Tags and categories, oh my! Content organization explained

The layman's guide to content taxonomies and folksonomies

Whether its blogging, web content management, or even old fashioned document management (yes, it’s old fashioned - more on this later), every time I’ve sat down with a client to discuss the subject, whomever I’m talking with has raised the question of categories and tags. Specifically, what’s the difference between the two?

The question arises because they appear so often together and from one perspective are the same thing. They’re words associated with your content - content labels - and there’s rarely any clear explanation through words or design how they differ. Except that nobody I know has heard of a category cloud.

Putting clouds aside, there are two ways of breaking down the difference. First, categories come from a taxonomy and tags from a folksonomy. Second, categories describe what the content is and tags describe what the content says.

The quick difference between taxonomy and folksonomy stems from planning and hierarchy. A taxonomy is a way of organizing content hierarchically with predefined context. Think biological classification. A folksonomy is a flat way of organization content that typically relies on how authors or readers perceive the content.

The start of your taxonomy is relative to your content. Let’s say you have an article about bouldering in Carderock. If you posted this article on a site about rock climbing, you might categorize it under “bouldering” or “boulder areas”, either of which could be top level categories. If instead you posted the article on a site about the Washington, DC area, you might categorize the article under “outdoors” or “recreation”. Two totally different ways of categorizing the same articl because the taxonomies are different.

Not particular to rock climbing? A restaurant review of the marvelous Kabob Palace would be categorized under “Restaurants” in a guide to DC area but categorized under “Kabobs” on a site specifically about restaurants. There’s no hard reason why you can’t categorize content in multiple ways - “reviews” and “cheap eats” - but you should limit this as much as possible to avoid confusing your readers and mucking up your content organization.

The tags for an article posted within two different taxonomies would probably be a lot more similar. Tags describe what’s in the content itself. So the tags for the restaurant review might be “review”, “5 stars”, “24 hours”, “kabobs”, “Afghan”, “Crystal City”, “hilarious” (it included a funny anecdote from a customer), etc. You’ll notice that the tags implicitly describe different unnamed attributes about the article. Where it fits into the content management scheme will change based on the relative taxonomy, but the attributes of the article do not.

As for whether categories and tags can overlap, they certainly can, but if you’re using lots of overlapping categories and tags for the same content then you need to review your taxonomy, and whether you should even have one to begin with.

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