A website is a network of interconnected pages. Links within the content bind the pages together into a single entity, but they aren’t the only — or the best — way to organize pages according to the content they contain. To do that, we need a taxonomy, a way of grouping pages according to their properties. WordPress makes available two fundamental taxonomies: categories and tags. It can be difficult to decide how to use categories and tags, so I want to take a look at how they can be used to efficiently organize the pages of a WordPress site.
Both taxonomies are flexible and can be used in various ways, but it’s important that a site owner implements a system early in the life of their site. Without an understanding of how content is to be organized in groups, there’s a risk that it won’t be organized at all or organized according to an inconsistent system, which is almost as bad.
Used properly, tags and categories form a framework that logically organizes everything that you publish on your site.
Categories are the foundational organizational tool of a WordPress site’s content, and that’s often reflected in the site’s navigation menus. Ideally, every piece of content will belong to only one category and all content within that category will be related in a clearly comprehensible way.
Suppose you want to publish content about woodworking tools — lathes, chisels, mallets, routers, planes, spokeshaves, saws, and the like. Each page will discuss a tool and include examples of how they are used and recommendations for which manufacturer’s tools are the best. How should you organize that content into related groups? The obvious way is to create a category for each class of tool: planes — of which there are many different types — would be published in the “planes” category, chisels in the “chisels” category, and so on. A user interested in chisels could click on the “chisels” category in the WordPress site’s navigation and be presented with all the articles on that topic.
Of course, that’s not the only way to organize the pages into categories: you might choose to use categories for vintage hand-tools and modern power tools. Or you might organize the pages according to manufacturer. I think organizing by tool-type is the best method because it reflects a clearly comprehensible grouping that’s likely to mesh well with the way visitors think about tools. Each category is clearly defined: it’s obvious which pages go in each category, and there’s never any need to put the same content in more than one category.
You might think that grouping by categories is enough, but — sticking with the tool example — there are lots of other ways that the pages are related. A particular manufacturer might make many different sorts of tools; some tools might be made of steel, some of iron, and some entirely out of wood; some are power tools and some are hand tools.
That’s where tags come in. Tags can be used to group pages according to a much looser set of criteria than categories. Each page can — and probably should — have multiple tags. A page discussing a specific model of drill might have tags for the manufacturer, the type of work it’s used for, its material, whether it’s a hand tool, and so on. When a visitor to your site wants to see all the pages related a particular manufacturer, they can choose the relevant tag and see every related page, regardless of the type of tool.
You can think of categories as boxes into which content is sorted and tags as labels on each piece of content — a tag list is an index of those labels so you can find related content no matter which box it’s stored in.
While it’s important that you decide early in the design process which categories your site will use, tags can be added on an ad hoc basis. As you publish content and find the need for new tags, you can simply tag the relevant articles. However, deciding on a basic set of tags during the site’s initial design helps ensure that all content gets the relevant tags.
Without categories and tags, a website is simply a loose collection of content. Designing a logical system of categories and tags before you begin publishing content will help you maintain a clear structure — your site will be easier to navigate and offer a coherent user experience.