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Piechart and Venn diagrams on paper are a nice visual representation of the difference between categories and tags
2016 . May . 4
Sherwin Arnott

Many WordPress users feel confused or overwhelmed by tags and categories. This isn’t surprising. “Tag” means lots of different things in different contexts. Tags and categories in WordPress can seem very similar. And to top it off, there’s no one, or best, way to use tags and categories.

When the sky is the limit, it can be helpful to impose a little structure. A self-imposed structure can unleash creative energy. In 90% of cases, the structure I recommend is to think of categories as discrete sections and assign posts to a single category, and think of tags as overlapping topics and use as many tags as is helpful for users. I’ll tell you more about this paradigm in a moment. But first let me say a few general things.

General suggestions

  1. Avoid thinking of tags and categories as being related to Search Engine Optimization (SEO). They might be related, but thinking of them this way can actually get in the way of any diminishing and indirect value they might have to SEO. Tags and categories are not really about search functions.
  2. Try to keep users in mind when assigning categories and tags to blog posts. Have a user-centric approach to categories and tags.
  3. Use tags and categories to help organize your blog posts. There is seldom a single, best way to organize collections. Bear in mind that systems of organization are meant to serve humans with human interests. But which humans? And which interests?
  4. This Tags Versus Categories lesson by WordPress is a good reference and is worth a read. But don’t get bogged down.

The single category and many tags paradigm

In the bulk of publishing cases, I recommend that posts get assigned to a single category, and as many tags as is helpful. In this sense, categories are discrete sections, and tags are overlapping topics. This makes categories more helpful as submenu items.

Categories are sections

So, for example, imagine a blog that consists of 100 posts. If there are five categories they will average 20 posts each. But just to be clear, the posts don’t need to be evenly distributed. It’s effective for navigation purposes to put posts in a single section. This way users can navigate between sections without fear of seeing the same post twice, which can be annoying or even confusing for some users. It’s handy if there aren’t too many sections. Sometimes, if you’re starting out, you may choose to have one or two sections. If you have a very complex blog with thousands of posts, you might have over ten. But I would tend to recommend having less than ten sections. Sometimes, a single post might fit into multiple sections. Just choose the best one. Every post in a category and a category for every post. But also remember that this is a guideline.

Categories are sections: like a piechart

Tags are topics

Topics overlap. If you have 100 posts on a blog, you might have 40 topics. Each topic might have 30 posts. The key is to use tags meaningfully to connect posts to each other to show the overlaps. So, for example, every post that mentions Brad Pitt could be tagged as such. And every post about climate change could be tagged as such. However, try to avoid using tags that end up on every post – a tag that is used in 100% of posts is not really meaningful. And try to avoid using tags that get used on a single post. The trick with tags is to make meaningful connections between your collections of posts. Avoid using a tag that is also a category. So, for example, I did not tag this post “WordPress” because this post is in the WordPress category. And remember, tags are optional. If they help you or your users, great.

Tags as topics: an overlapping Venn diagram

Be bold

  1. Don’t freeze up. It’s okay to change your mind later, especially if you have successfully avoided using the category in the post URL.
  2. You can change tags to categories later and vice versa.
  3. Effective use of tags and categories is a process and requires some attention and, unless you’re an archivist, or lucky, or both, it’s generally impossible to know in advance what the most effective tags and categories will be. So just start somewhere. Learn by doing.

For self-hosters and designers

  1. I strongly recommend against including the category slug in the post URL. I mostly suggest using the year and month. So for example, www.yourwebsite.com/2016/10/i-love-cheese/ is better than www.yourwebsite.com/dairy-food/i-love-cheese/. Using year and month (or day) allows you to change and reconfigure the categories without changing the URL. Having stable URLs is a good thing.
  2. Switching “category” or “tag” to “topic” or “section” in the URL can be nice. Referring to topics or sections instead of categories and tags can be nice because they are more user-oriented than categories or tags.
  3. From a technical perspective, categories and tags have very little difference; categories can be hierarchically organized and tags cannot. Category is mandatory but tags are not. But thinking of them from this perspective is not super helpful.
  4. Term Management Tools is a very handy management tool for converting tags to categories and much much more.