Elegant Themes Blog

Stay up to date with our most recent news and updates

Best Practices For Using Categories And Tags In WordPress

Posted on November 7, 2014 by in Tips & Tricks | 67 comments

Best Practices For Using Categories And Tags In WordPress

You’ve written your post, and your mouse is hovering over the “Publish” button, but you can’t help but feel like you’ve forgotten something…

Don’t worry, WordPress will remind you: “You must select a category before publishing a post.”

And that reminds you, you should pick add a few tags as well.

But when none of the categories seem to really fit your topic, and you’re not sure what tags to add without repeating yourself, what are you supposed to do? File it under “Miscellaneous”?

That’s how many of us go about choosing our categories and tags: just creating them ad hoc as our blogs develop.

But by creating them that way, you’re missing out on a ton of benefits. Taking the time to use categories and tags correctly can boost your SEO, raise your the average time-on-page of your visitors, and provide an overall better experience for your readers.

The categories and tags you create become the skeleton of your website, clueing in both readers and search engines to its structure and content. And because they’re so integral to your website, they’re difficult to change later on without losing backlinks, search engines rankings, or littering your website with 404 errors.

But sticking with a bad category and tag system will have even worse results, leading to user frustration and lower search engine rankings when they find your site impossible to navigate.

By getting a better understanding of what categories and tags are for and how they work, you can use them to your advantage to make your site more easily navigable for your visitors and search engines alike.

Why are Categories and Tags Important for Blogs?

The first online “web logs” were basically public journals posted online. Like in a physical diary, each entry was listed in reverse chronological order, with no other way to navigate content.

That worked great for diaries for hundreds of years, but when blogging exploded in popularity in the 21st century, we realized we needed a better way to structure our content and link related posts.

Categories and tags were created in WordPress and other blogging software to give readers more options for browsing content than just chronologically.

Categories and tags not only help readers to navigate your website, but they also have the benefit of making your blog more “sticky” for new visitors. If you’ve ever used a “related posts” plugin, you know the benefits of letting readers know how to continue to read about the same topics on your website. Instead of hitting the “back” button to search for more info, they see that they can find it all on your website.

SEO Benefits of Categories and Tags

While the primary purpose of categories and tags are to help your readers navigate your blog, using them properly will also give you an SEO boost.

This works in a few different ways. Firstly, having all those internal links will guide search engine crawlers to discover all your site’s content by following those links, so that there are no isolated pages left unindexed. The anchor text of those internal links — your category and tag names — will clue the search engines in to what topics your website is about, allowing you to rank for those targeted keywords.

And all those internal links will spread “link juice” around your site: If you have a very popular post on your blog that a lot of authority websites link to, using categories and tags will link that post to other related posts on your blog, boosting your website’s ranking as a whole.

What’s the Difference Between Categories and Tags?

Categories & tags work like a book's table of contents & index. (Image by Daniele Carotenuto / shutterstock.com)

Categories & tags work like a book’s table of contents & index.
(Image by Daniele Carotenuto / shutterstock.com)

Using categories and tags will give you a lot of the same benefits, and they’re both taxonomies used in similar ways in the WordPress dashboard. Sometimes it’s difficult to decide if a certain topic should be a tag or a category — and many blogs will even use them in the same way.

In understanding the difference between categories and tags, it’s helpful to think of your blog like a book.

Categories work like the chapters of a book: All of a book’s content is organized into chapters. Looking at the title of each chapter will give you a good idea of the topics the book covers and how it’s organized. If the book author or editor wanted to change, add, or remove any chapters, it’d be a pretty big structural change for the book.

Tags work more like the book’s index. Indexes are a much longer list of more specific topics the book mentions. If a topic is in the index, it’s probably covered (albeit briefly, maybe) in more than one area of the book. A book’s index is usually much longer than the table of contents, and adding or removing an item doesn’t affect the structure of the book.

