Reprinted from ASAE’s TechnoScope Newsletter, June 2008

By: Jacqui Olkin

Abstract: Like a closet organizing system, a good taxonomy helps you know where to store your “stuff” and makes it easy to find things later. Taxonomies enable us to deliver targeted content, upsell and cross-sell on the basis of what we know about site users, and provide a more interactive user experience on the web. To develop and sustain a successful taxonomy, apply a user-centered design methodology and learn the four essential steps in the development process.

A key component of a successful, user-centered website is a logical, understandable, scalable taxonomy that makes sense to site users and can sustain the evolution of your site over time. Unfortunately, there is a lot of misunderstanding about what a taxonomy is and why having a good one is vital to your site and the bottom line.

What Is Taxonomy?

A taxonomy is a hierarchical information structure that helps organize, maintain, and retrieve the information in a website, intranet, or collaboration portal. Like a closet organizing system, a good taxonomy helps you know where to store your “stuff” and makes it easy to find things later.

An effective taxonomy supports the growth of a site over time by organizing current content and site features and anticipating those you may add in the future.

Why Taxonomy?

A good taxonomy gives logical structure to a website, intranet, or portal. It helps users find what they are looking for, makes it easier for them to take the actions you want them to take, and points them to related content as well as cross-sell and upsell opportunities.

A good taxonomy also helps content providers know where to post new content so the site doesn’t get disorganized. It’s not uncommon for a site that is tidy at launch to get out of control within months if content contributors don’t understand and adhere to an established taxonomy.

In terms of the bottom line, taxonomy helps guide public website users to registration, purchase, and renewal opportunities and can help reduce calls to your staff for help finding things on the site. In intranets, a good taxonomy can save staff hours a week they used to spend finding information, forms, and links to important applications such as payroll and time-reporting systems.

Content management systems empower us to develop robust taxonomies and to use them to deliver tailored experiences on the web—but non-content-managed sites need taxonomies, too.

What’s in a Taxonomy?

We know what’s in a closet—shirts, pants, shoes, skeletons—but what’s in a taxonomy?

Information architecture, or navigation structure. Actually, a skeleton can be found in a taxonomy, too. A taxonomy includes an information architecture that acts as the skeleton, or core structure, of your site, giving the site order immediately and as it grows over time. The information architecture is how the site content is grouped and labeled and how content groups are represented in the site’s navigation menus. A good information architecture tells a site visitor, at a glance, what’s in your site and how to access that information. By revealing what’s in the site, your information architecture says a lot about your organization: what you do, what you have to offer, and the value you provide to specific audiences.

Metadata. Taxonomy also includes the attributes of content, such as when it was published, what it’s about, the title, the file name, file type, who the content is for, and common keywords associated with the content. These attributes are all “metadata,” also known as “tags.” They are literally data about the data (your content). Most content management systems automatically retain certain metadata about each content item. Beyond these out-of-the-box metadata, you can apply custom metadata to capture more attributes of your content.

Naming conventions. Also included in taxonomy are the naming conventions for navigation menu items, groups of content, document libraries and folders, and content items (including HTML articles, documents, videos, audio files, and images). These names really are metadata, as well, because they are information about the content in your site. Having and following standards for these names is essential to ensure that content is well organized and findable.

Audience groups. If content is to be targeted to particular audiences, these permissions (if content is secured by a log in) or designations (if content is publicly accessible) become part of the taxonomy. Identifying audience relevance as part of your taxonomy enables you to provide audience-based views of content and to deliver custom user experiences for different audiences.

Search criteria. In a content management system, you can configure advanced search schema to retrieve content according to specific metadata, such as file type, date, interest topic, and content type. In an intranet, this might mean enabling staff to search on the content types “quarterly financials” and “variance report.” In a public website, you could allow users to retrieve all presentations, or content related to a special interest topic. In any type of site, you could configure scoped search to retrieve information from specific areas of the site.

Development and Maintenance

To develop and sustain a successful taxonomy, apply a user-centered design methodology and make a commitment to usability and continual improvement throughout the life of your site. Here are some essential steps:

Analyze and prioritize. A usable and scalable taxonomy starts with a deep understanding of goals and priorities related to your website, your target audiences, and the content and features your site will include.

Organize and validate. Apply usability methods to develop and validate an information architecture and naming conventions that reflect site users’ needs, interests, lexicon, and conceptual models.

Dimensionalize. Flesh out your validated information architecture with metadata to enable helpful content views, cross-referencing, and search criteria.

Operationalize. Create business rules and training to empower site managers and content providers to sustain the taxonomy over time. Develop a site management plan that emphasizes continual assessment and improvement using search engine optimization, web analytics, periodic usability testing, interactive user feedback devices (e.g., “rate this article”), user surveys, and focus groups.

Got Taxonomy?

Taxonomies give sites structure, context, and relevance. Make sure you have and maintain the taxonomy that will enhance your site’s success for the long haul.


Jacqui Olkin is owner of Olkin Communications Consulting, specializing in taxonomy and information architecture