Close
Close

Using Categories and Tags Effectively on Your Blog

Michael Martin PhotoThis post on using Tags and Categories on a blog was written by Michael Martin from Pro Blog Design.

In terms of coding, categories and tags are almost identical. A category system could very easily be used as a tagging system, and vice versa.

So what is it that makes the two different? And how are they best used?

Understanding and Using Categories

Categories are best imagined as a paper filing system. Each page in the system must be filed away in the appropriate drawer. There are only a set number of drawers, and so each must cover a rather wide blanket.

In your blog, categories are best used in exactly the same way:

  • The number of categories should be small. Resist the temptation to add new categories because a long list of them will not be read or browsed by anyone and so, is of no use.
  • Each post goes into one category. The categories are a way of giving a post permanent storage, just as the drawers do. You cannot put one piece of paper into two drawers, and in the same way, a single post should go into a single category.
  • Categories are navigation elements. Categories are not simply a way of labelling posts, they are a core element of your navigation. Your categories should be factored into your site’s architecture and navigation, and displayed appropriately.
  • Categories in URLs. A category represents the traditional folder system of a HTML website. Using permalinks with category names included is a good way of displaying the tiered architecture of a web site. Consider this URL – http://domain.com/category/post-name/ – If I want to return to the post’s category (i.e. go “up a level” in the architecture), I simply slash the post-name off the URL.

Complement the Categories With Tags

The most common problem with tagging is that it is used for the same purposes that categories are. Your tags aren’t categories. They are complements to your categories.

Think of tags as the colorful little page markers you might use to flick back to your favorite pages in a book. The tags don’t describe the book as a whole, instead they describe individual sections of the book.

  • Use the same tags over and over again. The tagging system is useless when the tags you use vary. For instance, if you have a series of posts on writing articles, you could tag them as “journalism,” “writing,” “copywriting,” or a hundred other variations. The important thing is that you choose one of them, and then reuse it on every post you ever write on the topic.
  • Tags do not need to be displayed in the sidebar. Tagging is not a part of your navigational structure, and so it does not necessarily have to be displayed in the sidebar. Why not simply list a post’s tags at the end of the post? The contextualisation will make them much more valuable to readers, and could even be used to replace “Related Posts,” plugins and such.
  • The tag cloud is easy to scan. If you do use your tags in your sidebar, then use the tag cloud. A list of categories is very easily recognised because it is in a list. A list of tags will be clearly recognised as such if it is in a cloud. The cloud works because it fits a lot of information into a small space, and is easy to scan over.

Tags have a lot of potential. To a certain extent, they could be used to replace searching, if done well. Let’s say I’m interested in posts about FeedBurner. Am I more likely to get good results by searching and having every post that has ever mentioned FeedBurner returned to me, or by clicking a tag and only seeing the posts which have been specifically tagged as discussing FeedBurner?

Categories and tags are both very useful assets, provided they are each used for their own purpose. The upcoming WordPress 2.3 release will include tags by default, which can only serve to heighten their popularity. Are you using tags on your blog? Will you be using them in the future?

About Darren Rowse

Darren Rowse is the founder and editor of ProBlogger Blog Tips and Digital Photography School. Learn more about him here and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn.

Problogger.net runs on the Genesis Framework

Genesis Framework

The Genesis Framework empowers you to quickly and easily build incredible websites with WordPress. Genesis provides the secure and search-engine-optimized foundation that takes WordPress to places you never thought it could go.

Check out the incredible features and the selection of designs. It's that simple - start using Genesis now!

Comments

  1. Josh Miller says:

    I disagree about one category per post. I do however thing it should be kept to a minimum and not get excessive. For example, I commonly use both the computer and work category for posts. Also the articles category will get slapped on a lot of things in addition to something else.

    Also in the article the link to problogdesign.com is broken, there is a comma instead of a period in the .com part.

  2. Jason Falls says:

    Excellent post. At first I was going to vehemently disagree with your one category per post instruction, but the more I thought about tagging (thank you WP 2.3) the more I agree. Useful, lad. Useful that!

  3. Very well reasoned and well explained. I’m going to have to go through the back end of my blog and see if I can get some sort of a better system implemented there.

    I am currently only using categories on my blog, but it has not been working well. I think I will add tags in there as you suggest, and hopefully make a more useful experience for my users (and people searching for blogs/info).

