Doing Battle With Categories and Tags

The birds are tweeting; leaves and blossoms are sprouting in the garden and the sun is (sort of) shining. Yep it’s officially Spring in the northern hemisphere, traditionally the time when we’re supposed to get the dusters and rubber gloves out to banish all signs of winter dust and grime.

In the spirit of spring cleaning, I thought I’d attempt to get this blog ship shape. Though I’ve been tackling some maintenance tasks regularly over the last few months, there is one area I’ve neglected: my categories and tags.

A few months ago I shared some tips about how to clean up categories and tags for your book blog. I did get started on this but the good intentions evaporated when I discovered they were in more of a mess than I’d expected. I thought all I’d need to do was reconcile some duplications, fix some spelling errors and eliminate a few categories I seldom use.

But what I found was a mess. The only solution was to go right back to basics.

Before I show the result of this exercise, I thought I’d share with you what I’ve learned about:

  • the difference between a category and a blog,
  • why they are important and
  • how to use them effectively for organising blog content.

What’s the Difference Between Categories and Tags?

Categories and tags are the two main tools to group content on your blog site.

Categories are general topics or broad umbrella type groupings of your posts. You could think of them like a table of contents or as drawers within a filing cabinet. You can have main categories (WordPress calls these parent categories) and sub categories which break the content down into smaller groups. Using the filing cabinet analogy, these sub categories would be like folders or sections within each drawer.

A food blog for example could have categories for Recipes, Techniques and Ingredients. The recipes one could be broken into sub categories relating to different types of cuisine (Japanese, French, Mexican, Vegan, Vegetarian etc.).

Tags are more specific ways of classifying your content to make it helpful for visitors searching your site. You can think of them like index words you’d find in a book. They help to link related posts together. Tags should not be copies of your categories – they should be more specific than the broad category topics. So if you have a category called Book Reviews, then you should not also use that phrase as a tag.

The food blog could have tags for ingredients or types of meals (lunch, breakfast, afternoon tea for example).

Another way to think about the difference between categories and tags is that categories are about the structure of your site, whereas tags are descriptions of the content.

Why Are Categories and Tags Important?

Every article and blog post I’ve seen on this topic says the same thing: categories are important for your visibility with search engines. They give the search engine a good indication of the structure of your site. The more insight a search engine can gather about your website, the more able it will be to match it to relevant searches and display it in the right way.

I get the theory but I’m not writing for Google or Bing and their web crawlers. I’m writing content for people. So I was more interested to learn that categories and tags help visitors to my site to get a good sense of the content they’ll find when they visit Booker Talk and how all these posts link together.

How Many Categories And Tags Should You Use?

There are no limits on the number of categories you can create for your site. But the general principle seems to be that 5-10 categories should be enough to cover the topics you’ll most likely have on your site. This set alarm bells ringing for me because I was pretty sure I have more than that; turns out I have 77 categories. Not good at all.

In WordPress you need to use at least one category for each post. If you don’t specify which category to use, then WordPress will automatically choose the default one. That’s not good news. Your default category might be something completely unrelated to the topic of that specific post OR your default category might be something very unhelpful like “uncategorised.”.

It’s technically possible to have multiple categories for each post. But the advice is to avoid doing this if at all possible because Google could think you are publishing duplicate content and penalise you in their search results. I don’t fully understand this point but that’s the advice from more than one blogging expert so I’m passing it on. If you feel you do need to use more than category then try to make this one parent category and a sub category (rather than two primary categories).

What about tags? Any limits on the number you can use?

Because tags are more detailed descriptors of content, you’ll likely need to use multiple tags for each post. There are no limits to the number of tags you can have for your site (at a rough count I have about 900). In theory you could have 50 or more for each post. But it’s not recommended.

We suggest that you normally stick to 10 tags maximum per post.

https://www.wpbeginner.com/

Something that I wasn’t aware of is that the WordPress Reader will filter out posts that use more than 15 tags and categories (combined) as an anti-spam measure. So if you use 2 categories and 20 tags, your post will not show up in the Reader and your followers will not get to see it and your effort will be wasted.

Creating a Tag and Category Structure

I never thought about categories or tags when I started this blog. They’ve just grown haphazardly. Not only do I have far too many categories, I have categories that should be tags and parent categories that should be sub categories.

This diagram shows the structure I’m planning to use. I’m not convinced about the category called ‘Bookends’ which is a ragbag of different types of content. I didn’t want to just call it “miscellaneous” but I’m not sure whether ‘Bookends’ makes much sense.

Something else to mention is that tags can apply to more than one category – the way I’ve shown them here in columns is just for illustration purposes.

This is still a work in progress and I might find I need to make some tweaks once I begin using it. But it’s a big step up from what I’m currently doing.

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illustration of how to create a structure of categories and tags on a blog

How Do YOU Tackle Categories And Tags?

How do you deal with categories and tags on your book blog? Did you think about these before you published any content or have they just grown organically? What do you think of the structure I’ve shown – would this help you find content of most interest to you? 

BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

38 thoughts on “Doing Battle With Categories and Tags

  • April 17, 2021 at 10:30 pm
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    Another extremely helpful post, Karen, thank you.
    I didn’t know that WP filters out all content with 20 total labels (categories and tags). I’ve got my categories and sub categories managed but my tags are a mess. I’ll add this job to my blog maintenance list. 😘

    Reply
    • April 19, 2021 at 9:48 pm
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      I didn’t know about that either Flora so it was a surprise to see it mentioned on the WordPress blog site. It only filters them from the Reader so if your followers have a different feedreader set up (I use Feedly for example) then they won’t be impacted

      Reply
      • May 2, 2021 at 10:28 pm
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        Oh, that’s good to know. Thanks Karen 💚

        Reply
  • April 17, 2021 at 12:43 pm
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    Oopsie – I didn’t know that about categories and pretty well always give my pieces two!

    Reply
  • April 16, 2021 at 9:01 am
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    Looking at your chart, I see you have tags for authors and publishers. I don’t know… that seems like including all of those would really inflate your list of tags.

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    • April 17, 2021 at 5:52 pm
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      Very true. I’m thinking it would be useful though to someone who visits my site and is curious to know if I’ve read a particular author. If they put the author’s name in the search field, then they get all the posts tagged with that author….

      Reply
      • April 18, 2021 at 6:12 am
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        Actually, I’ve seen some people who have pages dedicated to the authors they’ve read. You know, an A-Z list with links to the books they’ve read by each of them. I sort of have that already with my page where I list all the authors that have answered my Countdown Questions. So that’s an alternative to tags for each author.

        Reply
        • April 19, 2021 at 9:46 pm
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          Yes that’s one way of doing it. That listing page came up in a recent discussion thread on this blog and there were many views expressed about whether that was a useful approach. As always with blogging questions, there were no clear answers!

  • April 15, 2021 at 9:53 pm
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    I have few categories, maybe around 10 but I have lots of tag in tag cloud but use 15-20 in post. I don’t exactly count them now I will spay more attention.
    Amazing post!

    Reply
  • April 15, 2021 at 6:42 pm
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    That’s helpful advice about categories, Karen — not to use more than one unless one of them is the ‘parent’.

    I used to occasionally use more than ten tags in the early days until I saw the WP advice you mention to keep them under ten. However, where reviews were concerned I didn’t mention authors for the first year or so — now, after nearly a decade’s blogging, I do!

    Like you though I do need to do some tidying, and that happens when I elect to repost one of my very early reviews.

    Reply
    • April 15, 2021 at 9:55 pm
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      Looking back at my early posts I was all over the place Chris. Sometimes I tagged the author, sometimes the genre. Actually the only consistent factor was my inconsistency :):)

      Reply
  • April 14, 2021 at 2:31 pm
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    As you say, I’m not doing it for Google, I’m doing it for me and for my readers. I have multiple categories: author origin, settings, genre, and heaps of other categories that I find useful, and I also have a category for every author I’ve ever reviewed. I’m also transparent about gender balance on my blog because I categorise by author gender too. So if you want to find a novel from Ethiopia or one that’s set in Afghanistan, or you want to see if I’ve reviewed your favourite author you can, and often you’re better off using my categories that WP’s not-very-good search function.
    But tags, that’s different. With rare exceptions, I just tag my posts with the name of the book, the author’s name, and the tag Book Reviews. Because that’s what I use when I’m doing a Google search for a review i.e. Title + Author Name +”Book review”. .

    Reply
    • April 14, 2021 at 4:54 pm
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      I really like your point about how you do a search and then using that to inform what you do on your blog. You’ve given me some pause for thought about the tag I was going to use for author country. I wouldn’t put that into a search but I might search on Australian authors or French authors. See I’m on day one and already finding tweaks

      Reply
  • April 14, 2021 at 2:23 pm
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    I have finally been forced to use the new WordPress editor instead of the Classic editor. I found the old editor quite intuitive, but am finding the new one not-at-all so intuitive. I find I have to spend additional time to do some of the simplest things like sliding some sentences to the right or adding an additional space between characters or positioning a picture exactly where I want to position it. .

    I realize that it just may be my unfamiliarity with the product, but I don’t remember such a difficult learning curve with the classic editor which seemed to be very close to the word processor protocols.

    Reply
    • April 14, 2021 at 4:50 pm
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      It’s like anything else new, the first few times are always time consuming and then eventually it becomes intuitive.

      Reply
  • April 14, 2021 at 11:24 am
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    Thanks for another excellent post on blog maintenance, Karen. I’m OK on categories but I definitely need to think more carefully about tags.

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    • April 14, 2021 at 4:49 pm
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      Out of curiosity how many categories do you have?

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      • April 14, 2021 at 5:32 pm
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        Currently twelve although I could drop two of those. I rarely use more than two for any one post

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        • April 14, 2021 at 9:49 pm
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          Do you have a ‘catch all’ category – like my “bookends’ one?

  • April 14, 2021 at 10:49 am
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    This is such a brilliant post, Karen – I think I might just have finally got my head around categories and tags. Thank you for a very clear explanation and I’ll be putting your advice to good use!

