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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.

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Comments

  1. I don’t think that this distinction between categories, tags, and the ever present keywords holds up under analysis.

    What do you want tags to do?

    How are they different from keywords?

    Until that distinction is made clear, tagging will never amount to much.

    And no, I don’t think that Clay Shirky’s original article on this distinction amounted to very much.

  2. Symbian says:

    I think Technorati tags still useful if you use do-follow plugin for your blog.

  3. kristarella says:

    Michael Webster, perhaps you could explain what you’re thinking a bit more?

    It seems to me that tags might be similar to keywords, but it also seems obvious that keywords are different to categories. So this post saying categories and tags should be used differently still holds.

    How are keywords used? Do they have anything to do with blogging – I’ve never seen reference to them before, unless perhaps you’re talking about search engines. I think this post is referring more to usability than SEO.

  4. Serge says:

    My current version of WP doesn’t provide tags, so some posts go into several categories. When I’m posting a picture from a person I’ll post in th category “portrait” as well as in “techniques” when I’m describing how the portrait is made (showing diagrams etc.) With WP v2.3 the possibility of using tags is possible, but I’m a little scared about upgrading…

  5. kristarella says:

    Any thoughts on how many tags per post might be effective, if one forces themself to use one category, but more tags?

    Serge, don’t be afraid to upgrade. Read the suggestions for preparing to upgrade and it should be okay – check the plugin list for known incompatibilities. If you can, put all the relevant files into a different folder on your server and check it’s working and then change the folder name rather than doing what I did.

  6. Thank you for this post! Following the advice of one category-per-post and limiting the number of categories has changed the way I see my blog. I’ve been struggling to focus down on a particular area of expertise and my blog has been very scattered. I feel that part of that comes as a result of the way I categorized in the past.

    I just published a post about my category cleaning experience and the insights that I’ve gained from it. I posted a screenshot of my categories before and you can now see what my categories are now.

    I’d like to get some feedback on my current categories. I’m really wanting to turn my blog into a more valuable resource on the web. Please visit if you have a minute.

  7. I have been running this issue over and over in my mind. Thanks for making clearer. My blog suffers from too many categories. I will be fixing that soon.

  8. Batman says:

    Hey Michael/Daron/anyone, do you know of a plugin (or some other means) to force tags to replace categories? For me, that would solve the whole issue.

    Why do we need tags and categories in the first place? It’s just more iterations of the same content, and if tags are displayed in a usable manner, why not eliminate all categories on the basis of redundancy?

  9. Hi thanks for sharing so much helpful information;it explained a lot that I did not understand…..

  10. Biodun says:

    Thanks for the great info, I use tags! but just use minimal though, don’t want to stuff them all in one article.

  11. Valerie says:

    Michael, thanks for the info. It is clear and concise. I am 56 years old and in the process of putting up a blog on caregiving. I had no idea what the little box under my post for tags was for. Your explanation using a filing system was perfect for me.

  12. sansan says:

    Hi, am searching thru google to check how to use tags effectively. after reading your post, i think i have a clearer picture about it. however, i would like to know if there is any way that i can edit and replace my tags in one go, instead of i go in to every post, delete and add a new tag?
    please advice.
    thanks.

  13. Tracee Sioux says:

    If only I had understood this at the beginning. As it stands I’m wading through a million variations of tagging and thinking a whole new website would be simpler.

  14. Hi, great post. I just followed most of the tips you provided in this post. Especially for labelling categories!!

  15. Bud says:

    Great article – I recently had a programmer add a category feature to my site as I thought there should have been one in the fiorst place, but wasn’t included with the script.

    The lesson here I learned (thank you) was to keep the categories of the consumer reviews/blogs to a minimum. Is there any place with a specific category list that would be used for general consumer reviews/blogs… thanks.