One of the most discussed topics we see when I attend WordCamps and other events is…
What is the best for SEO, categories, or tags? What is the difference between categories and tags? What is the optimal number of categories in WordPress? How many are too many? Is it okay to assign one entry to several categories? Is there a limit to the number of tags we can assign to each entry? Do the tags work as meta keywords? Is there an SEO advantage to using categories or tags?
If you have ever asked yourself these questions, I hope they are answered at once, when you finish reading this article, so that you can make adjustments to your blog if necessary.
Before discussing any of the above questions, we need to understand what categories and tags are.
In WordPress nomenclature, both categories and tags are known as taxonomies.
Their sole purpose is to classify your content to improve the usability of your site. This means that when a user comes to your site, he or she can easily navigate through your content by topic, rather than chronologically, which is how blogs were originally created.
What is the difference between categories and tags?
The categories are designed to group your entries. Think of them as general themes or as the table of contents of your site.
Categories are there to help identify what your blog is really about. It’s to help readers find the right kind of content on your site.
Categories are hierarchical, so you can have subcategories.
Tags are meant to describe specific details of your posts. Think of them as your site’s index words.
They are the microdata you can use to microcategorize your content. Tags are not hierarchical.
For example, if you have a personal blog where you write about your life, your categories can be something like: Music, food, travel, hiking and books.
From this, when you write a post about something you have eaten, you will add it in the “Food” category, but you can add tags like pizza, tortilla, stew, etc.
One of the biggest differences between tags and categories is that you MUST categorize your entry. You do not need to add any tags.
If you don’t categorize your entry, then it will be categorized as “No Category”. People often change the name of the uncategorized category to something like “Other”, “Miscellaneous”, etc.
Another difference is the way the permanent links of categories and tags (urls) look.
If you are using a custom permalink structure (URL), then your base prefix will look different.
What is the optimal number of categories?
Until WordPress 2.5 there were no tags. This led to very long category lists because people used it to define micro details.
Tags were added to improve the usability of your site. That said, I think there is no specific optimal number of categories.
The optimal number varies depending on the complexity of your site. However, for the sake of structure and usability, it is best to use subcategories and tags.
Categories are meant to cover a group of entries. It is always better to start with generic categories and work with subcategories as the site grows.
After having had several blogs, I have come to the conclusion that blogs evolve. There is no way you can get to all the right categories.
Chances are that when you start, you only write one post a day. Or maybe 3-5 entries a day.
Having 30 higher categories is useless, especially when some of them only have one or two entries. It’s better to have 5 generic categories that have fresh content than 30 top categories where most are outdated.
Let’s look at an example. Let’s say we’re starting a social media blog in 2020. We want to share tutorials, news, tools, case studies, etc.
We can create higher categories like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, LinkedIn, etc. As subcategories of each, we can have tools, tutorials, case studies, news, etc. However, this is a very short term mentality, and we will find problems in the future.
What happens if one of the social networks dies and a new one enters the game? You’d have to add another higher level category and more subcategories.
A much better way to structure this social network blog would be to have future-proof top-level categories. You can have your categories like “Tutorials”, “News”, “Case Studies”, “Tools”, etc.
But how would people know it’s Twitter? Well, your categories aren’t supposed to do all the work. This is where the tags come in.
Let’s say you wrote a post about how to make a Twitter account, then just add the Twitter tag. In your design you just add a section called “Popular Topics” and control it manually with links to popular tags like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc.
When should we add subcategories?
Let’s say you make case study entries in which you sometimes interview experts for specific case studies.
Since there is no category called “Expert interviews”, you add it as a label to the case study entry.
If you find yourself doing a lot of case study interviews and your expert interview tag has more than 10 entries and is constantly growing, then you should consider adding the expert interviews as a subcategory of your main category “Case Studies”.
Yes, you will need to go back and edit your older entries.
If your URL structure is
/category/%postname%/, then use the “Redirection” plugin. It automatically redirects the modified entries to your new URL, so that you can maintain all search engine rankings.
Do I have to use subcategories?
No, of course not.
You can always leave the popular tags as tags. In our example above, almost every entry will have a tag for a specific social network such as Twitter, Facebook, etc. But we’re not creating them as categories.
