for many years, I didn't want to delete any of the WordPress-related content on this site as I believe that they will still help you with your own WordPress site, hence why they are still available for you to view. Enjoy!**

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If there is one thing that can confuse some people when they first start to write content for their site, it's the battle between understanding WordPress categories vs tags.

But even the most experienced WordPress.org users struggle to follow the basic principles of structuring their content, and this can lead to confusion for your readers and search engines.When setting up your pages and your (blog) posts, it's important to have the correct structure set up for your content as early as possible.

Even if you haven't done it early, it's never too late to do something about it.

And how can you structure your content?

By the effective use of categories and tags. It will allow you to not just make it easier for your readers to find what they're looking for, but there are also benefits from an SEO perspective too.Which is why you need to make sure that you are using these taxonomies as efficiently as possible, and this post can help you do just that.

If the word 'taxonomy' confused you, this is another way to describe grouping together related posts and content.That's it.For such a complicated word, it has a straightforward explanation.With that in mind, WordPress has a list of taxonomies (and you can also create custom taxonomies too) on top of categories and tags, though many of them are less common and you do not have to worry about them.

Along with understanding the difference between WordPress pages and posts, categories and tags is another set of duos that can cause a lot of confusion.

As dull as it sounds, it is something that everyone should be aware of if you want to make the most out of your site's structure, your readers' experience and search engines' ability to crawl, find and understand relevant pages.

Related Article: What's the Difference Between WordPress Pages and Posts?

What is a WordPress Category & When to Use It?

According to WordPress.org, a category "lets you group posts together by sorting them into various categories. These categories can then be seen on the site by using '/category/name' types of URLs. Categories tend to be pre-defined and broad-ranging."In simpler terms, a category is an easy way for you to group your content together under your primary topic. And in most situations, your blog post will fall under that one category.For example, if you run a food recipe site, you might have the following categories as your structure:

  • breakfast
  • lunch
  • dinner
  • snacks
  • drinks

Or maybe you have a blog focusing on interior decorating, which means that you want to focus on the following categories:

  • living room
  • bedroom
  • bathroom
  • kitchen

And because it's generally advisable to have one category per blog post, it's quite easy to categorise your content using the examples above (yes, you can cook a breakfast recipe for your dinner, but not everyone is as adventurous as you).If your users are looking for dinner recipes or interior decorating ideas for the bedroom, they will know exactly where to go.If you want to create more categories such as 'gluten-free', 'protein' and 'vegetarian', it  would complicate the structure of your site further as:

  1. it wouldn't fit with the rest of the categories above
  2. it means that you would have to create even more categories for other terms
  3. you may choose more than one category per blog post, which is generally not recommended.

But using them as tags would be a better way to break down your categories further, as I will explain below.And as for what are the best number of categories, there isn't a magic number as every website is different. But if you have more than 5-7 categories, you really need to ask yourself whether you can categorise your content better.

If you have created content that does not apply to any of the categories you have created, you could, in theory, create a new category.But you have to ask yourself: 1) whether your post is relevant to your audience, 2) whether it makes sense for your site (i.e. are you sure you want to write about your holiday on your interior decorating site), and 3) whether you might end up with too many categories.Because you want to make sure that you reuse the same categories (and tags) all the time.

But there are times when it may make sense to create a new category, e.g. if you are going on a trip to a local food festival and you want to create a category for 'Travel', 'Experience' or 'Events' on your recipe site because you plan to do it often.

How to Create & Add Categories?

In your WordPress dashboard, hover over 'Posts' and move across to 'Categories' and click on it.[caption id="attachment_3297" align="aligncenter" width="472"]

Screenshot of how to create WordPress category for food blogger
An example of how it would like to create a category

As shown above, you then need to fill in the relevant fields required. When creating your 'slugs', keep them short and simple. In most instances, it should match the name of the category.And if it's more than one word, separate the words with a dash instead of underscores, e.g. 'healthy-foods' not 'healthy_foods'. You can also add new categories via the 'Posts' and 'Pages' on the right-hand side:

Creating categories within the WordPress posts

And as you can see, there are also opportunities to create sub-categories if it makes sense for you.And then you can use the tags to break it down further. But let's look at when you should use tags below.

