Blogging tips: tags and categories

Think of tags and categories (and their associated widgets) as free adverts for your post – on your blog and in the wider WordPress community – and make them work for you and your visitors.

Use tags and categories to:

  • Help bloggers discover your post in The Reader
  • Place sign posts on your blog so visitors can find other content that interests them while they’re there
  • Organise your blog and link posts by subject matter
  • Review what you’ve achieved so far and plan where you’re going

A few facts about tags and categories

  • They should be relevant and descriptive.
  • Categories tend to be more general than tags.
  • Think of categories as ways to segment your blog: subjects you often write about.
  • Tags explain your focus in an individual post.

For example, if your post is a picture of a flower, your category could be ‘Flowers’, ‘Photography’, ‘Gardening’ or ‘Nature’. The tags could provide extra detail about the subject, style of photography or the equipment used (‘flower’, ‘plants’, ‘bluebells’, ‘macro’, ‘iphoneography’).

Any restrictions?

WordPress suggest each post should have between 5 and 15 tags and categories combined. Use more than 15 and you’ll be seen as a spammer and will pay a penalty: your post won’t appear in The Reader.

If you accidentally go over 15, your post essentially vanishes: it will only be seen by people who already subscribe to your blog. Luckily, you can get your missing post to reappear by deleting some tags.

Both tags and categories appear as results, provided they are an exact match to a search (The Reader does help out with a few quiet corrections – Charlotte Bronte magically becomes Charlotte Brontë – try it).

Popular tags

If a popular tag exists which is a good fit for your post, it makes sense to use it, even though your post won’t stay long at the top of the list.

Popular subjects are easy and inviting to browse. By tagging your post ‘Photography’ you’ll attract some immediate traffic to your blog – providing your image and first few lines are attractive enough.

There are many photographers on WordPress, some extremely prolific, so your post will soon be submerged under the wave of other bloggers’ posts tagged exactly the same way.

By also tagging your post with general terms such as ‘Gardening’, or using the tag listed for a popular challenge or meme such as ‘Wordless Wednesday’, or ‘Throwback Thursday’ (assuming it meets the brief), you’ll be around for a bit longer.

Specific tags

Think of more specific tags such as ‘bulbs’ or ‘daffodils’ as worker bee tags that will continue to bring traffic to your blog long after the flash-in-the-pan popular tag has had its hour.

You won’t get as many quick responses, but the people you do attract are actively searching for the tag, so are more likely to enjoy what they see – and more likely to engage with your post by reading, liking or making a comment.

Of course, you are free to throw in a wildcard and tag your post something seriously obscure like ‘susurrus’ – yes, that’s right, I once did! Just be aware that hardly anybody will search for that – ever.

Tag unselfishly

Try to tag to help others, as if you were a magazine editor creating a handy index rather than the proud author casting his or her net as widely as possible to lure in the greatest possible number of visitors. Ask yourself whether you would be pleased to find your post if you were searching for the tag.

It’s just common-sense, like all marketing. Don’t bother to tag a post ‘galanthophiles’ (a term for passionate lovers of snowdrops) if you’re just sharing one picture of a common snowdrop, even if it’s a stunner! Galanthophiles are – by their very nature – looking for content with a little more depth. For a post about specialist resources or snowdrop society meetings, it might be appropriate.

I do use the odd highly obscure tag but not because I expect to get a lot of traffic. I’m just holding out a welcoming hand to anyone like-minded who happens to pass by over the next few months. And I think that’s worth it.

Crimes against humanity – and brands!

We’ve all seen brand managers hopping on trending news tags on Twitter and Facebook to promote irrelevant content – though it beggars belief to me that anyone would think this is a good idea. Some call it ‘growth hacking’, but I’d call it ‘attempted brandicide’ (is that a new word? – think homicide). It’s a sure-fire way to alienate the people you ought to care about most.

It’s the same here on WordPress. If you persistently tag your posts with the tags of currently trending but unrelated news items, you’ll irritate your readers, and risk being penalized.

Long tail searches

You’re making a long tail search any time you type three or more related words into a search box. It’s usually when we want to take some kind of action – perhaps to do more research, find something particular or make a purchase.

Long tail tags are very much a long shot on WordPress. In theory they are a good way for private bloggers and small businesses to compete with the large multinationals in the extremely competitive – and potentially expensive – world of internet search.