How to Use Categories and Tags

Now that you know all about the purpose of categories and tags, here’s how you can use them to your advantage to help your readers navigate your blog, and to get more targeted traffic from search engines.

Categories: DOs and DON’Ts

Remember, categories are like your blog’s table of contents.

  1. DO think carefully about the topics your blog will cover, and how your readers will expect your content to be organized. You can add new categories later, but it would be difficult to reorganize your website’s structure by changing your existing categories. If you’re unsure how to categorize your blog post topics, try using a brainstorming exercise like mind-mapping to visualize how all your topics and subtopics are related.
  2. DO structure your categories so that all of your posts will belong to at least one category. WordPress requires each post to belong to at least one category before you can publish it.
  3. DO consider using sub-categories to organize more complicated, hierarchical topics. WordPress allows up to three levels of categories. If you decide your blog should have sub-categories, consider using breadcrumbs on each post to orient visitors in the hierarchy of your website.
  4. DO use clear, descriptive category names, and avoid clever names. A visitor who has never been to your blog before should have a clear idea of what kind of posts they will find by clicking on your category names.
  5. DO capitalize your category titles. It’s common practice and helps your readers to understand that they’re categories.
  6. DON’T use too many categories. How many is too many? Unfortunately, there’s no right answer for every blog; it depends on your content. If you find yourself needing to create a new category every time you write a post, you should rethink how you’ve structured your topics.
  7. DON’T use more than one category for the majority of your posts. It’s best to limit most of your posts to one category, since that’s what your readers will expect (they may be confused if they click on a different category and see many of the same posts). If you must use more than one category for a single post, limit them to two or three at the most. If you find that many of your posts fit into several categories, you may need to re-think your website’s structure.
  8. DON’T create a category that you won’t write about again in the future. Use categories to topics you’re planning to expand on later. If you’re only going to write a few posts about a topic and then never revisit it again, consider linking them together with tags instead.

Tags: DOs and DON’Ts

Use tags like the index of your blog.

  1. DO use tags liberally. A tag doesn’t need to be a summary of the entire post; it could describe just one section. If it can be applied to more than one post, go ahead and create a tag for it.
  2. DO have fun with tags. Unlike with categories, which users depend on more for navigation, you can play around a bit more with tags. Try using longer phrases, hashtags, quotes, jokes; as long as they fulfill their purpose of linking like posts together and helping readers navigate your site.
  3. DO use descriptive tags that can stand on their own and still be clear. For example, an ecommerce website would be better off using the tag “programmable coffee makers” instead of just “programmable.” Think about the permalinks and anchor text for internal links you’re creating and how search engines will understand them.
  4. DON’T capitalize tags. It’s common practice to capitalize categories, but use lowercase for tags. This isn’t required, and by no means universal, but it’s fairly standard and helps to maintain the distinction between the taxonomies for you and your readers.
  5. DON’T create a tag that only applies to one post. Tags shouldn’t be too specific (for instance, a duplicate of the post title). The purpose of tags is to link related posts together, not just label them.
  6. DON’T use tags that are just duplicates of your categories. They’re already linked together, so there’s no purpose to this. Tags should be more specific than categories.
  7. DON’T use too many tags. How many tags are enough? Again, there’s no right answer for every blog. You’ll find answers all over the place, from 2-3 per post, to 30 or more. Just try to be consistent for each post, and keep in mind that each tag you create will generate a new archive page on your website— how useful will that page be? If you have a very large amount of posts, you may want to consider getting rid of or merging tags that only link 2 or 3 posts.

Seem like a lot of rules to memorize? The main thing to keep in mind is the book metaphor: use categories like chapters and tags like an index, and you’re on your way to a well-structured blog that will help readers and search engines to understand your content.

Article thumbnail image by Monkik / shutterstock.com

download divi

67 Comments

  1. Very complete article. Should be in a bible 😉 Thank you for sharing !

    • This is the beginning of the Bible’s WordPress!

