Marketing

Categories vs. Tags – SEO Best Practices for Sorting your Content

Caught up between categories vs. tags? Wondering which is better for SEO? The short answer: both. They help make navigating your site easy for users.

Masooma Memon Masooma Memon on February 10, 2021 (last modified on February 11, 2021) • 21 minute read

Whether it’s the clothes in your cupboard or posts on your WordPress blog, sorting out things is important. When it comes to WordPress posting, categories and tags are two taxonomies that are used for classifying or grouping your posts. Along with serving this purpose, both tags and categories help users navigate your site.

Despite doing a similar job, both categories and tags have some key differences. This is why in a battle between categories vs tags, there’d be no one winner.

Wondering what’s the difference between the two and how you can use them? We’ve got a guide below that gives answers to all the important questions. Here’s a peek at what we’ll cover:

What’s the Difference Between Categories and Tags?

The main purpose of categories is that they classify different posts under an umbrella topic. Therefore, categories broadly group posts under a subject. Tags, on the contrary, organize posts based on the specifications of the content they contain.

Translation Equipment HQ’s Will Ward explains the difference between the two really well. In Wards’ words, “Categories are ideal for sub-segmentation. For example, if your blog is about video marketing, ‘YouTube Marketing’ can be a category. This will give Google crawlers a clear indication of what all you write about.”

On the other side of the pond, “Tags can be used to specify keywords that are unique to a particular blog post. This gives Google crawlers an idea of what your blog post is about. For example, if you’re writing about ‘YouTube Marketing Trends 2021’ one possible tag can be ‘YouTube Reels’ assuming it’s part of your trend.”

What’s more, the categories of your website are typically given on its homepage and help instantly understand what your site is about. On the other hand, tags bring similar posts together under the results when a user searches for a keyword on your website.

How Can You Add Categories and Tags in WordPress?

Adding categories and tags to your WordPress posts is no rocket science. You can assign your post a category by opening the categories field in the documents panel on the right-hand side when publishing or editing your post. There’s also the option to add a new category in the same space. The tags field is in the same area, just below categories.

how to add categories to wordpress

How Many WordPress Categories Should You Have?

You can have as many categories on your WordPress blog as you like, but it’s best to stick to a few. A website with way too many categories just appears cluttered and confuses users. The best practice is to have 5 to 10 main categories. If you’re only starting out, you can create a minimum of three categories and add more as you go.

You can add subcategories to these parent categories too, to classify your posts better. What’s the use of subcategories? Take, for instance, there’s a fashion website with the categories How To, Trending, and News. Subcategories such as Fashion shows or Celebrities under the News parent category can help organize your posts better.

Here’s a real-life example of categories and subcategories on the Sprout Insights blog:

categories and subcategories example

How to Use Categories in Your Posts’ URLs?

You can add the category of posts in their URLs by going to your WordPress Settings. From there, go to Permalinks and change the Custom Structure of your posts’ links to include their category. The reason this practice isn’t recommended is that you may have to set up link redirects if you edit the categories of your posts.

Other than this, adding the category of a post in its permalink is also not suitable for SEO. Drew Martin of Drew’s Review advises, “Since the URL is considered the most relevant piece of information that Google uses to rank pages, having too much text or too much repetitive text in the URL could work against you with regards to ranking.”

This is why it’s best to just have the name of the post in its permalink.

Can I Assign One Post to Multiple Categories?

While you can select more than one category to classify your post under, that’s not a really great idea. Because if your post is filed under two different categories, this can lead to content duplication which is not good in the eyes of search engines. Though your posts should have just one parent category, you can file them under more subcategories under the same category.

Is There a Limit to How Many Tags a Post Can Have?

Technically, there’s no set limit to how many tags you can use for each post. You can add multiple, even hundreds of tags to your post. However, adding more than a handful of tags to your post is unnecessary and can backfire when it comes to SEO. Tags link different posts, for which, up to 10 tags should suffice.

Categories vs Tags: What’s Better for SEO?

