Taxonomy: A “Disambiguation”

I was not able to attend the several workshops on “taxonomy” at the recent WebContent2010 conference (#wcconf) in Chicago: Tough choices were made. Yet I think I got a lot out of those workshops because of the seriously faithful tweeting coming out of them, and when I said so to some new friends, they almost all said, “How? I didn’t understand any of it…overwhelming.” I replied that when you follow a tweetstream, you only see what people understand, already interpreted for you. (Which is a recommendation, really, to follow conferences you can’t attend: Done well, the tweets will give you at least the essential points.)

Amid the summary tweets of the workshops’ content, however, I saw comments such as these:

“A workshop and a session on taxonomy and I’m still confused. Is it just me? #wcconf” – @EvanKittleton

“Ouch. My head hurts. Taxonomy not an easy beast to wrestle. #wcconf” –  @cc_holland

A lot of the confusion centered on how the idea of taxonomy relates to—and differs from—other elements of Information Architecture, such as sitemaps and navigation. Are they the same thing? Is it just your metadata?

With the guidance of my best-bud colleague Becky Bristol as technical reviewer (@paintingblue) I’m going to try to “disambiguate” it, that is, to explain and clarify.

Disclaimer: I’m an explainer, not a taxonomist, so if you’d like to help with the definition, please by all means chime in.

The Roots of Taxonomy

“Taxonomy” is an ancient scientific practice. It means to find names for things. In naming things, you try to figure out how sets of things are related to one another, so that each, unique item will not only have a unique name, but also a reference to the others to which it relates.

Taxonomy creates a hierarchy of inheritance, from general down to specific and back: A giant tree, on which there is a unique place for every item, like the leaves at the ends of twigs at the ends of branches connected to a trunk and running deep into the earth.

In order to build a taxonomy in the scientific sense, you have to create a framework that tells you how to name a thing. This is the “schema.” The most famous schema was created by Carl Linnaeus, an 18th Century Swedish botanist, to categorize and name life on Earth. It has eight, major taxonomic ranks:

Domain -> Kingdom -> Phylum (botany)/Division (zoology) -> Class -> Order -> Family -> Genus -> Species

If you’re REALLY geeky, you can lay it out in Latin:

Regio -> Regnum -> Phylum/Divisio -> Classis -> Ordo -> Familia -> Genus -> Species

There are only certain terms you can put into those fields. Imagine drop-down boxes from which you MUST choose. Let’s try it on ourselves, humans:

Domain Kingdom Division Class Order Family Genus Species
Eukarya Animalia Chordata Mammalia Primates Hominidae Homo H. Sapiens

When the terms don’t apply at a certain point, then you get to pick a new term, which at that point, creates a new branch. If you find a new item in nature, something that hasn’t been named before, you get to name it yourself, but you will use the same set of terms down the tree as far as you can to demonstrate your new species’s relationship to all other life.

Taken altogether, this classification system becomes the official way of understanding the whole world of animals, plants, and bacteria. Taxonomy is powerful because it is universally adopted: You could try to work out a new system, but then you’d have to explain it to everyone and get buy-in for it to mean anything to anyone else but you. It is at this point that we make the transition to the Web…

Taxonomy on the Web

Now at some point, the word “taxonomy” was appropriated by information architects to talk about web content. When one discipline borrows from another’s, the meaning and use of the term can change significantly, and so “taxonomy” doesn’t mean to the web professional quite what it means to the biologist.

A website’s taxonomy describes how all the content relates to each other. Through its rigidly controlled network of meaning, there is a way to say with confidence:

“Item X and Item Y are in the same group. When you look at Item X, you may also be interested in Item Y.”

We take this kind of connection for granted these days because Amazon and other e-commerce giants have made such ubiquitous and successful use of taxonomy to sell related things, but it’s really quite difficult to establish those kinds of relationships in your content without taxonomy.

In summary to this point, then, “taxonomy” on a website is a classification system that maps all your content to other content. Taxonomy on a website creates a scaffold that holds your content together.

