WTF is SEO | A search newsletter for publishers

Categories or tags? Breaking down the WordPress features

This is the most frequently asked WordPress SEO question we get: Tags and categories — what are they, and why do they matter?

Bookmark our glossary for easy access to an explanation of core SEO concepts.

What are categories and tags?

A lot of what we’re talking about today directly correlates to the verbiage that WordPress users will understand. If your system runs on a different CMS, that’s okay — a lot of the best practices for WordPress can be translated to other systems.

So, let’s look at WordPress categories and tags.

A category is a way to literally categorize your content. This is your table of contents, but for your site. You create a group of “sections,” like your newspaper or news site.

  • For example, your “categories” may be news, sports, arts and culture, and your stories will fit under each of these, respectively.

Categories are also hierarchical, which means you can create sub-categories underneath. For example, creating a news category means you can put sub-categories of local news and national news if that caters to your audience.

Meanwhile, a tag gets more granular, looking at the specific details of an individual story. You can create tags to organize the details of your stories.

  • For example: Use a tag for stories about Justin Trudeau, about the coronavirus or about specific topics that consistently come up in your coverage.

Think of tags on a story as the index at the back of a book. Tags are not hierarchical and in fact, you don’t even need tags on your site! But some news outlets find them very valuable for searches on a site or to discover related stories on a specific topic.

A few other things to remember:

  • Categories organize your site structure. Tags organize your content.
  • Categories are required. Tags are optional.

Categories can also be used in your URL structure to help categorize stories.

For example, your URL structure (in WordPress, go to Settings > Permalinks) can now have the names of those categories instead of the date and time (there are benefits to both, but I personally prefer to have the category in the URL so you can clearly identify the URL path).

  • Before, the URL was /03/01/21/homemade-oat-milk-recipe
  • Now, the URL can be /recipes/milk-alternatives/homemade-oat-milk-recipe

Isn’t that so much better?!

So, which is better for SEO: categories or tags?

In our last reader callout, an editor on WordPress asked me, “which is better for SEO, categories or tags?” And unfortunately, it’s not an easy answer.

The purpose of each is different, as we’ve established.

Ultimately, your site should always be designed for humans. How can they navigate from your homepage to a collection of stories on something? Categories can help create simple, easy-to-navigate site structure, and tags can help organize your stories into interesting topics.

Categories will help your general sections rank, and you should focus your attention here for the most part. Tags are your secondary organization to categories.

Organization and quality content is what will get you the rankings you want.

HOT TIP: You can have the best organization in the world, but if those category pages are not optimized for SEO, it doesn’t matter. Ensure you properly optimize your title tags, URLs and meta descriptions for these category pages.

(Want to do this on your own? Here’s a template that helps you optimize your categories. To edit the spreadsheet, go to: File > Make a copy.)

Having an organized list of categories and a healthy list of tags is the most optimal way to have a healthy, optimized site. But each of those categories need to be optimized, too. Let’s go through how to do that.

🔗 Read more: A beginner’s guide to categories and posts by WordPress Beginner

The value of a good site structure

Having a good site structure is one of the best things you can do for SEO. As we discussed previously, internal linking helps search robots crawl your site and seamlessly understand how your content all relates to each other.

The same thing happens with a good site structure. A good site structure (i.e, a clear navigation and a clear internal linking strategy) can help your rankings on search engines immensely. It makes it easy to understand the pages on your site and how they help the humans.

🔗 Read more: Site structure: the ultimate guide from Yoast (the WordPress plugin!)

Categories & tags best practices

  • Evaluate your current content: How many stories have a common theme? Start writing these “themes” down. These themes are probably good tags or even categories.
  • Eliminate tags that have 0–10 stories: These tags are not necessary.
  • Eliminate tags that are not explanatory: If you have a tag that says “ad-lib,” I promise you, no one will look for it.
  • Have no more than 10 categories/sections: There’s no reason your navigation needs more than 10 sections.
  • Keep it simple: Only use sections that work for your publication. If you’re not posting a ton of sports content, then you don’t need that as a category. But if you’re writing nonstop about the city hall happenings, then maybe you need a Local Politics category.
  • Sketch it out: Use a piece of paper and draw your own site structure. Start with the home page at the top, and then draw lines to a handful of pages you feel are important categories to your site.
  • Create a simple navigation: Don’t go deeper than a second level of your navigation (so, one sub-category). If you have a sub-sub-category, things start to get messy for search.
  • Evaluate constantly: Your site will change with your mission. You may start with providing the best local news, but then develop a stellar list of commentary writers. Maybe you need to add an opinion category — and that’s okay!
  • The bottom line: There’s lots to learn about categories and tags, but the most important thing to know is to have an organized structure that is easy to navigate.

Have something you want us to explore? Email Written by Jessie Willms and Shelby Blackley.

WTF is SEO is a newsletter for news publishers. It helps newsrooms understand, prioritize and make actionable growth for your publication.