Naturally, you want to follow the best SEO practices when posting on your website. This brings to fore the following question: which is better for search engine optimization: categories or tags?

Jake Meador of Mobile Text Alerts sums up the answer to this really well: “Categories work well for broad topics. Tags work well for more specific pieces of information. So, it’s not really that one is ‘better’ for SEO than the other because they have different uses.”

At the end of the day, you definitely want to do what’s best for your posts’ ranking.

Related: SEO for a New Website: Here’s Everything You Need to Know to Start Ranking

12 Tips for Using Categories and Tags Correctly

That being said, we have compiled 12 tips from experts on using tags and categories that can help you improve your SEO game.

Below is a quick view:

  1. Know that tags and categories are not competitors
  2. Use both keeping user experience in mind
  3. Don’t overdo using either categories or tags
  4. Start with a full-fledged strategy
  5. Steer clear of duplicate content and SEO debt
  6. Make your site easy to navigate
  7. Use keywords when naming categories
  8. Clarify your niches using categories and tags
  9. Optimize your category pages
  10. Create subcategories where you can
  11. Set your tag archive pages to no-index
  12. Ditch tags if you don’t need them

Let’s dive in.

1. Understand that tags and categories are not competitors

There’s no categories vs tags because you can use both at once. Kathleen Marrero of First Fig Marketing & Consultancy is also of the view that categories and tags “both serve a different purpose for organizing and arranging your content, so neither is more important than the other for SEO purposes.”

“Categories are used to group posts together, and tags detail what the post is about specifically.” Damien Martin from Shufti Pro Marketing also defines and differentiates categories and tags, saying, “Categories are intended to incorporate a comprehensive group of posts. Whereas the idea of tags is to improve link relevant posts concurrently.”

One more difference between these two taxonomies is that you don’t have an option when filing your posts under categories. You can’t skip this step as your post should have at least one category. If it doesn’t, WordPress will put it under the default category. However, whether or not you add tags is entirely up to you.

2. Use both keeping user experience in mind

Like any other element of a website, your visitors’ experience and expectations are what matter the most. If you apply categories or tags in such a way that your users are repulsed, your site’s bounce rate will increase, while the count of visitors will go down.

Related: 76 Marketers on How to Reduce Your Website’s Bounce Rate

Shedding light on the importance of UX here, Chris Von Wilpert of Content Mavericks pinpoints, “You should design your site with users in mind. All search engines want to show users the content that’ll be the most useful to them. Organizing your content for best usability will help you get better SEO rankings.”

Editor’s note: Keep an eye on your site’s responsive design by tracking essential metrics such as session by device type, bounce rate, and more. Use the Google Analytics Responsive Design Dashboard to get these details on one screen.

Google Analytics Responsive Design Dashboard

Meador insists on the same, “think about it first in terms of user experience. You want blog categories to provide an easily accessed archive of what you’ve written on topics that are of interest to your readers.” Put simply, when readers land on your site, you want them to reach their destination smoothly. This means your categories should be clear.

Rigorous Design’s Rich Mehta guides some more as to how you can use categories that align with what your users expect from you: “To really make the most of the SEO opportunity, I’d suggest naming your categories using words that your customer might use when talking to you.” That makes complete sense, to name categories based on search intent.

Giving further insight, Mehta continues, “In our business for example, ‘Design’ might be the obvious choice of a category name but ‘WordPress website design’ is a little more specific, and we’d probably have more chance of visibility on that than a broader term.”

3. Don’t overdo using either categories or tags

As mentioned above, you should limit the use of categories and tags. Having too many of either goes against what’s best for your users.

EJ Mitchell from LiveCareer recommends the same. According to Mitchell, “It’s a common mistake for bloggers to create too many overly detailed categories to structure their articles. They often think that the more categories they have, the more information about the post type they can provide to their readers.”

