WordPress Categories vs Tags: How to Use Them Properly

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The confusion over how to properly use categories and tags has been around for a long time. Do you have too many categories? Are you using the proper tags?

We’re going to show you how to use categories and tags in WordPress, to clear up any confusion you might have about the use of categories and tags.

Back when WordPress introduced categories and tags, it was a popular practice to display category and tag clouds on your website. Remember those? Tag clouds aren’t really used anymore. Instead, you use categories and tags on the backend of your website to help you organize and display content in a useful manner.

If you’re not utilizing categories and tags as an organizational tool, you’re probably not fully understanding their purpose and you might be using them incorrectly.

How you organize your content is entirely up to you. It’s your job to create the best categories and tags for your own content situation. If you don’t think you’ve done it right, or might possibly need to rethink your structure, keep reading.

If you are thinking of starting a second website, you should commit to working out categories and tags beforehand, so you don’t have to go back and clean them up later.

What you will learn
  • What are categories and tags used for?
  • What is the difference between categories and tags?
  • Do categories and tags affect SEO
  • How to use categories and tags properly
  • How to rework your categories and tags

What Are Categories and Tags Used For?

Categories and tags are both used to organize content and improve the usability of your site by helping the user find exactly what they’re looking for.

Imagine that someone comes to your food blog looking for chicken recipes. You can present them with all of those recipes if you’ve categorizing or tagged the content properly in your site.

Every category and tag you create gets its very own page in WordPress. These pages are automatically created by the system and they contain all of the posts you’ve put into that category or tag. These pages offer a quick and convenient way for you to display similar content to your user.

You may choose to put a link to a specific grouping of posts in your navigation menu or place internal links to these groupings within a post. When a user clicks, they’ll receive a listing page of all related posts.

Now that you know what a category and tag is, let’s get into what makes them different.

Categories vs Tags: What’s The Difference?

Because websites can become quite complex, there are two different methods available to organize content.

Instead of writing a post and just putting it into the “blog” bucket, you can separate it out into other useful buckets.

You can categorize it into broad topics that your website covers, and you can tag it to define it even better.

Categories

Categories should be used to define the main topics your website is about.

If you have a fitness blog, your main topics might be:

  • Workouts
  • Nutrition
  • Fitness gear

If you have a recipe blog, your main topics might be:

  • Main dishes
  • Side dishes
  • Dessert

Each of these main topics is a category.

You can have more than three categories, but they should be only the main topics you cover. Let’s say 3-8 categories is what you’ll end up with.

If you feel the need to have dozens of categories, you have probably not defined your blog’s niche enough.

Every post you write requires a category. If you do not select a category, the post will be assigned to “uncategorized”. It’s best not to allow that to happen. Really, you shouldn’t be writing a post that doesn’t fit into any of your categories.

If you already have posts that don’t fit your categories, you might want to consider if those posts belongs on your site at all.

Tags

So now you have 3-8 categories that all of your posts fit nicely into. You can then organize the posts inside those categories with greater definition using tags.

You don’t NEED tags. And you shouldn’t create tags just for the sake of having them. They should be used intentionally, as a way to cluster similar content that your audience is interested in.

Let’s go back to the fitness blog example. 

You have a category of Workouts, but that includes all different kinds of workouts, like HITT, weight training, and cardio. You know your audience is also interested specifically in those topics, so you create tags for those.

A HITT workout post will be categorized as Workout and tagged HITT.

For the recipe blog, your category is main dishes, and your tags might be beef, chicken, and vegetarian. These tags help define the types of main dishes.

If you have a travel blog, you might have a category called Destinations. Your tags would define destinations in greater detail. Those could be countries or destinations you write about most, like Europe or New York.

In all of these examples, the category and tag allow a user to find similar content in two different ways.

It also allows you to organize the content on your site in different ways. Not only will you have a Workout category page, you’ll also have a HITT tag page.

Added bonus: If you use a page builder on your site, like Elementor or Flatsome UX Builder, you can display posts on your site based on the categories you’ve created.

When Not to Use Tags

Just because you can easily create tags for everything doesn’t mean you should. Because every tag you create gets its own page, you want to make sure there are enough posts in each tag to make it worth it.

  • It’s unnecessary to create a tag just so every post has a tag.
  • If you don’t write about it frequently, don’t create a tag for it.
  • Ask yourself if readers would benefit from this tag and if they’re actually looking for this content.