    Now to figure out how to do it all in ExpressionEngine…

    Thanks for the article (and enjoy the traffic of a ProBlogger guest post)

    – Mason Hipp

  4. I am only using categories and now to implement tags will I have to visit all the posts again…oh God!! i will be dead

    lets see what I can do but your posts has come on time!!

    I had been thinking at what to do with tags..thank you for the great article!!

  5. The Reviewer says:

    I have been using multiple categories, am I hurting myself doing so? If I update now, will that be sufficient, to remove all but 1 category for each post? I do use tags but I was putting stuff into multiple categories as well.

  6. Lincoln says:

    I’m starting to really get annoyed with tags and wonder if they’re even worth the trouble now. Used to be I could write a post and then fire it away. Now I have to spend 5 minutes trying to think up relevant tags for each post I make.

    I blame Technorati for this. Tag THIS you bunch of fleabags. :-P

  7. Good post Michael, very clear. I agree you should use both categories and tags in blogs as they serve different though similar purposes.

    I do put things into multiple categories if it makes sense to and the post covers two relatively separate areas. I can’t see how this could cause problems? I know there are issues with regards to which would be chosen for the permalinks but this is relatively minor for most blogs I would expect?

    Another good thing with categories that I don’t think is possible with tags is the use of a hierarchy. So for instance you could have a category for “Fruit” which has various fruits under it. Then when you post under your “Apple” category it goes into both “Fruit” & “Apple”. If done properly this can help your readers navigate your blog with ease…if they like fruit…

  8. I don’t find tag clouds useful at all.. there is just too much information in one place, and the only thing you see are the biggest tags, which should really match your categories anyway.

    I’d love to see some studies on whether anybody actually uses tag clouds. You might notice that del.icio.us does not use them on it’s front page… seems like a strong argument against them.

  9. Juha Ylitalo says:

    If we want to limit number of categories to be as small as possible, we probably should avoid hierarchy trees as well. If I for example have top level category ‘Memes’ and underneath it, I have ‘Thursday Challenge’. Now all my posts in Thursday Challenge will appear at least in three places:
    - permalinks
    - memes category listing
    - memes/thursday challenge category listing

    I guess multiple categories per post vs. single category for each post also depends on what kind of permalink structure you have. Since mine is http://site/title, it doesn’t matter how user ends up into article, permalink will always be same, since I don’t have category names as part of my permalinks.

  10. Roosevelt says:

    I have the opinion that tags versus categories being the best is decided by the reader’s brain waves. Some people’s brains like categories (like me) and other people’s brains like tags! Some blog directories like categories, and other blog directories like tags. ( Is this comment becoming a limerick?) I think most readers respond better to “tag clouds” than tag or category lists, if your blog has a “tag cloud” widget! (This comment is still sounding like a limerick and a bad one at that!) I hope somebody understands me!

  11. Brad Shorr says:

    Very helpful post! I’ve always been a little hazy on what tags are for. I have the same question as David – is there a big downside to multiple categories? I’ll sometimes assign multiple categories to a post, thinking it will help readers find it.

  12. Roosevelt says:

    Darren’, please correct my website URL! (It is not http://www.co-opwealth.com! It is http://co-opwealth.blogspot.com) Thank you very much and I am sorry for the inconvenience! ( And the privilege to comment on your blog)

  13. Kim says:

    first time i ever understood the difference between tags and categories, although i was trying to do so for days.
    *bows* thanks a lot Micheal *thumbs up*

  14. Michael says:

    Excellent article. Finally, someone telling me the difference between tags and categories. More importantly, someone telling me what that difference is and why I should care. Maybe now I will actually start using tags . . .

  15. Kimber says:

    Excellent article!

    What about the use of categories for series?
    I’ve seen that.
    Don’t like it but I’ve seen it.

    Would that be a situation where tags are more appropriate?

  16. Good tip on replacing “related posts” with a tags section.

    I’ve included Technorati tags on hundreds of posts, but get almost zero traffic from them in return. Time to start using my own private tags, I guess.

  17. Karthik says:

    One of the better horses from the Problogger stable! Very well written. Subscribing to your feed now :)

  18. 60 in 3 says:

    I’ve been using categories rather than tags. My blog is very focused on its niche, fitness and health. So I don’t use very many categories. I’ve tried using tags but I simply didn’t come up with enough of them to justify the work.

