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.

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.

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4 Comments
  1. I’ve been using WordPress for more than 3 years. After reading your post, I still don’t understand how to make use of categories, tags, and/or taxonomies on our website. Since they are accessible only on my WP-admin, I don’t see how this could help a user navigate the site. I have searched the web to find an article that has a visual overview of a site’s hierarchy, showing how each piece is categorized, tagged, etc., but can’t find any. Everyone seems to focus in on how to set them up, but I have yet to find an article that gives me the big picture, including a visual example of how they help the user, how they relate to (or don’t) to menus.

    Call me dense, but it seems to me that menus are all that’s needed for users to navigate my site. I should point out that our site is page-, not post-, oriented. Are they truly not useful on some types of sites, or am I just not getting it?

    Thank you!

    • Hi Linda,

      Thanks for asking!

      Think about it like this: you have Posts, Pages, and archives on your site. Some sites are fine utilizing Posts and Pages only, and allowing visitors to navigate via a menu. However, sites with many Posts will want to make use of archives as well.

      Archives are pages that display a list of Posts. For instance, the blog, or “Posts page”, is a special archive that displays all Posts in reverse chronological order. Categories and tags are also archives in that they display a list of Posts. They too display Posts in reverse chronological order, but only specific Posts that are included in them. For instance, a “cooking” category archive will only display Posts placed in the cooking category.

      The menu doesn’t have to link to just Pages. It can link to categories too. For instance, check out the menu in the top-left corner of the Tracks demo site. Instead of always linking visitors to a list of ALL your posts, linking directly to one category or tag archive can make it much easier for them to find what they’re looking for.

      Secondarily, most themes have some way of displaying each Posts categories/tags on the post page. Take this example from the Chosen theme: http://pics.competethemes.com/0W0J2Y2A2K0y. Visitors don’t use these links as often for navigation, but it can still be helpful.

      The takeaway here is that menus are the primary form of navigation, but categories/tags let your menus link visitors to more specific collections of posts making navigation easier on the site.

  2. Satya Satya

    i have a question, i want to post android, ios and windows latest news, top 10 apps and how to guides. Now i want to navigate users into android top 10 apps or android how to guides. What is the best practice to categories and tags here.

    • I would make Android, iOS, and Windows your categories. If I have an iPhone I may be interested in tutorials or top 10s, but I certainly won’t be interested in Android or Windows. I want to head straight into the iOS section.

      “News” can be your default category. “Latest” news in particular doesn’t require a category or tag since it infers a reverse-chronological listing. This is how all archive pages are already ordered in WordPress.

      You could then use tags for “Top 10” and “Tutorials/How-tos” posts.

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