Not one taxonomy, but many

It gets a little more complicated from here. Whereas in a biological taxonomy, we’re dealing with only one dimension of relationship, the ultimate relationship of one species to another through its name, on a website, there can be many classification systems to govern the relationship of content along many dimensions.

Let’s take with a clothing retailer. The most basic taxonomy would divide the products into groups of “kind” to answer the question, “What article of clothing is this?”

Clothing for the upper body

  • Shirts
    • Blouses
    • T-shirts
    • Polos
    • Turtlenecks
  • Jackets
    • Blazer
    • Windbreaker
  • Sweaters
    • Cardigan
    • Pull-over
    • Vest

Clothing for the legs

  • Pants
    • Dress pants
    • Jeans
    • Shorts
  • Skirts
    • Full-length
    • Wraps
    • Culottes (really a hybrid)


  • Jewelry
    • Rings
    • Earrings
    • Watches
    • Necklaces
  • Belts
  • Hats
  • Bags

So far, so good. We have a system for identifying items by basic type. But that’s not so good for sales.

There will be, then, additional taxonomies to build up a multidimensional system that organizes products into classes: For women or men, girls or boys; for casual, work or formal contexts; for outdoor or indoor; by color; by season; by ethnic origin; and so on, and so on…

But that’s just the products. There will be other content that accompanies these products, and all that content must also be organized into categories.

  • “How to” content might include tieing neckties, caring for leather, assembling an ensemble for an evening out in Paris.
  • “About us” content might go through all the ways that this company works for environmental activism.
  • Product information might include stories about where the materials came from, or who made them.

The taxonomy must account for all these dimensions of content description and classification, so that when you pull up the product page for that pair of shoes you’re considering, you also can see:

  • What other colors are available?
  • What other shoes are in its class?
  • How do you care for them?
  • What accessories would complete your outfit?
  • How have other customers worn this item? (From their photos)
  • How long it would take to get them if you clicked the button right now…?

Taxonomy implemented through metadata

All this work of understanding the interrelationship of content has a specific and practical end: Metadata.

It is beyond the scope of this article to explain the process of developing taxonomic systems and how they are then translated into metdata for your web content. It is crucial, however, to recognize that having a clear, controlled system of metadata, which is then meticulously and consistently connected to your content, is the only way to ensure that your search and coordinated applications serve up the content the user expects, in the language the user expects, in combinations that make sense to the user.

Rich, interactive experiences require taxonomy

Creating rich internet applications (RIAs) is partly about the technology to evaluate and serve up all these connections, but it is impossible without care, design, and maintenance of your content’s taxonomy.

Again, unlike our scientific counterparts, there can be no, single, universal taxonomy for web content because each content domain has its own context of purpose, vocabulary, and peculiarity.  There are commercially available taxonomic systems to get you started, but they all have to be evaluated for your specific purpose, and there will always be adaptation of the metadata.

Taxonomy, Navigation, and Sitemaps

A lot of the confusion in the workshops dealt with how a website’s taxonomy relates to the other aspects of its information architecture. As we explore these concepts, keep in mind that when done well, the taxonomy is completely invisible to the user. It just makes everything run smoothly.


The sitemap reveals the website’s overall organization. Every bit of content on a website needs a primary “home.” Ultimately, when you reach a content item, you are (virtually, of course) in a particular location on the site. The information architect’s job is to choose from the infinite range of organizational possibilities to anchor the user experience, which then is the foundation for the richness that the taxonomy creates.

The sitemap probably will reflect some basic aspects of the taxonomy underlying the content, but when you consider the richness and complexity described above, any relation between the sitemap and the taxonomy will be loose.


Navigation is more closely related to the sitemap than to the taxonomy. The main navigation provides the user an organized path around the website, intended for browsing. Like the sitemap, it may reflect some aspects of the taxonomy, but it doesn’t have to.

The taxonomy will enable, however, the local navigation options through access points to content elsewhere on the site, reached through the relatedness of content.

IAs help you put it together!

