Blog Categories & Tags Demystified
Published: September 15, 2015
Author: David Portney
A practical guide to properly using categories & tags on your blog
For most businesses, a blog is a recommended content-growth strategy to add fresh, relevant information to your website. Your content strategy should be to add fresh content regularly and provide useful information that your target market will find interesting and useful.
But on the organizational side of running a blog, there are these things called “categories” and “tags” – most people really don’t understand what they really are, how they work, and how to use them properly.
And, speaking to you as a Search Engine Optimization (SEO) professional, I can tell you that getting this wrong can create problems for your SEO. I’ll get to that later.
Setting The Record Straight on Blog Categories & Tags
Categories and tags are frequently the cause of confusion. Common questions include:
-What’s the difference between a category and a tag?
-Do I have to use categories?
-How many categories should I use?
-Do I have to use tags?
-How many tags should I use?
-Should I use a tag with the same name as a category?
-How do I set up categories and tags?
-When should I set up categories and tags?
This guide will answer those questions and provide you with all the information you need to confidently use categories and tags on your blog*.
*WordPress is the most-popular blogging platform, so that’s what I’ll be referencing in this guide, but the information here will apply to category and tag use on pretty much any blog platform that uses a categories and tags.
And, as I mentioned, we will definitely be taking SEO best practices into consideration.
What’s The Difference Between a Category and a Tag?
Categories and tags are quite flexible. You can set up categories and tags in almost any way that makes sense to you – but it might make more sense to think about your blog readers and what would make sense to them because you can think of categories as broad topics and tags as being a more narrow focus within each category.
A category is a broad topic or area of interest. A blog about cooking could include categories such as:
-Italian Food Recipes
-Mexican Food Recipes
-American Food Recipes
-German Food Recipes
-Japanese Food Recipes
But remember – categories are very flexible, so your cooking-oriented blog category examples could also be:
Think of a tag as a sub-topic within a category. Using our category examples above for a blog about cooking, some examples of tags could be:
-Italian Food Recipes
-Mexican Food Recipes
-American Food Recipes
Here are tag examples using our second category example above:
-Under 10 minutes
-Under 30 minutes
-Dips & Spreads
Category vs. Tag Takeaways: Summary Points to Remember
-Categories and Tags are very flexible.
-Think of Categories as broad topics.
-Think of Tags as a narrowing focus underneath a certain category.
-Consider your audience of blog readers:
-What categories would make sense to them?
-What tags within those categories would make sense to them?
Do I Have To Use Categories?
You don’t have to use categories, but you should. First, if you don’t use categories, all your blog posts will get lumped into WordPress’ “uncategorized” section making for an organizational mess. Don’t do that.
But more importantly, categories help your audience to navigate to areas they’re interested in, so using them makes good sense not only from an organizational standpoint, but especially from the viewpoint of your blog readers.
How Many Categories Should I Use?
The number of categories you use is really up to you. The number of categories you can use is practically unlimited in WordPress.
That said, use common sense here and don’t go overboard with dozens or hundreds of categories – that will be difficult for you to manage, and also overwhelming for your blog readers. If you overwhelm your readers with choices, they may make no choice out of frustration due to “the paradox of choice”.
Rule of Thumb for How Many Categories to Use on Your Blog
If you find yourself wanting to have more than a dozen categories, you’re probably best served by re-thinking your organizational strategy. I’d recommend having no more than 10-12 categories, but fewer than 10 categories (somewhere around seven, perhaps) might be even better to prevent overwhelming your audience.
Category Takeaways: Summary Points to Remember
-You’re not required to use categories, but you should because it helps you:
-Keep your blog posts organized.
-Let your audience more easily find what they’re looking for.
-Keep the total number of categories on your blog to under 12 – “less is more” is true in this case because too many category choices will overwhelm your readers and likely provide a frustrating experience for them.
-Assign each blog post to only one category.
-You can have sub-categories, but again, less is more here. Don’t create an organizational mess or overwhelm your audience with choices.
Do I Have To Use Tags?
Tags are completely optional. Unlike categories, you will not run into organizational problem if you don’t use tags.
However, tags can be useful to your audience especially if they search your site using search terms that you also use as tags.
How Many Tags Should I Use?
Like categories, you can use as many tags as you want. Unlike categories, you will not create organizational mess or overwhelm your audience if you use dozens or even hundreds of tags.
