Demystifying Taxonomy

November 1, 2016 | Mara Low

Taxonomy can be a difficult concept to grasp and is often misunderstood, which is not surprising given that the industry has not settled on a single, agreed-upon definition for the term.

I will attempt to demystify the concept in this post. But, rather than boring you with an academic discussion of the etymology, history and competing modern definitions of the term, let’s explore the concept of taxonomy using an example from the wonderful world of music.

Think of your favorite song: I’ll choose Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” as an example. Which genre does the song fit into? Which subgenre(s)? Which instruments are featured? Which era does the song fit into?

Using my example, we might decide on “Rock” as the genre, and “Psychedelic Rock” as the subgenre. We might note that the song features the “Electric Guitar” and “Keyboard,” and that the era is “1960s.”

Just as a song can be described in this multi-faceted way, content on your website can be described with multiple “facets.” Organizing a website’s taxonomy into multiple facets with hierarchical structures within each facet, we can establish complex relationships between content items using a combination of attributes. This is how popular music-streaming apps like Spotify and Pandora can “guess” that I will also like “Light My Fire” by The Doors based on my initial song selection.

So, What Is Taxonomy?

At the most basic level, taxonomy is an information organization system. It is a way to categorize and relate website content. As Information & User Experience Architects, we use taxonomy (a form of descriptive metadata or contextual information) as a primary vehicle for categorizing content based on a variety of attributes to drive website functionality.

We create taxonomy terms and organize them into “facets,” i.e. thematic groups, (in my example, “Genre” and “Era” would be examples of facets), and we use hierarchy to create relationships between terms (think “Genres” and their “Subgenres). We then use these categories to create relationships between disparate pieces of content.

How Does Taxonomy Drive Web Experiences?

We use taxonomy to enhance website search experiences. Faceted search, an industry best-practice, leverages taxonomy (and other metadata) to provide users with options to clarify and refine a set of search results. It is important to note that you do not need to reveal every taxonomy facet to your users in a search interface—focus on those that provide the most utility. Also, we can leverage taxonomy terms and their synonyms and other “non-preferred terms” to create a library of suggested terms and phrases for type-ahead search and to drive “did you mean?” and related search features.

We leverage taxonomy to create browse experiences. Using a taxonomy term or terms, we can aggregate content items to support browse experiences. When people visit your website to look for information, they are approaching the task with varied mental models. Taxonomy can be used to slice and dice information in ways that will make sense for different users. For example, a more casual music listener might prefer to browse for new music they might be interested in based on an artist or song title that they like, while a dedicated aficionado may browse based on specific niche subgenres. If you use Spotify, you will notice that the application’s browse experience starts by surfacing genres for users to begin their exploration.

A solid taxonomy is the underpinning of a successful related links strategy. We use taxonomy to automatically surface supplemental, contextual content and links to aid in content discovery. For example, on a webpage about the artist Jimi Hendrix, you would encounter a list of other artists “you might also like” who are “tagged” with the same Genre, Subgenre, Era, or any combination of these.

Taxonomy allows us to automate content re-use across channels. We can syndicate topical, relevant content (share to other websites and application using an API) using a specific taxonomy term or terms to ensure relevancy. For example, you could automatically generate an email with a list of the newest songs in a subgenre or subgenres that you know a user is particularly interested in. For example, I love Electro Swing, so an email targeted to my preferences might feature MrBiggz' Electro Swing Remix of Travelin' All Alone by Billie Holiday.

Developing a Taxonomy

Developing a taxonomy for your website should be an integrated part of any website redesign project, and designing and implementing it properly requires a multidisciplinary team of experts. At TBG, our User Experience Architects work with subject matter experts and developers to design taxonomy models that make sense for your organization and your users.

Your website taxonomy must be useful to your users (customers and internal users). This may sound like a “no-brainer,” but it is important to keep your users and their needs in mind when developing a website taxonomy. Use language that is relevant and appropriate for your users—and avoid institutional jargon! Leverage synonyms to support the needs of people coming to your site with varying levels of knowledge on and experience with a given topic. For example, you could have “Emotional Hardcore” as a synonym of “Emo.” (By the way, a subgenre of “Emo” is “Screamo.”)

Your taxonomy must be functional. When designing your taxonomy, consider how you will use it to support navigation, browse and search experiences, as well as your related links strategy. On this note, you would likely only use the genre/subgenre hierarchy if you had an extensive music collection. For a smaller set of content, you might decide to make subgenres synonyms of a given genre, such that these terms can be searched by front-end users and content editors but ultimately resolve to a genre page. Think of how frequently new subgenres crop up in newer genres like “Hip Hop” – “Trap,” “Drill.”

Use facets to disambiguate terms by proving additional context. Facets should be mutually exclusive with each facet containing a hierarchy of terms that is no more than 2-3 levels deep.

This approach allows for a range of specificity in relationships and helps ensure that your taxonomy is flexible enough to add and change child (level 2 and 3) terms without having to re-program your site. For example, in its early days “Dubstep” might have been a subgenre to “Breakbeats,” but now the style has expanded (for better or worse) to include numerous derivatives or subgenres of its own including such creatively named styles as “Brostep,” “Trapstep,” and “Chillstep.” All this to say that as context changes IRL (in real life), so too must your taxonomy.

Hierarchical relationships within a taxonomy facet should have a true broader or narrower relationship. The narrower term should be a specific type, or part of, a generic broader term. For example, we can make “Hip Hop” a parent term with subgenres like “Crunk,” “Raga” and “Country Rap” as its children.

But, wait a minute, aren’t “Raga” and “Country Rap” also subgenres to “Reggae” and “Country” respectively? Yes! Information relationships can rarely be expressed in simple hierarchical structures. We can handle this complexity using a polyhierarchical structure within a given taxonomy facet. That is to say, a child term may be “repeated” at more than one place within a given taxonomy facet if it has multiple broader terms.

In this scenario, you generally want to make a choice as to which parent a child taxonomy primarily belongs to, and then assign the alternative paths to the category as well. For instance, you might decide to make “Raga” primarily a child of “Reggae” and create a connection to the alternate instance of the term under “Hip Hop.” Making this distinction can sometimes ease adoption (while also supporting a road map for technical implementation).

Operationalize your taxonomy. Content editors need to understand the importance of metadata so that they will consistently “tag” content with relevant taxonomy terms to drive website functionality. Make sure taxonomy terms are easy to apply by using hierarchically organized facets that are broad and shallow. This goes back to the recommendation above to never go beyond 3 levels of terms.

Taxonomy should not be thought of as a one-time effort. You should continuously evaluate and manage your website taxonomy. Your user base and users’ mental models are constantly shifting and evolving, so it’s important to conduct periodic reviews of website analytics to “reality check” your taxonomy models post-launch. Looking at category usage analytics can help provide insight into the relevance and distribution of terms in your taxonomy facets, and reviewing site search query analytics can help uncover new synonyms or even completely new terms that would help your users find the content they want. (Regardless of vertical, getting users to relevant content is the best way to ensure conversions!) Additionally, you can test your taxonomy structures through a type of user test called a “Tree Test.” This type of study strips away design and interface elements, allowing you to more easily uncover potential problems specific to the taxonomy structure.

Rock on!

About the Author

Mara
Mara Low

I am the Manager of Digital Strategy & Optimization with TBG. When I’m not crafting user experiences, you’ll  likely find me fire hula hooping, hiking, or creating up-cycled art.

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