While this is somewhat true, even you as a site visitor would run away from a site that has excessive categories. Mitchell further elaborates, “Extensive usage of categories makes it more difficult for the users to navigate through your website and find the materials they’re interested in. This often leads to a poor user experience as people leave your website when they have trouble finding what they need. Increased bounce rate decreases your conversions and negatively impacts your SEO rankings.”

Related: Earn Higher Local Search Rankings With This 15-Point SEO Checklist

So, how many categories should you use? And how should you use tags? “My advice is to limit the number of categories to the most important ones. Use tags instead to group similar content. However, don’t exaggerate with adding multiple tags to each of your blog posts either! As a rule of thumb, create around 5-7 categories and use no more than 10 tags per post.”

TrackingFox’s Martynas Kavaliauskas backs Mitchell. Kavaliauskas opines, “In order to use both categories and tags to sort content and boost SEO, you should be as specific as possible. Do not overdo it. That is, do not put one post under two categories even though that is possible, and do not put more than 10 tags in one post even if you can.”

Melanie Musson of InsureABQ.com shares the same regarding tags, saying, “Be intentional with your tags and don’t try to use them like hashtags on social media.”

4. Start with a full-fledged strategy

Proper planning prior to starting a project is necessary for its success. The same applies to creating categories and tags. You can’t just keep creating new categories and tags every time you write a new post.

Cody Murphy from Visual Oak suggests the same. Murphy enunciates, “It’s important to have a strategy for categories and tags when you start a blog. I recommend reserving categories for organizing larger concepts and tags for more granular ideas.

For each blog post, I typically assign only one category with no limit to the number of tags. I’ll then organize my blog posts by categories and then display individual tags at the bottom of each post. This means that I value categories over tags. Why? It’s all about end-user experience. Your blog’s reader doesn’t want to sort through hundreds of tags. They want to easily find information.”

Emphasizing on the importance of strategizing, David Schneider of Shortlist comments, “In order for a site to be effective for search, it must be designed with a methodical SEO approach, taking into consideration not only the content but the infrastructure as well.”

Schneider goes on, “When it comes to SEO, your category and tag archives are crucial. Categories and tags both have different purposes. Unlike categories, you don’t have to use tags, but I recommend using both in order to help visitors navigate your website.”

Therefore, categorize and tag your posts for SEO while taking into account your website’s content, infrastructure, and users.

Editor’s note: Use this free Google Analytics User Experience Snapshot dashboard to track how your users are consuming content on your site and how interested they are in your website.

Google Analytics User Experience Snapshot dashboard template

5. Steer clear from duplicate content and SEO debt

Alex Birkett of Omniscient Digital notes, “Categories are great for readers and for search engines, so they should be used sparingly and carefully.” Going on, Birkett warns against the downside of using too many tags: “If you allow individual writers to tag each blog post with no top-down plan or governance, you can quickly create ‘SEO debt’ by having hundreds of tags.” Ouch! You definitely don’t want that.

Another issue is content duplication. Content is duplicated every time the same content appears at two different places. And this content duplication irks search engines.

Addressing this, Amine Dahimene says, “The most comment concern when using both category and tag is the duplicate tags and categories. When you have a category ‘gluten-free brownies,’ you shouldn’t have a tag ‘gluten-free brownies’ too. The same applies for single or plural, an article shouldn’t be in the tag ‘dessert’ and ‘desserts.’”

In short, “simplify it” as Carlos Rosado from Outlook Studios puts it. Rosado explains, “If you create a lot of categories and tags you are going to find that when you sort it you will have duplicates to irrelevant variations.” Ian Wright of Bequests also insists on avoiding duplication, commenting, “Use uniform categories and tags throughout your website to avoid duplicates. When there are duplicates, they can compete with each other on search engine rankings.”

To get to Google’s good side, Mostly Blogging’s Janice Wald recommends using limited categories and tags: “I try to minimize my number of categories. I want to have a tight niche, so Google knows what I specialize in. I also try to limit my number of tags per post since I don’t want to give away too much of my Page Authority.

