Defining taxonomy

[tak-son-uh-mee] noun, a classification into ordered categories

The basics of website taxonomy

What exactly is taxonomy and how can managing your taxonomy benefit your site?

First and foremost, taxonomy is a way of labeling and organizing things. Derived originally from the ancient Greek words taxis (arrangement) and nomia (method), taxonomy is a system for classification.

Taxonomies are everywhere. Some of the most common and classic examples of taxonomy that you'll recognize are:

  • animal kingdom classifications (e.g., mammals, fish, insects)
  • food groups (e.g., fruits, vegetables)
  • product categories on a shopping website (e.g., home, clothing, toys)
  • university communities (e.g., students, faculty, staff)

open book with pages of classified butterflies

These classifications can be further refined into hierarchical structures. In the example of university communities, students can also be classified as:

  • students
    • undergraduate
    • graduate
    • post-doctoral

Taxonomy structures can actually become very complex with inter-related labels that fall into more than one category and as a result, form many subsets and branches.

We're going to keep it simple and focus on flat taxonomies because this is what the WMS supports. A flat taxonomy is just a vocabulary that's made up of a list of terms, all of equal weight. In the WMS, we have taxonomies for Article Categories and for Tags.

Disclaimer: although taxonomy terms in the WMS can be nested in hierarchical fashion by dragging and dropping terms under a parent item, the system only supports a flat taxonomy so the weights and nesting levels themselves actually have no functional application; nevertheless, grouping can help to visually organize a list that's very long into something that makes more sense if you find that useful.

The benefits of taxonomy for your website

Classifying the content on your website with keyword tags or categories allows you to form relations between similar content. Planning for taxonomy should be an important component of your content strategy. This benefits:

  • site visitors seeking information about a certain topic
  • site managers and editors tasked with maintaining and organizing content
  • search engines that use keywords to deliver optimized results relevant to the appropriate audiences

The benefits of a well curated taxonomy are numerous. It improves the user experience by guiding visitors to find or discover content by themselves either through browsing or searching. For example, when you're finished reading this article, if you're interested in more like this, just click the Tips category at the top of this page.

Tagging content also allows content editors to get a better overview of what's on their site. By classifying content, you will be better equipped to determine if there's information on your site that needs to be removed, updated, added, or even re-used.

Finding or displaying related content in the WMS is easy since each tag has its own page (at: mcgill.ca/<sitename>/category/tags/<tag name>) which lists any content including that tag. In addition, content editors can filter by Tags in My Workbench.

Taxonomy best practices

Define your audience

A good foundation for creating your taxonomy is to base it on your audience. Your taxonomy must meet the needs of your visitors.

Keep in mind that people don't all use the same terms or have the same interpretation of words. Your keyword tags or category labels need to be clear and succinct to fit most people's mental models. For example, students may be looking for scholarships while advisors may be looking for awards. To handle such a scenario, you might need to tag any funding-related content with both scholarships and awards as keyword terms.

There are various methods available to get to know your audience better. Here are a few to consider:

  • check your Google Analytics reports to see which search terms are being used most frequently
  • talk to your audience; hold a focus group and ask them questions to reveal what's working or not
  • conduct a card-sorting exercise with a cross-section of audience members to see how they would classify your content
  • perform some usability testing; give users a task to complete and see if the labels and keywords in your taxonomy are effective
  • compare with the competition to see what other similar organizations are doing on their website

Define your goals

You must determine what you are trying to improve for your visitors as the end goal. Check against benchmarks to see if changes to your taxonomy are getting the results you wanted such as more optimized search results or higher traffic. Review your content and update or add tags wherever needed. Aim to cover as much of your content as possible so that you put your taxonomy to work to achieve your goals.

Get aligned

Be consistent with using the right tags for the right content. All content editors on your website should have a common understanding of the tags that are available and when to use them.

Step out of the silo. Share your taxonomy lists with other associated units in your organization and work together so that audiences can have a unified experience. A visitor on your website will likely also look for information on another related WMS site where they would expect the same terminology.

Stay current

Your taxonomy is not a static list. It should always be evolving and adapting to the needs of your audience. Over time, you may need to add or remove terms from your taxonomies in order to keep them up-to-date with changes to the range of services you offer or the information that you're providing. Remember that importing Channels items in the WMS also imports tags from other sources so you may need to review these additions to your taxonomy's vocabulary from time to time. 

The WMS makes it easy for you to clear out irrelevant tags through the Tag Wrangler feature that allows you to delete tags in bulk. Tag Wrangler also allows you to download all the tags from your taxonomy's vocabulary into a .csv file.

For detailed instructions on how to manage taxonomy in the WMS, see the IT Knowledge Base article Tagging content in the WMS.