Categories and Tags are the two built-in systems WordPress provides to group Posts together and organize them. Significantly, these apply only to WordPress Posts, not to WordPress Pages. This type of grouping system is known as a taxonomy, and in advanced WordPress development, additional custom taxonomies — other grouping systems — can be added. For most sites, Categories and Tags can provide plenty of organization.
What’s a Category and what’s a Tag?
You’ll find various definitions which attempt to describe the distinctions between Categories and Tags in WordPress, but many of them somewhat miss the point. The biggest difference between the two is in the way they’re thought about and applied — and this has a big effect on how useful and effective the groupings are.
Categories are like file folders. They’re intended to be set up in advance, as you think logically about the subject matter you normally write about in your posts. Then, you “put posts into them”, the way you’d put a document into a file folder. They tend to be broad subject areas.
Let’s say I’m managing a site with a regular blog or news feature. Knowing the general topics that will be covered, I might create these broad Categories:
Pretty much all of my posts will fall naturally into one of these Categories. If after some time I realize that I’ve begun writing a lot about Cooking, I might want to add that as a Category.
Categories are typically written with the first letter capitalized. WordPress has given them a special feature: they can be organized into hierarchies. This can be especially useful for organizing a website with a large number of posts on a large number of subjects. Categories are usually displayed in a list with each Category linked to an Archive Page of Posts under that Category. If a hierarchical system of Categories has been created, the Category lists that WordPress creates automatically will display them in a multi-level way.
Because they’re usually laid out in advance and then have Posts assigned to them, Categories often lack the kind of intuitive, accurate associations that Tags tend to have.
Posts can be placed into more than one Category, although this tends to go against the overall concept of Categories.
Tags, on the other hand, are more like labels, and are designed to be thought up and applied at the time a post is being written, based directly on the content of the Post. They are typically narrower, more specific subject areas than Categories.
Let’s say I have the website described just above, and I’ve just finished writing a post about how school lunches affect a child’s performance at school. To use Tags, I would think about what keywords or key phrases make sense to “stick onto the post”:
- elementary school
- brain chemistry
So when creating a tag, ask yourself: what kind of labels would I stick onto this post to help people who are interested in certain subjects to find it?
Tags are typically written lower-case. They’re often displayed as a Tag Cloud, again, with each Tag linked so that the visitor who enjoyed the Post with the Tag “nutrition” can click through to the entire archive of Posts with that Tag.
Tags can’t be arranged in a hierarchy, as Categories can.
So which should I use — Tags or Categories?
It’s fine to use both.
One or the other may be enough. Because they involve two different types of thinking, if one or the other is more intuitive for you, it might be best.
You can’t do any harm by assigning Categories and Tags. Both types can always be edited later. The important thing is to give some thought to it at the start, and be as intentional and consistent as possible.
Where do Categories and Tags show up on the website?
The most common uses for Categories and Tags are built into Themes. Displaying a Category list or Tag Cloud is common, with each Category and Tag linked to Archive Pages of Posts with a particular Category or Tag.
Both Categories and Tags which have been associated with a Post are often listed at the beginning or end of the post, as hyperlinks. This is another typical location for visitors to access an Archive Page.
Another way they’re used is as menu items in a Custom Menu. Any Tag or Category can easily become a menu item, linked to the Archive Page, simply by inserting it into a Custom Menu in any position you want.
The theme you’re using may make special use of Categories and/or Tags, and that can be a reason to work with one or both in a particular way. For example, many themes display a slide show of large photos and captions at the top of the Home page. Often, these “slides” are WordPress posts, and the Category is what determines which posts are displayed there.
Tags, Categories and Search Engines
There is a tendency among website novices to think that there is some SEO (search engine optimization) advantage to simply using these. There can be, but only if posts are tagged and categorized with words which fairly and accurately describe their content, and an appropriate Permalink structure is set up.
In particular, Tags seem to be thought of as something you can simply add to a post to make search engines list it high for those particular keywords. That’s nonsense. If your post has almost nothing to do with “broccoli”, but you tag it with “broccoli”, Google will not be impressed. Neither will the person who is passionately interested in broccoli who lands on your post and finds nothing on that topic.
On the other hand, if my post really is about broccoli, tagging it with that word is fair game. It may or may not help much with SEO, but at least it won’t do any harm, and will be useful in the normal ways.
WordPress does create URLs containing the slugs of both Tags and Categories, if the site is set up to use the right kind of Permalinks, and that can be helpful for SEO. Just keep in mind that the main use for Categories and Tags is to group your content so that other people can find articles on the subjects they’re most interested in.
On the Add New Post Screen or Edit Post Screen
Both Categories and Tags can be added to a Post directly from the Add New Post or Edit Post screens. The Categories panel and Tags panel make that very simple. Both provide the ability to see which Categories or Tags are already most-used, and each provides a way to create new ones on the fly.
The Posts > Categories screen
This screen allows you to create, edit, organize, and delete Categories.
A table lists all existing Categories. As with most Admin screens, you’ll find a hanging tab at the top right labelled Screen Options where you can choose what data appears in the table of Categories.
Each Category can have several pieces of information associated with it:
- Name: the Category’s actual name.
- Slug: a URL-friendly version of the Category’s name. One will be created automatically by WordPress, but can be anything you like. When an appropriate Permalink structure is set up, the slug will appear as part of the URL for archive pages, and so can be useful for both human usability and SEO.
- Parent: If a hierarchical arrangement is being created, a “parent” can be assigned to a Category.
- Description: An optional summary of the use of the Category.
On the left side of the screen, a new Category can be created. In the Categories table, Categories can be selected for editing or deletion.
The Posts > Tags screen
This screen allows you to create, edit, and delete Tags.
A table lists all existing Tags. As with most Admin screens, you’ll find a hanging tab at the top right labelled Screen Options where you can choose what data appears in the table of Tags.
Each Tag can have certain data associated with it:
- Name: the Tag’s actual name.
- Slug: just as with a Category, this is a URL-friendly version of the Tag’s name, and it functions the same way.
- Description: An optional summary.
On the left, a new Tag can be created. In the Table on the right, Tags can be selected for editing or deletion.
Group and Organize!
Especially when a WordPress site has a lot of posts, these features can be very useful. It’s worthwhile to develop your strategy for using Tags and Categories early on and to polish and refine your system over time.