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Nearing the end of our ‘If Content is King’ series, readers may be worried that we’ve run out of ideas for further instalments. No need though: taxonomy is queen this month. But what is taxonomy, and have we scraped the bottom of our word barrel to bring it to you? Find out below.
The following definition from TechTarget provides a clear outline of taxonomy:
Taxonomy (from Greek taxis meaning arrangement or division and nomos meaning law) is the science of classification according to a pre-determined system, with the resulting catalog used to provide a conceptual framework for discussion, analysis, or information retrieval. In theory, the development of a good taxonomy takes into account the importance of separating elements of a group (taxon) into subgroups (taxa) that are mutually exclusive, unambiguous, and taken together, include all possibilities. In practice, a good taxonomy should be simple, easy to remember, and easy to use.
‘Taxonomy’ can seem like a fancy way of saying ‘categorisation’ or ‘classification’, and it’s true that these terms are only subtly different. That difference lies in Taxonomy’s focus on exhaustive lists, establishing hierarchical relationships between items. It is perhaps useful to consider how a popular, widely used content management system (Wordpress) defines Taxonomies:
In Wordpress, there are three taxonomies working simultaneously by default: categories, tags and link categories. The first two are applied to individual posts, and result in URLs being written for each (/category/ and /tag/). Typically, writers select between one and three ‘categories’ that describe the broad subject and write significantly more tags related to the specific actors, ideas and narrower subjects of the piece. Wordpress also allows users to define their own bespoke taxonomies: it makes sense that a site that primarily posts say, book reviews, should have taxonomies for Author, Title and Literary period.
Having a defined taxonomy for your site is clearly important: good web design is all about structures, and defining these structures logically will benefit everybody (and everything) that comes into contact with your site. Because machines are watching us all (and as hinted, they love structure), here’s a bullet point list:
Taxonomies should be unique to the type of site you are building. Whether you have a new build or you’re looking to make changes to an existing site, there are three elements of taxonomy to consider:
Once created, content can be tagged either manually or automatically against the taxonomy, probably in a continuous process. When defining each element of the taxonomy, you need to define the parameters that will lead to the inclusion of a piece of content within it.
1. Define the team (or person) responsible
Depending on the size of your organisation, you may have an entire team drawing up your taxonomy, or just a single person. Whoever the responsibility falls to, they need to be individuals who are both experts in the creation of taxonomies and in your context, users and content. Therefore, a multi-person team is always preferable in order to cover both technical and business angles.
2. Scope out the elements of taxonomy: context, users, content
Your taxonomy team will first need to define the scope of their task. They should consider:
3. Build a first draft
Analysis of the above areas then feeds into the creation of the actual design. Every element should inform the categories and hierarchy you create. Every category should have defined rules for what content falls within their remit.
Implementation of taxonomy is achieved through website design, search engineering and content management.
5. Test, learn, reiterate
No taxonomy is implemented perfectly on the first attempt. Once in place, it must be assessed from both a front and back-end perspective: it is as important to question whether site visitors can find what they want easily (and within as few clicks as possible) as it is to question whether content managers have all the categories they need. Pay attention also to whether the labels used are clearly defined, or whether ambiguity becomes apparent over time (for example, if a piece of content ‘sort of’ fits into two different categories, your taxonomy probably needs tightening up).
Once implemented, it’s important to ensure your taxonomy stays in place. However, it’s important to recognise that you never truly leave the fourth and fifth phases. If someone starts ignoring the rules, they may not simply be being difficult: they could potentially have found an issue with the existing structure, or indeed, the needs of your business, users or the content may have simply changed in such a way that your taxonomy needs to be reconsidered.
Conclusion and further reading
The process of determining a taxonomy for any and all content in your company can be an illuminating one, and one that improves search visibility. Have fun implementing your own, and check out the following resources on Wordpress and zdnet if you still have questions.