What’s the Difference Between WordPress Categories and Tags?

Tags and Categories are a great tool for WordPress users. They can help you organize your site content and improve your site’s search engine optimization.

When you start a new WordPress site, Tags and Categories are two of the very first features you will see. We have a detailed guide to Tags and another detailed guide to Categories, but what are the differences between them?

In this guide, we explain the differences between Tags and Categories and give you some guidance on how to use them for optimizing your WordPress site.

Parent and Child Relationships

The main difference between Categories and Tags is the ability to create levels of Categories. Categories are hierarchical, which means terms can be organized into a parent-child relationship. 

Here’s an example: you could have a Category called “Fruit”, and under this Category you could have categories called “Apples”, “Bananas”, “Grapes”, and “Peaches”. Tags are not hierarchical, which means there’s no relationship between them. You can still add the same words as Tags, but by default they can not have relationships. You can modify this using the Taxonomies screen in TaxoPress.

You can see this structural difference by looking at the two boxes for adding Categories and Tags, as in this screenshot below:

Different metaboxes for Tags and Categories in WordPress

Frontend Display of Tags and Categories

Where Tags and Categories appear on the frontend will normally depend on your theme.

This screenshot below shows how Categories and Tags appear in the “Twenty Twenty-One” theme. In this example, the terms are on the right side of the post and text is added before the terms.

View categories and Tags on a WordPress post with the Twenty Twenty-One theme

This screenshot below shows where Categories and Tags appear in the “Twenty Twenty-Three” theme. The terms are displayed in different locations.

View categories and Tags on a WordPress post with the Twenty Twenty-Three theme

Different URLs for Archive Pages

Every term in WordPress has a dedicated archive page that displays a list of posts assigned to that term. By default, the archive pages for Categories and Tags will use different permalinks:

  • Parent categories: /category/fruit/
  • Child categories: /category/fruit/apples/
  • Tags: /tag/fruit/

You can change the URL of the category pages by going to “Settings” then “Permalinks”. You can also remove “Category” or “Tag” from your permalinks.

Categories Are for Broader Topics

This next difference is from personal experience and doesn’t reflect any technical differences between Categories and Tags.

In real-world usage, I normally see Categories used for broad topics or themes. For example, Categories may be used for high-level groups, such as “Country” or “Continent”. In contrast, Tags may be used for more specific groups, such as individual countries.

More Tags than Categories

This difference is related to the one above. Because Categories are used for broader topics, many sites will have more Tags than Categories. As I’m writing this post, we have 4 Categories and 39 Tags here on TaxoPres.com.

There’s no “correct” way to do this, but most experts recommend less than 10 Categories or Tags per post. If you add too many terms, you’re likely to add several that are not very relevant. Here’s how to control the number of terms per post.

Technical Differences

There are very few technical differences between Tags and Categories in WordPress. This makes it very easy to convert a Tag into a Category and vice versa.

I recommend reading this guide on how taxonomies are stored in the WordPress database. The screenshot below shows the _term_taxonomy table with both Tags and Categories. This table contains only two columns to distinguish tags and categories:

  • taxonomy: This is the name of the taxonomy.
  • parent. This contains the ID of any parent term.
The _term_taxonomy table in WordPress

Tags vs Categories Summary

The differences between Tags and Categories are relatively minor in WordPress. If your term is in the wrong taxonomy, It’s possible to move terms from one taxonomy to another. The same is true with most taxonomies. If you use TaxoPress to create a custom taxonomy, it will be very similar to your existing taxonomies.

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