The Difference Between Categories And Tags

It’s clear that categories and tags in WordPress are two different things. They wouldn’t be called two different things otherwise! Be that as it may, many people do confuse them or just think of them as the same thing. But WP experts agree that knowing, understanding and embracing the difference between categories and tags can be beneficial to you. It can help you organize your website better. This, in turn, makes it easier to navigate for your users. And we can all agree that user-friendly is something you should definitely be aiming for! So let’s take a closer look at WordPress categories and WordPress tags, how they’re similar, how they’re different and why you should care.

WordPress categories and tags explained

As always when it comes to designing a website, it’s good to start with the basics. So let’s take a look at what we’re dealing with! In short, both tags and categories are features of WordPress blog posts that help you organize your website. But they work in slightly different ways.

Person writing a blog post about the difference between categories and tags.
Before you start writing your blog, learn how to organize it.

What are categories?

Think about the blog you’re creating and how people reading it are going to see it. Are there a couple of different major topics you intend to cover? Certain themes by which your posts are going to be grouped? Do you want your users to be able to navigate to the posts that interest them with a few simple clicks? This is exactly what categories are for!

You can add, change or delete categories by logging in to your WP dashboard and navigating to Posts > Categories. Then, whenever you add a new blog post, you’ll find the option to select a category for it on the right-hand side of your screen. This will allow you to group blog posts dealing with the same subject into one category. Most WordPress themes will also allow end-users to select the category of posts they want to view and thus make it easier for them to find the content they are looking for.

Let’s say you own a moving company and write a blog where you share the best relocation tips with your clients. Some of your posts are about how to hire the right movers. Others are about how best to pack. Creating two separate categories for these different topics will help someone who’s about to start packing find the posts that are relevant for that more easily.

What are tags?

At this point, you may be wondering: if those are categories, what are tags then? Well, think of tags as more specific descriptors you tack on a post. They’re keywords which should give the user a better idea of what a specific post is about. You can see and edit them by navigating to Posts > Tags, but more often than not you’ll be adding new ones while writing the post. You’ll find the section for tags also on the right-hand side of the screen when writing a post, usually under the Categories box.

Let’s go back to the above example and focus on the packing tips category of a mover’s blog. If you write a post about how to pack for a winter relocation, you may use tags such as “winter relocation”, “packing for a winter move” or something similar. These tags say more specifically what the post is about.

How are categories and tags in WordPress similar?

Tags and categories are both there to help you organize your content and make your blog more accessible to your users. Depending on how you want to organize your website, you can focus on using either one or the other. However, you are strongly encouraged to use both because they do fulfill a slightly different purpose and work best in combination with one another.

Blackboard with thought bubbles.
Organize your blog by grouping your content.

What is the difference between categories and tags in WordPress?

Just because they serve a similar goal doesn’t make them identical or interchangeable. So let’s talk about the difference between categories and tags in WordPress.

Broad grouping vs. specific details

The main difference between categories and tags is how specific they are. Categories are basically a “genre” for your posts. They’re a broad classification that creates large groups based on a common but pretty wide theme. If your posts were movies playing in the cinema right now, “superhero”, “horror”, “thriller” and “action” would all be categories. Tags, on the other hand, are more specific. They create groups of posts that can belong to the same or different categories but share a specific trait. If you think of your posts as movies again, tags could be “directed by Quentin Tarantino”, “Oscar-nominated” or “Robert Downey Jr in the main role”. You would use a category to find all the posts that deal with a particular topic and tags to find the few posts that fulfill a more specific need or interest.

Hierarchical vs. not hierarchical

A difference between categories and tags can also be found in their organization. Both are considered taxonomies in WordPress, but only categories can actually have a hierarchy. You can create a subcategory within a category in order to specify a narrower topic within a wider one. Tags, on the other hand, are all equal even when you don’t use all of them equally often.

Person in front of a whiteboard depicting a structured division.
You can give your categories more structure than tags.

Required vs. optional

This is more of a technical difference, but it’s still a relevant one. All posts in WordPress must have a category. If you don’t assign a category yourself, WordPress will automatically assign the default category (which is “Uncategorized” unless you change it). Tags, on the other hand, are optional. You can use them on all posts or you can use them only sometimes. In fact, you don’t even have to use them at all. It is up to you whether you attach any tags to a post. Categories, however, you can’t avoid.

Why does it matter at all?

Knowing the difference between categories and tags can go a long way to helping you get the most out of them. Both are useful for organizing your content and posts. But they’re useful in different ways because they provide different types of information. WP experts generally agree that a combination of both is the best way to go. When combining them, you want to stick to a limited number of categories – they’re supposed to be only a broad classification according to the general theme of the post. You can have many more tags for more specific details. But don’t go overboard! Too many tags create just as much chaos as no tags at all. After all, what’s the point of a tag you only use once? So be careful to strike a balance!

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