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Categories vs Tags – SEO Best Practices for Sorting your Content

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Categories vs Tags – SEO Best Practices for Sorting your Content

One of the most discussed topics we see when attending WordCamps and other events is what’s better for SEO: categories vs tags? What’s the difference between categories and tags? What’s the optimal number of WordPress categories? How many is too many? Is it okay to assign one post in multiple categories? Is there a limit of tags we can assign to each post? Do tags work like meta keywords? Are there any SEO advantage of using categories over tags or vice versa? We’ve seen quite a few commentaries on this subject through out the web, but we found that they were inconsistent and incomplete. If you ever had these questions, then hopefully they will be answered once you are done reading this post, so you can make adjustments to your blog if necessary.

Before we discuss any of the questions listed above, we need to understand what is categories and tags. In the WordPress nomenclature, both categories and tags are known as taxonomies. Their sole purpose is to sort your content to improve the usability of your site. Meaning when a user comes to your site, they can easily browse through your content by topic rather than browsing chronologically which is how blogs were initially setup.

What’s the difference between Categories and Tags?

Sorting Your Content

Categories are meant for broad grouping of your posts. Think of these as general topics or the table of contents for your site. Categories are there to help identify what your blog is really about. It is to assist readers finding the right type of content on your site. Categories are hierarchical, so you can sub-categories.

Tags are meant to describe specific details of your posts. Think of these as your site’s index words. They are the micro-data that you can use to micro-categorize your content. Tags are not hierarchical.

For example if you have a personal blog where you write about your life. Your categories can be something like: Music, Food, Travel, Rambling, and Books. Now when you write a post about something that you ate, you will add it in the Food category. You can add tags like pizza, pasta, steak etc.

One of the biggest difference between tags and categories is that you MUST categorize your post. You are not required to add any tags. If you do not categorize your post, then it will be categorized under the “uncategorized” category. People often rename the uncategorized category to something like Other, ramblings etc.

Another difference is the way your category and tags permalinks (urls) look. If you are using a custom permalink (URL) structure, then your base prefix will look different. Example:

http://yoursite.com/category/food/

vs.

http://yoursite.com/tag/food/

What’s the optimal number of WordPress categories?

Up until WordPress 2.5, there was no built-in support for tags. This led to very long category lists because people were using it to define micro-details. Tags were added to improve the usability of your site. Having that said, we believe there is no specific optimal number of categories. The optimal number varies based on the complexity of your site. However, for the sake of structure and usability, it is best that you utilize sub-categories and tags.

Optimal Number of Categories

Categories are meant to encompass a group of posts. It is always best to start with generic categories and work your way down with subcategories as your site grow. After having run multiple blogs, we have learnt that blogs evolve. There is no way that you can come up with all the right categories. Chances are when starting out, you are only writing one post a day. Or maybe 3-5 posts a day. Having 30 top categories is pointless specially when some of them will only have one or two posts. You are better off with 5 generic categories that have fresh content rather than 30 top categories where majority are not updated.

Let’s take a look at an example. Say that we are starting a social media blog in 2012. We want to share how-to tutorials, news, tools, case studies etc. We can create top categories like Twitter, Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn etc. As sub categories of each, we can have tools, how-to’s, case studies, news etc. However that is a very short-term mindset, and we will run into issues in the future. What if one of the social media network dies and a new one enters the game? You will be required to add yet another top level category and more sub-categories.

A much better way of structuring this social media blog would be to have top categories that are future-proof. You can have your categories like How-To’s, News, Case Studies, Tools, etc. But how would people know that it is about twitter? Well your categories are not suppose to do the entire job. This is where tags come in. Let’s say you wrote a how-to post about twitter, simply add the tag twitter. In your design just add a section called Popular Topics and control that manually with links to popular tags like Twitter, Facebook, Google+ etc.

When do you add Subcategories?

Let’s say that you do a case-study posts where sometimes you interviewed an expert for a specific case-study. Because there is no category called “expert interviews”, you will add that as a tag on that case-study post. If you find yourself doing a lot of interviews for case-studies and your expert interviews tag has 10+ posts in it and is consistently growing, then you should consider adding expert interviews as a sub-category of your main category “Case Studies”.

Yes, you will have to go back and edit your older posts. If your URL structure is /category/postname/, then you have make sure you are using the Redirection plugin. It automatically redirects your modified posts to their new URL, so you can keep all the search engine rankings.

Do I have to use sub-categories?

No ofcourse not. You can always leave popular tags as tags. In our example above, almost all posts will have a tag for a specific social media network like twitter, facebook, etc. But we are not creating those as categories. The only reason why you add sub-categories is to make it easy for your users to find the content. You are more than welcome to simply add the Expert Interviews tag in your site somewhere.

