I am not sure if tags based navigation would be easier for users. In our web we categorize software (like download.com) and categories maybe are hard to understand.


3 Answers 3


I personally prefer tagging to using categories.

The advantages of categories:

  • clearly defined
  • could be hierarchical
  • static (in most cases)

The advantages of using tags:

  • unstructured
  • could be very easy user-defined

The advantages of using tagging is that the amount of tags something can have is unlimited, and ultimately users can tag items themselves. This is allows for a nice level of user-interaction, and your data will improve by each user adding a tag.

Navigation based on tags is then actually searching on any combination of tags, and will allow to get a very precise wanted collection of results. E.g. very good examples of succesfull tagging are (imo):

  • stackexchange
  • gmail
  • flickr
  • 1
    It's important as well to point out that the strengths of each approach are also an inherent weakness. For example: categories are well-structured, clearly defined, etc. However, this organization requires concerted effort of a user/community to establish a category structure that makes sense. On the flip side, tags do offer great flexibility. However, this flexibility tends to lead to a much messier, inconsistent classification.
    – rinogo
    Dec 2, 2014 at 22:38
  • Ultimately, I think Wordpress' definitions of the two helps distinguish how they are different. Categories: codex.wordpress.org/Glossary#Category Tags: codex.wordpress.org/Glossary#Tag
    – rinogo
    Dec 2, 2014 at 22:39
  • Thanks for these additions. I agree the strengths are also its weaknesses. It depends on what you prefer. Rigid or more loose. I have the feeling you were trying to make a point, but it is not quite clear to me which one.
    – nathanvda
    Dec 2, 2014 at 23:13
  • Not advocating one over the other - just that to make an informed decision, one needs to consider the advantages and disadvantages of each approach. Your (quite helpful) answer only addresses the advantages.
    – rinogo
    Dec 2, 2014 at 23:45

I think it depends on your audience, if they are young and tech-savvie then tags could work well, but less experienced users can find them difficult and much less browseable. There was a similar question on stack oferflow and one of the answers from a google interaction designer was useful to me.


The relationship between items and categories typically is one-to-many (in a typical taxonomy items cannot belong to more than one category), while tags are many-to-many (multiple tags for each item). Categories are most often predefined, tags can more easily be user-defined. You can even use both at the same time, although that implies added complexity.

Which is better for your application depends on the domain, characteristics of your users, and the terms they are familiar with.

Some questions I'd ask:

  • Is it possible to define a single taxonomy that is clear to your users? Then categories could work well, and there may be no need for tags. You can test your existing scheme with reverse card sorting ('tree testing'), or try to find a better scheme and better terms with an open card sort.
  • What kind of search terms are your users using? Are they successful in what they are trying to accomplish? What kind of language do they use in the offline world? Especially if they are naive casual users of your application, it can be desirable to stay as close as possible to the terms they normally use.
  • What is the cost of a misclassification? How undesirable are wrong tags? This may influence your decisions on allowing users to do tagging versus keeping the classification in your own hands.

A pragmatic approach would be to test both. Take a subset of items, define both categories and tags, present these to some real people (in the hallway?) and watch how they react.

  • 1
    How is it that "items cannot belong to one category"? There are often IA designs where an item only belongs in one category. Second, your definition of tags as many-to-many is flawed, particularly when "multiple tags for each item" is not an example of many-to-many. When you finally say that tags are often user defined, you are getting to the point. Category=taxonomy, while tag=folksonomy. The fact that tagging is user-generated means it cannot be wrong. You may not want to allow it because it's not very accurate (and that's often the problem with tagging - little meaning). Apr 8, 2011 at 17:37
  • Sorry, I should have proofread it better before posting, "items cannot belong to one category" is wrong and absolutely not what I intended. I've edited it know. Thanks for pointing it out.
    – Marielle
    Apr 8, 2011 at 21:20

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