When to Use Categories vs. Tags

Here on WordPress.com Go, we talk a lot about the importance of creating good, consistent content. According to Moz, it’s a proven method for increasing site traffic, engaging users, and making your website more attractive overall.

But if you have a lot of content on your site, you need an efficient way to sort it all. That’s why WordPress.com builds categories and tags into your site.

By understanding the difference between categories vs. tags and how to use them both, you can make your site more navigable and your content easier to find.

The difference between categories vs. tags

To many website owners, categories and tags might sound similar. Deciding when to use a category, a tag, or both can be challenging. The first step in designing your strategy for smart content organization is to understand the difference between the two.

Categories and tags are both used to associate a particular post with a specific topic. While categories typically sort general topics, tags are more specific and should be used to identify details within your post instead of its overall idea.

Categories are the broad, overarching topics that identify what your posts are about in general terms. Many bloggers create categories as they’re deciding what their blogs will cover, and sometimes incorporate them into the blogs’ navigation. Every post on a WordPress.com site must be assigned at least one category.

Tags, by contrast, are optional. Tags identify topics from within your posts that are too specific to be made into categories. Not every post necessarily needs tags, but using them can help readers find content related to a specific topic they might be interested in.

Categories and tags in action

Still confused? Let’s clear everything up with an example.

Imagine that you run an online news magazine on your WordPress.com site that covers topics like music, sports, the economy, politics, and so on.

Your readers should be able to quickly find the content they’re interested in reading. In this case, it’s appropriate to make the above topics (music, sports, economy, politics) your site’s categories.

Categories can be hierarchical, so you can have sub-categories within your main ones. In the case of your online magazine, each sub-category might identify specific fields within the general ones. An example structure might look like this:

  • Sports
    – Baseball
    – Basketball
    – Football
  • Music
    – Pop
    – Hip-hop
    – Jazz

Sub-categories can even have their own sub-categories to cover even more specific topics. For example, the “Basketball” category could have different basketball leagues as sub-categories.

After a certain point, too many sub-categories can get confusing. This is where tags come in.

Imagine there’s a basketball player who’s been in the news a lot as a top scorer — Brandon Hoops. Your magazine published a handful of articles that mention Brandon, but you don’t want to create an entire sub-category for one player.

In this example, you can “tag” these articles with Brandon’s name. Tagging articles with “Brandon Hoops” will help readers find and sort through articles that mention him, without you having to make a new sub-category.

Tips and tricks for using categories and tags

It’s important to note that there’s no one-size-fits-all model for using categories and tags. How you choose to use them depends on the type of website you have, and the content you publish. But, there are some best practices to keep in mind.

It’s a good idea to pick your category structure when first building your website (before you write any content for it). Of course, you can always improve and refine its structure as you go, but starting with defined categories will help you produce content aligned with your site’s mission. Additionally, you might want to make these categories part of your site’s navigation by creating a separate page or tab for each one.

When managing your site on the go, tags are more flexible than categories. But even when using tags, there are some golden rules to keep in mind:

  • Pick tags that you plan to re-use in future articles. Tags that are only used for one post will not really benefit your site.
  • Try to keep tags relevant to your visitors’ interests; this way they can use your tags to sort through and find more content of interest.
  • Be organic. Use your tags to honestly and accurately describe your content.

If you follow these guidelines for using categories and tags, you’ll be well-equipped to create a clear, enjoyable site with a user-friendly navigation system — helping your visitors find the content that interests them, and keeping them coming back for more.

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Francesco Carlucci

Francesco is a Certified WordPress Expert at Codeable, freelance web developer, digital-nomad, and technology addicted. When he is not on his Mac, you can probably find him jogging around country roads, reading books or tasting some good wine.

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