Keeping a taxonomy up-to-date will be very useful in repurposing content on the site, tagging content properly so you can find it again, and allowing visitors to filter the content. While this article generally refers to a website or site, a taxonomy can be applied to any objects within a content management system (CMS), or digital asset management (DAM) system, or other software that controls files.

What Is a Taxonomy?

A taxonomy is a fancy name for a controlled list of terms. You can use the taxonomy values to classify, categorize your pages, content objects, images, and other various files. A back-of-the-book index is used to find significant references of a topic or a person within the book’s content. A taxonomy is very similar, allowing you to keep track of your content and find it again. When you create a page, you tag it with a term. When you want to find that page again, you can look it up by that term. Other people can find it this way, too.
If you have used Amazon or Zappo’s, you’ve used taxonomies. When you visit, you can narrow down shoe results by colour, size, width, brand, shoe style, shoe material. These lists are all values in a taxonomy applied to a specific shoe. It lets you narrow down your results to find the types of shoes you want.

Why Use a Taxonomy?

A taxonomy allows you to find all content related to a certain topic. If you wanted to find all information about property taxes, you could look up this information using the taxonomy. As a writer and editor, you may need to find information regarding a topic so you can reference it elsewhere. You might want to find all content objects on a specific subject, so you can use the taxonomy to help you find it. Site visitors might be interested in filtering search results by a certain topic or community name.

Also, when building a page, you can tell content modules to pull in content based on taxonomy terms. For example, a content module can pull in events about agricultural education. While the event might be a page type, “agricultural education” is a taxonomy term.
When you search, a taxonomy helps you narrow down your search results to the most relevant results. It’s not meant to pinpoint a file, but give you relevant results from which you or the site visitor can choose the most relevant result.

How To Build a Taxonomy

A taxonomy keeps track of preferred terms, alternative terms, synonyms as well as a hierarchical listing of terms. To build a taxonomy, you do an audit of all the content or images or videos you have, come up with a list of terms, and then consolidate these terms. You choose preferred terms and synonyms for these terms. You then tag your content with these terms. People can browse through the CMS or DAM to find content, or they can search and the search results page can allow users to narrow down results by taxonomy terms.

Instead of listing out every possible term and using them all as preferred terms, we can make our taxonomy more general by saying “The preferred word should be USED FOR this alternative term.” In other words, you might want to tag something with “noxious weeds,” but your taxonomy tells you that when you want to use “noxious weeds” you should use “weeds.” “Weeds” is used for “noxious weeds.”

Synonyms are just that — different words with the same meaning. You can list these in your taxonomy, then your taxonomy acts as a thesaurus.

Use For and Synonyms are particularly useful when searching for things. If the writer, editor or visitor searched for “noxious weeds,” she might get only one hit. Even though she was looking for information about noxious weeds, one page doesn’t give her much confidence that she has all the results. Also, she might have wanted to know more about weeds, not just the noxious ones. If the system knows that when a user searches for “noxious weeds” that it’s ok to return “weeds” as well, then the user will get more search results.

The Difference Between a Taxonomy Term and a Keyword

You might say that a taxonomy is a general categorization about the page whereas a keyword is a specific person or concept on the page. If you’re writing an article about the president of the United States, the article’s more general category would be “United States presidents” and the specific person or topic would be “Barack Obama.” Since the taxonomy accommodates more general terms, “United States presidents” is in the taxonomy. “Barack Obama” becomes a keyword for that article.

Two Audiences for the Taxonomy

It’s important to remember that there are two audiences for the taxonomy: internal employees such as writers and editors and external users. Internal staff may use the taxonomy to: find all the content related to the topic; tag content with a taxonomy term so it can be found again; contribute to the maintenance of the taxonomy. External users will use taxonomy values to help narrow down search results.

When to Make Updates to the Taxonomy

You might find that you’re consistently adding a term as a keyword, but you think it should be used in the taxonomy. Once you start to get a lot of content with a specific keyword, you will want to make it easier to find all the items with this keyword. Adding this keyword as a taxonomy term helps people find all the content.

How to Make Updates to the Taxonomy

Even though you want to add a new term to the taxonomy, you still need to ask others if they agree. It’s simply a matter of discussing it with the team and asking a few questions:

  • Do we use this keyword a lot?
  • If we added the keyword as a taxonomy term, would it return enough results?
  • If we added the keyword as a taxonomy term, could we then pull this content into other pages on the site or not? Would we use it elsewhere besides the search results?
  • Is there another word in the taxonomy that is close enough that we can list this new keyword as a synonym?
  • Are we splitting hairs or not?

More Resources

This document isn’t exhaustive, but is meant to give you a basis for maintaining your taxonomy. The one key resource to read, which will lead you to more information, is the book The Accidental Taxonomist by Heather Hedden.