Categories vs. Tags – what do I use?

A lot of blogging platforms and content management systems (please don’t say ‘CMS system’, haha!) allow you to organise your posts with categories, tags, or in most cases – both.

This can be overwhelming for a new user. It can also be overwhelming for a regular user. I used to use LiveJournal a very long time ago, and from what I remember, there were only tags. I used a lightweight blogging system called FanUpdate, with both categories and tags. My blog currently runs on WordPress, and the categories/tags feature is one that has baffled me for a long time.

However, I am no longer confused!

Categories are for categorising

It’s no mystery. Categories are for categorising. The human mind is made for classification. It’s why many of us judge people on face value and the reason why we make first impressions. It’s human nature to classify. In our minds, we put things where they belong and where they fit right. It’s a basic function we are born with, and the most basic form of organisation.

Remember those boxes you had as a kid that had the different shaped holes in them and you tried to put the plastic shapes into the correctly shaped hole? Yeah.

Let us take an example of blog categories. Instead of picking out the idea of a niche food or fashion blog, I am going to go with a really generic one. ‘Travel’, ‘Food’, ‘Home Living’ and ‘Sport’ fit into people’s idea of categories.

It’s when we are faced with ‘tags’ that we get stumped.

What most people think when tagging their blog posts

Most people will tag their posts in ‘Home Living’ with things like furniture, couches, chairs, kitchen, utensils, oven, dishes, cleaning, household, house, home – notice the pattern here? – life, family, furniture – wait, did you just write ‘furniture’ again?

When I was on an older blog system, I had very few categories. They were things like ‘Life’, ‘Music’, ‘School’, and ‘Friends’. When it came to tagging, I went completely nuts. I wrote streams like: teachers, study, work, maths, science. My personal favourite was writing out the names of all my friends as tags: Jeremy, John, Bob, Dylan, Bob Dylan.

It’s amusing how once you start picking out words relevant to your post, your mind jumps on the express train and spits out a dozen other nouns or adjectives… you’ve done it on Twitter or Instagram before, I know. #liketotally #yeahbro #seewhatididthere #ohsnap #hashtag

You don’t need to tag these things

Your post is under the right category. Good job!

But you don’t need to tag your post with everything to do with home living. You don’t need to write every variant of the term ‘home living’, nor do you need to specify different types of items that fit under that category. You don’t need to tag your posts with trains of thought, as hilarious as hashtagging on social media might be.

You also don’t need to tag your post with the same words in your category name.

What tagging really is

People lose the idea of what tagging really is. While categories seem to encompass a broad concept or theme, tagging narrows it down to something more specific. Call it a micro-topic, if you will. It should be noted that tags aren’t just effortless recurrences of key words in your blog post. The key words are already in your blog post as content.

The funny thing is, a lot of people tell me, “Oh, you have a tag for Nick!”

It’s not a tag though, it’s a category. :( But I will not correct those people as it’s rude.

Some time ago I chose to delete all my tags because I had not done them properly. Tags like angry, hearts, sleep, words, flowers – graced my posts as I used meaningless tags time and time again. I deleted my tags and then “promoted” various tags to categories because I found them to be topics I focussed on quite a lot. Things I Miss was promoted to a category as I filled it up with posts specific to that category. Friends I wrote about regularly were thrown into their categories.

It may be considered ‘wrong’ that my friends’ names are categories rather than tags, but let me provide another example.

Example: Dance

That might be your category, and you might have tags on your blog such as ballet, special event, inspiration, health.

Tags can cross-pollinate. You can have two articles: one about a ballet show coming up soon, and another about a well-known yoga teacher giving a talk. Both posts would probably be tagged with ‘special events’. The ballet one would also be tagged with ‘ballet’, but the yoga teacher one might be tagged with ‘health’ and ‘inspiration’ as well.

People will often have varying opinions on whether a certain thing is a category or a tag. That’s where I draw this post back to my blog and the improvements I am trying to make with it.

But… what about sub-categories? What about tags? What about…

Sub-categories are tricky, but they should only be used if they damn well need to be, and while they are more specific than categories, they are not as specific as tags. Confused? Categories should still be broad, but when in doubt, avoid making one and see how you go first.

