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WordPress Categories and Tags – Which to Use and How?

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WordPress Categories and Tags - Which to Use and How?

People have been blogging for many years now. Blogging skills have evolved as the technology has evolved. People have become more savvy with how they format posts for easy reading, where to share and how to optimized them for greater visibility. But, when it comes to WordPress blog posts, one area that still gets misused is categories and tags.

This feature of WordPress can be confusing. Now throw in keywords for search engine optimization and people definitely get that glazed over look. And the more I read other good posts on the topic, the more I realize that there are a lot of opinions on what they are and how they are used. What I have come to realize is:

There is no one right answer to how you should use WordPress categories and tags for your blog, but there are some guidelines on using them effectively.

Things you need to consider:

  • Should I use both?
  • Should I assign posts to more than one category?
  • Do either of these help with search engine optimization?
  • Should I let search engines index both category and tag archives?

Choosing which to use and how is really a matter of style.

What are WordPress Categories and Tags?

First, let’s start with definitions:

  • Categories – Strategically defined terms that describe the type of content you contain in your blog. Categories organize your blog like a Table of Contents organizes the contents of a book.
  • Tags – More specific terms that you want to associate with each post to specifically define what it is about. This is similar to how an index of a book enables you to find all instances of a particular topic.

For most blogs, categories are visibly listed in the sidebar, allowing visitors find your posts on a particular topic. If you plan them based on your ideal target market, you will:

  • Define the topics your market wants;
  • Help you focus your writing on relevant content;
  • Ensure your content is organized, enabling easier searching and a better experience for your visitors.

WordPress Category and Tag Best Practices

  • Keep the number of categories small and manageable. As I mentioned previously, categories should align strategically with how you want to be found in search.
  • Use your keyword terms if possible to organize your posts for your readers who are searching for these topics;
  • File posts into the categories that make sense. If you find that your posts fit into too many, maybe you need to break your post into more focused posts or rethink your categories.

Tags are less visible on a blog, with few blogs providing a tag cloud or list of tags in the sidebar these days. Since tags are more free form and will grow in number, listing them can detract from the visual appeal of your blog. If you do wish to tag your posts, do so with the following guidelines:

  • Avoid having too many tags for each post – 2 or 3 tags is sufficient (focus your post around one keyword!) Too many tags and you start to look like you are spamming the search engines.
  • Reserve your tags for more specific categorization, keeping them unique from your category list.
  • Define tags for what is important in the post that deserves more attention.

Which One is Better for SEO?

It is important to understand how categories and tags are used for search engine optimization. However, remember you want your visitors to easily find what they are looking for once you get them to your blog.

Tags, on the other hand, have little to no effect on SEO.

Matt Cutts, CTO of Google, explains how they view tag clouds in the following video on whether tag clouds help or hinder SEO or whether they have no effect:

If you haven’t used tags, you probably won’t spend a lot of time on them in the future. If you have used them, it’s fine to use them sparingly. However, if you choose to use both categories and tags, make sure you only index one of them with search engines to avoid duplicate content and the potential for penalties. Use a plugin like Yoast SEO to help you fine tune what you allow the search engines to index.

If you need to reorganize your tags and categories, first conduct a content audit to see what content needs to be updated or removed. Then review your tags and determine which ones to remove as well. A good guideline is if a tag only has one post, it probably isn’t relevant to your blog. If there are a lot of posts in a single tag, maybe that tag should be a category. Review your content every 3 months and move frequently used tags to a category and not used categories to tags.

What tips and best practices do you have for using categories and tags on your WordPress blog?

18 thoughts on “WordPress Categories and Tags – Which to Use and How?”

  1. Very informative and well written post. I have a question I’m trying to get around! Can I label a category e.g. ‘WordPress Plugins’ and add 2 tags ‘WordPress’ ‘Plugins’ ?

    • Thanks – Yes you can create any tag you want but why would you want to tag a post that is in a category called WordPress plugins with WordPress and Plugins? According to Google, they ignore tags so you are not gaining any search engine value. And if someone is looking for information on WordPress, they can find it through the category.

      Now you may want to call the category WordPress and tag posts with keywords such as plugins, themes, features, etc so if I were looking for something specific on WordPress, I could narrow it down if I can find the tags somehow. I personally don’t expose the tag archives and tag clouds are also not a good idea according to Google.

      Hope this helps.

      • Thank you Debra. Actually my category is called ‘WordPress Development’ and then I would have a post called e.g. ‘WordPress WPSubscribe’ Or should I omit ‘WordPress’ as this is in the category already?

        I could then add the tag ‘plugin’ and Does that sound correct and by your post I needn’t focus too much on tags?

        • Personally I wouldn’t focus on tags unless you plan on having a lot of posts on WordPress development and you need a way to organize them for the reader. If you are using tags for search engines, don’t bother. I’m not sure what the tag plugin does but minimize your use of plugins to help your page speed as that is becoming more important to your ranking.