      Very nice article KeriLynn,

      congratulations!

      • Interesting, Jovani…the very beginning of a Bible for WP. I feel a great eBook in the making!

        Make the day great!

        Always,
        Terungwa

    • Thank, Jovani! Glad you found it helpful 🙂

  2. Hi KeriLynn
    I like “The Categories work like the chapters of a book – Tags work more like the book’s index

    That should help me remember the difference and usage.

    At the moment I do use categories but not tags.

    I’ll have to think again about tags.

    • me too, never really thought about tags. hmmmmmm Great eye opener, thanks

    • Yeah, it’s easy to get them confused without that distinction! Good luck getting started with tags on your site.

  3. Rule #1 DO use tags liberally. I feel like sometimes people OVERKill on Tags.

    • True! When researching this article, I found some “SEO experts” recommended 30-50 tags PER POST!! That just looks spammy to me. I only use about 3-5.

  4. Best article on Catagories and tags yet. Great detail, great analogies.

  5. Well explained. Thank-you.

  6. Every time you create a new tag, that creates another ‘page’ as seen by the search engines, correct? Does using a lot of tags, then, water down our SEO rankings if Google and the other search engines see that our blogs are about so many different things? I’ve heard that we shouldn’t use tags at all because they serve no real purpose – if someone wants to look for a topic or use the ‘book index’ they can just search the site.

    • Good points, Cindy! I’m no SEO expert, but I think balance is the key in all things. Google loves when you keep readers your priority and don’t try to game the system, so I think if you use tags logically with your readers in mind it can only help you in search rankings.

      Tags do have a benefit over your on-site search engine: Your readers can see at a glance that you’ve written more about that particular topic, encouraging them to click and read more. They may not take the trouble to search unless they’re very determined to find more on the topic.

    • Nice!

  7. Glad to know I was using them well. Good post!

  8. The “categories” and “tags” as “chapter” and “index” analogy. Brilliant! I consider myself a pretty intelligent guy but I couldn’t for the life of me distinguish the two. Thanks!!

  9. DO use the Yoast WordPress SEO plugin to “Noindex, Follow” all these duplicate, triplicate& quintiplicate pages you’ll create. (the reason for “follow” is so that if anyone links to a category or tag page, then the ranking benefit a.k.a “link juice” will still flow through.

    • Great tip, Scott! Thanks for sharing.

    • Hi Scott, do you have a link to something that explains how to do this please? Do you have to do this backend?

  10. Such a helpful post! Wrote about it today on my website (www.vweisfeld.com) to encourage others to “get organized,” too. Wish I had this two years and more than 225 posts ago!

  11. good points, well made!! easy when you know how 🙂

  12. I’d like to see a SEO expert chime in – while this post makes sense from an organizational schema, I’m more interested in best practices in regards to Google. And I’ve seen guidance that suggests using one other the other may be a better approach. Hm.

    • Interesting, Dave! Do you have any links you could share on the topic?

  13. Great article. I have a rule I work to. I never create a tag or category at the time I publish my post. All of my categories and tags are created in advance, all have descriptions which are included on the archive page and all have search engine friendly titles and URLs. Most have a featured image for sharing purposes. I see post excerpts as adding to the category and tag archive pages rather than categories and tags being an after thought on posts.

    • Wow, great system, Skip! It didn’t even occur to me to use featured images for the archives pages. I’m going to try this out – thanks for sharing 🙂

  14. Thanks for the article, it helps a lot. I´ve always been confused about the difference between categories and tags… sharing it on Twitter right now 🙂

    • Thanks so much, Fran! Glad you found it useful 🙂

  15. Great article! I have a question on this topic that I’d appreciate some insight on: I run a wordpress site for my business in which I provide white dove releases for special events. I have recently started a blog and would like to have a category featuring locations where I release the doves. I’m wondering about the best way to display the info without being redundant. I thought a good combination would be to have a dedicated slug for that type of post e.g. site.com/location-spotlight/location-A, site.com/location-spotlight/location-B however, I have my post structure set up with the post name directly preceded by my site’s url (e.g. site.com/post-nam). What is the best solution for this situation? Should I just change the post format to always the category before the post? The url for the blog is: http://www.vowdoverelease.us/blog/

    Thanks!