Remember the whole purpose of categories and tags are to make it easy for your users to browse your site.

Is it okay to assign one post to multiple categories?

You might read on other sites that assigning posts to multiple categories can hurt your SEO. Some say that you can get penalized with duplicate content because of that. We believe that statement is not entirely true. First of all, don’t get lost with SEO. Remember the purpose of sorting your content efficiently is to help users find it. By the nature of how top categories should be setup, you shouldn’t be able to classify one post into multiple top-level categories. For example, if your blog has three categories “Advertising, Marketing, and SEO”. Your posts often tend to fall into multiple categories. Perhaps you need an umbrella category for all three? Maybe they should all fall under Business? Or you can have one category called Advertising & Marketing. Then have SEO as a sub-category for those.

There is no SEO benefits to adding multiple categories. If you think it helps your users, then you are more than welcome to add one post into multiple categories. However, if you see this becoming a regular issue, then you should consider restructuring your categories. Maybe some of your categories need to be tags. Or maybe they should be subcategories of one major category. It is mainly about making the user experience better.

If you are super concerned about duplicate content penalty, then simply (noindex, follow) your category taxonomy using the WordPress SEO by Yoast plugin.

Yoast No Index Taxonomies

If you only want to (noindex, follow) specific categories, then you can do so by editing the category themselves. Yoast plugin has the setting to override the global settings.

Basically when you (noindex, follow) certain thing, it tells Google and other search engine bots to follow all post links in these categories, so all posts can be indexed. However do not index the main category archives to prevent duplicate content.

Short answer: WordPress allows you to add one post into as many categories as you like. Yes it is okay to assign one post into multiple categories as long as you think it helps your users. However, if you think of categories as Table of Contents for your blog where posts are chapters, then can you have one chapter in two separate sections? The answer to that question is NO.

Is there a limit of tags we can assign to each post?

Short answer to this question is NO. WordPress has NO limits on the number of tags you can assign to a specific post. You can add 1000+ tags if you like. However, the purpose of tags is to relate your posts together. Again think of tags as the index or your book. These are popular keywords that you can use to loosely relate your posts. This makes it easy for users to find your posts specially when they are using the WordPress search. It also helps if you are utilizing the tag archive for users. We say add no more than 10 tags to your posts unless you can justify it. For example: if you are running a movie review blog, you may add multiple tags: actor/actress names (this alone can be over 10). But chances are that you may review multiple movies that have Adam Sandler in it. But for other simpler scenarios, you should really limit the amount of tags you use. Otherwise, you may find yourself with over 10000+ tags with only 300 posts on the site.

Do tags work like meta keywords?

Often people mistake tags to be like meta keywords for your blogs. This is the main reason why they try to add as many tags as possible. Tags are NOT meta keywords for your blog. At least not by default. Popular plugins like WordPress SEO by Yoast allows you to use your tag values to be in the meta keywords template. But if you don’t have these plugins configured to do that, then your tags DO NOT work like meta keywords.

Categories vs Tags: What’s better for SEO?

The most asked question that we see being asked on this topic is: Are there any SEO advantage of using categories over tags or vice versa? The simple answer to this is NO. You should NOT look at this as categories or taxonomies. They are meant to work together. If you have read this post, then you should be able to understand the individual purpose of categories and tags as well as their combined purpose for your site’s usability.

Conclusion

Your site is about your users not search engine bots. The goal of every search engine is to think the way users think when valuing your content. If you make your decisions based on usability, you will almost always find yourself reaping the SEO benefits. Categories and Tags are just the two default taxonomies that comes with WordPress. Most advanced sites use custom taxonomies for sorting their content alongside with categories and tags. Think of your blog as an ever evolving book. Choose the Table of Content (categories) wisely. Make sure that they are broad topics, but be cautious to not make it too vague. Use tags to loosely relate multiple posts. If you see a certain tag is becoming popular, then consider adding it as a sub-category. However, if you have to add the tag as subcategory of multiple top-level categories, then leave it as a tag. The goal is always to make the site as user friendly as possible.

We hope that this article helps clear any and all confusion when it comes to the topic of categories vs tags. We would love to hear your thoughts on this matter. How do you sort your content? what best practices do you follow?


Editorial Staff at WPBeginner is a team of WordPress lovers led by Syed Balkhi. Page maintained by Syed Balkhi.

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  • http://www.wpbeginner.com/ WPBeginner Staff

    You change the category slug by editing a single category. Go to Posts > Categories select the category you want to edit and then change its slug. This slug will then be used in the URL. You categories title and slug can be different.

