If Content is King, Taxonomy is Queen

Written by Fresh Egg - 19 Dec 2012

If Content is King artwork bannerNearing 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.

What is Taxonomy?

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.

Principle benefits

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:

  • Taxonomy underpins both site navigation (including bread-crumbs, navigation bars and URL structure) and thus a clear, well-thought-out taxonomy helps the user to navigate and search your site
  • Search engines look for clear structure in evaluating the quality of your site: web crawlers will find new pages quicker and will find deeper pages too
  • Contributors to your website benefit from knowing how their content fits into your website. Not only will a good (relevant) taxonomy for your site make the administration of new posts easier, but they will always have a good idea of the kind of content that will fill the needs of the audience
  • Having a loose taxonomy or one ‘you make up as you go along’ can lead to very similar items being completely disassociated in your navigation, search functionality and leaves everything open to messy interpretation by your content managers. This problem only gets more severe as the site matures

How to create a taxonomy

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:

  • Your business context. This can include the objectives of your internet presence, the web applications you use, existing taxonomies (across existing digital and analogue content collections) and your corporate culture (how do you work together and how does this create strengths and weaknesses?)
  • Your users. Who are they, and what are their habits when it comes to digesting information?
  • Your content. The nature of your content will define what kind of taxonomical structures and parameters are useful

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.

The taxonomy process

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:

  • Within the business context, what the purpose is of even having a taxonomy, how it is going to be used and what existing taxonomies available to the business can be used in designing the site taxonomy
  • Who users are – are they customers, business partners, employees and what are their specific requirements
  • How far and wide the taxonomy needs to be applied to content. You could be applying it within a section of your website, to the whole website or even to all work produced by your content team or the organisation at large. Consider also what content – past, present and future – needs to processed by the taxonomy (working retrospectively can actually be an advantage because of this)

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.

4. Implement

Implementation of taxonomy is achieved through website design, search engineering and content management.

  • Taxonomy in website design defines the initial design for site structure and interface – at an early stage, this will likely take the form of site diagrams, navigation maps and wire frames
  • The taxonomy must be synchronised with your onsite search solution
  • Your content management workflow should include a step for applying the taxonomy to content

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).

6. Maintain

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.