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Categories vs Tags

July 1st, 2014 by Erick Beck

Categories and tags are core components of WordPress, which is among the most popular platforms used to host web sites. Even professional developers have a hard time understanding the difference in how the two should be used, and the lay audience generally sees no distinction. Proper use of these elements, though, can have a profound effect on making a site more successful.

Use of categories and tags

WordPress itself says that “tags are similar to categories, but they are generally used to describe your post in more detail.” They also say that categories are meant to be hierarchical, while tags exist independently and are independent of any structure. Categories, then, are meant to classify your overall article, while tags describe the content elements of the article.

Categories should be firmly established. Articles fit within categories, not the other way around. Tags, though, are more free ranging. They depend on the content of the article. WordPress recommends having between five and fifteen tags for each article to sufficiently describe the content.

Having a controlled library that comprises the core set of tags is crucial. We want to make sure that all references to a particular entity are tagged exactly the same so that we capture all of the articles pertaining to that subject. For example, we would not want to have separate tags on different pages referring to the university as “Texas A&M,” “Texas A&M University,” “TAMU,” etc. These just serve to dilute the power of the tag to describe your site’s content. That being said, a site with a wide range of topic will not be effective if it uses only this core set of tags. Tags must properly describe the article’s content, and to do that they must be based on the article itself rather than a pre-compiled list of key terms.

Tag clouds are the most common use of leveraging your tags. These show the most common tags on your site, with the size of the text indicating how many articles contain that particular tag. This gives a visual reference to let users know what kind of content they can find elsewhere on the site. It also serves as an index to your site, letting users find other areas of interest that they might otherwise not have come to your site for.

Another powerful, but seldom used, method of leveraging tags is using them as a data feed to populate pages on other sites. Consider [spoiler alert] an experts list site, for example, where each individual’s listing shows related articles that are published in your news site. Matching the expertise keywords with a WordPress tag lets us quickly and easily create a synergy between these two sites, making both more valuable than either on their own.

Effect on Search Engine Optimization

Tags can have an influence on search optimization as well. Modern search algorithms are good at picking out synonyms, so you should avoid using such common terms as separate tag names. Search engines will see this as duplicate content and penalize your site for it.

One other SEO aspect to consider is the concept of link bleeding. In general, each page’s link value is divided among all the links on the page. The tag cloud will likely contain a lot of links, and the value of the less used tags could be pretty minor. They would therefore take away from the page’s effective optimization. Adding nofollow tags on the tag cloud is therefore usually a good idea.

If done correctly, the “categories” and “tags” pages on your site should be among the highest ranking pages.

Tuesday, July 1st, 2014 Search, Web Content
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