WordPress Categories and Tags: What’s the Difference and How to Use Them

Composing content for a blog is simple enough: brainstorm an idea, write the post, optimize it with a plugin like SmartCrawl, and publish. Did you know, however, that there’s more you can do to not only improve the performance of that post in search (and, in turn, your website), but to also enhance the user experience?

What I’m referring to are WordPress categories and tags. These taxonomies give WordPress users a more effective way to classify and organize their blog post content.

That said, although categories and tags may be relegated to the side of your Post setup page, they’re actually really important pieces in the SEO and UX puzzle. But each taxonomy serves a different function and needs to be handled differently, which is why today’s post is going to focus on breaking each down and then show you how to manipulate them masterfully in WordPress.

What You Need to Know About WordPress Categories

When you’re on a Post’s page in WordPress, look over to the right side of the screen. You’ll see the Publish module which is where you can save your posts as draft, schedule for future publication, or push to the live site immediately. Then there is the Format module which you might not have much use for if all posts follow a standard format.

Then we come to this: Categories.

New Post Categories

See how “Uncategorized” is sitting there all by its lonesome? That’s how it will look with each new fresh installation of WordPress. And this will need to be changed. I’ll talk about that a bit later.

As for what to do with these categories, you’ll want to use these to create broad groupings of content types for your blog.

For instance, for a WordPress blog, you might have categories like:

  • WordPress Plugins
  • WordPress Themes
  • WordPress Tutorials
  • WordPress Business Tips
  • WordPress Security
  • WordPress Performance

Basically, your categories should align with the main topics covered on the rest of the site.

Regarding guidelines on using them, WordPress isn’t going to force you to do anything with them at all. In fact, if you don’t take time to build out your categories and properly classify your content with them, WordPress will automatically assign all of them as Uncategorized. And that’s not ideal.

So, here are some rules you should aim to abide by when using categories in WordPress:

  • Use clear, descriptive labels. Never use something like “Other” or “Misc.”
  • Use broad categories that will cover a large expanse of blog posts (and not just one or two).
  • Create anywhere between five and ten categories under which your content can neatly fit.
  • Use title case when naming your categories (for consistency).
  • Only assign one category to each blog post.

This last point is an especially important one to remember as anything more than one category per post typically signals that your blog post has too much going on and will ultimately lead to a bad user experience. It would be like running a business or online store that dabbles in anything and everything. With no focus or control over the topic, you’ll overwhelm visitors and also give off the sense that the post (and website) doesn’t really know what it wants to be about.

You’ll also be reminded of this point when you preview (or publish) a post as well:

See how the category is listed just underneath the title? Anything more than the one would make this very messy.

That said, when categories are done right, you’ll make it much easier for your visitors to find related and relevant content.

Categories also help with SEO. (Unless, for some reason, you don’t want your categories to be indexed.) If you do allow Google to index your categories, you’ll give the search engine a clearer idea of what your blog content is about which, in turn, will improve its ability to rank your site for those kinds of topic searches. Your category page may even rank too if it becomes popular enough with visitors.

What You Need to Know About WordPress Tags

Back to the WordPress Post page, scroll just a bit farther down the page and you’ll encounter the Tags box just below Categories:

New Post Tags

Think of tags as a way to organize blog posts by keywords. While categories will give you a way to more broadly identify what your content is about, tags are the commonly used words or phrases found in that content.

Let’s take a post called “25 WordPress Plugins for Non-Profit Donations” as an example. The tags for this post would likely be:

  • wordpress plugins
  • non-profit
  • ecommerce

In general, you don’t want to go too crazy with tags. They simply need to reflect the recurring topics that run through the post and, also, through the blog as a whole.

Unlike categories, you don’t have to worry about your tags showing up in simplified informational sections around the post (i.e. under the title or below the post). Instead, you can display them in something like a tag cloud. The more you associate the same tags to your blog content, the more prominence they will take up in the cloud and demonstrate to readers what kinds of topics and themes are most important to you.

In terms of what to do with tags, again, WordPress doesn’t care if you use them. There is no default tag that every post will be assigned. Instead, you just won’t have any. So, it’s up to you to create your own batch of tags.

Here are some guidelines to follow when using tags in WordPress:

  • Use simple, yet descriptive labels.
  • Use keywords that encapsulate the main topics that run through the post.
  • Do not use the designated category name as a tag.
  • Assign between two and five tags per post. Any more than that and you likely are using keywords that are too generic or too lightly covered within the post.
  • Use all lowercase when naming your tags (for consistency).
  • There’s no need to create a list of tags ahead of time as you don’t necessarily know what your posts will be about. Once you start creating content, however, keep a copy of your tags list on hand so you can try to use the same ones, when it makes sense.

As for why tags are great for your visitors, it’s another way for them to find content they really enjoy. So, let’s say someone dropped into the WordPress Plugins category because they want to know how to properly outfit their website. Then they encounter the non-profit donations post from before and want to learn more about what you can do with plugins for non-profits. By clicking on the non-profits tag, it allows them to drill even deeper into your content.

Tags are also especially helpful in e-commerce when your store has hundreds of products and you need a more granular way of classifying them.

Regarding SEO, I would not recommend indexing your tags. There are a number of reasons why tags can make a mess of SEO:

  • If there are too many of them, search engines won’t have a clear idea of what your blog’s central focus is.
  • If spellings and capitalizations are inconsistent (for example, if you have tags for “plugin”, “plugins”, and “Plugin”), you could end up creating unintentional “duplicates” that compete with one another in search.
  • If they overlap with categories, you’ll give your categories less weight in search.