    • Thanks, Yuriy!

      Great question. I’m sure there are tons of ways you could do it, and if you ask 10 people you’ll get 10 different systems suggested to you 🙂

      That said, here are a couple of thoughts on how I’d do it:

      I like your idea of a dedicated slug (“site.com/location-spotlight/location-A”). If those are the only categories you’re going to use, you could change the “category” base in Settings > Permalinks to “spotlight”. That way instead of saying “site.com/category/location”, it would say “site.com/spotlight/location”. Not sure whether that’d work for you or not.

      Alternatively, you could remove the category base completely (here’s a post I found on that: http://premium.wpmudev.org/blog/removing-category-base-urls-wordpress/), and use categories and subcategories. For example, you might have a category archive at “site.com/news/,” and another category archive at “site.com/spotlight/location.”

      Your individual post URLs are a different topic. You could leave your permalinks as-is, or you could go to Settings > Permalinks and change it to %category%/%postname%. Which one you’d choose is up to you. I’d consider how helpful it would be to have category names in every post URL (does it give necessary information that’s not already apparent in the URL?), and I wouldn’t do it if the category names tend to be long.

      Hope this helps!

  16. Category and Tags are the basic sitemap of a blog that gives perfect idea about the content it has.

    Web masters are advised to minimize the number of category and tags on a website. Do not use them if you are not going to write at least 10-20 articles about that category/tag.

  17. I consider it unfortunate that builtin WordPress menus only support categories, not tags.

    It is also unfortunate that Divi’s blog module has such limited support for categories. The hierarchical structure of categories is lost (a big problem) and the display options for any blog post are only yes/no, which for many applications makes worthless the option to display categories.

    I wish there was a discussion about the usefulness of the tag cloud for readers. A tag cloud looks good, but I don’t have a feel for how useful it tends to be.

    • Interesting points, Snider! I’ve found that unfortunately a lot of themes lack good support for hierarchical categories, I guess because they’re just not used by most bloggers.

      I think better support for hierarchical categories in Divi’s blog module is an excellent feature request. I’ll pass it on to the staff for you, but since I don’t have your contact info I’d encourage you to also post about it in the support forums: https://www.elegantthemes.com/forum/ That way you can get a more detailed response & maybe be updated of future changes 🙂

      As for tag clouds, that would be an interesting discussion topic! I’ve also found WordPress’s native tag widget to be lacking, and doubt its usefulness to readers on most sites. On one of my websites, I use the plugin “Configurable Tag Cloud” which has a lot more options for creating a tag cloud that’s more useful to readers.

  18. Very good tutorial, KeriLynn Engel. Thank you for share.

  19. KeriLynn,

    Good explanation, I had read on few blogs stating the use of NoIndex & nofollow for tags so that it helps in SERP’s(Duplicate Content), do we need to really add the nofollow attribute, could you please put some light on that topic

  20. regarding tags not being capilatized. What if the majority of the tags would be people names? For example in new type of site. Famous peoples names would be mentioned in various articles from time to time and tags seem like the best option.

  21. Great article, and one that most bloggers forget along the way.

    Joel, I capitalise my tags when it calls for it like names, I also have been know to capitalise them in the past but I agree with the idea of separation by using caps for categories and not using them for tags to keep things straight for the reader of your articles.

  22. in some of the articles I have read, some webmasters have implemented the “tags” instead of “meta keywords”, this is done because Google already does not use meta keywords. Cmiiw..

