Categories, Tags, what’s the difference?

WordPress has a built-in ability to assign both categories and tags to your blog posts (but not pages — this is one of the important differences between posts and pages).

So, what exactly are categories? What are tags? What are they used for, and what’s the difference?

What categories and tags do for you

They help you keep track of what you’re blogging about. They might even remind you what you want to be blogging about.

But mostly they help you help your readers.

What categories and tags do for your readers

Simple, and very important: Categories and tags both help readers find stuff they want to read on your blog. Stuff they’re actually interested in. Stuff they will spend time interacting with, thinking about, and commenting on.

On the surface, to a reader, categories and tags seem to perform the same function. Clicking a category name or a tag name should take the reader to a page displaying all the posts (or at least links to the posts) with the same category or tag.

If you follow my rule of thumb

My rule of thumb for assigning categories and tags

Categories should:

  • be few in number
  • be broad in scope
  • cover all the subjects you blog about with no overlap, such that each post should ideally belong to one and only one category (I do occasionally break this rule for my blog, though).

For the visual and kinesthetic learners among us (like me!), I like to think of categories as file folders, and each post as a piece of paper that can physically only go in one folder at a time.

While this system seems simple, I also totally get that it can induce “categorization trauma,” where you’re paralyzed because you don’t know which category to put something into, since there can be only one.

If you find yourself constantly stuffing posts into a “miscellaneous” or “uncategorized” category, or having a terrible time deciding which category a post belongs to, that may be a cue to re-think your categories (combine ones that overlap a lot, maybe split out ones for new topics you’ve been writing about recently.

Nothing says your category list has to stay set in stone — it’s your blog, you get to categorize the way you want to.

Tags should:

  • be as numerous as you want
  • be narrow in scope
  • be applied liberally (as many tags as you want can be added to a single post), and of course multiple posts can have the same tag.

In my filing metaphor, tags are like labels (or post-its if you prefer) that you can stick onto the piece of paper (your post). Having a plethora of tags at your disposal may help somewhat with the possible categorization trauma of one-category-per-post (it helps me).

Where to use categories and tags

If you’re going to list categories, tags, or both along with the post (the geeky term for post info like author, date, categories, etc. is post metadata), I suggest placing them at the end of the post.

My reasoning is that when a person finishes a post (or even has skimmed to the end), that’s when they’re most likely to want to see “more like this,” which is when they’d be clicking on tags or categories to see what else you’ve written that’s in that category or has that tag.

You also have the option of listing your categories and/or your tags in your sidebar, to help readers find things and see a mini-overview, like a table of contents to your blog. Sidebar widgets can display categories or tags as a list, drop-down list, or even a cloud (you know, one of those widgets that shows a tag with lots of posts in REALLY BIG LETTERS and a tag with few posts in tiny type).

If you only have two or three categories (hence a short category list), adding a tag cloud or tag list can be helpful to show your readers the scope of your blog. That is, until you have so many tags that it’s just a dense word-block that people skip over. When you reach that point, you might consider listing only the top 5 or 10 tags (showing people the things you’ve written the most about), which could be useful instead of a complete tag cloud.

I think a recent posts list is more important than a complete tag cloud, mostly because I recommend using lots and lots of tags, which could quickly generate an unreadable cloud. So I think it would be OK to have both if they’re both short and readable, and if not, then just stick with recent posts.

I do think that it’s OK to have tags that have the same names as your categories — more ways to find things easily is always good. If you do this, you’ll give everything in a given category a matching tag (remember that the more tags, the better).

Questions? Categorization trauma? Fun or unusual uses of categories and tags? Leave a comment and let me know!