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Taxonomy mistakes results in poor user outcomes.

Common Taxonomy Mistakes and How to Fix Them

This blog is part 2 of a 3-part series on Taxonomies. To read part 1 on an Introduction to Taxonomies, click here. To read part 3 on How to Evaluate and Test Taxonomies, click here.

As you learned in the previous post in our series on taxonomies, the word taxonomy can have different connotations. For example, Ernesto’s post pointed out that taxonomy has its roots in scientific classification but has been adopted by web designers and marketers to structure websites and improve user experience. With that range of meanings in mind, it’s easy to understand why the term taxonomy can create confusion for anyone trying to understand how to apply it.

To add to this confusion, many of us learn about taxonomy concepts in bits and pieces. Personally, I first learned about taxonomies from a very formal perspective in a library science class. In that class, we discussed taxonomy at a highly conceptual level, typically using examples where taxonomies were used to organize huge amounts of information in an academic setting. In contrast, after moving into the web development world I learned we aren’t always trying to classify everything on a site. Instead, we use smaller and, quite often, flat taxonomies to support specific functions of a site.

Using taxonomy shouldn’t be scary or overwhelming, but it’s easy to see how one might get confused about how to classify content on a site. In this article, we’ll discuss some common confusions about taxonomies and ways to make sure you don’t fall into any traps.

Common Taxonomy Confusions and Clarifications

1. Taxonomies Are Keywords

When you add keywords to a piece of content using free text, you associate metadata with that content. This can certainly be a useful tool. Not only can keywords describe a document with a lot of precision, they also mean you don’t have to choose a best fit for your taxonomy.

Taxonomy is effectively a series of keywords.
Taxonomy is effectively a series of keywords—carefully organized with users in mind.

However, this free-form approach cannot provide the structure that taxonomies can. Taxonomies allow developers to design systems that rely on taxonomic terms to dynamically generate pages. Imagine trying to do this with a system based on free-text keywords chosen by the content publisher. The page would miss terms that had been created ad-hoc by content publishers and things would be harder to find. In addition, you wouldn’t be able to make complex associations because the system wouldn’t be prepared to handle variations.

How to Fix It

Avoiding this confusion is pretty easy if you structure content publishing in your content management system and provide training for your content team. For example, you could require content publishers to associate a taxonomic term with a piece of content and teach them what consequences that association will have.

Also, instead of relying on trendy keywords to populate your drop-down filters, use your research to designate more precise terms for your taxonomy. The inherent differences between these carefully chosen terms will guide users to choose the correct option for the information they needed.

2. Your Top Level Navigation Should be a Taxonomy

When you look at a map of your site structure, you will notice it looks a lot like a taxonomy because pages are organized hierarchically beneath others. Furthermore, you could take that structure and translate it directly into a navigation system. In that system, you would have to drill down from the largest categories to find content.

However, there is no reason your top navigation system has to be a perfect representation of your site structure. In fact, translating a taxonomic site structure into your navigation system will likely limit your designers’ ability to highlight and lowlight certain sections of a site to better meet user needs. Furthermore, there’s no rule against crosslinking a page that technically lives in one section to another section where it may also be useful to users.

How to Fix It

Your navigation system must match user needs and reflect the key functions of your website above all else. For example, sections like Terms of Service may technically occupy a high level in a site structure, but you don’t want to put a link to that section in your top-navigation because it won’t be a section that many users need to access. Since needs will differ for any site, be sure to use user research (including testing, which Laura will cover in our next post) and business objectives to help you choose what to prioritize.

3. Taxonomies Must Have Multiple Levels of Classification.

As Ernesto pointed out in the first post in this series, the classic example of a taxonomy is the scientific classification of species. This hierarchical taxonomy illustrates the informational power of hierarchy because you can infer things about a species based on the chain of broader classes that it belongs to.

How to Fix It

Hierarchical taxonomies for top level navigations are frequently used in eCommerce sites.
Hierarchical taxonomies for top level navigations are frequently used in eCommerce sites.

Hierarchical structure is great for scientific classification and it may be appropriate on your website, but there’s nothing wrong with a single level, or “flat,” taxonomy. In this taxonomy structure, no term is nested under any other. In fact, it’s probably the most common we interact with on the web. Many dropdown filters are actually flat taxonomies. For example, consider the body style taxonomy on a used car website. As you can see from the screenshot, the taxonomy includes no hierarchy but places each car into a class.

Of course, viewing an organizational system as a flat taxonomy is a matter of perspective because there is usually some way to add hierarchy if you want. For example, it would be easy to create a second level of classification from the used car list if you grouped all the pickup trucks in a pickup class, all the vans in a van class, and so on. Whether you need to do that or not is the question you need to address as the organizer. That in mind, the next post in this series will address how to test taxonomies with your users to find the right one for your needs.

A Great Taxonomy Takes the Right Team

After reading this far, you may be ready to jump into taxonomical work without hesitation. However, if you’re feeling like you need some help, you’re not wrong—producing a good taxonomy requires a lot of work, including research, design, and testing. The right team can make sure you get taxonomy right the first time to avoid having to clean up a content mess later.

The good news is that there are professionals who spend all (well, a lot) of their time tuning taxonomy and organization who are willing to help. For example, at Atlantic BT, our Information Architect, User Researcher, Content Strategists, and developers all bring their perspectives to creating powerful and well-planned taxonomies. Feel free to contact us if you have questions.

In the next article in this three-part series, we’ll everything you need to know about testing and validating a taxonomy. You can review Ernesto’s introduction to the topic here .