What’s the difference between categories vs tags in WordPress?

WordPress has two primary types of content: pages and posts. In a typical website setup, this is how pages and posts are used:

  • Pages are used for your primary content such as home page, about page, contact page, etc.
  • Posts are used for news, updates, announcements and other topics that are continually added. Posts are typically sorted by date, with the most recent information at the top. They are the type of information that you might send out in an emailed newsletter.

Side note: On customized websites, we can create advanced post types for other purposes like event calendars, directories, and portfolios. This is where the power and flexibility of WordPress can really shine. These advanced post types may also have categories and tags. 

This post (yes, this is a blog post you are reading) is to help give you a better understanding of how to use categories and tags on your posts. Without knowing what they are for, it’s really common to wind up with too many tags, not enough categories, and a big mess that isn’t helping anyone. So let’s dig in and see if we can get this straightened out.

WordPress Posts

What are categories and tags used for?

The purpose of categories and tags is to help your visitors find posts that are interesting to them. The give you a way to label and sort the information you’re sharing on your website.

If your blog posts were all printed out and spread out on your dining room table, how would you sort them into piles? Those piles would be categories. If you added post-it notes to some of them with additional info, those would be tags. Unlike your pile of papers, on your website, a post can belong to more than one category or tag.

What are categories?

Categories are a broad grouping of topics. You can think of them as a genre, section, or a table of contents. Categories are hierarchical, which means you can have categories and subcategories. For example:

  • News
  • Events
    • Fundraiser
    • Classes
    • Performances

In WordPress, categories are selected with checkboxes. You must have at least one category. If you have a small website, that may be all you need. Keep your total number of categories to a minimum, using the broadest possible topics. Most websites don’t need more than 5-10 categories.

What are tags?

Like categories, the purpose of tags is to help visitors find posts that have something in common. Tags are used for details. If your category is Recipes, your tags might include ‘gluten-free’ or ‘kid-friendly’. The most common problem I see with tags is having too many of them. If you have 100 tags with 1 post each, you might as well not have any tags at all.

Choose your tags strategically to help your visitors explore your posts. If they like your post about winterizing your home, give them the opportunity to see similar posts with tags like ‘Home Maintenance’ or ‘Winter Tips’

Do I have to use them?

Nope! You must have at least one category, but everything else is optional. I’d recommend erring on the side of too few, rather than too many. The default category is “uncategorized” which can be changed to “General” or something else that makes sense for your website.

Can I change them around?

It’s not technically difficult to rename and rearrange tags and categories in the WordPress dashboard. But it may cause broken links or issues with SEO, so if you have an established website it’s best to plan your strategy in advance to minimize problems.

Examples of using categories and tags

Here are some basic examples to help you start thinking about how to best use categories and tags on your own website. You can ask yourself this: “Would a person want to see a list of the posts in this category?” or “Would it be useful to someone to see all the posts that have this tag?”

One thing to note here is that in some of the tag examples below could be sub-categories instead.

Example 1 – Nonprofit organization:

  • Category – a simple structure is totally fine:
    • General (default)
  • Tags (optional): volunteers, fundraisers, wish list, annual report

Example 2 – Online news website: 

  • Categories – like sections of a printed newspaper:
    • News (default)
    • Sports
    • Business
    • Politics
    • etc.
  • Tags: election results, road closures, school district name, city name, etc.

Example 3 – A local bookstore:

  • Categories
    • Store News (default)
    • Book Reviews
    • Events
  • Tags: gift ideas, book club, local authors, new releases

Example 4 – Recipe website:

  • Categories
    • Entrees
    • Side Dishes
    • Desserts
  • Tags: gluten-free, kid-friendly, quick and easy, thanksgiving, vegetarian

Common Mistakes

Overlapping:

  • Sports
  • Local Sports
  • High School Sports
  • Football games
  • High School football

Instead: Keep it simple. You can choose more than one category or tag. If your news is about the high school football game, you might have it set up like this:

  • Categories: Sports, Schools
  • Tags: football, high school name

Too specific:

  • 2022 Fall Fundraiser Auction
  • Fundraiser Auction Items
  • 2022 Fundraiser Sponsors

Instead: If a tag only applies to one or two posts, broaden your scope. Your goal is to help people find similar information. If you set it up more like this, people could browse all your events, your current and past fundraisers, or all your sponsor thank yous:

  • Category: Events
  • Tags: fundraisers, sponsors

Vague or unnecessary:

  • People
  • National Dog Day
  • Fun
  • #savetheplanet

Instead: Consider whether a tag is useful for navigating your blog posts. If it doesn’t add value, skip it.

Conclusion

Remember that categories are broad topics and tags are details. Your only requirement is one category. Everything else is optional.

 

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