    However, I hear WP 2.3 has a built in tagging feature, and I might end up using that if it’s easy enough.

    Gal

  19. Zac Davis says:

    This is a great tip, I’ve been wondering on exactly how to go about categorizing and tagging posts for my blog. Thanks for the advice. I’ll going and fixing up my categories now. I guess I should stay away from those hierarchies. And about tags, I’m looking at them in the future for my blog.

  20. Mason – Sorry, I’m not familiar with EE, but look around. Someone is bound to have come up with a way. They’re a very useful tool.

    Reviewer – It isn’t worth changing what you have already done. If your past posts have been in multiple categories, then just leave them. The benefit of sorting them out would probably cause more hassle than good (Especially if your URLs have category names in them!).

    One category per post is best I’d say, for the reasons mentioned above. In the future, you’d be best to file your posts in your posts in just the one cat. :)

    Lincoln – No need to force yourself to tag! Tags should be the first things that jump off your head about a post (And then refined a little like I mentioned). If only one or two are coming to you, then that’s it. Use them just. No point in forcing irrelevant tags onto a post.

    David – It doesn’t necessarily cause major problems, but what benefit do you get out of it either? The confusion behind it is what puts me off most (Though the URLs and possible SEO duplicate content problems aren’t nice either!). If I browse both of your archives, and find the same post twice, I’m going to wonder… If it’s happening a lot, I’ll either expect that the archives are being artificially bloated, or get fed up wondering if I’ve already read the posts I’m looking at. :(

    How-To-Geek – When done badly, then I agree (Either they are too long, or too thin). What about Digg though? Would you rather go through dozens of links in a list, or have it all in one big cloud? That cloud let’s me scan every design article in Digg, every day, in maybe 5 mins tops?

    Juha – If your category structure includes sub-cats like that, and you allow users to browse posts by both the sub-cat, and the overall cat, then what is the point? Why not use tags for the sub-categories?

    Roosevelt – I agree that personal opinion will always come into it, but if you do it well, you can appeal to both types of reader. :)

    Brad – Check out my reply to David in this comment. Any thoughts on that?

    Kim and Michael – Glad yous found the article useful! :)

  21. Timur says:

    If you have broad topic blog, you can’t remember which tags you have ever used.
    I use tags for better indexing in search engines, like a meta tag.
    Other my usage of tags is to track related post easily and give RSS outputs for individual topics.
    For example if you have “Sports” category, you can have “Beijing 2008″, “Eurobasket 2007″ tags.
    Tags are not for just put tags and browse easily within the site.
    Direct linking to related posts within the article is better than just placing a common tag.
    Using RSS you can bring related articles to your post using tag – RSS function, if you are able to do that technically…

    Timur
    from Bulgaria – Turkey – Ukraine

  22. David Airey says:

    Nice to put a face to the name, Michael, and no surprise to see you grace these pages with your well-written blog posts.

    Keep up the great writing.

  23. Chris – Thanks, and I’ve never had much luck with Technorati either. It’s a great tool for finding backlinks, and the ranking is a nice novelty, but it’s never sent me much traffic… :(

    Karthik – Hehe – You’ve just made the whole experience worthwhile then. I’d better go and thank Darren again for the opportunity he gave. :D

    60 in 3 – I’m in the same boat. I don’t use them yet either (My blog is still quite new), but when I upgrade to 2.3, I’ll certainly be considering it. Occasionaly I do get the temptation to start up a new category on my blog, or I can’t decide which category is best for a post. Those are times when I would appreciate a tagging system to supplement things. :)

    David – lol – It had to happen eventually I guess…. It didn’t come easily though. If it weren’t for Darren specifically asking for a photo, it could have been years… ;)

  24. redwall_hp says:

    What a coincidence this was posted today. I just cut down the categories on my blog after installing WP 2.3, and I’m now using tags. The categories had gotten a bit out of hand, and now that WordPress has tagging built in, I decided to spend a couple hours fixing everything.

  25. Brad Shorr says:

    Hi Michael, I read your response to David – thanks. I don’t know what specifically happens with regard to duplicate URLs and SEO duplication – maybe you can expand on that sometime. I do get what you’re saying about artificially bloated content, and I agree that can be an issue. But if my blog posts fits naturally into, say three categories. I figure readers may look for them in one of three places, so as a convenience to readers I apply all three categories to the post. Maybe that means my categories are off, but I don’t think they’re that far off. I’m perplexed.