The only reason you add subcategories is to make it easier for your users to find your content.
Simply add the “Expert interviews” tag to your website.
Remember that the purpose of categories and tags is to make it easier for your users to navigate your site.
Is it correct to assign an entry to more than one category?
You may read on other sites that assigning entries to various categories can hurt SEO.
Some say you can be penalized with duplicate content for that. I think that statement is not entirely true.
First of all, don’t go crazy with SEO. Remember that the purpose of classifying your content efficiently is to help users find it.
Because of the nature of the top category settings, it should not be possible to rank an entry in multiple top categories.
For example, if your blog has three categories “Advertising”, “Marketing” and “SEO”, your posts often tend to fall into multiple categories.
Perhaps you need an umbrella category for all three, and perhaps they should all fall under the concept of “business”? Or you can have a category called “Advertising and Marketing”. Then you add “SEO” as a subcategory.
There are no SEO benefits to adding multiple categories.
If you think it helps your users, then don’t hesitate to add an entry in multiple categories.
However, if you see that this is becoming commonplace, then you should consider restructuring your categories.
Perhaps some of your categories need to be tagged. Or maybe they should be subcategories of a main category. It’s mainly about improving the user experience.
If you are super concerned about the penalty of duplicate content, then simply add noindex follow to your category taxonomy using the Yoast SEO plugin.
If you just want to make noindex follow specific categories, then you can do so by editing the category. The Yoast plugin has settings to override the global settings.
Basically when you do noindex follow something it tells Google and other search engine robots to follow all the links of the posts in these categories, so that all the posts can be indexed.
Short answer: WordPress allows you to add an entry in as many categories as you want. And yes, it’s okay to assign a post to multiple categories as long as you think it helps your users.
However, if you think of categories as a table of contents for your blog where posts are chapters, then can you have a chapter in two separate sections? The answer to that question is NO.
Is there a limit to how many tags we can assign to a post?
The short answer to this question is NO. WordPress has no limit on the number of tags you can assign to a specific entry.
You can add more than 1000 tags if you like. However, the purpose of tags is to relate your posts to each other.
Again, think of the tags as the index of your book. These are popular keywords that you can use to relate your entries.
This makes it easy for users to find your posts, especially when they are using WordPress search. It also helps if you use the tag file for users.
I would tell you not to add more than 10 tags to your posts unless you can justify it.
For example, if you have a movie review blog, you can add several tags: actor/actress names (only this can be more than 10). But most likely you can review several movies that have “Robert De Niro” in them.
But for other simpler scenarios, you should limit the amount of tags you use. Otherwise, you might find yourself with more than 10,000 tags with only 300 entries on your site.
Do tags work as meta keywords?
People often confuse tags with keywords in their blogs. This is the main reason why they try to add as many tags as possible.
Popular plugins like Yoast SEO and others allowed you to use your tag values as meta keywords, but that’s a thing of the past, it’s been years since Google used meta keywords for its indexes.
But come on, no, your tags do NOT work as meta keywords.
Categories or tags, which are the best for SEO?
The most frequent question asked about this topic is: Is there any SEO advantage to using categories or tags?
The simple answer to this is NO.
You should NOT see this as an issue between categories or taxonomies. They are meant to work together.
If you have read this entry, then you should be able to understand the individual purpose of the categories and tags as well as their combined purpose for the usability of your site.
Your site should be user-oriented, not search engine driven. The goal of every search engine is to try to think the way users do when they evaluate your content.
Categories and labels are just the two default taxonomies that come with WordPress. Most advanced sites use custom taxonomies to classify their content along with categories and tags.
Think of your blog as a book in constant evolution. Choose your table of contents (categories) wisely. Make sure they are broad topics, but be careful not to make them too ambiguous.
Use tags to relate multiple entries. If you see that a certain tag is becoming popular, then consider adding it as a subcategory. However, if you have to add the tag as a subcategory of several higher level categories, then leave it as a tag.
The goal is always to make the site as easy to use as possible.
I hope this article helps you clear up any confusion about the subject of categories and tags.
I would love to read your impressions on this subject. How do you classify your content? What approach do you usually use?
Read this post in Spanish: Categorías y etiquetas (tags) en WordPress – ¿Cómo se usan? ¿qué es mejor para el SEO?