WordPress Categories vs Tags

All WordPress newbies eventually stumble upon categories and tags. Questions begin – what’s the difference between the two? Should I use both, or just one? What are the benefits of using categories and tags for my overall content strategy?

Once this knowledge is complete, the question always arrives – should I index or de-index categories and tags?

Categories and tags are two of the most used WordPress taxonomies – the word arriving from Linnaean taxonomy, a biological classification model.

Don’t let the word “taxonomies” confuse you; it’s just a fancy term. Basically, taxonomies like categories and tags allow WordPress bloggers to group posts together; categories group posts in a hierarchy, whereas tags group all specific posts together. When creating categories and tags, think of them as keywords; use broad “head” terms for categories, and focused “long-tail” terms for tags.

The SEO benefit to using categories and tags is that they help to spread link authority. Say you have an article that has a few strong backlinks from the most respected domains such as .edu and .gov; if that post stands alone, the link authority remains there. But if that article is categorized or tagged, it spreads that link authority across other web pages and posts that it’s linked to.

Let’s drop the fluff, and get to the points, eh?

First the differences between WordPress tags and categories.

WordPress Categories Are…

Categories allow you to organize your content based on topics, providing readers, and search engines, with an organized road map of that particular subject; they provide structure for both search engines and websites. For example, let’s say you were building a website about the latest sports cars. Some broad categories that would make the main menu are Reviews, News, Videos, Buyer’s Guide, etc.

This organizes content for a reader, allowing them to quickly find what they are seeking. And under these categories can live sub-categories, or as many refer to “child” categories to the main “parent” category. So under the Buyer’s Guide, you’d find a child categories such as “Audi,” “BMW,” “Bugatti,” “Porsche,” etc.

In WordPress, if you don’t have specific categories assigned, or did not assign a post to a category you had created, that post would go under “uncategorized.” This provides no theme for that post, and therefore no thematic relevance for search engines. Also, you can assign a post to more than one category. Regarding how many categories one should have, there’s a few different schools of thought.

But the amount should be contingent on what type of website you have. Is the website data-driven, such as a news outlet, with many different topics to write on and upload 50+ posts a week? Use as many categories as needed for the amount of material you have to place in those categories. If you have 25+ posts on a topic, it’s more than worth it to create a unique category for that. And for these bigger sites, try to keep the minimum number of categories to 15-20; you can build them out as you create content. This keeps the structure uniformed for not only your visitors,  but also the search engines.

How about if you use educational-based marketing to sells a few products, say high-performance car tires? Here, less is more. The less options someone has, the easier it will be for conversions. For this example, the main categories would be something like “brand,” “tire information,” and “discounts,” with brand obviously having sub-categories of the major tire brands. These websites will thrive with less than 10 categories.

When choosing category, don’t get overly creative with the names. If the section is about tire sizes and profiles, use a simple term like “Tire Guide”; you can get a bit more creative with tags, though (more later).

One additional note; when you add a category, WordPress automatically places the word “category” directory into your url structure; e.g. https://carwebsite.com/category/review. But alteration of the permalink structure allows you to strip the “category” directory from the URL, making it appear cleaner (certain plugins like the much-respected Yoast makes this simple). The actual benefit is not proven, but cleaner is typically better.

WordPress Tags Are…

Whereas categories are the main topics of your website, tags are the more defined terms within those main topics – they are more focused. The best way to think about tags are like keywords to a unique topic. Back to our high-performance car website example, a tags for Audi would be “Audi A8,” Audi R8,” “Quattro,” “Triptronic Transmission,” etc. These tags would then connect all posts using that same term across the entire website. If you click that tag, you’ll be taken to a page identical to a category page, and all posts containing that tag will be found. This is especially useful of UX. Tags are similar to categories due to connecting stories, but unlike categories, tags have no hierarchy.

You can use as many tags as needed, and practices vary. But don’t go crazy – contingent on depth of post, try to remain in the 5-15 tag range. Remember, each tag will create an archive page, so make sure that page has more than just say five posts or so. If it doesn’t, the tag is likely not significant enough to stand alone.

Unlike categories, you can create a tag cloud to appear at the bottom of your website. The tag cloud lists all of the tags you’ve assigned to your posts. On average, your tag cloud will display 75 of your most popular tags.

The tag cloud allows readers to take a look at what topics you write the most about. This idea may sound convenient, but be aware that the tag cloud widget can become visually unappealing if there are too many tags in the cloud.

Remember, tags are optional, and you also can strip the “tag” directory from the URL by altering the permalink structure.

Categories vs Tags – Concluding Thoughts…and Index, or Noindex?

You can use categories to hierarchically organize your content, and tags to connect posts that contain the same focused terms. And if you get lost figuring out how to use categories and tags properly, again think of them as keywords. Categories would be the broad terms, and tags the long-tail terms.

Think you should have used category as a tag, or vice versa? WordPress has a converter tool that makes this easy, saving you the work of re-categorizing or re-tagging things.

One final thought – people often wonder if we should block either of these from search engines. This is one of endless debate across all major SEO websites and forums. Many say that all tag pages – like author pages if you are a one-author blog – should be “de-indexed” or programmatically blocked to prevent duplicate content issues and to promote consolidation of authority. We don’t fully believe this. If somebody has a tag that’s an ongoing series (usually more suitable as a category) or multiple topics among one thing (Audi  A8 for example), then that tag page might have more authority for searches specific to audi A8 than any particular post. But the tag page needs to be selective which are indexed. If there’s only one or two posts using a tag, noindex. If there’s 15 or so, it may be a different story. Every website deserves custom consideration on this topic.

As for category pages, we recommend modifying the page itself with unique content, like a 100-word blurb with optimized keywords for that category, and a unique excerpt created for each post that becomes populated under that category. This will make the category page(s) unique in themselves, and can help spread link authority between category pages and posts. If this can’t be completed, the best option is to noindex.

Thoughts on any of this? Share your category/tag stories below.

With over a decade of experience in business leadership and creating traditional content for an online voice, which includes ghost writing for major publications, Ron Lieback is the Head of Content Marketing at LSEO. If you’d like to get published on major publications like Forbes, Inc., Fast Company, and AMEX OPEN, contact us at 877-778-1749.