WordPress Tags vs Categories: when should you use them on your blog, and what exactly is the difference between them? If you're reading this, you've probably got some system or other, for how you apply them to your content.
But how much do you really understand about categories and tags? How exactly are they different from each other? And how should you use them to get the most SEO benefit and make your website engaging and easy to navigate?
In this post, you'll discover everything you could reasonably want to know (plus a bit more) about categories and tags.
What Do They Do?
First things first: what do categories and tags do, exactly? Both of them can be applied to blog posts, but not pages in WordPress. And both of them create archive pages. That is: pages under which all the posts with a given category or tag are listed.
This is relevant in two ways:
- For website visitors, it groups together related content. It's a navigation feature.
- For your content, it automatically creates pages that internally link related posts together. This is a search engine optimization feature.
WordPress Tags vs Categories: How Are They Different From Each Other?
In function, there's only one real difference between categories and tags: categories can have structure (with as many levels of sub-categories as you want) while tags can't.
If you have a parent category and sub-categories, the parent category lists all of the content assigned to itself as well as all of the content in all of its sub-categories.
In most themes, categories are displayed in the post. In most good themes, tags are not displayed, because tags are not great for navigation (on your website - we're not talking about Twitter or Instagram, here).
Deep Dive Into WordPress Categories
Alright, with the basics covered, let's take a closer look at everything you need to know about categories.
How Many Should You Have?
For categories to be useful for your visitors as well as for SEO, follow these guidelines:
- No orphans: you should not have any categories that have only 1-3 pieces of content in them.
- Generally, less is more: lots of categories are overwhelming and less useful for navigation. The number of categories on your site should be proportional to the amount of content. Post once a week? 5 categories are plenty. Post 15 times a day? More categories probably help.
- Keep categories clearly distinct from each other. "Camera Gear" and "Photography Tips" are two clearly separate categories. "Camera Gear" and "Equipment" are not.
- For most websites, it's better to have categories in a narrow niche than to try and cover too many widely different topics.
What Should They Be Called?
I recommend using clear language that is either action oriented or benefit oriented, for your category names. The category name shows up as a clickable label on your site, so copywriting rules apply.
For example, instead of a generic category name like "Traffic Generation", go with a name like "Get More Traffic".
You can also use your category names to inject some personality and communicate your brand. For example, think of how the appeal of a fitness website could change based on the category names:
- Build Muscle
- Lose Weight
- Diet Tips
- All Kinds of Gainz
- Get Shredded
- Meal Prep Madness
- LIGHTWEIGHT BABY!!
These are the same categories in both cases. Example A is generic and widely approachable (although not particularly appealing). The terms in example B will only make sense to people in a certain segment of the fitness market, but will resonate with them much more strongly.
WordPress Category Page SEO
If you feel tempted to use generic category labels for SEO purposes, consider two important factors:
- You can give your WordPress category page an SEO/meta title that contains whatever keyword you want to target. It's good practice is to write your site content for humans and your meta content for search engines.
- You won't rank for generic terms like "muscle building" anyway. Actionable, benefit oriented category labels are better terms to target for SEO.
Rules for Applying Categories
Here are the rules I follow, when categorizing content on my sites:
- 1 post, 1 category: apply only one category to each post. If a post fits into multiple categories, add it to the most closely related one.
- Near misses are fine: if you create a piece of content that doesn't perfectly fit any of your categories, just add it to whatever is most related. It's better to have a few tangentially related pieces in a category than to have many categories with almost no content.
- Plan for the future: if you write a post about something that doesn't fit any of your current categories but may be joined by other, related posts in the future, add a unique tag to it. Once you have at least 5 posts with this new tag, you can split them off into a new category.
How to Add Categories to Your Site's Navigation
Part of the job of categories is to make your content more navigable. So, how exactly should you go about this?
First, something you shouldn't do: don't add category pages in a drop-down menu in your main navigation. Drop down menus aren't very user friendly and they quickly lead to choice overwhelm in a navigation menu.
If you have a sidebar on your blog, that's a good place to add a categories list. A secondary navigation menu on the blog, listing categories can sometimes also work.
Another way in which good categorization can improve navigation on your site is through related posts widgets. Themes and plugins that let you display related posts at the bottom of articles will usually choose those posts based on categories.
Finally, keep in mind that you can manually link to a category page.
For example, if I mention that at Thrive Themes, we constantly update our products and release new stuff, I may add a link to this category page.
If you want to read more about how to set up WordPress Categories check out this post.
Deep Dive Into WordPress Tags
Now that we've dealt with categories, let's take a closer look at WordPress tags and how to best use them.
Don't Use Tags as a Navigation Element
My first rule for tags is to not use them for site navigation. People used to have tag clouds on their sites (sometimes even animated tag clouds... *shudder*). These have thankfully gone out of fashion.
WordPress tags are generally not a good way to facilitate navigation. There's usually too many of them and there's no good way to display navigation of a ton of items without any internal hierarchy (remember: tags cannot be structured with parent/child relations like categories).
On various social platforms, tags have their uses, but I recommend you keep them as a backend only thing for your website.
WordPress Tags for Internal Organization
If not for navigation, what should you use tags for? Here are some examples:
- Add ToFu, MoFu, BoFu tags to your content, to indicate which segment of your audience it's aimed at.
- Create a "no optin" tag to use with Thrive Leads, for posts where you don't want your usual lead generation forms to trigger.
- Add tags like "video" and "audio" to quickly find all posts that contain a certain media type.
- Add tags based on your content marketing strategy. For example you might have "case study", "story", "news", "tutorial" and "promotion" tags and use them to make sure you keep publishing these content types at a certain ratio to each other.
- Some related posts widgets may also take tags into consideration. In that case, you can use tags to help fine-tune the related posts recommendations.
Unlike with categories, you can add as many tags as you like, to each post. However, the "no orphans" rule applies for tags as well: there's no use having 100 tags on your site when 50 of them contain only one post each.
WordPress Tags & SEO
Make sure that your tag pages are not indexed. Indexing your tag pages creates a ton of redundant content on your site, which just has to be rel:canonical'd back and forth. There's probably no negative impact from this (as long as the canonicals are in place), but there's certainly no benefit from having all these tag pages indexed.
If you want to learn more about how to set up WordPress Tags, check out this article.
Now that you know everything there's reasonably to know about categories and tags, let me show you some ways in which you can "wrangle" them on your site, without causing issues.
In the video below, you'll see how you can delete categories without losing any of the content, how you can merge categories together, rename categories and move content from one category to another, all without causing SEO or site navigation issues:
How are you going to use WordPress Tags and Categories?
How did you like this content? Do you like a geeky deep dive into a topic like this? Are you going to take action and make some changes to your site, based on what you learned about WordPress Tags and Categories? Let me know your thoughts by leaving a comment below!