Tags and categories are a feature of most CMS platforms and ecommerce platforms, but they can be a little confusing for folks who aren’t as familiar with design and usability on the web.
With my experience organizing website navigations, organizing and planning content, and managing my own blog for multiple decades, I can offer a little advice on how to manage the tags and categories on your blog (or ecommerce site).
What Are Categories?
One of the things that confused me most when I started using WordPress was what the difference was between tags and categories. So let’s start with some disambiguation.
Categories are like containers to keep different kinds of blog posts together.
Consider someone (definitely not me) who needs to organize their 6 dozen different pens. You can organize these pens in a lot of ways. You can put pens for labeling things in one container, art pens in another container, everyday use pens in another container and so on. You could also organize them by color, with red pens in one container, orange pens in another, and so on. But you have to choose one system. Each pen can only go in one container.
You can have subdivisions in each container, adding a second level of organization, but in that case, each pen goes in one section that is contained within one container. So you can create categories under a parent category, but each blog post should only be in one category.
That means that your categories are necessarily broad. If you’re managing a fashion blog, you might categorize your posts as reviews, fashion news, etc. This is a way for the user to find the kind of content they want easily.
You should display the category of each post on the post page somewhere, so that users can click the link to see more articles in that category.
What Are Tags?
Tags are ways to connect pieces of content that share similarities. Unlike adding your pens to containers, you can have multiple tags on each post. So, if I have one post about brand related SEO keywords and another post about choosing brand attributes, one might go in the SEO category and the other in the branding category. It’s very likely that these two articles will have topics in common, and those in-common topics are a great thing to use in your tags.
Think of tags as strings that connect your blog posts. They’re linked together through a tag archive page and encourage users to explore more content, but they’re less important and less structured than categories.
WordPress creates tag archive pages based on these tags to help users find related content.
Usage Guidelines for Categories and Tags
Here’s how to use categories and tags.
Your post belongs in one category. Just one.
The category should be broad and it should be something that you’re going to write more than just a few articles in. After all, if someone clicks through to your category page, you want them to see more than just one or two articles.
The category for each post should be displayed somewhere on each post, and I always put the category higher on the page than the tags. This is because the category level of organization is more important than tag level.
Remember, one category. If you think your post belongs to two categories, consider whether one of those categories should be a tag.
Really important and often overlooked: WordPress comes with a default category called “Uncategorized.” None of your posts or pages should ever be categorized as Uncategorized. If you find some under this category, go back right away and assign them to their proper category.
Technically you can use as many tags on each post as you want, but I recommend using fewer than 10, and the fewer the better. Too many tags gets really cluttered on the screen, and the more tags you have the less meaning each tag has to the reader.
Additionally, the more tags you use the more likely you are to have tag archive pages that have only one or two posts in them.
For example, if I posted an article about color theory in marketing, I probably don’t need to tag it with every color name mentioned in the article. How often am I going to have another article about the color purple?
When you’re structuring your tags, make sure you do so with the reader’s needs in mind.
Tag and Category SEO
To use tags and categories for SEO effectively, it’s best to think of category pages and tag archives as landing pages.
This means that they need to be search ready in the most basic sense.
WordPress by default doesn’t really allow on-page customization for these pages (though some theme frameworks will allow it), but you should make sure that you’ve optimized the pages with a sensible, clickable, and relevant title and meta description.
This is another really good reason to not have too many tags or categories.
When you think of structure for tags and categories, you should choose ones that are search relevant. For example, when I set up my categories for this website, obviously I want to target blogging, SEO, and marketing as search terms. I will also want to target more niche keywords closer to the long tail, like keyword research, SEO strategy, and so forth. Those are gonna be better as tags than categories.
Another thing to remember: if you’re using one subject as a category, it should not also be a tag. First of all it’s completely unnecessary, but second, it’s going to create category pages and tag archive pages that are competing against each other. This weakens your overall SEO efforts.
Additionally, category pages and tag archive pages are part of the context surrounding each page, since each post links to its associated category page and tag archives. That means that category pages and tag archive pages help Google determine what your posts are about. Because of this, categories and tags need to be relevant to the content and relevant to the intent of the search user.
If you have lots and lots of tags on each post, Google may interpret this as keyword stuffing. That means that you may actually be penalized by the algorithm and your rank on the SERP will suffer as a result.
Category and Tag Cleanup
So, let’s say maybe you’re reading this article a year or two too late and you have dozens of categories and tags all mashed together on blog posts and your site hierarchy and organization is a bit of a mess. Cleaning this up is not an easy task, nor is it a fast one, but it is an important one.
What this means is that you need to delete duplicate tags and categories (remember, never have a tag and a category that are the same), remove any irrelevant or useless tags, merge categories together, etc.
Then, you’ll need to go through each applicable post or page and ensure that it’s in the correct category and has the appropriate tags (removing any extra tags and making sure each post is only in one category or subcategory). You can see that if you have 200 posts on your blog already, this is not a weekend project. This is an ongoing initiative that could take months. But your website and your SEO will both work better once you do it.
There may be a way to automate this process via a plugin, but if so, I’m not sure what it is and I’ve never used it, so I’m not really in a position to recommend it.
Don’t forget to follow best practices going forward, that way you’ll only have to do this kind of cleanup once.
This obviously isn’t everything there is to know about categories and tags, but it is the most important information from my point of view, which is from an SEO and usability perspective. With this information, you can make your site SEO ready from the inside out.