WordPress Categories vs Tags: How to Use Them Properly

Using categories and tags

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 these tools 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.

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?

When a user comes to your site, they’re likely going to look for content they’re interested in. 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 tofu recipes. Tagging content with “tofu” will allow you to provide easy access to that content.

Every category and tag you make 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 category, like Food, in your navigation menu or place internal links to “tofu recipes” within a post. When a user clicks there, they’ll receive an up-to-date listing page of all related posts.

Categories vs Tags: What’s The Difference?

Because websites can become quite complex, there are two different methods available to organize content. You can categorize it into broad topics that your website covers, and you can also tag the content with more defined topics.

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 and weight Loss. If you have a recipe blog, your main topics might be main dishes, side dishes and appetizers.

Of course, it’s possible that you write about more than three things, and all of those broad topics would have a category of their own. But it’s important to note that if you feel the need to have dozens of categories, you have probably not defined your blog’s niche enough. It should only be necessary to have a handful of categories that cover only the broadest topics you cover.

Using my own website as an example, one of the main topics I write about is wine tourism. So I have a category called wine tourism. Every post I write about traveling for wine is put into the Wine Tourism category. I also write about travel destinations, so I have a category called Destinations. You get the point.

One thing to note is that every post requires a category. If you do not select a category, the post will be assigned to “uncategorized”. It’s really best not to allow that to happen. Every piece of content you write should fall under one of the broad topic categories you’ve defined. Again, if you don’t think you can do that for each post, you might need to consider if those outlying posts belongs on your site at all.

Tags

If categories are the broad topics, then tags are the details. Tags are used to define the topics in the content in greater detail. Let’s go back to our examples. If you have a fitness blog with a category called workouts, your tags might be something like HITT, weight training, and cardio. These are all the different types of workouts you might be writing about. They define the topic of workouts in more detail.

For the recipe blog, if your category is main dishes, your tags might be something like 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 you write about frequently, the destinations you write about most, like Chicago and New York. Or it could be types of destinations like family, budget, and summer. Perhaps you would even have all of those tags. When you write a post called “How to Enjoy Chicago with Teenagers”, the category would be Destinations, and the tags would be Chicago and family.

You can use the tags you create freely on any post. For instance, if you’re a food blogger, you could tag all beef recipes with the tag “beef”, regardless of what category they are in (e.g. main dishes or appetizers). This allows users to search for the recipes they’re interested in either by category “Main Dishes” or by ingredient “Beef”.

Unlike with categories, you do not have to tag every post.

When Not to Use Tags

There are times when you should not use tags. It’s unnecessary to create random tags just so every post has a tag. If you don’t write about it frequently, don’t create a tag for it.

As an example, on a fitness blog you may write about three types of workouts frequently, so they each have tags. For one post, you’ve decided to write about a fourth workout type, but it’s not something you intend to write about again. You don’t need to add a tag for this fourth workout type. For a travel example, perhaps you will only be writing about Chicago one time. Then it does not need a tag.

You might be wondering why.

Always remember that the whole purpose of the tag is to organize groups of similar content. If there’s only one piece of content, there’s no need to organize it.

When you add a tag, a whole page is created for that tag. All of your posts with that tag are displayed on the page. It would be useless to create a page for just one post. In fact, it would be a bad user experience. Thus, only create tags for things you talk about often.

Do Categories and Tags Affect SEO?

Categories and tags have no direct impact on SEO. That is to say, 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

You want to make your site as uncomplicated as possible for the reader. Don’t overwhelming them with too many 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 so 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 specialties. Your tags should further define those specialties.

Don’t create them just to for the sake of having them. Be judicious and only choose what you write about frequently and what users would likely want to search for.

As a rule of thumb, you should choose somewhere around 5-10 categories to start, depending on how robust your specialty or niche is. The categories should be broad enough that every post you write could fall into one of the categories.

What to Do If You Did it Wrong

Now that you know how WordPress 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.

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.

Keep in touch: Want SEO tips to help drive more traffic to your site today?
Sign up here for our newsletter.

5 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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *