WordPress Category vs Tag: Key Differences & When to Use Each

Struggling to understand the difference between a WordPress category vs tag?

Categories and tags are both tools to help you organize your blog posts. However, while they share a lot of similarities, they’re different in some ways, so you’ll want to make sure you understand the differences so you know when to use each.

In this post, I’ll explain what they are and when to use each.

WordPress Category vs Tag Explained

As I mentioned above, WordPress categories and tags both help you organize your blog posts.

When you’re working in the WordPress editor, you can set categories and tags from the Document sidebar:

WordPress category vs tag add

Most WordPress themes also display this information somewhere on the front-end. Your visitors can use your categories and tags to find more content that they’re interested in.

For example, our post on the best WooCommerce coupon plugins is in the “WooCommerce Plugins” category. Visitors can click on that category to view only posts that are about WooCommerce plugins, rather than sifting through all of our content.

When Should You Use Categories vs Tags?

With categories and tags, it’s not an either/or situation – you can use both at the same time.

In general, categories are for broader classification topics while tags are for more specific details.

For example, if you had a sports blog, you might have:

  • Categories for each sport. E.g. “Basketball” and “Baseball”
  • Tags when you write about individual athletes or teams. For example, a post in the “Basketball” category that’s about Michael Jordan might have tags for “Michael Jordan” and “Chicago Bulls”.

Another example could be a WordPress blog, like WPLift! Let’s say you’re writing about the Elementor page builder plugin, which is what we use here at WPLift. For this post, you could:

  • Assign the category as “Plugins” because the post is about a WordPress plugin.
  • Assign a tag for “Elementor” because the post is specifically about Elementor.

In this example, you might not write about Elementor enough to give it its own dedicated category. However, by adding a tag, you can still help your visitors find posts about Elementor.

Summary:

  • Categories are for broad groupings
  • Tags are for specific topics

Should You Always Use Both Categories and Tags?

Not necessarily. You should always use categories. In fact, every WordPress post needs at least one category (though you can assign multiple categories if desired).

However, whether or not you use tags is up to you. It’s totally fine to not apply any tags to your posts and you’ll see plenty of sites using this approach.

Some SEO experts even recommend not using tags as it can generate a lot of low-value tag pages. By default, WordPress creates a separate tag archive page that lists all of the posts with that tag. If you use a lot of tags, this can create lots of small pages that have no chance to rank.

A good middle-ground here can be to use tags as needed to help your human visitors, but add a noindex tag so that Google doesn’t waste its time crawling your tag pages. Most SEO plugins can help you do this. For example, Yoast SEO, Rank Math, etc.

Another best practice is to try to avoid assigning a post to a ton of different categories. Remember, categories are for broad groupings, so you should probably only be assigning 1-3 categories to a post at max. If you find yourself applying more than that, your categories might be too narrow and you might want to consider moving some things to tags. Or, you might want to use sub-categories.

Here at WPLift, we use both categories and tags. In our category structure, we also use lots of sub-categories. For example, within the “WordPress Plugins” category, we have lots of sub-categories for specific types of plugins – you can see these on the WordPress plugins category page.

Example of WordPress categories and tags

Important Technical Differences Between Categories vs Tags

To finish things out, let’s look at some of the more technical differences between categories and tags:

  • Categories are hierarchical. This means that a category can have different “levels” or “parent-child” relationships. For example, you could have a “Basketball” parent category and then sub-categories for each NBA team. E.g. “Lakers”, “Bulls”, etc.
  • Tags are non-hierarchical or flat. There are no different levels of parent/child relationships. This means that each tag is a separate entity.

Going Beyond WordPress Categories and Tags With Custom Taxonomies

This is a pretty advanced topic so you’re totally free to ignore it. Many WordPress users never encounter custom taxonomies in their lives and are fine for it. However, if you want to unlock WordPress’ power as a full content management system, understanding custom taxonomies is quite useful.

Above, you learned that WordPress comes with two default ways to categorize posts – categories and tags.

However, if needed, WordPress also lets you create your own categorization tools called custom taxonomies. Custom taxonomies work just like categories and tags, but they’re unique to your site.

For example, if you have a blog where you publish movie reviews and news, you could add a “Genre” custom taxonomy. Then, when you create a new post, you could assign it to a “Genre”, just like you add categories and tags.

If you want to learn more, check out our beginner’s guide to custom taxonomies.

Conclusion

To finish things out, let’s recap what we covered.

Categories and tags are both ways to organize your blog posts. Categories are for broad topics, while tags are for more specific details.

Additionally, you can create sub-categories within a parent category, but each tag is a standalone entity.

You must assign each post to at least one category. However, it’s personal preference as to whether or not you also want to use tags to organize your posts.

Do you still have any questions about WordPress categories vs tags? Ask us in the comments!

Colin Newcomer

Colin Newcomer

Colin Newcomer is a freelance writer and long-time Internet marketer. He specializes in digital marketing, WordPress and B2B writing. He lives a life of danger, riding a scooter through the chaos of Hanoi. You can also follow his travel blog.

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