WordPress Categories vs Tags: What’s the Difference?

Unsure when to use categories and tags on your site?

You’re not alone.

Many WordPress users get confused even after years of use.

In this post, you’ll learn the one difference between categories and tags, and how to use them on your site. We’ll also cover an in-depth example at the end to illustrate their use.

WordPress Fact: Categories and tags can be referred to as taxonomies which is a fancy term for a classification.

What’s the Difference?

The only difference between categories and tags is that categories are hierarchical.

In other words, categories can have sub-categories. For instance, you could create a Sports category on your site, and add sub-categories such as:

  • Football
  • Soccer
  • Basketball

When creating a category, you’ll always have the option to make it a sub-category by selecting a Parent category.

screenshot of the Parent option when creating categories

Functionally, there is no other difference between categories and tags. They’re both ways of grouping posts, but categories are hierarchical and tags are not.

That said, this minor difference does change how you should use them on your site.

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How to Use Them Effectively

Think of categories as your primary way of grouping posts, and tags as a special secondary form of navigation.

Categories

Every site should use categories. They help visitors navigate the site and find more content they can enjoy.

Before creating your categories, plan them out and make sure all your posts fit easily into one of them. If you need additional categories, consider making them sub-categories of an existing category.

Tags

Tags often aren’t necessary if you have a sensible and well-organized set of categories. However, they can provide a useful means of navigation for your users when used correctly.

When using tags, don’t create them ad hoc as you write, or you’ll end up with many tags with only a few posts in them. Plan them out like categories.

Tags are best used when you need a new way to group posts that doesn’t fit into your existing category structure. This will become clear in the following example.

An Example of Categories & Tags in Use

Let’s use an imaginary site called Jules Eats.

Jules Eats is a blog with hundreds of easy-to-follow recipes for people who are short on time.

There are many ways the recipes could be organized, but these busy people often want a quick solution to a specific meal in their day.

Start with Categories

To cater to their needs, all recipes are put into one of the three following categories:

  • Breakfast
  • Lunch
  • Dinner

By grouping the posts into these categories, visitors can easily find recipes for the meal they’re planning.

Add Sub-categories

While the use of categories helped organize the content, there is still a problem…

Each category still has so many recipes, visitors find it hard to navigate. This issue can be fixed by adding sub-categories:

  • Breakfast
    • Eggs
    • Hot Cereals
  • Lunch
    • Soups
    • Salads
  • Dinner
    • Poultry
    • Seafood

Now visitors can narrow their search down to a few soup recipes, or browse the the entire Lunch category if they’re feeling open-minded.

The sub-categories keep the primary categories from getting too overwhelming as the site grows. They help visitors narrow down their search, so it’s easier and faster to find what they’re looking for.

Add Tags

The new category structure is great, but these busy cooks have more needs the site isn’t meeting. They also want to find dishes that are:

  • Vegetarian
  • Vegan
  • Dairy-free
  • Gluten-free

This is where tags come in.

If you’re a vegetarian, you avoid eating meat during all meals, so vegetarian wouldn’t make sense as a sub-category, or as a fourth parent category. When a new category won’t fit as a sub-category or parent category, it’s time to use a tag.

Each of the four groups above can be created as tags. Then, each post can stay in its current category, but also be tagged with any number of the new tags. This way, visitors looking for a salad will find the Greek Cucumber Salad, and anyone looking for a good vegan meal will find it too.

Conclusion

Mapping out your site’s category structure may take a few tries to get right.

A good category structure is flexible and designed to handle any content you’ll publish in the future. When visitors want a way to explore your content that doesn’t fit within your existing categories, it’s time to start adding tags.

Over time, you’ll build a content-rich site that is easy and fun for your visitors to use.

Ben Sibley
Ben Sibley is a WordPress theme designer & developer, and founder of Compete Themes.

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