Tags and Categories are not the Same!

[fr] Les tags et les catégories, ce n'est pas la même chose. En bref, les catégories forment une structure hiérarchique, prédéfinie, qui régit l'architecture de notre contenu et aide autrui à s'y retrouver. Les tags sont spontanés, ad hoc, de granularité variable, tournés vers le partage et la recherche d'information.

Update, Sept. 2007: when I saw Matt in San Francisco this winter, he told me he had finally “seen the light” (his words!) about tags and categories. Six months later, it’s a reality for WordPress users. Thanks for listening.

I got a bit heated up last night between Matt’s comment that tags and categories function the same and a discussion I was having with Kevin on IM at the same time, about the fact that Technorati parses categories as tags.

I went back to read two of my old posts: Technorati Tagified and Plugin Idea: Weighted Tags by Category which I wrote about a year ago. In both, it’s very clear that as a user, I don’t percieve tags to be the same thing as categories. Tags were something like “public keywords”. Is anybody here going to say that keywords and categories are the same thing? (There is a difference between keywords and tags, but this isn’t the topic here; keywords and tags are IMHO much closer in nature than tags and categories).

Here are, in my opinion, the main differences between tags and categories, from the “tagger” point of view.

  • categories exist before the item I’m categorizing, whereas tags are created in reaction to the item, often in an ad hoc manner: I need to fit the item in a category, but I adapt tags to the item;
  • categories should be few, tags many;
  • categories are expected to have a pretty constant granularity, whereas tags can be very general like “switzerland” or very particular like “bloggyfriday“;
  • categories are planned, tags are spontanous, they have a brainstorm-like nature, as Kevin explains very well: You look at the picture and type in the few words it makes you think of, move on to the next, and you’re done.
  • relations between categories are tree-like, but those between tags are network-like;
  • categories are something you choose, tags are generally something you gush out;
  • categories help me classify what I’m talking about, and tags help me share or spread it;

There’s nothing wrong with Technorati treating categories as tags. I’d say categories are a kind of tag. They are special tags you plan in advance to delimit zones of content, and that you display them on your blog to help your readers find their way through what you say or separate areas of interest (ie, my Grandma will be interested by my Life and Ramblings category and subscribe to that if she has an RSS reader, but she knows she doesn’t care about anything in the Geek category. (By the way, CTTS is not a good example of this, the categories are a real mess.)

So, let’s say categories are tags. I can agree with that. But tags are not categories! Tags help people going through a “search” process. Click on a tag to see related posts/photos. See things outside the world of this particular weblog which have the same label attached. Provide a handy label to collect writings, photos, and stuff from a wide variety of people without requiring them to change the architecture of their blog content (their categories). If you want to, yeah, you can drop categories and use only tags. It works on http://del.icio.us/. But have you noticed how most Flickr users have http://flickr.com/photos/bunny/sets/ in addition to tagging their photos? Sets aren’t categories, but they can be close. They are a way of presenting and organizing things for human beings rather than machines, search engines, database queries.

To get back to my complaint that WordPress.com does not provide real tags, it’s mainly a question of user interface. I don’t care if from a software point of view, tags and categories are the same thing for WordPress. As a user, I need a field in which I can let my fingers gush out keyword-tags once I’ve finished writing my post. I also need someplace to define and structure category-tags. I need to be able to define how to display these two kids of tags (if you want to call them both that) on my blog, because they are ways of classifying or labeling information which I live very differently.

Am I a tag weirdo? Do you also perceive a difference between tags and categories? How would you express or define it? If categories and tags are the same, the new WP2.0 interface for categories should make the Bunny Tags Plugin obsolete — does it?

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This entry was posted in Blogging, Wordpress and tagged Blogger musings, blogging, categories, Citations, classification, definition, del.icio.us, Essay-Like, flickr, folksonomy, keywords, ontology, tagging, tags, tagsonomy, ui, usability, user, Weblog Technology, Wordpress, wordpress.com. Bookmark the permalink.

37 Responses to Tags and Categories are not the Same!

  1. Matthias says:

    Couldn’t agree more. A category groups things together that are in the same, er, category. But a tag does not; it just describes one aspect of one thing.

  2. Matthias says:

    Couldn't agree more. A category groups things together that are in the same, er, category. But a tag does not; it just describes one aspect of one thing.

  3. Stephanie says:

    MooseCamp tagging session: ends with the difference between tagging and categorization. Good explanation:


  4. I agree completely and I use them the same way you do. I would even go to the extreme that I tag in multiple architectures, blinklist, del.icio.us, blog. I only really have categories on my blog and they are a very small set in comparison.

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  6. Pingback: Un avis sur la question

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  12. Salut, est-ce qu’il y a un moyen que ton greffon utilise la virgule comme séparatateur’ ? J’utilise pas mal des locutions ou simplement des mots composés sur mon autre blog, comme par exemple pour renouveau africain, et l’espace comme séparateur est un mauvais choix, tant sémantique qu’esthétique.

    Merci d’avance de ta réponse.

  13. Stephanie says:

    Je sais que quelqu’un l’a modifié pour faire ça. Regarde si les commentaires dans le code source t’aident à  le faire toi-même. Sinon regarde dans les commentaires de ce billet ou sur la page wiki.

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  15. Andrew says:

    Steph, I agree with you about the difference between tags and categories. I too have had a rather frustrating exchange of comments with Matt on the subject.

  16. mark says:

    you all may be interested in the file/email/web tagger we’re building. Check it out at http://www.sidefinder.net where you can vote on some features and steer product direction.


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  32. Doni says:

    i’m currently building my own blog when i finally realized that i didn’t understand the differences between categories and tags.


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