When I talk to beginning bloggers, I’m asked all sorts of questions. One I received this week was what is the difference between tags and categories? The obvious way to answer this is to define both, of course, but beyond that, I want to explain why you need both, how to name them, and how to display them.
Understanding the Difference Between Categories and Tags
Categories and tags help you organize your web site or blog and help your users find the information they want. A blog category is a topic you address on your blog. Your category list is like the table of contents for your blog. Categories are broad and can encompass smaller, more defined topics (i.e., tags). A category title should be descriptive and can be several words long.
A tag is more specific and addresses items you discuss in a particular blog post. A tag is usually only a word or two and reflects the keywords or points of your article. If categories are your blog’s table of contents, tags are your blog’s index. For example, the categories for this post are Content/Writing, Definitions, and FAQ, but I’ve also tagged it with words that describe my content: define blog categories, define blog tags, blog organization, SEO, and blogging advice.
When you come to Blogging Basics 101, you can click on the category (e.g., Content/Writing) to see all the articles written under that category. If you want to find an article pertaining to a specific topic, though, you may opt to do a search for keywords. That’s where the article tags come in. By tagging an article with relevant key words, I help you find the information you’re searching for.
Tips for Choosing Categories and Tags
When you decide to implement categories and tags, it’s a good idea to consider how you want to label or title them. Here are some things to consider:
- Organization is key. The main reason to use categories and tags is so your readers can easily find the information they want. As you choose names for your categories and/or add tags to posts, consider how you’d find the information if it weren’t your blog. What terms would you search for if you wanted to find this article? Use those terms in your categories and tags.
- Category titles can be long(ish). Since categories reflect the topics your articles cover, make them as descriptive as possible. Your category titles can reflect the tone of your blog or be succinct. For example, if you have a conversational blog and want a category for funny stories, you could call that category I think it’s funny to keep with the personal aspect of your blog. If, on the other hand, you want to be more SEO friendly or succinct, you could call the category Funny stories about my cat. The former is vague, but readers know what to expect; the latter is more precise. Either is fine — you know what’s right for your blog.
- Know when to stop. Your categories should be broad enough that you won’t need to have a list of 50. Figure out what you write about the most and create categories for those topics. Everything else can go in a catch-all category of Miscellaneous.
- Tags are short. You should use tags that are up to three words long, but no more. Tags should also be the keywords related to your blog post because they will aid search engines in finding your content. (They aren’t the only thing the search engines look for though, so don’t go overboard. What else do search engines look at? Titles, headings, links, etc. Tags are just a little extra.)
- Avoid duplication. Try not to use names for tags that are the same as the names of your categories. It’s redundant and it can confuse your readers.
How to Display Categories and Tags
Displaying your category lists and tags is easy enough. Since your category list is part of the navigation of your blog or web site, it’s best to display a list of categories within your sidebar. From there readers can click on a category of interest and see a list of all the articles related to that category. Since each of your posts will likely have more than one tag, your list of tags may be exponentially larger than your list of categories. The result is that it’s not really necessary to list your tags in your sidebar. If you have a search widget for your blog (and you should; if you don’t, head over to Widgetbox and get one), when a reader searches for a keyword, your relevant tagged posts will come up in the results. Or, if you want to show off the popular tags you’re using, you can use a tag cloud in your sidebar. A tag cloud is an image that reflects the tags you use throughout your blog. Tags that are more popular or used more often in your posts are bigger than less popular tags. You can make your own tag cloud at Wordle.net.
If you aren’t using categories and tags right now, I encourage you to do so. It’s an easy organizational tool to implement and it will help your readers (and search engines) find your content quickly and easily.
A version of this article was posted at BlogHer.com.