By keeping your website categories and post tags to a minimum, you are clearly telling Google what your content is about and what you are an expert in. This helps Google recognize you as an Authority and an Expert in accordance with the E-A-T criteria. Google then trusts your content enough to give your posts a high ranking in the Search Engine Results Pages.”

6. Make your site easy to navigate

Make the most of the purpose of categories and tags by making your site easily navigable. Alex Hamilton of Gaming is OK tells how, explaining, “Sorting your content into both categories and tags makes it easier for users to understand the layout and structure of your website. It also allows you to provide easy and manageable quick links for users to find additional information, improving average pages session and time on site – both of which can impact positively on SEO performance.”

Related: 21 Ways for Creating a Website Structure That’s Optimized for SEO

“For example, on articles that cover a particular theme, topic or ‘category,’ ensure there are clear call-to-actions for users to ‘read on,’ linking to similar articles on the same topic. Similarly, with tags, add relevant tags on more niche or specific terms or topics to allow users to quickly find information that is interesting to them,” Hamilton details.

After all, if people visiting your site get what they’re looking for as well as additional information on their researched topic, they’re going to dwell on your pages for longer. On the flip side, if they face even a moment’s inconvenience, they’ll leave.

7. Use keywords when naming categories

Keywords or search queries are words or phrases that searchers enter to find information on the internet. Using the right keywords in your content can attract more visitors to your site by taking up your pages’ ranking on the SERPs. You can also use keywords to name your site’s categories or as part of your category pages.

“As category names, I usually recommend putting a keyword for each category. This will boost your SEO thanks to a better user experience as well as having the right keywords at the right places,” Jonathan Aufrey of Growth Hackers Agency notes.

Paul Easton of Vine Digital says that using keywords as categories is the best route to take for e-commerce businesses: “I deal with eCommerce clients, and in that model, it is most definitely the categories that have the most effect when it comes to SEO. Ecommerce on its own doesn’t have a lot of real in-depth content unless the site has decided to implement a content strategy. Therefore, the content they can work with is the categories.

One simple way to do this is obvious – Keyword Categories. The best way to explain is with an example:

  • Site Subject: Dog clothes
  • Category 1: Dog Jackets
  • Category 2: Dog Socks”

Related: How to Use Google Keyword Planner to Research & Target the Right Keywords (According to 30 Marketers)

8. Clarify your niches using categories and tags

Work with WordPress’s taxonomy to tell Google and your visitors about the niche of your site. Nikola Roza of SEO for the Poor and Determined gives a clear idea of how you can do this. Roza explains, “For example, on my blog, I have a category ‘affiliate marketing’ which aims to cover the entire affiliate marketing niche. And within that category, I have posts that are tagged differently.

So, with that WordPress taxonomy set up, I tell Google what niche my site is in, and what sub-niches I specialize in. And not to mention it’s very helpful for the users too.”

This means if your categories express your niche, you’re killing two birds with one stone – impressing Google as well as making understanding and navigation easy for your visitors. Top Voucher Code’s Catriona Jasica stresses on the value of showing your site’s niche through its categories.

Jasica observes, “The most effective way to use categories, and tags to boost SEO is to simply identify the niche of your categories first. A niche that can surely drive in traffic from various platforms, and as for the tags in retrospect they do help in boosting your SEO organically.”

9. Optimize your category pages

Simply assigning posts to categories is not enough – you have to make sure that your category pages are also optimized for the search engine. This will increase your chances of ranking higher.

In this regard, Mehta suggests, “Make sure your category pages have an image and some description. These are important; they’ll give Google a little more ‘content’ beyond a load of short excerpts from articles that exist elsewhere on your site.”

That’s not all. Best Response Media’s Borislav Ivanov says that each category page “can be additionally optimized with a suitable page description, meta description, and others. All these steps will create a semantic connection that can really help the user to reach the content, and crawling bots – to better understand it.”

Want more tips? Steve West of EntrepreneurNut shares, “Write a description for your category page and try to make it at least 300-500 words. Use H2 and H3 tags with your target keyword where relevant, but make sure you are not cannibalizing on other pages. You can then link to relevant posts in that category from this page and also add your social media feed. By doing this the search engines will perceive the category page to have more value and this page may now start to rank.”