For example, if you want to casually research flowers for your new garden, you could simply search for ‘gardening’ or ‘plants’, but you’ll find so many results that it will be quite overwhelming: not very useful at all.

‘Plants for shade’, ‘yellow climbing rose’ and ‘Lady Banks Rose’ are long tail search terms. The volume of search traffic for a general term such as ‘gardening’ is always going to be significantly higher than for a two word or three word term. The more words you use, the less traffic you’ll see. But don’t rule out long tail terms completely – you might even be the only person using that particular tag on the whole of WordPress this year.

I suggest using a broad mix of the most general tags, which are likely to be more popular, and a few more detailed ones that have less competition in The Reader. If you do try a long tail term, keep it short, make sure it’s highly relevant – and check it actually appears somewhere in the post for the benefit of Google and other search engines.

Researching tags

If you’re up for a little extra research, search in The Reader for a wide range of tags that are  relevant for the subjects you often write about. See what content appears and note how far back the publishing dates go.

That way you’ll learn whether a specific tag will keep your post around for a month or two, or if it will be submerged by a flood of posts tagged the same way in the blink of an eye.

You’ll discover lots of interesting posts and bloggers in the process. If you can’t easily find any posts on your specialist subjects, make a note to fill that gap yourself by adding the tag to one of your posts.

The way to search these days is to follow the tag in The Reader (or click on the tag you’ll see on many posts to the right of the post author’s name and how recently the post was published.)

If you’re a regular user of WordPress, I needn’t tell you this may well change in the future.

Tags for gardeners

When I first joined WordPress, I was surprised that ‘Gardening’ was not a popular tag: the closest one is ‘Nature’.

I’ve since found some interesting gardening blogs by searching for seasonal flowers – such as snowdrops or hellebores in winter; daffodils in spring; roses in summer – whatever’s in flower in your neck of the woods. You can be sure that gardeners’ thoughts – and cameras – will be turning to them.

Drawing a blank on a WordPress search

I don’t mind betting that as you do your research you’ll quickly find words and common phrases that bring back no results. How can this be possible, given the millions of posts published on WordPress?

My gut feeling – which could be wrong – is that thousands of people are searching fruitlessly on WordPress for more specific tags to find subjects they are interested in: subjects that other bloggers have recently written about.

The trouble is that too many bloggers are either not tagging at all, tagging very generally or only tagging with obscure words or long tail phrases.

If the searchers try again and search for the more general tag, they often get so many results that they can’t possibly look through them all. They still can’t find the posts they would be most interested in. Eventually they probably learn to give up looking for anything in particular. I’d argue we are all the poorer for that.

Using our earlier examples, if I search for ‘yellow climbing rose’, I find nothing listed for the past year; ‘Lady Banks rose’ offers two results; ‘plants for shade’, ten results. Am I the only one to see an opportunity here? Only WordPress would know!

Each social media platform is a little different

Your experience with tags and searches on other forms of social media may not reflect what you’ll find here on WordPress. To my surprise, there appears to be virtually only me tagging posts ‘English roses’. I’d never have expected this, especially as a similar search on Pinterest or Twitter always brings up a seemingly endless array of pins.

I do love English roses, as you’ll discover if you look around my blog, but I know I’m not their only fan. Perhaps things will change when everyone’s roses start flowering again.

I hope so – it’s getting so embarrassing to almost only see my own results if I search on this term that I’m becoming reluctant to use it. That might sound very English of me, but there’s method in my madness.

I’m very confident that once English rose loving visitors find my blog, they can easily discover more posts and pictures while they’re here, by clicking on the pages, categories, tags or widgets.

I’m not looking to dominate the online conversation – there are no points awarded for having twenty recent posts on a given tag. It’s better to cast my net further afield and use other specialist terms such as ‘fragrant roses’ or ‘double roses’ next time or perhaps even fill the ‘yellow climbing rose’ gap!


If you’re just starting your blog, or have never used categories before, take ten minutes to write down the topics you plan to write about most often. Your main subjects will form the categories for your blog.

As a general rule, I suggest you keep category names simple and straightforward. There are lots of ways of branding your blog, but using allusive, whimsical category names is not one I’d recommend. These are functional words, often called microcopy by marketeers. The clearest microcopy is almost always the most effective.

