WordPress Tags VS Categories: What’s the Difference?

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When should you use a tag instead of a category?

Should you even use tags at all?

All of these questions (and more) will be answered in this comprehensive post. By the end, you’ll know the answer to:

  • Why do categories & tags do?
  • What is the difference between categories and tags?
  • Should I use categories or tags?
  • Do I need to use categories or tags?
  • How do I use them on my site?

The differences between tags and categories will be easier to understand once you know their purpose and how to use them, so let’s start there.

What do categories and tags do?

The main function of categories and tags is to organize content on your site. This helps visitors browse your content more easily.

For example, here’s a screenshot of a post with the Mission News theme installed:

Post Tags Categories

You can see the categories and tags listed at the bottom. If the reader enjoyed this post about diet, they might want to click the “diet” link to find similar posts on the site. Clicking the link will take them to the category archive page:

Category Archive

This archive page lists every post published in the diet category from newest to oldest.

So here’s the major takeaway:

Every category and tag creates a new archive page on your site, and that’s their sole purpose. You add posts to a “diet” category so readers can visit the diet archive and find similar posts. You tag a recipe with “gluten-free” so readers can visit the tag archive that lists only your gluten-free recipes.

Now that you know the purpose of categories and tags, let’s cover their differences.

What is the difference between categories and tags?

There are visual and functional differences between the two.

Let’s start with the visual.

While your theme can link to categories and tags wherever it wants, it is generally more common to give category links visual preference.

For example, it’s common for themes to link to the post category in the byline near the title.

Post Category Byline

On the other hand, I’ve never seen a theme that links to tags in the byline.

Exactly where the category and tag links show up depends on the theme you’re using, but categories normally get visual preference in the template.

Regardless of what theme you’re using, you can use widgets to link to both categories and tags, and you can link to either from your menu.

Category Archive Links

Since you’re free to link to categories and tags from your menu, sidebar, and within the post content, the visual difference presented by the theme is minor. That’s why the functional difference is most important, and that difference is…

Categories can have hierarchy and tags cannot.

Let’s say you create a “dessert” category for your food blog. One day, you realize that you’ve got 50 dessert recipes, and it requires visitors to click through too many pages, so you create new sub-categories named “pie,” “cake,” and “cannolis.” Now visitors can click on the “pie” subcategory and browse only your 10 pie recipes.

If you used tags instead of categories, you’d be stuck with just a “dessert” tag because there are no sub-tags.

This limitation helps inform your decision greatly about which one you should use for your site.

Should I use tags or categories?

100% of WordPress sites should use categories, but nearly none of them should use tags. I’ll explain.

Unlike tags, categories can have sub-categories, which means you can expand your category structure in the future if needed. Additionally, WordPress requires every post to use a category, so the question is not whether or not you should use categories, but rather, should you use categories and tags or just categories.

For the vast majority of sites, categories are all you need. With a smart category structure, every post should fit neatly into a category, and it should be clear how to expand with sub-categories in the future. In rare cases, you might need a third tier (sub-sub-categories), but that won’t be the case unless you have thousands of articles.

The key is to take your time planning out your categories and imagine how they would expand in the future. For instance, the following is a very short-sighted category structure for a food blog:

  • Breakfast
  • Lunch
  • Dinner

It creates questions you can’t answer, like is a BLT more appropriate for lunch or dinner? And when you create sub-categories, look at what happens:

  • Breakfast
  • Lunch
    • Sandwiches
  • Dinner
    • Sandwiches

If you have sandwiches in both Dinner and Lunch, then creating duplicate sub-categories is unavoidable. A much more sane category structure would be to start with the type of dish and then create further distinctions within the dish:

  • Soups
  • Sandwiches
    • Hamburgers
    • Wraps
    • Gyros
  • Salads

Now that you know how to use categories and you can see how they’re capable of organizing a virtually infinite number of posts, you might be wondering why you would ever need tags at all?

When should I use tags?

Tags are best used as a supplemental form of navigation.

For example, look at the category structure outlined above and decide where “vegetarian” belongs.

It doesn’t fit anywhere!

You can have vegetarian sandwiches, soups, and salads. And “vegetarian” will never have a sub-category. It’s nonsensical.

Use tags when you have a meaningful way to group posts that doesn’t fit into your category structure and cannot have a sub-category. If there is no availability for a sub-category, that’s the biggest sign that it should be a tag.

Another example would be a video game blog that organizes game reviews based on the genre (puzzle, RPG, strategy) and uses tags for the platform (PS5, PC, Switch). This would allow you to create sub-categories like JRPGs and real-time strategy games while still letting visitors browse by their preferred gaming console.

Keep learning WordPress

Mapping out your site’s category structure may take a few tries to get right, but it’s well worth the time.

If you create a smart structure, you won’t question where each post belongs. If you commonly find yourself stuck on which category to choose, that means it’s time to rethink your categories.

While you almost certainly won’t need tags, it’s good to have them in your back pocket if you need to add a supplemental form of navigation.

If you enjoyed this article and learning more about tags & categories, you might really enjoy my 7-day email course.

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I hope this tutorial helped clarify the difference between categories VS tags for you. Thanks for reading, and please share this post with someone else before you go.

Ben Sibley
Ben Sibley
This article was written by Ben Sibley. He is a WordPress theme designer & developer, and founder of Compete Themes.