However, if you don’t properly optimize your category and tag pages, you can harm your SEO game. Tyler Tafelsky points out, “The most common scenario is optimizing tag and category pages for keywords that are also being targeted on other more important posts or pages.

To avoid diluting the SEO value of your content, ensure tags and categories are appropriately optimized so that they do not step-on or damage other pieces of content you’ve published or plan to publish.”

10. Create subcategories where you can

Subcategories further narrow down the subject under which your post falls. For instance, if your category is of Fruits, its subcategories can be Mangoes, Oranges, Berries, and Apples. This way, people looking for content on Mangoes will not have to surf through the entire category of fruits.

Talking about subcategories, Jason Baik of Veritas Homebuyers remarks, “The general rule that we follow is we first make main categories that are broad and then use subcategories to focus the categories even further. Once we write blog posts, we assign the post to a main category and a subcategory that better indicates the content of the freshly written article.”

But it’s not just Baik who relies on categories to sort their content. The majority of our respondents, 45.3%, think categories are effective for organizing content and boosting SEO. Here’s proof:

how to use categories and tags to sort your content

11. Set your tag archive pages to no-index

While your category archive pages should be indexed so that each category has a chance for ranking, the same doesn’t apply to tag archive pages. In fact, it’s better for tag archive pages to not be indexed. No-indexing tag archive pages reduces the risk of conflicts in ranking and increases traffic directed toward other similar pages.

“As for the tag archive pages it’s recommended to set them for no-index and save your crawl budget for more important pages,” offers Tom Zsomborgi of Kinsta.

John Locke from Lockedown Design & SEO shares that they do the same: “Our articles can have several tags, but the tag pages are no-indexed. It’s not likely that people will search something in Google and land on either a category or tag page, but it’s easier if only one type is indexed.”

12. Ditch tags if you don’t need them

Just because tags and categories are used for different purposes, doesn’t mean you must use both. Generally, categories are more preferable given a choice between the two. They’re also necessary since you’re required to categorize your posts.

“From an SEO standpoint, tags can be great to attribute keywords to your content, but in general, they are not as valuable as categories themselves,” opines Joe Manna from Nextiva.

According to Dmitry Dragilev from SmallBizTools, “Tags has become an outdated practice which used to help with SEO in early 2000s. Categories has become much more beneficial in terms of helping organize your content into buckets and allow your readers to easily find other related topics to the content they are currently consuming.”

If you don’t notice any benefit of using tags for your business, you should also consider not using them. Crystal Diaz of Lights On Creative doesn’t use tags on blogs either. Diaz admits, “I love using categories to separate our blogs with WordPress. Tags on the other hand I have found to be not useful, as it creates another page for you to do SEO, meta data, etc.”

However, Baik mentions you can use tags “wherever the categories [and subcategories] fail in describing the blog.” When using tags though, “make sure you are grouping content and not creating one-off tags,” urges Bryan Coe of Blackbird e-Solutions LLC.

Creating one-off tags gives rise to unnecessary pages which is why tags should be created wisely.  “If you’re not careful you’ll end up with menus containing dozens of tag links, lots of extra unneeded pages being crawled/indexed, and lots of cleanup down the road,” alerts TJ Kelly of Cadenzify.

Summing Up

Now you know that categories are for broad grouping of posts while tags are for micro-grouping based on the content inside the post. Though both are different, in categories vs tags if we must say one is superior to the other then that would be categories.

At the end of the day though, you must consider what’s best for user experience and search engine optimization. What’s more, as Wilpert says, “Simply tagging and categorizing will not automatically increase your search. The current SEO evaluation system is all about meaningful consistent communication which means making sure your content is relevant and applicable.”

About the author
Masooma Memon
Masooma Memon Masooma is a freelance writer for SaaS and a lover to-do lists. When she's not writing, she usually has her head buried in a business book or fantasy novel.

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