Explained in 60 Seconds: Taxonomy

March 03, 2015

When we embark on a web project and begin to discuss content planning and organization, one of the terms we often throw around is “taxonomy.” What does that mean, exactly?

My first introduction to the concept of taxonomy came in middle school, when we learned the following mnemonic device for the taxonomic order for biological classification:

      King Philip’s Class Ordered Five Green Sandwiches

      Kingdom Phylum Class Order Family Genus Species

For a moment, let’s set aside the questionable decision to order green sandwiches and focus on what the mnemonic represents: a hierarchical classification structure for every living organism. Every distinct type of organism fits into its own slot within this taxonomy, with kingdom as the widest category and species as the most, well, specific.

So, for our intents and purposes, taxonomy is the categorization of content. (Sometimes, we casually refer to this as “tagging content,” but there’s a lot more to it than just applying a tag.)

Content Under Control

Heather Hedden, author of “The Accidental Taxonomist,” defines the role of taxonomy as to “provide structured categories and/or to provide a consistent vocabulary for metadata and indexing.”

A high level of consistency is critical to an effective taxonomy. Because if I have a category called Athletics and another called Sports, what’s the difference? Do I know how to categorize a particular piece of content? And will I categorize a similar piece of future content accordingly?

This is one reason why a taxonomy should not be created in isolation. It should be informed by strategic communication priorities, as well as your site map and information architecture, and be managed as part of your overarching content strategy. To wit, in 2012, Natalya Minkovsky wrote on Johnny Holland:

As content strategists, we have to think about taxonomy from the perspective of what terms and structure will help the content perform best and support the organization’s business goals. We also have to consider the longevity and flexibility of the taxonomy.

...Because taxonomy can impact everything from interface design to content management system development, the best conversations about taxonomy and content strategy usually involve diverse members of your team.

Hedden echoes the need to manage the lifecycle of a taxonomy:

Taxonomies are not static, but need follow a life cycle, as does content: planned and designed, developed and edited, possibly translated, published or implemented, used in tagging, then used in browsing and searching, and finally reviewed and analyzed for further revision.

A Closer Look

What does a taxonomy look like? Here’s a sample taxonomy for a university news site:

  • Topic
    • Humanities
    • Sciences
    • Arts
    • Research
    • Athletics
  • Theme
    • Service
    • Faith
    • Global Perspective
    • STEM
  • Audience
    • Alumni
    • Students
    • Faculty
    • Staff
    • Community

For example, you may have a news story about chemistry students volunteering as tutors at a local middle school that is classified thusly:

  • Sciences
  • Service
  • STEM
  • Students
  • Community

If you have a section of your website focused on service initiatives, you could pull in stories tagged “Service” and this one would appear. Voila!

Making Taxonomy Work For You

Taxonomy serves many purposes:

  • It can inform and support a COPE (Create Once, Publish Everywhere) strategy of web content reuse and distribution
  • It can also aid site users in content discovery by improving internal search, enabling you to serve related content, and helping surface older, evergreen content that is still relevant.
  • It can power helpful and engaging website functionality for sorting, filtering, and visualizing data. As Minkovsky explains on Johnny Holland, “Taxonomy, together with other components of information architecture and data modeling, helps designers create the interactions that drive users find the content they need and want to share.”
  • It can drive successful website personalization. Strategic Content’s Paula Land writes, “One of the main goals of personalization is to better enable customers to consume only the content they want and need. Personalization is best enabled through the use of metatags, and in conjunction with the CMS, personalization servers can deliver content tagged for the appropriate audience, location, time, date, etc.”

While consistency is important, you may determine how controlled you want your taxonomy to be based on the goals of your website. As Minkovsky points out, if your goal is to create a community-driven resource, a less strict “folksonomy” approach may be appropriate.

It’s also important not to cede the responsibility of taxonomy to a computer. A CMS may be smart and sophisticated, but it does not understand context and purpose as well as a human.

A taxonomy is only as effective as our content editors and contributors are trained to execute it. If you establish a content taxonomy as part of a web project, be sure to educate everyone who touches your website about what that taxonomy is and how to apply it to content, and seek their input on what comprises an effective taxonomy. That free-form tagging field can be awfully tempting to some would-be creative content owners, so empower people with the knowledge to use it for good and not for evil.

Want to read another take? Check out this explanation of taxonomy by Razorfish’s Rachel Lovinger over on The Language of Content Strategy, or Brain Traffic’s overview (which also encompasses the role of metadata). And if you really want to nerd out, learn more about how major news organizations like the Associated Press are using taxonomy to organize news content on a massive scale. And, just for kicks, here’s a recipe for green sandwiches.

Check out these other topics explained in 60 seconds:
URL Structure
Email Metrics
Website Governance

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