  • Tommy

    Thanks. Good stuff

  • Bharat

    Really a awesome article with valuable information.

  • Mike

    Hi,
    Nice article. And i just wanted to say thank you for this website. This site has become my “go to” whenever I’m looking for answers on Google. Whenever i have questions this site is right up there, that’s cool. I’ve just started using wp to build a personal blog, and a great deal of my required knowledge has come from here. So thank you Syed, very much!!
    Mike

  • Niek

    Really interesting article! It helped me out on the right track but I do have a question though :-)

    Currently I am creating a wordpress website. I allready developped this website
    myself in asp.net, but I no langer have the time to keep up developping it, so I am choosing WordPress to be my new platform.
    My begist issue is how to categorize everything. And I hope some-one can help me out.
    I have a lot of content which is related to each other. Here is how my content is related:

    Breeds ->
    Breed A ->Info about the breed
    ->Dog Sellers
    ->Pictures
    ->Breeding-group

    Breed B ->Info about the breed
    ->Dog Sellers
    ->Pictures
    ->Breeding-group

    Illnes -> All kind of diseases from which a lot of diseases can be related to a specific breed (So I think tags?)
    Training -> All sorts of training abilities which can be breed related (So I think tags?)

    My breeds are about 250. So here is where my concern is. How do I have to categorize this? Just as I mentioned above? My main concern is that I have to put in a lot of sub-categories.

    (If you take a look at my website as it is now maybe you can understand my concern about how to categorize everything.

    Regards,
    Monique

    • http://www.wpbeginner.com/ WPBeginner Support

      You will need to write down a custom importer script for your website.

  • Michael McGinnis

    If you use link rel=’canonical’, you don’t have to worry about any duplicate content penalty. That meta tag tells Google to use that as the official URL for the page, and to ignore any other URLs that point to it. Canonical URLs have been part of the standard WordPress default themes for years, I think.

  • Ayaz Mazhar

    Thank you!. I am WordPress coder. Your analogy really helped me alot about category and tags concept.

  • Caroline

    Thanks so much for this explaination – I was wondering if it is possible to somehow group posts tagged as specific categories into different sections in a WordPress site so that it’s not one long stream of posts? For example, the wpbeginner site has tabs/buttons for ‘Recent articles’, ‘popular articles’…how did you guys make the tabs? Are they category/tag based?

    Thanks guys!

  • Drew Taylor

    Now i am wondering where to draw the line between sub-categories and tags though, or when to choose one over the other..

  • Drew Taylor

    Very helpful article.. Your book analogy made these concepts very easy to understand..

  • Swayam Das

    You have explained it quite well. Now I was wondering that if I post to multiple categories which has sub-category also. For maybe SEO reasons, I “noindex, follow” the main category. Will this be a problem for indexing my subordinate categories under that main category?

  • Nico

    Hi,

    Thanks for an interesting and easy readable article!

    I am very new to WP, SEO, so excuse my questions if they are a bit simple, but:

    1) What is the link between Categories, Sub-categories, Tags (C,SC,T) and simple ‘keyword-search’ on the website ?

    2) And regarding the line before the last paragraph: “The goal is always to make the site as user friendly as possible…” Who is my user?: Readers e.g. privat induviduals who will look for C, SC,T, to reach their point of interest fast and effectively, Marketers e.g. people who want to place ads vis-a-vis C, SC, or T, or Search Engines who wants to match input search with output (also) by way off C,SC, and T? I guess the user point of view will influence how you structure and organize your contents.

    3) Are there strategies for organizing for commercial vs private engagement.

    With further thought, I guess “Tags” equals “Topic or Subject” and I guess marketers will advertise towards “Topics/Subjects” rather than keywords found through keyword-search mostly relevant for subjective versus generic advertisement. This still, however, requires that you strategize your C,CS, and T, intelligently and efficiently.

    Perhaps we can continue the discussion a bit further?

    Thanks.

  • Anthony

    Thanks! Very helpful. I was and still am concerned about the duplicate content issue and am probably going to stick with one category for each article I write while having multiple tags. I think SEO-wise this is the best strategy. Google has been very aggressive about duplicate content and I have been personally penalized for duplicate content on other sites.

    Single Category / Multiple Tags. I feel in my gut that this is the way to go.

  • Nicolas

    Thank you, really instructive and really helping.
    You just solved a big issue I have every time I start a new blog – plus you gave me something priceless: the importance of NOT bothering too much with categories and tags at the beginning of a blog!
    Cheers!