Let’s use this example. I have a jewellery box at home (damn, I love jewellery). My jewellery box belongs on my dresser with my other jewellery boxes. Jewellery is a category. In this particular large jewellery box, I have sections where I have separated my jewellery out.

Rings, bracelets, necklaces.

Those are subcategories.

Remember, tags can be dispersed. So they don’t have to be specific to jewellery, but for the sake of this example, let’s do it: silver, stainless steel, dainty, bold, glam, rhinestone.

Think of categories & tags from a high-level point of view

It’s easy to poke into the depths of your posts and pick out some juicy words that will create juicy link juice for your blog. But try not to get too carried away, and remember that if categories are for organising, then tags are for micro-organising.

Going back to the jewellery example. Assume I had a blog entirely dedicated to jewellery. My tags might be rings, bracelets, necklaces – and my categories might be ‘DIY’, ‘Inspiration’, ‘Style Tips’, ‘Community’ – and I might not need subcategories at all.

Some of the categories on my blog

Some of the subcategories on my blog

Shown with their parent categories.

Now… tags!

I said I deleted my tags, but recently I have been on a mission, in the background, to micro-organise my posts. I haven’t linked any tags anywhere yet, so this is a world premiere! ;)

At present, it is a bit dodgy and needs some work, but I have these tags so far:

What do you think?

Conclusion, categories vs. tags?

Don’t get me wrong, my blog organisation may need a little restructuring and a little bit of work. Perhaps my friends’ names should be tags instead. Perhaps CSS should be a subcategory instead of a tag? Maybe relationships should be a category instead of a tag? Perhaps A Day in the Life should be a tag instead of a category?

For now, I digress – it only goes to show that we could all do with a little extra thinking, and it’s okay to reorganise your blog every now and then. You might add a category one day, but next time you visit your category hierarchy, some of those might look better as tags.

I took the example of the jewellery box from a different angle to show that your categories and tags are determined by what content is on your site, both individually in individual blog posts, and as a whole. Think of how your blog sits, think of the bigger picture.

One thing you should take away is that categories and tags, by and large, are used to organise.

I hope I have cleared up what might have been confusing for some people. :) If you have any suggestions for my blog organisation, I welcome them!

Comments on this post

I’ve been thinking about this recently too, so this post has come at a pretty good time. It’s nice to hear someone else’s thoughts on the matter, because I didn’t know if using tags was good or bad.

Like you I use to use about 10 tags per post, if not more. I stopped about a year ago, but my old posts are still full of unnecessary tags (Note to self: sort tags out). Now I only really use tags to sort out my travel posts, so under the travel category I have places I’ve visited as tags.

I don’t even use tags, only categories. I am a bit confused as what exactly tags do in general. So, I don’t use what I don’t know about. I guess I never took the time to know what they are.

Well I hope that this post explained a bit of it for you! :)

Tags have always confused me as well. I understood categories but I just didn’t see the point or purpose of tags so I just never used them. I was happy with my categories! But lately I’ve been trying to reorganize my blog – delete some old stuff, clarify, clean up so I might go in and add some tags! Great post!

Thanks Becca! Tags are not always needed, but hopefully you got a better understanding of how they might be used after reading my post. Good luck and let me know how you go. :)

I used to have 300 tags on my old blog mockingjay. I completely avoid them now. I do not even have them showing in my theme. everything fits into a category, I have 10, I feature only 5 the other ones are for things I do not post often. there was never really information on either anywhere one the web or why to use what and when. Thanks for this. After 4 years of WordPress I finally understand! Just like houses everyone has their own way to organize. As long as your user can find everything they want then you know you are on the right track!

Thumbs up on that last point! If your categories, tags, or both categories & tags can help the user navigate through your posts, then you know you are doing the right thing. It’s good you can fit your posts into so few categories. I still feel like I have too many. I have 39 at the moment, but some are no longer used, mostly because I made categories for friends I don’t really keep in touch with anymore. I might take the step in making people as tags instead…

I was struggling with this myself. I’m not a well-seasoned blogger so I stray away and choose to not tag. I only have blog as a category, but I’ve been feeling like pushing my blog into a new direction. Tbis really gave me food for thought!

I think when I first started using WordPress I tried to tag posts. Minimally, of course, like two tags or so. Then I gave up because it was pointless to me. I didn’t know what they were for at the time and now it doesn’t matter to me. The categories I have are enough.