When to use Categories and Tags in WordPress

Tags or CategoriesA client recently asked me to explain Tags and Categories for WordPress. It is something that often comes up and the answer is ‘it depends’, as is the answer to many IT questions. It depends on your intention and what you want to do with your writing and your audience. In short it depends onĀ  your Plan!

Let’s start with some definitions (don’t worry we won’t get too dry) and then look at why we would use any of these things in the first place. At the end we will talk about the implications for Search Engine Optimisation (SEO).

Definitions for Tags and Categories

Wikipedia will tell you that a tag is ‘non-hierarchical keyword or term assigned to a piece of information’. Hierarchy is just a fancy word for structure where one thing can be under another – like a subheading.

We group things together into categories

Wikipedia scared me with the number of definitions and uses of category. Instead I’ll start with a paraphrased definition from Wictionary, a Category is “A group to which items are assigned based on similarity or defined criteria.” As you might expect in our case, it is a way of putting things of a similar subject together.

So we gather that we would use a category to group things together (and actually they can be in a hierarchy) and a tag to add ‘extra’ information to what we are writing in a non-hierarchical way. A common analogy is the table of contents and the index in a book and I’ll give some specific examples later.

  • Categories are like the Table of Contents, the Chapters and Sub-Headings in a book. They outline the overall structure, and give your readers a way of navigating around the high level topics that you are going to discuss in your writing.
  • Tags are the entry in the index at the back of your book – You can look up a word or theme and it will tell you all of the places in the book where the word is used regardless of the context that it is used in. Both of these have a lot of use.

Make the most of Categories and Tags in YOUR writing

In order to make the most of anything we need to have a plan and do things with intention. The best presented websites are well structured and make it easy for visitors to find what they are looking for.

What is your planFor many of us, our first blog is something that comes from the passion to write and share, and may not be fully planned when we start. I’m quite willing to admit that I started out in exactly this way and my Categories have evolved to cover writing about Business, Design of Websites, IT administration, Suppliers, and Security. I am sure they will continue to evolve.

My tags are things that may be relevant across these categories, if you were to click on the ‘fun’ tag in my tag cloud you would find articles written in Content, Design and Business (not meaning that you can’t have fun with security – I’ll have to focus on that one too!)

I’m not perfect and I think that this article may lead me to step back and put some more planning into my use of Categories and Tags too.

Another example might be if I were writing about entertainment and the media. I might set up my Categories as Film, Theatre, Gossip, Musicals, etc. Then I might use an actors name as the Tag on each article that mentions them. This way a reader can come to my site and read about their interest in musicals, but they can also see everything I have written related to their favourite actor. My Categories would be the Types of things an Actor may be involved in and my tags would be the various actors I have mentioned. Add your own examples to the comments section below!

Think about how you want your site to operate and plan for how you will present your information. Plan for how you will make it easy for your readers to find more information of interest that you have written. The easiest way to keep our readers happy and coming back is to make their life as easy as possible. It is always possible that you may choose not to use Tags. Tags are are completely optional (and as a minimum you can use only the one category that is created by WordPress for you automatically). It all depends on the purpose and intention you have for your website.

How to easily reusing tags in WordPress as you write

Tags are case sensitive and they loose their value if you have multiple tags for the same thing. You should be able to get all articles on ‘backup’ without having to select ‘Backup’, ‘backup’ and ‘backups’ from the tag list. It’s untidy and not as helpful to your readers.

Luckily WordPress makes it easy for you to reuse tags. As you write an article you will see a ‘Post Tags’ widget and you can click the link that says ‘Choose from the most used tags’. This will display all your tags and you can click on the ones you want to use for this article rather than forgetting one or risking a typo. The recommendation for the number of Tags in any one article is no more than 5-10.

Other uses for Category to help your visitors

I have been recently reading an SEO expert I admire and he is suggesting that we should manage our older articles by “archiving by category” instead of the more common “archive by date” format. When I visit a site (or you visit mine) you are much more likely to ask the question “what else has been written in the past on Security” than you are to ask “What did they write in February”. This may require a change to your theme to manage so ask your designer or give me a yell

How do my choices effect Search Engine Optimisation (SEO)

One of the things you have to be careful of is ‘duplicate content’. This is when a search engine finds multiple copies of exactly the same content on your website (or other websites). A danger of using Categories and Tags is that your blog can now be found in a number of different ways. For example my article on Backups can be found at 6 different places:

  1. …/2011/04/backup-your-blog/
  2. …/category/it-admin/
  3. …/tag/backup/
  4. …/tag/blog/
  5. …/tag/digital-life/
  6. …/tag/storage/

In my case the theme I use means that I don’t show the full article, and the SEO plugin I use helps keep search engines from seeing these while normal visitors can. Make sure you ask this question of your web support person.

Be careful if you change your Tags, Categories or Permalinks

Watch that you don't create broken linksIf you are inspired to change your structure for Categories, Tags and even Permalinks then make sure you do your research. Google will have indexed your articles or your clients may have created a hyperlink to them that may break depending on how you make your changes. Some choices also have performance implications. This is outside the scope of this article to describe but with IT there is always something clever that can be done to help. If you need help then get in touch with me.

Here’s to your organized and beautifully tagged world,

your ‘Peoples Geek’