Tags are not Categories

This shouldn’t be so hard to understand:
Tags are not categories.

Enough has been said about this already — I hate to be a semantics-fiend, and I dislike discussing things like tags with my hat on, all serious, but this one is clutching me by the throat.

Now the fact that wp.com reads the categories a post is assigned to as “tags” and tell technorati, ice-rocket and whoever else is listening that the tags for the post are the categories I put it in, it is terrible to think that I don’t really have tags. I would have “tagged” this very post with “tags” if I had real tags. I am not going to create a new category just so I can tag this post “tags” — kosher??

So categories can be tags but tags cannot be categories. Categories are like the huge signs you see on aisles in supermarkets – “Food”, “Hygiene”, “Frozen” etc, they guide you to sections where you can find what you are looking for. Tags are like the labels on the products themselves.

Categories organize, hierarchically. Tags need not. Tags provide meta-information, Categories need not. Tags cross-connect, Categories do not. By cross connect, I mean, when you go looking for posts tagged with “Flickr” on technorati, you find posts from various sources, all about Flickr. Now if you go searching for posts tagged with “administration” in technorati, you will find everything from system administration tips to posts regarding the NASA, the NSA, and general verbiage – largely due to poisoning from people who can’t get the difference between tags and categories straight, for the most.

Get your semantics right, wordpress.com folks – please :) If you don’t you are doing a disservice by poisoning so many indices that work by means of tags. Earlier today, for the nth time, I ended up with a wordpress.com blog as the result, and the entry was totally unrelated to what I was searching for on IceRocket.

And technorati, shame on you for saying

“A tag is like a subject or category. “

If I were in the business of earning my subsistence from the concept of tagging, I would try hard to make a distinction between the old and the new that I am offering, and to elucidate the advantages and novel uses of tags.

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28 Responses to Tags are not Categories

  1. Matt says:

    I would say the difference is in how people use them, not how we should control them.

  2. Carthik says:


    You have a point there, but I beleive that there are uses for both tags and categories on a WordPress blog. So it would be nice to be able to ascribe both categories and tags to posts at wordpress.com, for example. Now it seems like you have to choose one method over the other. Also, adding categories on the fly is MUCH improved in the new administration interface, but it is not trivially simple to add a whole bunch of “tags” to a post, some of which exist and some dont.

    In an ideal world, somewhere in every visible post, on the blog itself, there is a field only the author can see where he/she can type in tags, and save on the fly – sort of like it is on flickr, if you see what I mean.

    So – when an author writes a post, he puts in some categories, and types in tags in a seperate entry field, and the author has an easy way to update or add tags when he/she is reading the blog.

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  4. Petit says:

    Thanks Carthik for bringing this issue into the bright light of your arguments! You are absolutely right.

    Categories tells us to which domain this class of posts belong.

    Tags signals what matters this special post discusses, and might very well cross domains.

    Categories and tags are complimentary markup systems for finding articles of interest and should be kept in separate spaces.

    If they are not, tagging will be rendered unusable.

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  7. Meredith says:

    Excellent post, and I agree with you. I liked having LivePress automatically tag my LiveJournal posts with whatever categories I had chosen for my WordPress posts, but beyond that the two do not mix well.

  8. timethief says:

    I am a newbie who had a referral from a lovable geek to your site to help me understand the differences between tags and categories. Thank you for your clear writing and thanks also to those who commented before me. I was lost in a cloud tag and you became the cyberlites that shone through the darkness.

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  10. Sometimes I felt tags were just invented so that a particular “keyword” could be placed near the URL so that a Crawler could rate that URL higher for the near proximity of the “keyword”

    I still somewhat allow that thought of mine to stay, as it generally DOES show in the search results.

    Apart from that, a tag is just a “lazy sticker to the product”

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  16. Al says:

    Just used the export / import function from WP to get my postings to another domain my mine. Everything went all right ‘cept the tags. All my tags were shown as categories and that was really confusing. I immediately dumped the database and now will ask my brother to do everything manually for me. Trying to find something about this issue I stumbled upon your site. Your posting is more than a year old but you are still right. I don’t understand why WP is so eager to play around with tags. Their category system was perfect. Also, now links are seen as categories. It’s all really confusing.

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  21. Guy says:

    Again another newb thanking you for the clear and precise explanation.

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