  23. Great, now i get this more clear, i will go and clean tags and cat, thanks.

  24. Thank you so much for this article. It has really helped me make sense of tags and categories for the first time! Contents and Index – so simple. I love the idea of being able to think like that. I’m just starting out and eager to just write as much as I can (loving the writing part!) but dealing with technical side is rather daunting. Every day I’m learning something new and this tip has made more sense than most of what I’ve read so far. I feel much better equipped to continue on my journey now:))

  25. I’m just getting back into blogging after a year’s break and really appreciate this article to refresh my thinking! Thanks!

  26. Hi KeriLynn,

    What do you mean by “each tag you create will generate a new archive page on your website”? The archives can be accessed by my viewers? I am just starting on my blog and haven’t even realized there is an archive page.

    Thanks!
    Maryia
    Natural Boheme

  27. Ok, tags are the index to the posts; sounds good. When a user enters the tag into their favorite search engine, how does the website developer ‘control’ the wording that appears where the ‘seo title’ and ‘meta description’ that normally appears when the seo keyword is entered in the search? Mine are not and I would like the ‘seo title’ and ‘meta description’ associated with the ‘seo keyword’ for this ‘post’ to be used. How can this be accomplished?

  28. I am in the process of amalgamating several retired blogs into an ongoing writing space. My category mess isn’t just a mountain; it’s a mountain chain.

    Thanks so much for your clear, helpful post. It helped me get a bird’s-eye perspective and achieve what I believe is a breakthrough that will result in 7 categories rather than roughly 100.

    Thanks to you, I’m sketching out categories that are more like operating principles for what I’ve been writing about all these years. It will take a few weeks to complete the “surgery,” but for the first time I can visualize and am inspired by the way forward.

  29. Nice Idea. Well Structured tags helps in increasing your rank as stated above. I think tag helps the search engine locate site than categories. I observed that on my site because most category names are not unique but competitive i.e. a parenting blog using the category “PARENTING” have other better sites with that category name, but your tag will distinguish you e.g. a tag with the name, “Parenting Stubborn Teens”. Those searching for that phrase similar to that tag will locate your site from search engine.

  30. Due to ignorance I set up a blog page by simply linking to the category from the top menu. And to make it more beautiful I removed /category/ from the permalink (Using Yoast SEO plugin). The result: Website.com/blog/

    But /blog/ is actually just a category I’m linking to. Other than that I have not been using categories or Tags. However now I’m considering structuring my website with categories and therefore need to do some rearrangement.

    Below you will see what I need to do. How should I handle permalinks? Will I need to do any 301 redirects as it’s “only” categories? The post permalink will remain the same.
    *I will create an actual “Page” for the blog feed that will have the url Website.com/blog/
    *I will add categories to the url: /blog/ >>> /category/blog/
    *Lastly I will need divide all the posts in /category/blog/ to new actual categories.

  31. Fantastic article!
    I’m using WordPress since 2014 but don’t understand deference between catogary and tag.
    Thanks for knowing me this to optimize my blog’s SEO.

  32. Hi KeriLynn,

    I took your advice and restructured the categories and tags on my WordPress blog. It was a bit labor intensive, but I do feel like it’s more organized and reader-friendly now.

    To others out there who may be considering doing this to an older, more established blog, there are a few things to be aware of:

    1) It created a lot of 404 errors. For some reason, the permalinks setting was altered, which messed up all of the categories. It took me a little while to figure out what went wrong.

    2) Similarly, the settings for the tags was altered, which created a situation where all of my tags, whether they were old or brand new, resulted in a 404 error. Again, it took me a little while to resolve this issue.

    I’ve noticed a somewhat dramatic drop in traffic (from around 300 hits a day to 75). I imagine Google has penalized me for having so many bad links on my site for the better part of a week.

    It’s fixed now, and I imagine I will eventually be better off when Google likes my site again.

    Just be warned: it may be a bumpy ride.