          • Make sure you are using WordPress SEO plugin as that will do you more good than anything else! Absolutely cross link other posts – both yours and others – in your content as linking within allows search engines to crawl better and you give credibility to the other posts. As far as tagging, I would leave it for now. If you get to a point where you have a lot of posts under WordPress and you want to organize them better using tags, do it then. It is easier to add them later than take them away if they aren’t useful.

  2. Debra,

    I know it’s all personal preference whether you decide to have categories or tags indexed.  I’m wondering which you prefer?  Currently I am only indexing categories, but my site only has 4 categories, so I’m not sure if it’s better to switch to indexing tags or simply leaving everything as is.  Would love to hear your opinion.  Thanks.

    • Hello Marsala! If your categories are general but you tag your posts with valuable keyword phrases, then I would index your tag archives. If you have keyword rich category names, then category archives are fine. Pick the one that helps people find exactly what they are looking for. So if your blog is about wines and you have red, white, sparking and other as categories, then I’d use tags definitely.

      Hope this helps.

      • Thank you for the quick response Debra.

        Yes, my blog is about wines, exactly the way you described it.  Fortunately, I am still in the early stages of writing articles covering each red and white wine, and nothing has really been published yet, so I don’t think switching over to indexing tags will be too much of a hassle.  My main concern is, if each one of my posts have multiple tags, would that not be generating multiple copies of the same post/content, leading to duplicate content?  If this is the case, how would I avoid it?  My original reason for indexing categories as opposed to tags was based on this reason.  I figure each post will only be in one category and I would never have to deal with duplicate content in that sense. 

        Looking forward to your reply!

  3. Hi Debra,

    Thanks for the specifics on categories. I’m reorganizing my original site The Fit Shack to convert to http://www.fearlessfatloss.com and in addition to redirecting all 900+ pages I’m changing permalinks (from dates to categories) and many of the old categories aren’t very clear. I’ve also had *too many categories* and I agree that it ends up looking disorganized if you have too many.

    I also see that I’ve been using too many tags on my recent posts, which I can cut back on. Clarity is best since “a confused mind never buys” however then you come back around to the beginning, which is knowing your target market and then your keywords.

    All of this is such a work in progress because the biz you start with is not the one you end up with if you keep growing and expanding. All Good Stuff!

    JoLynn Braley
    The F.A.T. Release Coach

    • Hi JoLynn,

      You are so right! You business evolves and you look back and think to yourself why did I do that!

      Watch your Google Webmaster tools as it will tell you what it couldn’t find that was in its index. You can use a 301 Redirect on the important ones to point them to the new pages. I have redirected all my old tag archives to either category archives or another tag archive that makes sense. Redirection plugin for WordPress makes it easier and will tell you if anyone does hit the link – over time, you might be able to remove the redirect but between the two, you can stay on top of ensuring you don’t have any 404 pages around.

      Good luck!

  4. It is possible to create “duplicate content” situations with categories if they are not implemented correctly. I’ve also seen the same type of thing with Categories as well, similar to what Cutts explins about tag clouds.

    Some SEOs recommend using “NoFollow” on categorie links as well, do you see this as being a great idea?

    • Barry,

      That’s a really good question. One of the reasons I highly recommend the WordPress SEO plugin by Yoast is that there is an entire settings page dedicated to indexation. It gives you options to noindex category archives, tag archives, author archives, etc. The question to answer is how do you organize your content. The main index page and the single post pages should be indexed and followed by search engines. From what I’ve read, it is recommended to noindex all archive pages or have only excerpts on the archive pages that link to the single post pages. Using full posts on archive pages is what causes the duplicate content. You still, however, want the search engines to follow the archives, just not index them.

      I would highly recommend that anyone maintaining their own blog’s SEO read WordPress SEO – The Definitive Guide: http://yoast.com/articles/wordpress-seo/ – this clearly explains the details.

      Hope this helps.

  5. Nice post with lots of great points. It’s true that there are lots of different opinions out there. If you ask 100 people about how to proceed, you’ll probably get 100 different answers.

    A word of caution that I would like to add is that one might want to be careful about converting tags to categories. If you have a site with hundreds of tags, you’ll end up with a lot of categories. Too many categories is a sign of an unfocused blog which causes visitors to leave due to the appearance of disorganization. So, use this technique sparingly.

    — Matt

    • Hi Matt,

      Yes, I don’t advise that anyone move all tags to categories, however, when I was reviewing my tags, I found a few that had several posts and are topics I will be blogging about in the future. WordPress was one tag that became a category as did Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Content Marketing and Inbound Marketing. I’m sure Google + will become a category at some point. Then I moved a couple categories that had only one post in it to a tag. I’m sure the search engines will be reeking havoc when I look at my Webmaster tools but I’ll be sorting that all out over the next few days. I’m also now posting into multiple categories if it makes sense for organizing the content for readers.

      Thanks!

      • my question is simple,can i use keywords of my posts as tags,or it will only be a duplicate effort.
        in the sense of seo.

        • You can tag your posts with keywords but noindex the tag archives to ensure the post isn’t duplicated. In all of my client’s blogs, we noindex the category and tag archives since the original single post page is what you want to be indexed.

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