Categories and Tags: What are They and How Do I Use Them?

Categories and Tags: What are they and how do I use them best?

When creating content and planning out your website, particularly if you’re using WordPress as the Content Management System for your website, you’ll eventually need to plan out your categories and tags.

This can be confusing and intimidating for many new website owners, so I hope I can help you understand what categories and tags actually are, and how to best use categories and tags on your website.

Categories and Tags: The Simple Definition

The simplest explanation I’ve ever heard of what categories and tags are is this:

Categories are the table of contents; Tags are the index.

Let me explain.

In a book, if you turn to the front, you’ll see a listing of chapters in the Table of Contents. This will help you get an overview of what is in the book and where you might want to go to find information.

However, if you’re looking for a very specific piece of information, one that perhaps isn’t a whole chapter but rather a few paragraphs in a chapter, you’ll flip to the back, in the index pages, and find out where that topic occurs in the book.

Categories are more of a general overview of a topic. The tags get more specific.

Categories are the primary topic that the content falls under. A post on your website should fit perfectly into one category, but it can fit into several secondary topics, called tags.

For example, on this website, I have four categories:

  • Thoughts
  • Tips
  • Designs
  • Tools

These are somewhat vague, although they are thankfully much more succinct than what I used to have up (I’ll talk more on that later on in this post). I have essays under thoughts, specific tips and tutorials under Tips, design examples, Zazzle products, and other projects. Under tools, I have free downloads, graphics, clip art, icon sets, and so forth.

For a more specific look at what is in my website, you can browse over my tags.  I have 129 tags on my website. These help to narrow down the content in each of my categories.

For example, I have some essays and thoughts on the topic of earning extra cash as a work from home mom, but I also have some tips and tutorials for work from home moms, designs that would be relevant to WAHMs, and even some downloadable tools for WAHMs.

So, if I create a post that shares thoughts on being a WAHM, I’m going to put it under the category of Thoughts, but tag it WAHM, and any other relevant tags.

Pitfalls in Planning Categories and Tags

Having been designing and configuring websites for small businesses and ministries for over a decade now, I have seen one huge pitfall that everyone does, that I feel I must warn against:

Please do not create a long, complex list of categories and subcategories. Keep categories simple, and use tags for the rest.

By the very nature of categories, you don’t need and you shouldn’t have 40 of them.

For one thing, it’s pretty ADHD to do so (and I know I’m guilty of that myself). Just what is the focus for your website, business, and organization, man?

For another, having too many categories makes navigation on your website a nightmare.

The person who had over 40 categories and sub categories had me create a complicated series of drop down menus to house all of these categories. That was fine until smartphones and tablets became a thing. The menu was annoying, complex, and confusing (and I’m the one who put it together!), but it at least functioned while holding all of the categories.  After touch screen and changing screen sizes became popular, this menu became a huge problem. Such complicated menus do not work well on phones.

The whole system had to be revamped, and again this organization and the person in charge of their site didn’t want to get rid of any of them, “just in case”…even though they still hadn’t, five years later, created any content for many of the categories and tags they came up with originally. They are, in effect, broken links.

This is also the reason why I now insist my clients create content (including at least three posts per category for each blog category if they are blogging). If you can’t do it before I create the site, you’re probably not going to get around to it in a timely fashion. 

Using Categories and Tags Effectively

So, what’s the most effective way for a website owner to use categories and tags?

I’ve already touched on this earlier in this post, but let’s rehash.

  1. Narrow Down the number of your categories: if a reasonable number of categories don’t cover it, maybe you need a second blog. I did this by dividing this blog from my one on eating Healthy on the Cheap.
  2. Think like a visitor: do these categories make sense for the topics you are covering?
  3. If Possible, Use SEO Friendly Keywords: This isn’t always possible, but categories are a great place for your seo friendly keywords, to improve your SEO. For me, “thoughts” is too vague for good SEO, but “tips, designs, and tools” all work well, particularly when accompanied by good content on those topics. Analytics show that I get hits for those three categories.
  4. Even though tags can be more numerous, it’s still a good idea to not be too numerous with your tags either.
  5. To keep your tags straight, I strongly recommend keeping a written list near your computer so you remember having them. Otherwise you may fall into the trap of creating new, but similar, tags to ones you already have when writing a post.
  6. Looking over your list of tags, and which ones you use most often, can help you see if you stay on topic with your content as planned. My tag listing and in particular my tag cloud helped me to see the areas where I got way too off topic.

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