SEO basics: difference tags and categories

SEO basics
What is the difference between tags and categories?

What is the difference between tags and categories?

Tags and categories help us structure our content. You can often find these in the visual metadata at for instance blog posts, or in a list of clickable links in the sidebar of a website. Tags are sometimes represented as a tag cloud, although most websites refrain from using that element these days. There is a clear difference between tags and categories, but a lot of users mix them up. Now in most cases, that won’t matter for the end user. But for instance, in WordPress, there are some benefits to using categories for certain segmentations and tags for others. Here, I’d like to explain the difference between tags and categories.

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WordPress taxonomies

WordPress uses taxonomies for content grouping. The most common, default taxonomies in WordPress are categories and tags, but it’s also possible to create a custom taxonomy. We have written about these custom taxonomies before, so for background information, please read the post “What are custom taxonomies?

A taxonomy can be defined as “orderly classification” (Source: Merriam Webster). This indicates some hierarchy or structure, which often goes into categories. In WordPress, categories can be parents or children of each other. Often, tags in WordPress don’t have that structure and are often used quite randomly. If you don’t control how you add tags to posts, you will probably end up with a huge number of tags on your website. The downside of this is that a lot of tags are used only once, which makes the tag page the same as the post where you added the tag. This may create duplicate content or at least thin content.

The difference between tags and categories

Back to our original questions: what’s the difference? In an ideal world, we would use categories to group the content on your website into — say — eight to ten global segments. On our blog, these segments are for instance Analytics, Content SEO, eCommerce and Technical SEO. By maintaining a limited set of categories, you can keep your website, and your content focused. Now, of course, you can dissect the content even further, going to more particular groupings. For that, you should use tags.

WordPress describes the difference exactly like that:

  • Categories allowed for a broad grouping of post topics.
  • Tags are used to describe your post in more detail.

The fact that categories can be hierarchical means that there’s a bit more content structure to be made with just categories if that’s what you are looking for. You can have a group of posts about trees, and have a child category or subgroup about elms. Makes sense, right? It also means that you can have URLs like /category/trees/elms, which displays that structure right in the URL already. You can’t do this with tags. The tag in this example could be “Boston.” It’s unrelated to the tree’s characteristics but could indicate where for instance a photo of an elm in that post is located.

At least one category per post is required

There is one more difference between tags and categories in WordPress: you need to add at least one category to a post. If you forget to do so, the post will be added to the default category. That would be “Uncategorized” unless you set a default category in WordPress at Settings > Writing:

tags and categories: set a default post category

Please do so, as you will understand the default “Uncategorized” makes no sense to your readers. It looks like poor maintenance, right? With tags, you don’t have this issue, as tags are not obligated at all. You could even decide to refrain from using tags until you need them and even then perhaps use a custom taxonomy instead. In that case, you will have that second layer of segmentation without the limitation of tags. I hope that clarifies the difference between tags and categories!

Read more: ‘What is (the importance of) site structure?’ »


28 Responses to What is the difference between tags and categories?

  1. Frank
    By Frank on 16 April, 2018

    This post is very useful.

    Thanks

  2. Manoj
    By Manoj on 9 April, 2018

    Well written. Thanks for clarifying these things. This post is very useful.

  3. Oliver Jake
    By Oliver Jake on 9 April, 2018

    I’ve gone through a lot to understand this, but this article can help freshers and clear some major points.

  4. Up SEO
    By Up SEO on 7 April, 2018

    I blocked the indexation of tags, it’s a good or a bad practice?

    • Willemien Hallebeek
      By Willemien Hallebeek on 9 April, 2018

      Hi, In general, I’d say if you’d optimize them well you shouldn’t noindex them, because they group your content well and give a nice overview of the content you have on a certain topic. If you create a nice tag page for them with some introductory content you can actually make that page rank.

  5. Gracious Store
    By Gracious Store on 6 April, 2018

    Thank you for clarifying the difference between categories and tags.

  6. Michael Kohlfürst
    By Michael Kohlfürst on 6 April, 2018

    Michiel – what are examples you would suggest to show taxonomies? In a SEO prospect I turned them off not to have duplicate content on my Websites. How about a Blog post specioal on this case and how to get rid of all the 404s from taxonomies.

    • Willemien Hallebeek
      By Willemien Hallebeek on 9 April, 2018

      Hi Michael, I’m not sure if I completely understand what you mean. In general, we’d advise to show the taxonomies. If it’s set up well, you shouldn’t have duplicate content issues.

