How to Make Sense of Blog Categories & Tags

Many — including me — have compared social media management to the act of gardening. And often times a big part of gardening is pruning out-of-control branches and bushes. As the hub of our social media experience, blogs can quickly amass a lot of content. I found this out myself recently. 

As someone who’s blogged since 2005 I have many posts, which in turn have spawned several categories and a multitude of tags. Though both are intended to be tools to help readers organize their consumption of my content, their over-grown state could be hindering more than they’re helping. Like all things you redesign on your blog or website, you need to make sure they make your readers’ experience even better.

For starters, what’s the difference between categories and tags? How should we use them and how can we make this change?

What’s the Difference Between Categories and Tags?

WordPress officially says …

Categories allowed for a broad grouping of post topics, but when you wanted to describe a post in more specific terms, more categories were required. That led to very long category lists inside the blog and very long lists in Categories Widgets. So we now have tags, too. Tags are similar to categories, but they are generally used to describe your post in more detail.

Problogger once made an effective analogy for categories and tags as well, saying that categories are like your physical filing cabinets. They have individual slices of content organized by type. Where as tags are like the little red flags that you stick inside files to call out certain key points and notes you want to remember.

This metaphor was especially useful for me as I reorganized my own categories and tags. Do I really need categories for both online marketing and online experience? Over time it’s not hard to over-categorize your blog’s content.

How Should They Be Used?

Ultimately this decision is the blogger’s to make though you should remember to keep the reader’s experience in mind. What’s your audience looking for on your site? What broad categories can you use to make this easier? What granular tags can you place within posts to help surface relevant info? Here are some tips to help make your category/tag organization easier:

  • As the blogger, you set the direction — Like an author leaving notes and creating appendices, it’s your responsibility to set parameters for readers to explore your content. Along your blogging journey you may realize that there is a certain type of post that you become known for that deserves categorization. For me, my interviews have become a signature style of content that I want in my ‘table of contents.’
  • Categories and tags aren’t cast in stone — With WordPress it’s easy to manage your categories and tags in the dashboard’s admin panel.
  • Don’t over-categorize — While you can certainly cross-list posts in a variety of categories, keep this to a minimum to make your files cleaner and easier for users to search.
  • Don’t sweat the caps — Though it looks annoying, capital letters (or lack there of) don’t make a difference in setting categories and tags. Consistency is nice, though. I tried in vain for my categories to be initial-capped and my tags to be lowercased but it appears once something is defined as a category it overrides the tag styling and vice versa (this is tricky for ubiquitous terms like ‘social media’).
  • It comes down to trend management — In revising my own blog categories I realized in the early days of the social web I categorized these posts using the term ‘Web 2.0,’ which was standard at the time. Now no one calls it that so it’s simply a matter of deleting the tag and categorizing those posts as ‘Social Media.’
  • Simplicity trumps all — Remember you don’t have to use either categories or tags. Sometimes the best way to keep your site organized is to err to the side of fewer categories and tags. FYI – In WordPress, if your post is undefined, or if you delete a legacy category, it is listed as ‘Uncategorized.’

How Am I Personally Going to Do This?

In an effort to lead by example, I recently pruned my own categories. You can find the new, trim-and-fit category listings in the sidebar now as well as the footer below. (I deleted 13 categories!) Tags, as always, are accessed in the footer of each individual post. The other options for display include creating sub-pages and menus for popular categories — the other organizational reason one assigns categories. For tag display you can also use a tag cloud (these are kind of fun but have never been my style per se).

Let’s Get Organized!

So now that you have some insight into my own spring cleaning regiment, what are you going to do to make sure your blog’s categories and tags are useful to the one demographic that matters most — your readers?

Photo via Flickr user amsfrank