Confused about categories and tags in WordPress? You’re not alone. I’ve seen a lot of explanations and metaphors that try to explain the difference between categories and tags, but I still encounter a lot of people who are confusion about the differences between them. Part of the problem, I think, is that there is no one right answer to how you should use categories and tags for your blog. The unsatisfying answer is, that, it depends. So, maybe we should take a step back and provide some context and offer some tips and guidelines and see if that will help.
Purpose: why do it, what are they good for
When it comes to categories and tags, it’s all about organizing your content with the intent to make it easier for people to find that content. While categories and tags do play a role in how search engines see your site (more on that below), I believe the main purpose is to help your readers navigate your site and find similar content. So, I like to think of of categories and tags as ancillary site navigation to supplement your main menu.
If organized and structured well, both categories and tags can also provide your readers with a quick synopsis of what your site is all about. Try this as an experiment next time you’re surfing the web and come across a new blog. Look at the list of categories or the tag cloud in the sidebar. Just from those words can you tell what the site is about, or what content you’ll find on the site? Does a coherent picture emerge of what you will learn on the site? If not, then the categories and tags probably aren’t used very effectively. After you’ve done that analysis on a few other sites, try it on your own. Pretend you’re someone else coming to your site. Do you think they’ll have a good idea of what your site is about just from looking at the list of categories or tags?
Since categories and tags are all about organization, it’s important to point out that there’s no one right way to organize and categorize the content of your blog. Just as there are many ways to organize and classify lots of things in life, so it is with your blog content.
Search engines & SEO
From a non-human, search engine and search engine optimization standpoint the use of categories and tags can get very technical. I think that a lot of people obsess about their use of categories and tags and how it affects their search engine rankings. Though I believe your use of categories and tags does have an effect on SEO, if you’re going to dive down into the rabbit hole of SEO you better be prepared for a long, time-sucking endeavor. SEO, in and of itself is part science and a lot of art and staying up to speed with all the tips and techniques is a full time job. Personally, I feel a better approach is to craft your categories and tags with your end user in mind and let the SEO chips fall where they may. That said, here’s a little background info and insight on how categories and tags relate to SEO.
Technorati automatically recognizes WordPress categories and uses them as tags (in Technorati-speak) to classify your posts.
Categories are indexed by Google unless you explicitly tell them not to be (reasons for not indexing catalog pages – Yoast article on duplicate content). Tags, according to Vanessa Fox, former head of Google’s Webmaster Central team, however, are not indexed by Google.
“Google doesn’t really look at the tags. It’s still helpful for usability. A lot of people spend a lot of time trying to optimize their tags for SEO and you really don’t get the benefit from it.”
Source: May 1, 2010 – WordCamp San Francisco WordPress, Audience Engagement, and SEO
A popular method of displaying all those tags you’ve carefully cultivated is with a tag cloud. Matt Cutts, Google’s head of web spam addressed the question of how Google looks at these tag clouds.
Matt Cutts Talks about Tag Clouds
So there you go. Two people from Google telling you not to obsess so much about tags in your WordPress posts and to focus more on the users.
Categories and Tags: differences, uses
So, we still haven’t really fully addressed the difference between categories and tags. There’s lots of metaphors that try to illustrate the difference. Some are better than others. The WordPress.tv video “Adding Categories and Tags to your Posts” says to think of categories like sections of a menu and tags as ingredients in a certain dish. Source:
A similar metaphor is that of a grocery store. We can use a grocery store metaphor and say that categories are like the aisles and sections of the store and tags are like the individual products. But both of these kind of imply that a given individual tag belongs inside of a single category. That may not necessarily be true.
WordPress guru Lorelle VanFossen likes to say that categories are like a Table of Contents of a book and that tags are like the index. I like this metaphor quite a bit better than most. Individual words in a book index might show up in one or many chapters or sections; i.e. any given tag (keyword) might be used in a post assigned to one or more categories.
Remember, there isn’t only one answer. There are multiple ways to organize and categorize things. The key is to organize your content to best help your intended audience. So a key clue to help you determine how to organize your content is to understand as well as you can how your audience thinks and what words they use.
So, in practice it makes sense to have only a handful of categories. It’s hard to say an exact number to shoot for since it will depend from one website to another. As a general guideline, I’d say that most websites shouldn’t need more than 10 categories, unless it’s a website that encompasses a lot of topics and has a lot of content.
Don’t worry about limiting yourself with tags though. It might be most useful to think of tags as just links of your keywords. The tags you define become links when you define them, so it’s a handy way to make your keywords linkable.
If you feel like your blog categories and tags are in need of a bit of reorganizing, maybe it’s time for a bit of an exercise. Start by brainstorming a list of words, topics and subject matter that your blog covers. If you’re just starting a blog, brainstorm a list of subject material you plan to write about.
Once you have your brainstormed list, hop on the web and troll around for words that your audience uses that relate to the words and topics you brainstormed. Add these to your list.
Now get a pad of sticky notes and write down the different words and topics on sticky notes, one word or topic per note. Then find a large wall can paste your sticky notes and start grouping the notes into grouping that makes sense. For better results, invite some friends over and get their input. Keep in mind that there will be multiple ways to organize. It might be helpful to get your digital camera out and snap a photo of each grouping you come up with so that you can review and compare later. Keep in mind that you can have sub-categories.
Looking at your groupings, evaluate and compare to your actual usage of these on your blog. How well do they correspond? Does your new grouping make better sense than your current set of categories?
Look at your categories on your blog. Do you have a category defined that only has a few posts? Unless you plan to write a lot more posts about that topic, maybe you should demote it to a tag. Do you have a tag you use on your blog that you use a lot and that showed up as a major grouping in your brainstorming and grouping exercise? Maybe that should be promoted to a category.
If you’d like to get more in-depth ideas on defining your categories and tags, be sure to check out video of Lorelle VanFossen’s workshop from the 2009 Portland WordCamp. She goes into a lot more depth on the exercise I describe above and provides a more thorough background on tags. Well worth the 49 minutes, despite the obsession with Star Trek references, if you really want to get the lowdown on categories and tags.
Some final take-aways from that workshop:
- Avoid synonyms in categories
- Use synonyms in tags
- Add descriptions to your categories
- Dozens of tags for a post can make you look spammy
- Need help figuring out what words you use a lot on your blog? Use Wordle.net. to generate a word cloud of the words you use. The clouds give greater prominence to words that appear more frequently in the source text.
I hope all this served to de-mystify categories and tags a little bit. If you’re still a bit confused on how you should structure your own categories and tags, I highly recommend going through the exercise as your next step. And remember! There isn’t any one right answer to how you classify your content. But, keep your audience in mind and let that be your guide in choosing which one makes the most sense for them. Good luck!