Making the most of WordPress categories and tags

Tags and categories are the DNA of WordPress. They form the unique structural framework of websites, and — like human DNA — they can be pretty bewildering.

Why are categories and tags so important? What’s the difference between them? Which one is better for SEO? A quick Google search reveals categories and tags to be one of the most misunderstood and misused features of WordPress.

The good news? We’re here to provide some definitive answers. If the average person can now access their own genetic code, surely we can crack content categorization and use its powers for good.

Talking terminology

If ever there was a singular frequently asked question about WordPress, it might be this: What’s the difference between categories and tags? It’s a good question, and one that’s already been explained many times, in many ways.

The clearest explanation we’ve heard is to think of your site like a book — if categories are the table of contents, tags represent the index. Like a book, categories are generally determined first and are broader in scope, whereas tags are more specific and can only really be added once the content is written.

Categories can also be hierarchical, which is to say they can have parent, child and sibling categories. This can be useful for more complex topics or in the case of very broad categories. There’s no such thing as a sub-tag, so rely on tags less for basic navigation and more for linking posts together and accurately describing your post’s content. Clear as mud? Let’s move on…

Categorizing and tagging like a pro

For most people, the process of categorizing and tagging is pretty ad hoc (to say the least). Choose a category from a list you developed ages ago, tag with reckless abandon, and call it a day. Needless to say, this isn’t the best approach.

Instead, start by thinking about your site’s content and how visitors might expect it to be organized. Aim for clarity and minimalism as you create new categories. While there’s no specific optimal number, you’re better off having five categories with 20 posts each than 50 categories with only two or three posts.

Also, there’s absolutely such a thing as over-categorization. Google debunked the “duplicate content penalty” eons ago, but there’s still no reason for a post to belong to a dozen different categories. Pick one or two that best fit your post and limit tagging to the most relevant topics covered (an endless stream of hashtags just makes you sound desperate).

Optimizing categories and tags for SEO

Most of us tend to think of tags and categories primarily as navigational elements, and that’s not wrong. Thoughtful classification facilitates navigation (and good user experience), but it also offers up opportunities for increased traffic and engagement that too often go to waste.

One of the best ways to harness the power of categories and tags is to link to them from within your pages and posts. These internal links help search engines find and index content, and the anchor text you set — your category and tag names — communicate what topics your site covers, allowing you to rank higher in those keyword searches.

A side-effect of consistent internal linking is that “link juice” gets passed around your site, including to older, archived pages. If you have one dynamite post that gets a lot of traffic and inbound links, using WordPress categories and tags to connect that post to others will elevate your entire site and greatly improve your overall SEO.

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