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Introduction to Taxonomies: the Signposts of Your Web Site

This blog is part 1 of a 3-part series on Taxonomies. Read part 2 on Common Taxonomy Mistakes or part 3 on How to Evaluate and Test Taxonomies if you want to skip ahead.

What the hell are taxonomies? How do taxonomies work? Why are taxonomies important to effective web design?

This post will tackle these questions and more as an introduction to taxonomies. In two follow up posts, we will cover 1) common misconceptions about taxonomies as well as best practices, and 2) techniques to test taxonomies to ensure they’re working and how to fix them if they are not. Let’s begin with where the word “taxonomy” came from.

Origins of the Term Taxonomy

The first use of the word taxonomy dates back to ancient Greece, by none other than Aristotle. He developed the concept as a way to classify organisms (Mantelow, 2017), which later evolved and became known as scientific classification.

Hierarchical taxonomy: Scientific Classification

In the scientific classification system of taxonomy, each species has a set of specific categorizations that are unique to only one species. In other words, each organism has a unique combination of domain, kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species that identify it.

Modern definitions of the term taxonomy take the same concept of classification and apply it to different fields. One such definition is the Drupal definition, which explains taxonomy as a way of classifying content. The Drupal definition is the most common in the marketing space, since marketers generally don’t deal with species. However, this definition can be overly broad as there are many ways of classifying content, encompassing everything from hierarchical relationships to faceted classifications. To better grasp the nature and purpose of taxonomies, let’s discuss how marketers and web designers use them.

How to Properly Use a Taxonomy

One of the main purposes of a taxonomy is to dictate a website’s navigation. While the taxonomy is not the only tool for laying out the navigation, it is an essential aspect.  If we think of navigation as a map, a taxonomy serves as the instructions and street signs that guide you to your destination. As with routes on a map, there can be multiple ways to navigate a site and get to the same destination, or there may be only one way. Let’s take a look at two examples of taxonomies and how they impact your user experience.

Hierarchical Classification System

Sometimes there is a single route to get from point A to point B on a website (In our map metaphor, these routes are our back-country roads.). A hierarchical classification system is a perfect example. With this type of taxonomy, there is usually a single way to navigate to a specific page/content. A site that contains a food menu dividing up food items by Meats, Fruits, and Vegetables is a hierarchical classification system.

Food Menu

Like in the scientific classification hierarchy, each food item falls under a specific category. A cabbage can’t be a meat, an apple can’t be a vegetable, etc. As you can imagine, a hierarchical classification system works fine for simpler sites like the menu example above. However, if you need to accommodate more complex user journeys, you will need a more flexible type of taxonomy.

Faceted Classification System

A faceted classification is an example of a taxonomy that can direct you to the same content through different paths. This type of taxonomy organizes content on multiple dimensions, or facets. As Merriam-Webster puts it, a facet is “any of the definable aspects that make up a subject or an object.” Unlike Aristotle’s classification taxonomy, a faceted classification does not have to be hierarchical. A good example of a faceted classification system is Zappos’ shoe filtering scheme.

In this case, there are multiple navigation routes (read: filters) to get to the same shoe. For example, a pair of size 8 Nike running shoes can be found on the Zappos site by searching size 8 on the site filter, Nike under the brand filter, or Sneakers and Athletic Shoes under the Category filter. All three filters will bring up the same Nike size 8 running shoes. However, each search will be different because not all size 8 shoes are Nike and not all Nike shoes are sneakers and athletic shoes.

Taxonomies Help Users Find What They Want

Adding proper taxonomies to your site’s content provides your users with digital signposts to find what they are looking for. Without the proper structure from taxonomies, your site navigation can be a pain that can lead to losing users.

There are more types of classifications out there, but the two examples above provide a good understanding of how taxonomies work in web design. Be sure to explore the second post of this series to learn about common taxonomy misconceptions and best practices. If you have any questions, feel free to leave them in the comments below.