How to Use WordPress Categories and Tags

What is the difference between categories and tags on WordPress? How does one use categories How does one use tags?  It can be a bit confusing, actually. Most blogging sites (LiveJournal, Blogger, Tumblr, etc) allow the use of tags (sometimes called labels). Tags are a way of categorizing and organizing your blog entries. If you have a good system of tags, visitors to your blog will find it easier to find what they want. If your tags are consistent, searches within your blog will bring up all the entries on a topic, which is what you want them to do.

See also, this post on tags:  How to Tag Blog Posts.

So what are categories? Well, describing categories as “broader than” tags can be confusing. Or stating that topics you expect to use very often should be categories, while topics you use only occasionally should be tags – doesn’t really help either. Where do you draw the line? Do you use only tags?  Only categories?  What if you are just starting out?

I’d like to clear up some confusion – and save you the pain and waste of time I went through. When I started on WordPress I imported two of my other blogs:  The Movie Project from Blogger, and my Tumblr. That was mistake number one. If you are going to import several other blogs – do them one at a time. I had no idea that I had roughly 500 posts on tumblr – I haven’t been using it that long. I knew I had about 175 – 200 posts on Blogger – but they were organized and tagged and titled, so I didn’t think it would be a problem.

Surprise.

Everything imported just fine but all my tags from Blogger became categories. My tumblr tags remained tags; however, every picture, photoset, and video post lost it’s title and tags. I now had 700-or-so posts that were a mess. I’m still working on correcting it.

Anyway, I started sorting through the mess and manually fixing things. Then I discovered the Category-to-Tag converter. Oh, this will help – I thought. And it did, some. Well, mostly – except for some of the posts I had manually corrected.

So – a few things about using the automatic category-to-tag converter or tag-to-category converter.

1.  Make sure you know what direction you want to go. I’ll explain more about categories below and the Really Cool Things you can do with them, but if you are just starting you might want to start with only using tags.

2. Never, never, never use the same word or phrase as both a tag and a category. Doing this will mess things up. And the only way to fix it is by hand correcting every affected post. Actually, WordPress admins should warn about this – because using the same word or phrase as both a category and a tag creates a real mess.

3. Spend some time thinking about what you want to do. Also, if you go into your Tags list you will see tags with (0) zero posts. These are likely misspellings and typos. Or they are tags you’ve changed your mind about using.  If you have tags marked zero (0), go ahead and delete them.

4.  Unlike tags, categories will not display if you aren’t using them. So if you accidentally type in Robert Downey Jr’s name as “Robert Downy Jr” then you fix it and spell it correctly (and assign the correctly spelled category, while un-assigning the wrong one) – the bad category will still be there, but you won’t be able to see it.

Cool Things about Categories

1.  Yes, on the surface, they are for broader topics. But since WordPress has a category list widget, but only a tag cloud widget (not a tag list) – if you want everything to display in a list, even things only used once, use categories. You can shorten-up your category list by using the option for a drop-down list rather than a full one.

2.  Categories allow nesting. This is where the fun really starts. For The Movie Project, I created tags for each movie title, the main actors in each film I reviewed, many of the film directors, the film genre, even the decade the film was made. However, all of these sub-topics ended up in a single tag list, alphabetically.

So it looked like this:

Partial-tag-list Tag-list-2

As you can see – dates, actor names, titles, film genres – all mixed up.  The whole list is alphabetical, but actors are thrown in with the titles of films, etc.

And there was no good way to fix it. Sure, I could have added a letter prefix to actor’s names (A-), to titles (T-) to director’s (D-) to other information (O-).  Or used numbers (1, 2, 3, 4) but that would have made the blog unsearchable.

How to Nest WordPress Categories

First, Create a Category (or more likely, categories) for organizing your content.

I have:  Actor, Director, Title, Film Genres, Films by Decade, Imported Posts, Post Types, Bitch with Wi-Fi Topics, and (yes the poorly named) Book Culture Film Television Topics. These will be your parent categories.

Then take the tags that you want to nest under the parent categories and convert them to categories. Note:  not all tags need to be converted. Only create second-level tags where it makes sense.  You can still have specific tags on posts too. Just don’t use the same word or phrase for both categories and tags.

Next, and this is the tricky bit – if you have a lot of new categories, you might want to do this in sections, go into your category list, select the tag, then assign it to the appropriate parent.

So our new, “Robert Downey Jr” tag, gets assigned the “actor” parent.

Once all the categories are assigned parents you will have a nested list.

Nested-categories1 Nested-categories2

Is that neat or what?

Again, you can still assign individual tags to posts as well as categories. I like to use actor’s names as categories, but character names as tags, for example.

Tags

When assigning tags to any post, be consistent. Use the same tag for the same type of post – every time. Also, be sure to spell your tags correctly. Both will create consistency and make it easier to navigate your blog. Consistency also means that searches (queries) on your blog will turn up more complete, relevant results.

Tag and Categories – After the fact

Once your initial set-up is complete, be sure to use your tags and categories on new posts. You can create a new category that is already nested by adding a new category in the post and assigning it’s parent at the same time. You can also assign tags and create brand new tags.

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