  7. Doug Brown
    By Doug Brown on 5 April, 2018

    Great article, Michiel, I could of used this 3 years ago when I build my first WordPress site. Between all the category and author pages that WP creates we had a bunch of duplicate content and thin pages. We even had a gallery plugin that would create the taxonomy pages which creates duplicate meta title and description. The only quick fix was 301 redirects on the author and category pages… We’re much more careful now…

    • Edwin Toonen
      By Edwin Toonen on 6 April, 2018

      Hi Doug. Yeah, things can quickly get out of hand. Good to hear you are keeping everything on a tight leash on now.

  8. Rod Thomas
    By Rod Thomas on 5 April, 2018

    Excellent article Michael. I had never given much in the way of attention to taxonomies, tags and categories on my site. Your article stripped away years of mysteries regarding the proper use of tags, specifically. I had been abusing tags, not really understanding them, since the inception of my site. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Please, keep up the outstanding work.

    • Edwin Toonen
      By Edwin Toonen on 6 April, 2018

      Great to hear that we could finally clear it up for you, Rod! And thanks for the kind words.

  9. 99quotes
    By 99quotes on 5 April, 2018

    So how many categories can I use? This article is focused for WordPress users. What it’s mean when we use “label” in blogger? Will I treat it as category or a tag?

    • Edwin Toonen
      By Edwin Toonen on 6 April, 2018

      Hi! Don’t go overboard with your categories. Try to keep your site focused. Blogger uses labels more like tags. You can add as many as you like, but the same advice still stands. Keep it focused.

      If, for instance, you run a site with Italian cooking tips, you could use labels like ‘stone oven pizza’, combined with the label ‘Italian recipes’. Another recipe could get ‘pasta a la genovese’ and ‘Italian recipes’. If a visitor would click on the ‘Italian recipes’ label he/she would get all the recipes. Clicking on ‘stone oven pizza’ would show only this type of recipes. This way, you do get something that resembles a taxonomy.

  10. Denzil
    By Denzil on 5 April, 2018

    Very helpful, thanks. Could I ask what is the best way to delete all tags so I can start again with a better tagging system? 1) simply check all tags and mass delete (but won’t that lead to 404 problems? 2) remove tags from each post, post-by-post manually, so that no tag relates to any post, and then mass delete? 3) do you have a better idea? Thanks for your input.

    • Willemien Hallebeek
      By Willemien Hallebeek on 6 April, 2018

      Hi Denzil, I think the best way to go is this: 1) think of the new structure and tags you want to create; 2) create those tags; 3) delete the old tags and redirect the tag page to another tag page that fits (or a category page or home if there is no suitable tag); 4) tag your posts with the new tags.
      There’s no need to remove all the old tags from each post, if you delete them and redirect them properly you’ll prevent 404s.

      • Denzil
        By Denzil on 7 April, 2018

        Thanks Willemien, looks like I will have to work out how to mass direct using one of the redirection plugins.

  11. Rob Beal
    By Rob Beal on 5 April, 2018

    Great article… the utilization of tags and categories always been a battle when trying to help clients understand how to use…

  12. Jitu
    By Jitu on 5 April, 2018

    Amazing thanks very helpful to beginner SEO.

  13. zeb
    By zeb on 5 April, 2018

    As always Yoast blog has delivered another useful piece of content. Yoast is the best place to learn interesting and useful seo tips.

    • Willemien Hallebeek
      By Willemien Hallebeek on 5 April, 2018

      Thanks, Zeb!

  14. Wasim
    By Wasim on 5 April, 2018

    Amazing and very helpful article sir.

  15. console gamer
    By console gamer on 4 April, 2018

    Hello om new to SEO but this page was very helpful

  16. Noble Ozogbuda
    By Noble Ozogbuda on 4 April, 2018

    Great Content, i Love it, Keep it up, now i know there works in blogs…

    • Anthony
      By Anthony on 4 April, 2018

      Thank you Michiel for explaining the difference between the two.. very helpful for categorization strategies.

  17. Keith Blakemore-Noble
    By Keith Blakemore-Noble on 4 April, 2018

    Thanks for explaining the difference – I’ve often wondered quite how to use the two as they seem to be the same thing!

    I guess from what you say, Categories are to categorise (no, really!) into a few groups, as you mentioned, whereas tags are more of a free-form kind of labelling.
    Where it makes sense for something to exist in on, maybe two, categories, but could easily have dozens of tags.

    Given me something to ponder :)

    • Willemien Hallebeek
      By Willemien Hallebeek on 5 April, 2018

      Thanks Keith, Thanks for the addition. You could definitely see it like that! Good luck with your site

      • Marc
        By Marc on 11 April, 2018

        Great article..Thank you for explaining the difference. Very helpful.


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