Categories vs. Tags: What’s the Difference and How Do I Use Them on My Website?

An old-school wooden card catalog at a library
Proper content organization can boost web traffic and help users find your best work.

Creating solid content is key in getting your site seen by search engines (and, thus, by visitors). Once a visitor has found your site, you want to make it as easy as possible for them to find more content that might appeal to them.

One way to do so is with categories and tags. While the two might look the same, categories and tags serve different purposes.

Categories: Your Website’s Sections

Think of your site as a newspaper or magazine. Such publications generally include the same sections in every issue. A newspaper might have sections such as Business, Arts & Lifestyle, and Sports. Categories are your website’s sections: Every post you publish should fall into one — and usually only one — of your categories.

You should also make sure that you’re publishing evenly in each category — i.e., you don’t have 20 posts in Sports and only three in Business. For this reason, it’s best not to create a category that you’re only going to post in one time. An exception to this if there is a current event that pertains to your overall topic but doesn’t fit into one of your current categories. For example, when the pandemic broke in 2020, many news sites created a “COVID-19” or “Coronavirus” category so that users could quickly find this much sought-after content. When the pandemic is over, I expect most will downgrade the category to a tag so that the content remains organized but not as high-profile.

For more complex sites, you can even use hierarchical categories. For example, you could have Rock and Classical under your main category of Music. As with main categories, only use subcategories if you’re going to publish frequently in each. I advise my clients, many of who publish new posts only a couple of times per week or less, that they should have about five main categories and no subcategories. But if you’re publishing more than once a day, you would probably do well to have subcategories.

If you’re just starting your site and aren’t sure what categories to use, write down the titles of 15-20 potential posts and see how you might categorize them. If your site has been around a while and you already have a lot of posts, see if you can recategorize them. When I first started blogging on my personal site, I wrote about so many diverse topics that when I wanted to update my site 15 years later, I looked at all my content, divided it into new categories, then deleted those posts (using 301 redirects, of course) that no longer fit into my writing themes. Today, I have just three categories: Music, Travel, and Writing. My readers can easily find content by clicking on “Blog” in the menu and choosing from a dropdown of these three categories.

Used this way, categories can help both search engines and visitors get a better understanding of the topics you cover on your site.

Tags: Your Website’s Index

Tags provide another way to categorize your content. Similar to the index of a book, tags allow you to describe an aspect of your post in more detail. Continuing with the music example from my website, I write frequently about Depeche Mode, so that is one of my tags. The majority of those posts are in the Music category, except for those where I use the posts to showcase my writing samples, such as my published concert reviews. This is an example of how tags are not category-dependent.

Although you don’t have to use tags on a post, if you can’t think of one that’s relevant, you may want to reconsider whether your post is relevant to your readers. I generally aim to have three tags per post, although I sometimes end up with only one.

Once you’ve tagged all your posts, it becomes easy to send content collections via a link. This is particularly helpful if you have a small business and want to have collections that you regularly send to clients. For example, one of my clients is an environmental consultant who frequently gets asked compliance questions from bakeries. He’s created content addressing those commonly asked questions and tagged the posts with “commercial bakery compliance.” Not only is he getting traffic from that content, but he can also send prospective clients a link to the tag so that he can provide them with all the relevant content in one place.

Tips for Using Categories and Tags

Now that you have the basics down, here are some pointers to keep in mind.

  • Be specific. You don’t want to make your reader guess what they will find when they click on a category or tag name, so avoid the urge to use clever names. While search engines are now savvy enough to more or less understand what a tag or category refers to based on context, using clear naming conventions can help readers get a better idea of what your posts are about. A client of mine who blogs about mental health and addiction on his blog The Bipolar Addict used “cocaine addiction” as a tag rather than “cocaine.” This lets visitors know at a glance that he’s not going to talk about the merits of drug use. The SEO blog Yoast recommends using “existing words or phrases… people search for.” In other words, think of tags as keywords.
  • Be even more specific, if necessary, with slugs. “Slug” is the term WordPress uses for the tag or category URL. For example, the slug I use for the tag “benefits of blogging” is One reason I made this change is because search engines ignore prepositions and articles (with, of, in, the, etc.), and I still wanted the URL to convey what the tag was about. As another example, you might use city names as your tags, and if you included Buffalo, New York, you might want to use “buffalo-new-york” as the slug to help with disambiguation.
  • Think from the reader’s perspective. Use both tags and categories in a way that benefits your reader. Don’t “overstuff” tags with every conceivable phrase you can think of. For example, if I  write a post about New Order and briefly compare the band to Depeche Mode, I wouldn’t use “Depeche Mode” as a tag because readers would expect to find more about Depeche Mode than just a casual mention. If you remember that some sites use tags to generate suggested related content, you’ll be less likely to make this mistake.
  • Link to tag URLs, when appropriate — and only on the first mention. Going back to the Depeche Mode example, whenever I mention them in a post, I link the band name to the tag URL on the first mention. My rationale is that this way the reader can quickly find all my content about them with one click. It’s not the best kind of internal link to use though, so I use it sparingly. And linking a phrase only on the first mention is a best practice whenever you use hyperlinks.
  • Don’t overlap between tags and categories. If you already use a phrase as a category, don’t create a tag with the same name.
  • Try to reuse tags, when possible. Doing so is great for creating content collections. In WordPress, you can begin typing in the Tags box to see tags that already exist for your site. When I wrote this post, I typed in “blog,” which showed me I already had a “benefits of blogging” tag. You also don’t want to create so many tags that you have dozens that only have one associated post — that’s not going to help users find related content. Often when I’m hired to reorganize a client’s website, much of my time is spent cleaning up tags — deleting, renaming, etc. Review your tags once a year or so and see if you can do some spring cleaning. You may even find that there are some new tags you can add based on patterns you see in your content.

Then there are some style guidelines I follow. These aren’t steadfast rules but rather personal choices, based on my site’s own style guide, which I’ve developed after working at numerous large websites.

  • Know when to capitalize words. For categories, use title case, as this is standard usage. For tags, capitalize proper nouns only. I find it’s easier for readers to grasp the meaning and looks more professional.
  • Include “the” for bands with the article in the title. Some non-music fans might quibble this point, but it’s one that many audiophiles prefer. Again, it also helps with disambiguation. If I used “Killers” and not “The Killers,” there might be some head-scratching before a user clicked.
  • Use both a full name and abbreviation. This is particularly important if the term is not in everyday use. For example, on the Bipolar Addict website I mentioned earlier, the author uses “electroconvulsive therapy (ECT),” which can be helpful for those unfamiliar with this type of therapy.

Organizing your content can take some time, but the benefits are well worth it. Search engines will find your content more easily — and so will your readers.

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