I started out my travel blog not having a clue about categories and tags. I created a tag for everything. I had one for every city, every activity, everything.

I had a hundred or more tags. And many of them only had one post in them.

Was that helpful to my audience at all? NO. I’m sure no one ever searched for “canoe” on my site. I only ever wrote one post with that tag.

Totally useless.

I also created a tag for every city I wrote about. Some of which I only wrote about once.

Again, totally useless.

Tags should be used to further organize the content you write most. If there’s only one piece of content, there’s no need to organize it.

For this reason, I suggest you have no more than 15 or 20 tags. Of course everyone’s content varies, so it might be necessary to have more or less than that, but be very intentional about the need for a tag.

Do Categories and Tags Affect SEO?

Categories and tags have no direct impact on SEO. They have not been identified by Google as a ranking signal. However, they can have an indirect impact on your SEO.

They are meant to provide a convenient and useful way for a website to display and make content available on a topical basis.

The better your site is laid out and searchable for users, the greater positive impact on your SEO. Users will stay on your site longer, reading related content, which lowers your bounce rate and increases time on page. These are all positive SEO signals.

How to Create the Right Categories and Tags

Have you ever been to a restaurant and the menu has dozens of dishes? A menu with just a few options is much easier to choose from.

Likewise, if the restaurant doesn’t specialize in just one cuisine, I start to worry that none of it will be good.

Apply these principles to your categories and tags. Your categories should reflect your specialities. Your tags should further define those specialities.

To choose the correct categories and tags for your site, you might need to do some brainstorming.

Grab a piece of paper. Write out all the main topics you write about.

Now under those main topics, how will users most likely search for more specific content.

Be judicious. Do you really need it? Is it really useful?

What to Do If You Did it Wrong

Now that you know how categories and tags should function, you can assess whether you think you did it right.

Many bloggers didn’t understand these concepts before they started their blogs, and they used them incorrectly. If you started out that way, you may now feel like you’re stuck with the “wrong way”.

First of all, you can always change it and get it back on track.

But, you need to assess how much time this task will take and weigh whether it’s worth it to spend that time fixing it.

Since categories and tags are not a direct ranking factor for SEO, it may not be a wise use of your time. If you do want to fix them, see the steps below to begin the process.

How to Rework Your Categories and Tags

The first step in reworking your categories and tags is to identify a new structure you want to work with, then create a plan to fix it.

  1. Make a spreadsheet with all of your current categories on one tab and all your tags on another tab.
  2. Start with categories. In the first column, underneath your current categories, make a separate list of the categories you think your blog should have, based on the best practices you learned above. Limit this list to ONLY your main topics.
  3. Decide which of your current categories to keep. Write KEEP in the second column next to the ones you wish to keep.
  4. For the ones you don’t want to keep, you need to decide what NEW category to redirect the OLD category to. Write the new category in the second column.
  5. In a third column, paste the URL of the new category page that you will redirect the old to.
  6. Do the same exercise for your tags.
fixing categories and tags
  1. Go into your WordPress site. Scroll over Posts in the left-hand dashboard and click Categories.
  2. Copy down the URL for all of the categories you plan to delete. Add that URL to the fourth column of your spreadsheet.
  3. Create any new categories that you didn’t have before. Add the URL for those new categories in the third column of your spreadsheet with the corresponding label.
  4. Delete the categories you no longer want.

Now you’re going to need a redirect plugin. I recommend Redirection. It’s very easy to use.

  • Activate it on your site, then click on Redirection in the left-hand dashboard.
  • Click Add New.
  • You’ll now want to add the current URL and the new URL for each of the categories and tags you just deleted.

Should Categories and Tags be Indexed?

One of the questions we get a lot is whether category and tag pages should be indexed in the search engines.

The general answer is that category pages should be indexed, but tag pages should not be.

However, every situation varies.

If you’re creating your site anew and intentionally choosing your categories and tags, only creating tags with a lot of content, then it would be okay to index the tags, too. This is because the tag page is useful and robust.

But if you were like me and created hundreds of tags, some of which only have 1-2 articles, then you should not index those pages. It’s not useful to anyone to find a tag page with one post in the Google search results.