What is a WordPress Tag & When to Use it?

According to WordPress, a tag:

"is similar to categories, but more free form. Tags can be made up on the fly, by simply typing them in. They can be seen on the site in the '/tag/name' types of URLs. Posts tend to have numerous tags, and they are generally displayed near posts or in the form of tag clouds."

Even though tags are more flexible, you still don't want to do too much of the "made up on the fly". It still requires some thinking. But tags are an excellent way of categorising your post further, almost like the index of a book.If we use the food blogger example, the following tags could be useful:

  • healthy
  • vegetarian
  • gluten-free
  • barbecue
  • chicken

Using popular ingredients or food types are great examples of using tags as they are common for all recipes, and you will most likely use them multiple times – perfect for those readers who want to focus on healthy recipes.And for the interior designer example above, examples of tags could be:

  • modern
  • classic
  • industrial
  • office
  • green

So in these examples, using decorating styles, themes and colours could also be great examples of tags.All of the examples could be used as a category too, but it all depends on how you plan to structure your site and your content, as well as how you want your visitors to navigate across your site.Other advice when creating tags is to make sure that you are consistent when choosing them.

For example, if you have 'vegetarian' and 'vegetarian food' tags, do you really need two of the same tags? How can you ensure that you tag the relevant posts consistently and correctly? And how will your readers know what the difference is between the two tags?Again, there are no magic numbers when it comes to tags, but it must be relevant, consistent and you plan to use it often.

So avoid creating tags (and categories) if you only plan to use them once.

How to Create & Add Tags

Within your WordPress dashboard, hover over 'Posts' and move across to 'Tags' and click on it:[caption id="attachment_3298" align="aligncenter" width="608"]

Screenshot of how to create WordPress tag for food blogger
An example of how it would like to create a tag

Just like the categories above, fill in the relevant fields required and follow the same rules when creating your 'slug' i.e. keep it short, simple, and separate it by a dash if it's more than one word.And just like the categories, you can also add new tags within the 'Posts' on the right-hand side:

Creating tags within the WordPress posts

Advice on WordPress Tags & SEO

Even though WordPress tags are important to help users navigate and find the relevant topic, in most situations, you do not need tags to be indexed and appearing on Google's search results.One reason is that they don't always tend to be keyword-focused, thus not adding value to the search results. For example, if you are going to use colour as a tag for your interior decorating site, you can be certain that no-one will find your site if they search for "red".Yes, you could make it keyword-focused, but you risk reducing the possibility of having your highly relevant blog post ranking for the same keyword at the expense of the tag.

Another reason is that it will create unnecessary extra pages on your site, which will force Google to crawl and index them, potentially at the expense of more important and relevant pages on your site.And because of that, it is advised that you block your tag pages from search engines.

You should be able to do that using whatever SEO plugins you are using. But if you are using Yoast like I am, you can navigate to SEO > Search Appearance > Taxonomies, and click on 'No' as shown below:

How to block tags from search results using Yoast

What Does Google Say About Creating Categories & Tags?

Even though it's an old video (from 2010), the video by Google Webmaster and spoken by Matt Cutt, a former member of the webspam team at Google, still has some relevance today.The key is to be concise and structured with category, and not go crazy with tags as that doesn't add any value, whether it's for your users or SEO.

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Depending on your site, you might not need to get that specific with your categories.For example, for this site, the general categories I'm using are blog and podcast, as that's how I want the structure of this site to be.And I break them down further using tags (which in this case would be 'content', 'SEO' and 'WordPress') and you can see these at the end of this post, as well as clicking on them to find related content about these topics.

Whatever structure you decide on, there is no reason why you can't follow the best practices for your own sites.

So go through your site and find out whether you have categorised and tagged them appropriately. If not, you have an opportunity to make a big difference to your site just by structuring them appropriately.