Rule of Thumb for How Many Tags to Use per Post
Keep it to only 1-3 tags per post. Seriously. See the next section.
Tags & Search Engine Optimization (SEO): What You Need to Know
Tags do not – repeat, do not – improve or help with Search Engine Optimization (SEO). Your blog will not benefit whatsoever from tag usage; it won’t get better ranking or other SEO benefits. Period.
In fact, tags can actually hurt your SEO! How? By creating duplicate content issues.
Duplicate content is defined as the exact same content at a different URL. Search engines like Google hate duplicate content because it forces their computer systems to try to figure out which is the “real” version they should put into the index and show in Search Engine Results Pages (commonly referred to by the acronym “SERPs”).
Going tag-crazy can easily cause a duplicate content problem and here’s how: You create a blog post, and you use some tags (let’s say you’ve gone a little crazy and used 10 tags), but you have no other blog posts using those 10 tags. Because of how WordPress works, your post will exist at 10 different URLs for each different tag – and your main post URL too. That’s a duplicate content problem. Obviously this is a temporary problem if your blog post count grows relatively quickly (and you should be posting regularly) and other posts are using tags from other posts, but this is one of the main reasons to keep tag usage from getting out of control and keep it to 1-3 tags tops per blog post.
Should I Name a Tag With The Same Name as a Category?
The short answer is no. You can do so, but I highly discourage that. First of all, there’s simply no reason to because you already have a category with that name. And remember, tags don’t help with SEO, so don’t be tempted to tag a post with the same name as a category for SEO purposes; that’s a waste of time.
Tag Takeaways: Summary Points to Remember
-You’re not required to use tags, and you won’t cause any problems if you don’t use them.
-Rule of thumb: keep your per-post tag usage to 1-3 at the most.
-Tags do not help with SEO, no matter what you hear or read elsewhere.
-Don’t repeat your category names with tags – tags should be something more narrowly defined that logically “fits” below that category, such as how the tag “finger foods” logically fits underneath the category of “appetizers”.
How Do I Set Up Categories & Tags?
In WordPress, you can set up categories any time. You can set them up right after you’ve installed WordPress, or you could set them up “on the fly” as you create blog posts.
There are 2 places in WordPress where you can set up categories and tags – one is from the main menu, and the other is in each blog post draft. Here’s a screenshot of each:
From the Dashboard, choose Posts, then navigate to Categories or Tags from the fly-out menu:
Setting up a category: give it a name and a “slug” (slug is the category name in lowercase letters, with words separated by dashes).
Tip: when you set up your first category, rename the “Uncategorized” category. That category (whether you rename it or not) will always be the default category for any post you don’t specifically assign to a category.
Setting up a tag: give it a name and a “slug” (slug is the category name in lowercase letters, with words separated by dashes).
You can also set up categories and tags from within the blog post creation window; look on the right-hand side, and you’ll see something like this:
When Should I Set Up Categories & Tags?
Don’t wait until you start blogging. Look at the example category and tag hierarchies in the previous section titled “What’s The Difference Between a Category and a Tag?” Think ahead about what makes sense to you from an organizational standpoint but especially from the viewpoint of your target audience. Have at least some rough ideas sketched out before you start, and you’ll save yourself some headaches later.
That said, keep in mind that categories and tags can be set up “on the fly”. But in my experience, you’re far better off taking the time upfront to think about and nail down most if not all of your category structure names ahead of time. That way your posts will have a logical “home”, and moreover you’ll save yourself from future headaches if you decide your category naming structure should have been different.
The TL;DR Summary
Too long? Didn’t read? Here’s the super-short summary:
-Categories are broad topics or broad areas of interest
-Tags are more narrowly defined, specific topic areas within (or “underneath”) a category
-Don’t go crazy with either – use 7-12 categories on your blog, and 1-3 tags (at most) per blog post.
Now you can go forth and use blog categories and tags with confidence. Finally, as a friendly reminder, I will reemphasize the fact that you should not be putting out content “just for content’s sake” or because you heard that content marketing is all the rage, or because “content is a good SEO strategy”. Make double-sure your content is interesting, useful, and valuable to your target market. Google and other search engines (yes, there are others!) want to provide searchers with information that is relevant to the searcher’s query; that should be foremost in your mind with respect to your content strategy.