Classifying the content of your website is like cleaning your room: nobody likes the process but we all love the tidy result we get. Today I’d like to talk about WordPress tags: what they are, why they are different from WordPress categories, and how they can help your visitors to find the content they want.
Categories and Tags
Log into your WordPress Dashboard and you’ll see that, under the Posts section, there are two important sub-sections: Categories and Tags.
As you can read in the official WordPress documentation, WordPress categories and tags are taxonomies. For those who are not familiar with the concept of taxonomy, it’s just a fancy term that describes the “academic discipline which defines groups of organisms that have shared characteristics and then names that group.” In other words, categories and tags simply classify the contents of your blog.
The purpose of the categories and tags of your blog, then, is none other than making life easier for your users, making it easier to find related content. So what makes categories different from tags? Why do we have two different taxonomies to classify our content?
WordPress categories are often used to organize content in broad classes. For example, a cooking blog might organize their content in categories like “Starters,” “Main Courses,” “Desserts,” and so on, whereas a media blog might talk about “TV Shows,” “Movies,” “Books,” “Videogames,” etc.
Another important feature categories have is its hierarchical nature. This means that we can organize them as a tree, with parent-child relationships. Thus, for example, in our cooking blog, we might further classify the “Main Courses” category using sub-categories such as “Pasta”, “Rice,” “Meat,” and so on.
Finally, another important aspect of WordPress categories is the fat that all posts must belong to at least one category. That is why WordPress comes by default with the “Uncategorized” category—if you don’t specify a concrete category for any given post, WordPress will automatically classify it as “Uncategorized.”
Tags organize content into much more specific topics. Back to our cooking blog example, some of the tags we might find there could be, for instance, the specific ingredients we use (“chicken,” “pepper,” “basmati,” …) or, I don’t know, properties like “spicy” or “vegan.”
Unlike categories, tags are not hierarchical and it is possible to have untagged posts. That is, tags are flat and optional.
Using Tags in WordPress Cleverly
As the categories define broad concepts in our blog, it’s usual that every single category has multiple posts in it. For example, if you take a look at our blog, you will see that the contents are organized into four broad categories:
- Community: News, events, and interviews with experienced professionals from the WordPress Community.
- Marketing: Tips to boost your online visibility, web traffic, conversion, and online reputation (tutorials, tips, resources, reviews, and best practices).
- Nelio: Information about the strategy, products and services, challenges, and achievements in Nelio.
- WordPress: Tutorials, tips, resources, and reviews to help you as WordPress user or developer.
When writing a new blog post, Gutenberg shows you the list of categories and you simply need to choose the one that better describes the content you’re working on:
But tags are different. If you want to tag your post, this is the UI you’re presented:
As you can see, Gutenberg doesn’t show you your already-existing tags… it simply presents an input text where you can type in the tags you feel will better describe the content you’re working on. Now, that’s not completely true: when you start typing the name of a tag, WordPress will suggest existing tags, but still you’re completely free to tag each and every post independently from the others.
And this is a problem. Let’s see why.
When you create a new tag in your blog, WordPress creates a specific link for that tag. For example, we usually do interviews on our website, so we obviously have the “Interviews” and, therefore, we have the link https://neliosoftware.com/blog/tag/interviews/. Under this link, WordPress lists all posts tagged as “Interviews.”
Where’s the problem?
If every time we publish a new blog post we tag it randomly, we’ll end up with a blog that has tons and tons of tags that tag one single post only. And that completely kills the purpose of using taxonomies to classify similar posts under the same tag. Just picture this: a user wants to read more posts in your blog tagged with a certain tag, but when they do so, they’ll end up finding out that the post they were already reading is the only post with that tag! Shame 🙁
When you create the blog, try to define in advance what tags you are going to use and keep a concrete and stable list of tags. This way, when you write new posts, all you have to do is tag it using already-existing tags, avoiding the problem we just mentioned.
Obviously, there may come a time when you need to create new tags. For example, if you’ve been writing about WordPress for a long time and suddenly Gutenberg appears, you might want to create a new “Gutenberg” tag, don’t you? If that’s the case, feel free to create that new tag! But don’t do it often unless you’re sure you’ll be writing “a lot” of content that might be tagged as such.
If you are not good at predicting what tags you will need or you simply want to tag content as you go, use this alternative method: create the tags you want as you need them. But every once in a while, review all the tags you have in your website (Posts » Tags) and make sure there are no “useless tags” (namely, tags with only one or two posts tagged as such). If you detect sparsely populated tags, merge them with other tags or get rid of them completely.
Today we have seen what are the differences between WordPress categories and tags. To use tags correctly, simply use already-existing labels and avoid creating new ones unless you’re sure you’ll be writing some new content that might be tagged with them.