Using WordPress Categories and Tags

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Many people seem to be confused about using WordPress categories and tags. Knowing what they are and the differences between them is one thing. Knowing how or when to use categories and tags can improve your website in a couple of ways; for visitors and for search engines. The search engine aspect throws up a few questions too, such as what is best for SEO – WordPress categories or tags? How many should I use and can I put my posts into more than one category?

What are they for?

Before getting into what they are, let’s start with the purpose of WordPress categories and tags. Quite simply, they are both ways of organising your content. Your website has some form of main navigation. This is often for the pages themselves and there may be sub-menus that you use too. The navigation menu makes it easier for people to find their way around your site. They don’t need to repeatedly search for content as the menu has a structure that groups pages or structures your main content in a meaningful way.

WordPress categories and tags are very similar. They provide another way of presenting and and grouping related content to your visitors. WordPress websites are dynamic, storing and calling in the content from a database. Categories and tags leverage the power of the database by providing ways of moving between content that is similar to other content in some way. Technically speaking, WordPress considers both categories and tags to be taxonomies.

A taxonomy is a scheme of classification.

The difference between WordPress categories and tags

Now we know what they are, we can get to the differences between them.

Categories are the main grouping systems. For example, think of them like species of animals, such as cats or dogs. They are also hierarchical, so you can have sub-categories. You normally use categories to give your visitors some sense of what your site content is about.

WordPress insists that every new post you write goes into at least one category. If you have not changed it, the default WordPress category will be called ‘Uncategorized’.

Tags are used to identify some of the specifics about your posts. Back to our species of animals idea, you might want to use tags to add another level of categorisation for breeds of dogs, long or short-haired ones, big and small dogs. Tags are not hierarchical  and you don’t have to use them.

Depending on how you set your permalink structure, your URLs will also indicate a difference:

http://yourdomain.com/category/dogs/ or http://yourdomain.com/tag/small-dogs/

How many categories and tags should you use?

Bear in mind that categories are intended as main grouping systems, so it makes sense to use one (or two at most) per post. In an ideal situation, you would have an idea of what categories you might end up needing for your content. This is where planning comes in, but of course you can’t plan for every possibility. Sub-categories can help out here but don’t get into the trap of thinking you need to create a new category for every new post. Thinking in general terms is a good strategy, otherwise you may well end up with a whole bunch of categories with only a single post in them.

When it comes to SEO, having categories with more content will present your site as better structured, more user-friendly and for that reason, better optimised.

It is better to think ahead. If you change your categories after the posts have been generating some traffic, you could lose some of the page rankings that you have built up. You can create 301 redirections or use a plugin to handle this for you. See this article on How to Properly Set up WordPress 301 Redirects to Maintain SEO & Inbound Links.

Tags can be treated differently. It would not be unusual to add several tags to a post. They give more specific information about the content so perhaps 5 or 6 might get used in some instances. I tend to use up to 4 or 5 tags but there is no limit. As a general rule, I tend to apply the same thinking in my use of tags as I do categories; I try to avoid creating them for the sake of it because I don’t want only a single post appearing in archive pages.

Categories, tags and SEO

I honestly don’t know if categories or tags have more benefit from an SEO perspective. I suspect not, because search engines rank sites on content ultimately. I do believe that sites which offer a better user journey or greater accessibility should be viewed more favourably by search engines. But WordPress categories and tags are not keywords or meta tags.

Content is king and the systems of organising your content are there to help people find your content. They can help with getting more pages read and more time on site, which is good news.

Now you just need some good content that people want to read!

If anyone has any thoughts on this post or ideas about WordPress categories and tags that are important, please leave a comment below. How do you use yours?

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