    Reply
    • April 14, 2021 at 4:48 pm
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      So glad it is of help to you Sara. I’ll be curious to see what you come up with on your site

      Reply
  • April 14, 2021 at 10:03 am
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    As a Librarian I was interested in Categories and Tags from the beginning, but of course, didn’t fully understand them all when I started. However, pretty soon, I worked out that categories were the big picture (but not quite the way they say, and as you’ve passed on here. Some are the Table of Contents eg Reviews, Blogging, Reading but others are the big overall topics like Literary Awards, Australian literature etc). Tags are though pretty much the subject – authors, genres, origins of writers (Japanese, British, Australian etc). Like you I don’t understand that point about multiple categories, though I’ve read it. However, I do try to limit the number of categories and tags I have per post. I would average 3-4 categories, and 4-5 tags per post.

    I do hate it when other bloggers don’t use these, because I use them – as a librarian would – to find like content. My “novellas” tag will take me to all the posts I’ve tagged as such. I like to do the same on other blogs. If I read an interesting post, I will look at the categories and tags to follow up their posts on that topic.

    Anyhow, thanks again for a good post.

    Reply
    • April 15, 2021 at 9:58 pm
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      I suspect that things like literary awards could easily be categories for some bloggers. And of course having Australian literature as a category makes perfect sense for you given the focus of the blog.

      Reply
  • April 14, 2021 at 9:43 am
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    Thanks for this post. My categories and tags are a complete mess. When I started blogging I did try to distinguish between categories and tags without really getting to grips with them and after an initial attempt to be organised they just grew and grew! Your post is most helpful, but I can see I’ll have to spend ages trying to sort mine out. I have categories that should be tags and a lot of duplication, but I’m going to make a start. Five to ten categories are recommended – I have 344, who knew, I didn’t. I shall start there. I’m not sure I’ll manage to sort it all out. It may be too late!

    Your new structure does look good.

    Reply
    • April 14, 2021 at 4:27 pm
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      Yes that is rather a lot of categories! I’ve found that the more I have, the harder it is to keep track of them. So I created one called Authors’ Homes a while back. Then at some point when I created a new post I must have forgotten that existed so I created a new category called Writers’ Homes. It’s going to be a tedious task to fix this but it needs to be done…..one of those exercises you know is good for you. Sigh

      Reply
  • April 14, 2021 at 9:33 am
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    Um, gosh I’m very unorganised. I tag each post – generally with author’s name, book title, relevant subject e.g. Russian lit – but I don’t categorise and I frankly think it’s just too late to do that now! Ah well – c’est la vie!

    Reply
    • April 14, 2021 at 4:12 pm
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      No reason why you can’t start doing it now – I can fully understand you wouldn’t want to revisit all the hundreds of earlier posts and updating them.

      Reply
  • April 14, 2021 at 9:31 am
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    Ahhhhh….haphazard would describe my categories and tags! 😂😂😂 I use more than one category for my posts….hummmm……that’s going to be difficult to limit! Thanks for doing the research on this!

    Reply
    • April 14, 2021 at 9:35 am
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      Soooo, if you choose ONE parent category, can you add sub categories without being penalized? Also, if you change your categories at this point how does that affect your hundreds of old posts? Do they default to uncategorized?

      Reply
      • April 14, 2021 at 4:24 pm
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        Yes you can add sub categories – providing the total of parent+sub categories+tags isn’t more than 15 you won’t get penalised by WordPress Reader.

        If you had posts with only one category and you removed that using the bulk editor tools (or even if you edited one at a time), the system will default you to uncategorised for all those edited posts. In that case I think what I would do is ADD the new category first, then delete the old one.

        But if you had two categories for each post and you removed one, the second will still be there.

        Does that help?

        Reply
        • April 14, 2021 at 9:48 pm
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          Something I discovered after I replied to you Carol – I have book reviews set up as a default parent category which means if I forget to add a category at least the post gets published with something better than uncategorised

        • April 14, 2021 at 9:49 pm
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          Thanks for the update! 👍

  • April 14, 2021 at 9:26 am
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    Like everything with my blog, I’ve just added bits as I went along. Even the most basic element, then name, came to me more or less by accident – and I shudder when I think of some of the names I was considering, So Categories and Tags just happened. I really had no idea what I was doing. Except for my Xmas posts, which have the Category ‘Uncategorized’, I’m sure all my posts have more than one Category. And my tags – well that’s just a mess!

    I’m glad I didn’t make a start when you did your last post on Categories and Tags because now you’ve given me a better idea of what I should be aiming for. Thank you! Though I’m going to need to think for a while. For instance, I can’t have Australia and Book Reviews as separate Categories because more than half my posts belong in both. Hmm …

    Reply
    • April 14, 2021 at 4:09 pm
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      Maybe you have two categories – one is Australian book reviews and the other is just book reviews? or have Book Reviews as the parent category and then Australia as the sub category?

      Your Xmas post category reflects my own problem with my new Bookends category – it’s a jumble of things that I might only write about occasionally so they don’t deserve their own category but neither do they fit in anywhere else neatly

      Reply

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