Finding Harmony Between Categories and Tags on Blogs

With the emerging of tags, and I’m not talking about Technorati tags here but tags as a part of your own blog, categories can become redundant. A lot of blogs out there has got a bunch of categories, and with the addition of tags, they suddenly have duplicates of everything. Or perhaps they have a lot of categories, because the categories have been used as tags, basically, which perhaps was a great idea back then, but today is totally unnecessary.

Finding a balance between categories and tags might not be as easy, nor as obvious, as one would like to think.

The Ideal Category/Tag Setup

In my opinion, categories and tags are two completely different things. Mind you, I’m tackling this issue as both a designer and a publisher. The ideal setup for your particular fancy or site might be something completely different, there’s the whole matter of what you need and want as well, of course.

I define categories and tags like this:

  • Categories are main sections of the site. If you’ve got an entertainment blog, “music” might be one category, and “movies” another, but no more niched than that.
  • Tags are descriptions of post content. This means that if you’ve got a post in that “music” category, it might be tagged “metal” because that’s the genre, and “Alice Cooper” because that’s the artist.

The benefits of this way to look at categories and tags, is that categories can be treated as true sections of your site. Most blogging platforms support category specific styling, so that music category can have a cool guitar at top, or use a special color, or whatever. The point is that you can style a specific category in a fitting way, making it more obvious that it is one of the (few) main sections of your blog.

It might take some time to apply a more sound use of categories on your blog, but defining your sections is a good thing.

Tags, on the other hand, are like a loose search query. The point isn’t to style everything tagged “Alice Cooper” in a specific way, since it might be posts from completely diverse areas (i.e. different categories), but rather to list everything relevant.

Applying This

The Blog Herald had a gadzillion tags before its redesign. Since it uses WordPress, I used the included script to convert categories to tags, and then sorted the content in more relevant categories, like news and features, and so on. It might take some time to apply a more sound use of categories on your blog, but defining your sections is a good thing.

If you’re using a blog platform as a CMS (something I’ve touched before), using categories as main sections of your site makes even more sense. After all, you’ve got your menu right there, in the categories, and you’ll be using the blog platform as it is meant to be used, the only difference is that you’ll style the various categories a bit more elaborately than you might have for a traditional blog.

What are your thoughts on how to use categories and tags on a blog? Share your thoughts in the comments!

  1. By dinu posted on September 4, 2008 at 9:17 am
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    I think I have started thinking in this way recently … and tag cloud came back to my sidebar as a result :)

  2. By Toni Hambilton posted on September 4, 2008 at 9:38 am
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    You’ve made a good point with this post, I’m going to re-look at the tags on my blog and stop the double-ups.

  3. By Cassandra posted on September 4, 2008 at 11:55 am
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    I’m a bit of a newbie and have just started testing out WordPress as a CMS. I was a bit unsure on how best to use tags and categories, but your post mirrors my thoughts exactly.

  4. By jardel posted on September 4, 2008 at 12:00 pm
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    I use tthe same way since i’ve started my other blog in 2006
    But the big problem is that you need to create some default tags, like “crazy presents” for crazy gadgets or something like this. The problem is that with time you forget these standards.

  5. By Adam(PixelHead) posted on September 4, 2008 at 4:44 pm
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    Now you tell me. I have way too many categories. tags would be a big help in organizing.

  6. By Andrew posted on September 5, 2008 at 8:36 am
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    I have recently written a post about this. Habari, unlike WordPress, only offers tags because when you get down to it tags and categories are the same thing: labels.

    Blogs have no inherent organisational structure, besides the date, so each label whether it be tag or category simple points to a group of posts that share it. You can choose to use categories as site divisions and tags as sub-divisions, or have multiple hierarchies of categories, plus tags but they are still simply labels.

  7. By Thord Daniel Hedengren posted on September 8, 2008 at 4:26 am
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    Actually, I disagree. Categories fill a purpose if they are used to actually categorize the content, rather than explain it in exact keywords (i.e. tags). For instance, I might have a blog with basically two kinds of posts.

    First there’s my meaty ideas, reports, analysis of whatever. I call these Texts, and they are tagged to define what they are about, but belong to the category Texts.

    Second, there’s my short observations of discussions online, weird stuff, interesting stories, or whatnot. I call these Shorts, because they are short, a few lines at most, and basically based on the link to the story. I tag these as well, and have them belonging to the Shorts category.

    Now, a reader might not be interested in my quicklinking Shorts posts, since they don’t really say much more, they’re basically a link. Giving this reader the opportunity to just view longer posts (the Texts category) will increase his experience. Likewise, should someone stumble into a post in the Shorts category, since it is so short, I probably don’t want to display it in the same way I display long posts, therefor serving it differently on the basis of it belonging to the Shorts category.

    If you look at categories like I do in this posts, it is not so much about labels as it is about increasing usability for the visitor. While I think most blogs probably need 2 or 3 categories, having those 2 or 3 will make them easier to read and use, and that makes it all worthwhile.

  8. By Mike Schinkel posted on September 15, 2008 at 2:46 pm
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    Great post.

    Starting about two years ago I began to come to the exact same conclusion you have regarding your definition of categories and tags. I’ve come to believe that in a well-organized blog a reader should be able to scan a list of less than 7-9 categories to quickly see what the blog is about, and then use the tags to find articles that relate to articles has already found of interest, most likely by coming from a link on another blog or from a search engine.

    I recently re-organized my blog using this concept and I’m very happy with the results. I find to maintain it I constantly have to fight the urge to add another category, but fighting that urge is exactly the right thing to do; I use a tag instead.

    As for @Thord’s comments to the contrary, Thord you are basically just using categories to categorize along a different dimension which is appropriate just not IMO as useful. I just visited your blog and couldn’t quickly find any use of your Texts/Shorts categorization, only your tag cloud which I found to be a bit overwhelming. I was able to get a feel for the focus of your blog given your personal statement and the items besides the tag cloud in your right sidebar so that’s good, but I would really have preferred a handful of top level categories to help me better grasp what you cover on your site. But that just my opinion; take it for what it’s worth.

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