Aug 11

WordPress: The Difference Between Tags And Categories

One of the primary reasons WordPress is one of the most popular hosting platforms on the web is the fact that it is SEO-friendly.

The structure of a WordPress site makes it easy for the search engines to crawl and index. Since it’s also easy to customise metadata in WordPress, optimising for the keywords our clients are using in their searches is greatly simplified. Add the fact that WordPress automatically lets Google know when our sites have been updated, improving our Google rankings even faster, and we have a hosting platform that’s hard to beat.

When we talk about metadata and its uses in search engine optimisation, several questions arise.

  • Which is better for our optimisation efforts? Categories or tags?
  • What is the difference between the two?
  • How many WordPress categories should be used?
  • Can we have too many categories?
  • Can posts be assigned to multiple categories?
  • How many tags do we need?

To be able to use categories and tags properly for optimisation purposes, it’s crucial that we understand the role of each. Once we are familiar with their properties, we can determine how best to use each when optimising our WordPress websites for solid SEO results.

wordpress

What are Categories?

There are several established taxonomies in WordPress and categories is one of them. Categories give WordPress users a way to group and sort their content into different segments, improving our visitors’ user experiences and increasing the odds that they will find what they are looking for faster.

If our website is about knitting, for example, the categories we establish for our site may include learning to knit, patterns, supplies, portfolio, and more.

If we don’t select a category for a post, it’s sorted into the default category which is “Uncategorised” for new WordPress installations. The default category can be renamed or changed by the administrator, and other ones can be added for our site’s organisation. Posts can be put into more than one category and have multiple tags.

What are Tags?

Another useful taxonomy in WordPress, tags allow users to focus on specific, smaller topics. They are very much like keywords used for a given post’s topic. If a user doesn’t specify a tag on a post, unlike with categories, no default tag is automatically added. Tags won’t appear unless the author physically adds them. They are optional with no limit to how many can be used.

If we have a book review site, and we’re posting a review for a James Patterson book, we may consider using tags like James Patterson, crime, suspense, mystery, thriller, and more.

Widgets can be used to display tags on a site’s sidebar for user convenience. Visitors can then use tags to find posts on our websites about a given topic of interest to them.

tags and categories example

Key Differences

If we have a blog about an upcoming vacation, our categories might include hotel, transportation, tickets, extras, restaurants, and shows as an example. When we create a post about the hotel where we are staying, in that post we may include tags like hotel, lodging, travel, travelblog, and more.

One striking difference between the two taxonomies is that our posts require a category where tags are entirely optional. If we don’t categorise our post, WordPress does it for us.

Another difference between the two taxonomies is the URLS they produce in permalinks. If we use the custom permalink setting, our links may look something like this:

https://myblog.com/category/hotel/

vs.

https://myblog.com/tag/hotel

Categories may also be used to form hierarchies within our website. This means that if we need more structuring, we can indeed have it. If we have a site about vehicles, we could have a child category about SUVs.

Through the use of breadcrumbs, we are also able to have URLs like /category/SUVs/subcompact that displays the content structure. Setting up this sort of order isn’t something we can accomplish with tags.

Categories and Tags: Best Optimisation Practices

Now that we understand what categories and tags are, it’s time to learn how they can be best used to boost our search engine optimisation efforts.

How Many WordPress Categories Should I Use?

In WordPress versions leading up to 2.5, no support for tags was incorporated into the platform. In those days, developers were using categories for those smaller details which tags are now used for and sometimes the lists were very long. Tags were added to improve the functionality of our websites.

Is there a recommended optimal number of categories that should be used? The appropriate amount to use would depend on the size and intricacy of the site. For structure and functionality purposes, smart use of tags and child categories are a good idea.

Think of each category as a group of posts centred around a topic. Starting with the more nonspecific categories and working in subcategories as the site grows in complexity and size is a good practice. There’s just no way to know beforehand what specific categories we will need and use most often.

Most websites or blogs start out with one to three posts per day. Having more than twenty-five categories in the early days of the blog or site doesn’t serve a purpose when many of them do not have more than one to two posts — if any — for an extensive period. Kicking things off with five nonspecific categories with several posts each as opposed to a large number of categories with no posts makes a lot more sense.

Imagine we had, for example, a website about productivity apps. Our intent may be to inform our audience of the best apps for individuals or teams, for time management or organisation. We might use the names of the apps themselves as categories with child categories like time management, groups, individuals, and more.