  33. Brilliant post, i really love the book metaphor. Thanks

  34. The book metaphor really put things in perspective for me. For a while I couldn’t distinguish between the two and was use them interchangeably.

  35. Brilliant explanation, very clear.

  36. A very helpful post KeriLynn. Even though we have been using WordPress for many years, its always good to hear from others and learn about some of the little tricks that we may not be taking advantage of.

  37. Very well written and comprehensive article. What if i have to change two wrong categories that i have realized after reading your article that they are not logical. In fact i have 8 categories on my site but these two i am talking about are kind of vague. If i create a new category and shift posts from these two the new one. Would it create too many bad links? as i have more than 2000 posts in those categories.

  38. Thank you! I usually use keywords and the names of categories for tags! Now I know the best pratices to name my tags.

  39. Deciding Categories and Tags is little bit tricky. Made me several months to get categories and tags that I want.

  40. Thanks for this post – I’ve been struggling with knowing how best to use both categories and tags, how many of each, etc. Very helpful.

  41. Thanks!
    It sums up my findings and conclusion: perhaps Categories and Tags are the difference between a modern blog and an archaic static website. Use a LOT of POSTS for ALL the Content Management and Use a FEW Well Designed Pages for YOUR Commercial Purposes.

  42. How can I show a posts tags when I have made a custom post with Divi? The only option is to show author, date, category and comments under the title of the post.

    I can not find any module that shows the posts tags. It would be nice to have a module for showing all of this meta stuff more freely to make custom blog design better.

    I would have to rely on some sort of short code plugin to remedy this lack of tag handling.

    Are there any plans to extend Divi with this kind of functionality?

  43. superb article bro .. clarity b/w tags and categories.

  44. This was the BEST post on categories and tags that I could find ( I struggled and searched for a while). Awesome delivery and explanation, especially the Do’s & Dont’s section.

  45. Great article! I’m a new blogger. I’m in the process of setting up the structure of my blog right now. You have answered SOOOO many of my questions. Thank you!

  46. Thanks for sharing, this is really helpful. I’ve been blogging for a while and thought I understood the differences, but you have given me much clarity. Appreciated.

  47. Ok so SIMPLIFY the difference between categories and tags with SIMPLE examples. SIMPLE EXAMPLES.

  48. I am using WordPress for the first time. I am really frustrated about something. Some of my category names are the same as some of the tags I need to use. I used uppercase letters for my categories. I tried to use lower case letters for my tags, but if I type a lower case “word” for a tag, it changes my upper case “Word” for my category to lower case. Is this a bug in WordPress? From reading your article I can only deduct that this does not happen to you, as you advise people to use uppercase letters on categories and lowercase letters on tags. I would like to take your advice…but cannot. HELP!!!

    • Nathan B. Weller

      Taxonomy in general can be frustrating because of these types of issues. I have found that the best course of action is to avoid using the same category names and tags altogether. Ideally the range of specificity should go like this (from broadest to most specific) Category > Sub Category (if you use them) > Tag > Post title.

      The goal here is to allow a narrowing of interest, from broad categories to specific post topics. Usually (in my experience) this approach solves the problem you have raised.

  49. Can we start a campaign that would ultimately require would-be bloggers read this before starting their blog? Seriously, there are so many poorly organized blogs out there that it makes you want to pull your hair out sometimes trying to get the information you need! Thankfully, this blog clearly practices what Ms. Engel is preaching, making this post easy to find, and with a wealth of information.

  50. Thanks for sharing. It was very helpful. I am sure now that I have made a lot of mistakes. 🙂

  51. I thank you for sharing at all. This article is very helpful. Me because now that I have made many mistakes ..

Join 351,380 Happy Customers And Get Access To Our Entire Collection Of 87 Beautiful Themes For The Price Of One

We offer a 30 Day Money Back Guarantee, so joining is risk-free!

Sign Up Today

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This