  26. Zac Davis – Glad it was useful. Quite a few of us will be considering them in the near future as well. :)

    Timur – A quick search would jog your memory. And naturally interlinking your posts will always be incredibly valuable, but related posts plugins are artificial. Tagging is a slightly improved method in my opinion. :)

    Redwall – I bet it was worth while!

    Brad – That’s one way to look at it, and could well be true. However, if they’re specifically looking for that topic, then they may first try the search bar. Browsing is used more often when they’re not looking for anything in particular; just a general topic area to read about. In that way, provided your posts are all relevant to whatever category you do decide on in the end, your reader will always be happy (Always have something to read).

    The other thing is that they only read so far back in the archives. If you’re putting a post into 3 categories, then you are forcing a post off the front page of 3 different archives. It causes more ‘damage’ (For wont of a better word!) in that sense. If your categories are quite similar, readers may flick through a couple of them, and duplicating like this would get annoying I’d say.

  27. Brad Shorr says:

    Thanks again, Michael. That last point about archiving problems never occurred to me. I think you’ve convinced me to be more stingy in using categories.

  28. No problem Brad. I love how you phrase it, “stingy.” I suppose that does sum it up!

  29. Dave S. says:

    Great post. I don’t use tags currently. If I do in the future, it’ll be difficult to only choose one category.

    I have a photo blog. If I decided to categorize by the word photo, then tag on subject matter then most posts will be in the one huge photo category. If I categorize based on subject matter, then I’d have to find tags to use in addition to the subject matter.

    It’s a bit of a delema.

    I may use them in the future, especially if wordpress decides to continue supporting and expanding on them.

    Thanks for the post.

  30. That explains it nice thank you.
    I have been and am guilty of using categories as tags as well as categories.

    Just as well WP2.3 uses tags now, thanks again

  31. Hi,

    I agree with this. I really find it great when I can click on a particular category/label and find more posts on that particular topic.

    I’ve been using this method on my blog from day 1 and has helped my readers get the information that they are looking for.

    Thanks,

    Richard

  32. I’ve always put a post into only one category and have used tags to add a couple of extra qualifiers to the post. At one point in time I was making the huge mistake of using unique and different tags (or labels) for each post in blogger! I didn’t realize that I needed to be using the SAME label again and again! Stupid!

    Anyone use Technorati tags on their sites still?? Is it still relevant?

  33. Aruni says:

    Nice and timely post. I just upgraded to WordPress 2.3 and I have always wondered what the difference is between the two. I have way too many categories because as a new blogger I thought categories were like tags. I used tags on my latest post but I will proceed with caution lest I end up with too many tags like I did with categories!

    Aruni (a.k.a. the entrepreMuse)

  34. Dave – You should take a look at sxc.hu for a good example of how photography can be categorised and tagged. Categorise your photos into the various types (Landscapes, Nature, Animals etc.), but then use tagging to describe the photo more uniquely (mountain, snow, himalayas etc.)

    Jermayn – Many people are. Hope WP will help that! :)

    Richard – Glad to hear that you’ve been having success with tags as well. They’re a great tool when used well.

  35. Mark Wiseman says:

    Very clear article Michael and I think you are exactly right.
    I am still waiting for tag mining. This extends your idea of using tag clouds to replace searching. You could click on a tag in a cloud and the tag cloud is refreshed. Now it only contains tags from the articles that also had the original tag. Selecting a tag from this cloud would allow users to mine down to the articles, which had all of the tags that had been selected. Now this really could replace searching.
    Mark

  36. kristarella says:

    Thanks for the insight Michael. I will have to think about this a bit more before I change my ways. Sometimes I put posts in several categories if they fit. I haven’t paid much attention to tagging because apart from openclipart.org I haven’t used tags at all as a reader so I don’t see them as valuable. I’m going to get around to upgrading to WP2.3 in the next couple of days so I’ll definitely keep an eye out for this feature – maybe even use it (properly)!

  37. It depends on your blog’s orientation when to have many categories and when to have few. Suppose you tackle many subjects (I know, blogitically incorrect) then it makes sense to have unique categories for different subjects. If your content is interesting and relevant then it’ll be accessed through any category.