Here’s the problem. What happens when one of the apps is discontinued? Or re-released as something else? Or merged with another app? We would have to make changes to top-level categories and add more child categories.

A smarter way of structuring our productivity app site would be to have top-level categories that are evergreen. We might use categories like individual apps, team apps, time management, and more. How would folks be able to find a specific app using this model? That’s where tags come in handy. If we created a post, using this example, for the Evernote app, we would use the tag “evernote”.

When Do We Use Child Categories?

Using our productivity app website example, perhaps one day we have a post that’s an interview with a given app’s creator. Unless the likelihood that we will be interviewing such experts often is high, it makes little sense to create a top-level category like “designer interviews”.

A more efficient method of dealing with this would be to add it as a tag. If we have a topic that we’ll have more than ten posts for and it has the potential to grow, adding it as a child category, not a top-level category, is ideal.

If we’re concerned with the structure of an existing site, we can evaluate our older posts and form a plan of how we want to move forward. If we make changes to our structure, keep in mind there are many fantastic redirection plugins available to automatically direct our audience to the posts at their new URL, so our Google ranking isn’t adversely affected.

child categories wordpresswpbeginner

Is It Necessary to Use Child Categories?

Remember that the goal is making it easy for our audience to find what they are looking for on our website.

With that in mind, it’s not necessary to use child categories. Although, they can be a useful tool in developing a website with valuable content that’s easy to find. If there’s a topic within a category that we may have several posts centred around, a child category may be the best solution. If the topic within a category isn’t likely to be up for discussion often, a tag might do just fine.

Can a Single Post Be in More Than One Category?

There are some who believe and will tell us that assigning posts to many categories will damage our optimisation efforts. It is common to be penalised for duplicate content as a result.

While search engine optimisation is essential, again, the goal is helping our visitors find what they are looking for on our website quickly. Be smart when planning categories. If we’re using several categories that many of our posts can fit into, should we then consider the use of an umbrella category instead and handles the distinction through child categories or tags?

If, for example, we had a website that sold costumes and decor and had as categories topics like “Halloween costumes”, “Halloween decorations”, and “Halloween accessories”, we can see why we might have duplicate or filler content. However, if we simply used “Halloween” as a category instead and made “costumes”, “decorations”, and “accessories” either child categories or tags, our structure would be much more efficient and significantly improve the chances of our visitors finding what they are looking for fast.

While adding multiple categories to our posts isn’t helping our optimisation efforts, if doing so would help improve the experience of our users, we might consider doing it. But only if there is a compelling reason to do so, not as a regular occurrence.

No Index Taxonomies

If the possibility of being penalised for duplicate content is a concern for us because we have posts with more than one category, we can elect to choose to “noindex, follow” our category structure using the plugin WordPress SEO by Yoast. If we want to “noindex, follow” only a few categories, it’s not difficult to do so manually. The Yoast plugin, however, has a setting to override the global configuration if we want to make this change to all of our categories.

What does it mean to “noindex, follow” a category? It’s a way to communicate with Google, and any other search engines, to follow the post links in the given categories so that they can index the posts. But, it’s also requested that the search engines not index the main category archives to keep the duplicate content from being detected.

In summary, WordPress lets us add a single post to as many categories as we wish. If it helps users to find what they need by adding posts to more than one category, then we might consider doing so if there is a good reason.

How Many Tags Can Be used On Each Post?

There’s no limit in WordPress to how many tags we can use on a given post. That being said, good judgement should be exercised. Use no more than ten tags on our posts unless there’s a justifiable reason for doing so.

So Tags Are Like Keywords?

Some developers use as many tags as possible on posts because they equate tags with keywords. Tags aren’t meta keywords, however. There are plugins like WordPress SEO by Yoast, which we mentioned earlier, that let us use tags in a meta keywords template, but they must be specially configured to do so. The plugins don’t plug the tag values in for meta keywords by default.

Summary

Categories and tags are available by default in WordPress, and when used smartly, they can significantly help to boost our search engine optimisation efforts. In learning each taxonomy’s role and how best to use them, we can improve the performance of our WordPress websites.

About The Author

Ajay Chavda is the co-founder of Weboptimizers, an SEO agency in Melbourne and has been involved with SEO for over 15 years. Between the digital properties and security forums he has managed, his articles have been read by approximately 50 million unique visitors.

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