So, leave the broad descriptive categories to do the SEO work for your WordPress site and noindex your tags.

How to Use Categories and Tags in WordPress

Now that we’ve established the difference between categories and tags, let’s get into what you can actually do with them.

How to Create a Category

Categories can be created in one of two ways:

  • You can create them on the fly while you’re writing a blog post (which I wouldn’t advise doing).
  • You can create them under the Posts > Categories menu in WordPress.

The reason why I suggest that you don’t add categories when you’re working on a post is because of the aforementioned control you need to demonstrate over categories. Ideally, you will know what the main categories of your blog will be before you go about creating content. In which case, you can add them here:

1. Navigate to the Posts > Categories menu.

Posts Categories Menu

2. Enter the information for a new category on the left.

Add a New Category

3. Fill in the name, slug, and description. These elements are just like the SEO metadata you would assign to any other page or post on your website. If you want search engines to index your category pages, remember to fill this in.

While there is a Parent Category you can assign to create a hierarchy of categories, you likely won’t need this unless you’re using categories for dozens or hundreds of products. Otherwise, I’d suggest simply sticking to the broad five to ten categories.

4. When you’re done, review the finalized list of categories on the right.

WordPress Category List

If you want to make any changes to the details, hover over the category and click the Edit or Quick Edit button. This is the only place where you can do this. You won’t be able to edit the name of a category (or its metadata) when directly editing a post.

How to Set a Default Category

As I mentioned earlier, WordPress creates an “Uncategorized” category by default. You will want to delete this, but not before assigning posts already attached to it to a different category.

1. If you click on the Post Count number under your table of categories, it will direct you to all of the posts associated with the Uncategorized category.

Post Count

2. Open each post and switch the Category (just check the one you want and uncheck “Uncategorized”). Then update your post.

Reassign Category

3. Before you can delete the Uncategorized category, you will first need to set a new default category. To do this, go to the Settings > Writing menu.

Writing Settings

Change your Default Post Category to whichever one you want your posts automatically assigned to. This doesn’t mean the posts have to remain attached to that category, this is just to give you a little help and ensure that nothing unintentionally remains marked as “Uncategorized”.

Save your changes.

4. Back under Categories, you can now delete Uncategorized.

How to Create a Tag

Creating a tag can be done in the same way you would create a category. As you can see, the Posts > Tags menu is nearly identical to the Categories one:

The only difference is that you cannot create a hierarchy of tags.

Now, you can create tags while writing Post content and I would not discourage you from doing that at all. All you have to do is type your tags into the text box, separate each one with a comma, and hit the Enter button to create them:

There is just one problem with this. There’s the issue of potentially creating a “duplicate” tag if you already have a similar version of it in existence. So, I would advise you to always refer to your Tags list before going crazy and adding any new ones.

How to Display Categories or Tags on Your WordPress Site

Finally, let’s look at the various options you have for displaying categories and tags on your WordPress site. In one of the examples above, I showed you how a category will be displayed directly below the blog post title. That won’t always be the default setting as the theme dictates how blog posts are displayed.

For example, here is how Astra Pro automatically defines what metadata is displayed below a post’s title (this can be found under the theme customizer):

Astra Blog Post Layout

As you can see, you can switch off any of these elements and even turn on tags if you wanted to.

Here is how the Divi theme handles this under its own custom Theme Options settings:

Again, you have a choice as to what you want to display beneath your post’s titles. However, tags are not an acceptable metadata field in this case.

There are other places on your site where you may want to share information about an individual post’s categories or tags, or even to just display the full list of categories and tags for the blog.

Let’s start with widgets:

WordPress Widgets

Under Appearance > Widgets is where you can add widgets to various spots around your WordPress website. The most common of those locations being the footer and the sidebar.

Last year I had debated the merits of even putting a sidebar on a website, and what I found was that they can come in handy for the blog. Especially if you want to list out something like categories or tags your readers can quickly reference.

The theme and plugins you use may open up different possibilities for widgets. Regardless of which ones you use, you should be able to find the Categories widget:

And Tag cloud widget:

Drag and drop the categories and/or tags elements into your blog’s sidebar widget. Add a header to each module and customize the settings, if needed. Save your changes.

Here is what your blog post with sidebar will now look like:

You can see there’s now a list of categories (with a number assigned to each one so people can see how much content there is on the topic) as well as a tag cloud.

WordPress Navigation

WordPress also allows users to add categories (not tags) to the navigation. While you might not want to do this in all cases, there may come a time when it makes sense to put them there (like if you develop news sites or popular blogs).

As you can see in the Appearance > Menus menu in WordPress, you do have the option to quickly add categories to the menu:

Just check the categories you want to add, click Add to Menu, and then drag and drop them into the right place.

Wrapping Up

Categories and Tags are a seemingly simple part of the blog post creation process in WordPress. However, there is clearly a lot you need to know in order to use them properly. Just keep in mind that each should be used for their own unique kind of classification.

Also, treat this as you would any other part of WordPress that has a tendency to get messy (e.g. Media, Posts, Plugins, etc.) Keep a close eye on the Categories and Tags, make sure they’re not getting too out of control, and make sure they’re being set up properly. You can really help your site’s search optimization efforts as well as improve the user experience if you do this correctly.

 

Brenda Barron
Over to you: Do you include Categories setup (or strategy) in your WordPress development process?