  38. Not including labels is a great idea and I think I am going to experiment with it.

    Thanks once again.

    Problogger rocks!!

  39. kuba says:

    I agree with the basics of using categories and tags, as described in the post. But sometimes, I have to out my post in more than one category, That is the main reason why I avoid using category name in permalink – there is no way to include two categories in url,,,

  40. Dave says:

    Good information. Thank you. I also often use more than one category for my posts but only do so when it is difficult to put a post in one category only.

  41. Mark – Great example. I love using that sort of system. The site that jumps out at me with that is Dailymotion (The video site). I find that finding a certain video on Dailymotion is much easier than on Youtube. The search there is great usually, but if you’re looking for a specific vid, it isn’t always very useful (You either have to browse a lot, or you get too specific and lose valid results!)

    Kristarella – I suppose if you don’t use something as a reader, it’s hard to force yourself to do it as a blogger either. :)

    Amrit – To a point I suppose. Some blogs definitely warrant more categories than more focused blogs. However, that doesn’t give it the go-ahead to go over the top. It just means that the categories there should be a lot broader (Possibly with subcategories or tagging as well), whilst the niche blog can make very specific categories. A long list of cats is too confusing (Where do I look??).

    Vik – It does, doesn’t it?? :D

    Kuba – Hmm… can you give an example? The only one where I can think of where you truly have to put it in two categories is when you have a “featured” category as well as your normal categories. (Which you could replace with a “featured” tag?)

    Dave – It can be hard to do, especially after you’ve been doing it for a while. You might want to try experimenting a bit with it. :)

  42. Mike Grouchy says:

    I upgraded my blog to WordPress 2.3 the other day (which has built in tagging support) and this is exactly the approach I took. I dropped multiple categories per post and used categories as larger containers and then tagged posts appropriately to give them more significance inside their particular container(category).

  43. Daniel says:

    Great post!

    I’m sure some of the readers took something away from what was written.

    I also own several successful blogs and there really is more elements involved that’s not stated here that make a blog highly successful.

    I will gladly share this information with anybody. Follow my link and you be the judge!

    Thanks again for letting me post my comment here!

    Daniel

    http://www.blogi360.com/

  44. Brad V. says:

    Excellent post! Categorizing posts properly is a great way to making blogs more “sticky”. However, I disagree with the “one post – one category” advice. I have written many posts that just cannot be confined to one category.

    Thanks for the tips!

  45. Helpful posting with useful info on categories and tagging. You’ve confirmed some things I already believe about tagging and using the same tags. Thanks. By the way, you’re always welcome to visit my blog.
    http://extra-income-home-business-Uri.blogspot.com

  46. Candida says:

    Nice post that makes you think about how your blog is structured.

    I’ve heard before that if you use more than one category for a post then search engines will see both categories as duplicate content.

    This may be wrong, but it made me stick to one category per post.

  47. kuba says:

    Michael – The last case I was thinking about posting in 2 categories at once:

    I write about travels and adventure racing (2 categories, 2 feeds, 2 slightly different types of readers). But in some particular posts about adventure racing (sport) there are also descriptions of beautiful places in the world and less about sport. I want to keep it in ar category for my sport readers, but I also want to put it in category subscribed by travellers…

    Is it a good example?

  48. Mike – Sounds like the new version of WP is working out nicely for you. :)

    Dave – Your call. We all have our own styles I suppose.

    Josiah – Glad you enjoyed it. :)

    Candida – It’s definitely a possibility. The different search engines do things differently, and we never know exactly how they work, but it would seem likely that this could cause trouble (Particularly if you show full posts).

    kuba – So the two categories are both parts of two separate feeds? In that example, then I can understand it. (What if someone is interested in all of your content though, and subscribes to both feeds? Are they going to get the same article twice? Or do you offer a “complete” feed option as well?). Thanks for getting back to me btw, very good example. :)

  49. kuba says:

    Michael – sure, I have ‘full version’ for my biggest fans :)

  50. Kuba – It sounds like you’re almost running two different blogs. I’m not sure how that works out for you, but it does seem a good very good example of a time when 2 categories would be sensible.

    I’ll remember you the next time I’m thinking about tagging and such! ;)