You’ll want the category names to appear often as search results in The Reader and to act as clear signposts on your blog.

If we made the wording on road traffic signs more creative and ambiguous, drivers would soon start protesting! If your categories are misleading, more people who click on them will not find what they were looking for. It’s as simple as that.

If your blog is very focused, you might only need a few subject categories. It could be as simple as: ‘Photography’, ‘Books’ and ‘Music’.

I’m writing on a fairly broad range of creative subjects on my personal blog, and am probably using too many categories: purists tell us that search engines prefer fewer as this makes it easier for them to figure out what a blog is about. Search engines and human beings have a natural aversion to duplicate content, so ideally the posts appearing for a search for ‘gardening’ on your blog should not be exactly the same as the ones for ‘nature’.

Once you’ve set your categories up, it only takes a second or two to tick the most relevant before publishing a post.

The default category

Each post must have at least one category. The WordPress default is ‘Uncategorised’: that’s honest, if rather unhelpful!

Just be aware that if you don’t tag your post and simply leave it in the default category, ‘Uncategorised’, it won’t appear in The Reader of a single soul – unless they’re already following your blog.

If you dislike ‘Uncategorised’ as much as I do, you can change your default category for posts and make your own catch-all category such as ‘Odds and ends’ or ‘Cornucopia’.

Once you’ve made this new category, either by adding it to a post or by creating it in WP Admin, you can set it to be the new default. To do this:

  • Go to WP Admin, then Settings, then Writing.
  • Change the Default Post category from ‘Uncategorised’ by selecting your new category in the drop down list.
  • Click on ‘Save changes’ at the bottom of the page.

If you mainly write on one subject, go ahead and set that as the default instead – you can simply tick in a different one when creating your post if needed.

Advanced uses for categories

Once you’ve created plenty of interesting blog content in your different categories, you can start to use them to give your blog more dimension than just simply streaming all your posts in date order. For example:

  • Enable the category widget to signpost your visitors to all posts on a subject.
  • Use categories to create pages that automatically display all the posts you publish on a particular subject.
  • Group related categories together, using links.
  • Set some of your widgets to appear with posts in particular categories only. For example, my Flickr account is mainly pictures of flowers, so I’ve set my Flickr widget to appear only on posts in the gardening category.
  • If you feel that one category has grown so much that it really deserves a blog of its own, you can use categories to export all your posts on a subject to create a new WordPress blog.

I often recommend that bloggers take Blogging101, one of the free WordPress BloggingU courses. If any of this has wet your whistle to find out more, look out for the next one.

I sometimes wish it was easier to find other like-minded bloggers on WordPress. The best we can do is resolve to be a good citizen and offer a welcoming hand to other bloggers by taking a little extra time to use tags and categories thoughtfully each time we post.

If we all do this, I don’t mind betting we’d make more connections with other bloggers and find lots more interesting content too.

A few links

WordPress does a great job of SEO for us but what can we do to help?

Read the official WordPress information about tags.

Take a look at my review of the Blogging101 course.

8 Replies to “Blogging tips: tags and categories”

  1. Good information. I wish I’d thought a bit about my categories first. I have way too many of them.

  2. Great post… I didn’t know that about more then 15 tags. I don’t think I ever had more then 15 but it is good to know. I just started using categories a few months ago and it does help sort my posts in the archives.
    I also applaud you for wanting to help others! We all appreciate it because it helps us to do better at blogging but also helps us to connect with others!

  3. very thorough as usual – BUT

    I thought the categories weren;t counted in the numbers game, and have been adding up to 15 tags to each post – most of mine need them – are you sure they aren’t getting searched – you have really worried me. Before I did blogging101, i was adding even more tags – but cut them down because I was told that 15 was the cut off point – for tags only???

    1. The WordPress information I linked to in the posts section on tags says ’15 tags and categories (total)’. One quick check is to search The Reader for some of the tags you’ve used immediately after posting and see if your post appears.

      There are other reasons why posts may not appear – the Missing Posts section of the WordPress information goes into more detail on that.

  4. Great info Sue. I was surprised by the 15 post/category info. So important to know all of this. I didn’t even know what SEO meant! Must go check out your other suggested links. Tx. 🙂

  5. This is a good lesson on tags and catergories because I was clueless about the difference between the two before. I’m going to be working on mine for sure.

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