What Are the Differences Between Categories and Tags in WordPress?
by Andrew Urevig on
On a fundamental level, blogging is super simple: you write posts and publish those posts to the world.
It starts to get a little bit more complicated once we add in new terms, like category and tag. But don’t worry; in this tutorial, we’ll take a look at what categories and tags are and explain the differences between them.
At the end you’ll find a handy comparison chart, because we’re nice like that 🙂
The Purpose of Categories and Tags
Both categories and tags are ways of organizing or classifying your blog posts so that visitors can find them easily.
A category is a broad organizational grouping. It’s like a chapter title in a book: a lot of stuff falls into a category, but a common theme strings it all together. Let’s say that you blog about travel. In this example, you might have categories like ‘Food’, ‘Transportation’ and ‘Great Stories’.
While also an organizational grouping, tags are more specific. They’re like entries in a book’s index, or hashtags on Twitter.
Again imagine that you run a travel blog. You might have tags ranging from geographically-based identifiers like ‘Ecuador,’ ‘South Africa’ and ‘Vietnam’; to price-pegged teasers like ‘cheap vacation’, ‘good bargain’ and ‘expensive’; to activity-focused hooks like ‘kayaking’, ‘safari’ and ‘hiking’. These are just examples: you can make up all the tags you want.
Categories and tags both help your readers find content—they’re just a different way of doing that.
Choosing Between Categories and Tags
Categories are required. You have to put every post on your blog in at least one category. If you don’t choose a category, then the post will stay in the default category (which can be defined within the Settings > Writing screen accessible from the sidebar in your WordPress Dashboard).
Tags are completely optional. If you want to tag posts, tag posts; if you don’t want to tag posts, don’t tag posts. It’s your choice, so if tags confuse you, feel free to ignore them. You can always start tagging posts at a later date if the mood strikes you.
You may put each post in as many categories as you would like. It’s normal to only assign a post to one category, though it’s also okay to place it in two or three categories. You shouldn’t need to go above that, since categories are broad.
Meanwhile, with tags, the sky’s the limit. You can put as many tags on a post as you want, and you should put as many as you feel can accurately describe the post.
The Hierarchy of Categories and Tags
Categories can be hierarchical.
Put simply, one category can be the ‘parent’ of another – you can have sub-categories. Sticking with our travel blog example, you might have a ‘Food’ category with child categories for ‘Cheap Eats’ and ‘Native Food’.
In a few themes (usually newspaper or magazine themes), categories show up in the navigation menu, and hovering your cursor over a category will bring up a list of its child categories.
Tags do not have any hierarchy.
Accessing Categories and Tags
I mentioned earlier that categories and tags let readers easily find posts that interest them. The main way that they do this is through your blog’s Archives page.
An Archives page generally lists a few different ways to access your posts: by date, by category, and by tag. Visitors can come to this page, click on the category or tag that interests them, and read away. It’s like a book’s table of contents and index—both accessible in the same place, at the same time.
Categories and tags can sometimes also be accessed via sidebar widgets (category lists and tag clouds).
Furthermore, both categories and tags have their own special archive pages. For example, here’s the ‘Blogging’ category archive page for Leaving Work Behind.
Category and Tag URLs
Each category and each tag on your blog has its own URL, which is often referred to as a permalink in WordPress circles.
Category URLs on WordPress follow this format (by default): http://yoursite.com/category/category-name/. For example, the Internet Marketing category URL on Leaving Work Behind looks like this: http://leavingworkbehind.com/category/internet-marketing/.
Tags follow a very similar format (again, by default): http://yoursite.com/tag/tag-name/. The Goal Setting tag URL on Leaving Work Behind looks like this: http://leavingworkbehind.com/tag/goal-setting/.
How Categories and Tags Are Displayed
Will users see categories and tags when they read a post? That depends on how your theme approaches categories and tags.
Many themes will display a post’s category somewhere in the post, at the top or at the bottom. Some themes will also show all of the tags attached to a post – usually at the bottom of the post. Check the theme you’re using to see how it handles this.
Categories vs. Tags Chart
Before we finish up, let’s recap what you’ve learned in this tutorial:
|A category is a broad organizational grouping (like a table of contents).||A tag is a specific grouping (like an index).|
|Posts are required to have at least one category.||Posts do not have to have any tags.|
|You can assign posts to multiple categories.||You can assign posts to multiple tags.|
|Categories can be hierarchical.||Tags cannot be hierarchical.|
Any questions? Fire away in the comments section below!
Photo Credit: JD Hancock