Additionally, if you have dozens of tags, crawling those pages can take up a huge portion of the Google crawl budget for your site, which can mean that more important content isn’t getting crawled.

To set the category and tag pages to be indexed or not, use the Yoast plugin.

  • Go to Search Appearance > Taxonomies.
  • Set the “Show Categories in search results?” toggle to Yes, and the “Show Tags in search results?” toggle to No.

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FINAL THOUGHTS

A neat and tidy organization structure will help you arrange content in a useful manner for your readers. It will also make it easier for your to design your site and display your important content. It’s not an easy or small task to make changes to your category and tag structure, so if you’re just starting out, you’ll want to be sure to follow the best practices and create them correctly from the beginning.

16 thoughts on “WordPress Categories vs Tags: How to Use Them Properly

    • Laura says:

      Categories themselves have no impact on SEO. It’s more about organization and how they’re used that can impact rankings because users have a better experience on your site.

  1. Jane Frith says:

    Another great article. I have been using categories and tags I a sort of scattering approach and having read this article have started to unpick. I had far too many categories and tags. Question: if I delete them and they have their own page, do I need to get that page unindexed from Google or does it not matter? Will it affect my SEO if I leave these broken links? Thanks in advance. J

  2. Faith says:

    Wow! Coming here through Facebook is a big blessing to me. This article is a great guide to put the round pen in a round hole. Thank so much for the informative write up

  3. Juergen Klein says:

    I’m still not really not clear with this. Overall I get the idea and think that we are almost following it. Like we frequently trim our tags: if a tag has only 3 entries and there wasn’t any new post in a year or so we delete it. We also add new tags once we realise that we’re covering a topic more frequently than expected… Our ‘tags’ are set to no-index, so they shouldn’t appear in SERPs.

    But I’m still unclear about the ‘Categories’. I’m not sure if my organisation is wrong or not. Our top categories are only five (where ‘Destination Blog’ is actually named ‘Destinations’ in the WP database and can be changed back). But below ‘Destinations’ I have sub-menus (sub-categories): > Continents > Country Names. Is this wrong in your view or not?
    If I come to a blog I’d be happy to find all posts about one country on one page…

    Other categories are : Destination Blog | Information | Galleries | Reflections | About | SHOP , where ‘Reflections’ are more or less “opinion pieces”, critical and very personal assessments of an experience or a destination; we have these posts also listed under the individual countries (double entries).

    Now, is my set-up too detailed as a category list or not? In your opinion?

    • Laura says:

      Hi Juergen. It sounds like your tags are in order. For categories, I personally would have given one category of Destinations, then I’d use a tag for continents and country names. The purpose of tags is to further break down the content under a category.

      It’s not a great idea to have a post in 2 categories. What would be under the About category? If the posts under reflections are all given a country category already, I’d make reflections a tag too.

      There’s not just one way to do it. These tags and categories should just be used to help display and collect posts into topics for your users.

  4. Amy says:

    So I think my categories are fine. However I definitely misunderstood the use of tags and I have heaps. Whats the best way to delete or change them? Can I just go in and bulk delete tags and then tag each post with better more relevant ones or will that mess something in the background up?

    • Laura says:

      If you remove all of the posts from tag, and you want to delete the tag, you’d want to redirect that tag page’s URL to another page or the homepage, if it’s getting any traffic. If it’s not receiving traffic, you can just delete it.

  5. Anna Mull says:

    Thanks for sharing these helpful tips. I am planning to start a blog, and I was very confused about which niche to choose from but your blog has given me the ideas and helped me a lot. Keep sharing your valuable knowledge with the readers.

  6. Paula Martinelli says:

    This is so helpful! As I am in the process to redesign my pages and optimize my posts, I have started to organize my categories, but apparently, I was doing it wrong. I was creating one category per country. I will go back and create a “Destination” category instead and tag my posts by country. It is a lot of work, but I feel that doing it now, is better than later, and going forward, my site will be much more organized AND it will help me to organize the posts I write about. If they don’t fit inside a category and tag, I will ask myself if I should really be writing or going too far from my current niche. Thank you so much!

    • Laura says:

      I think a lot of travel bloggers categorized that way to start with. It’s not necessarily a problem, unless you need to organize the content differently for your audience. I do find that tags are the better way to organize countries. Good luck! I’m sure it will help you moving forward.

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