It’s the job of information architects to work all these intricacies out. The skills for designing the taxonomy and associated metadata are extensive and precise. The content strategist helps to define the content domain and the language that will best represent it, but the IA will be able to build an organizational framework that links the content domain with the technical wizardry that serves up the user experience.

In conclusion, as my best-bud Becky says, “There is no right or wrong way of [creating taxonomy]. The trick is to come up with a taxonomy that works for your users.”

I hope that this article has helped to clarify the definition of taxonomy and its application. Please offer corrections, amplifications, and clarification. It’s a matter to wide importance, and we need to get it right!

About: rsgracey

@rsgracey has spent his life moving from one area of interest to another, collecting knowledge, skills, and experience (and TOOLS!) for a wide range of creative and professional fields. If you need someone to help you "think through" any problem of information, communication, and the community, don't hesitate to call him in.


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Peter J. Bogaards, Bas Evers. Bas Evers said: warm aanbevolen, leesbare uitleg van taxonomieën en metadata RT @RSGracey: "Taxonomy: A 'disabiguation'" […]

  2. It’s fascinating, frustrating, and confusing when words take on new meanings.

    In the case of taxonomy in the world of software or web design it’s more difficult because in some projects the traditional meaning and the new meaning will sometimes clash.

    From conversations with people, it seems to me that most people see the hierarchal structure of content on a website they make the leap from hierarchy to taxonomy, but of course just because something is structured hierarchically doesn’t mean that it has been structured by the rules of a taxonomy.

    Because of this I’ve avoided using any new meanings for taxonomy, and instead discuss metadata or site structure.

    Overall I think you’ve got a great article here, but there were a couple of points I think are important to discuss:

    >> “…Amazon and other e-commerce giants have made such ubiquitous and successful use of taxonomy to sell related things, but it’s really quite difficult to establish those kinds of relationships in your content without taxonomy.”

    I don’t (and have never) worked for Amazon, but my understanding of how their recommendations work are mostly based on customer buying behavior (so relations are made by patterns found between what users are browsing, purchasing or adding to wish lists).

    >> “…Whereas in a biological taxonomy, we’re dealing with only one dimension of relationship, the ultimate relationship of one species to another through its name…”

    Living species could be classified by any number of ways (habitat, colour, type of noise they make… 😉 but like you mention earlier, the power of a taxonomy comes from it being widely adopted so that different groups of people can classify, analyze, share, discover and learn around a common set of information.

    When more complex relationships start to form, instead of using multiple taxonomies, an easier approach is to create an ontology which has must more flexible classification rules (think of a network or a graph instead of a tree).

    Traditionally, taxonomy has been a preferred approach to classification because in the past it was the only practical way to maintain a complex set of records (we were physically constrained in the past with paper based records – think back to the old stacks found in libraries).

    The potential of developing and using a taxonomy (or ontology) in software design is huge. Especially in the area of search – but from my experience, unless you’re working in document/record management, or in the area of content governance then you probably don’t need to think about taxonomy at all.

    Instead people should focus on a structure that allows people to find what they are looking for – a great place to start here might be some card sorting activities with people from your target audiences.

  3. This is a great post. Thanks for putting these details out there! I find that a lot of my clients do struggle with the difference between taxonomy, navigation and their org chart. It’s always important to write taxonomy and navigation from the customer’s viewpoint, and not from the org chart viewpoint. That’s a challenge for some!

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  5. rsgracey says:

    Hey, Matt! Thanks sooooo much for reading and commenting! I’ve been on vacation the last week, so please forgive the delay in responding.

    As I say, I’m not really a taxonomist/ontologist. I try to simplify complex ideas so that they are more widely digestible. I think, though, that your last point (i.e., [paraphrase] that one should focus more on site structure and navigation than on taxonomy) can only take one so far. If you have a small site, then creating an ontology, I agree, is a lot of work for very little gain, but navigation and site organization quickly become too complex to reveal the site’s content after a few areas and levels (across and down). Browsing becomes impossible at that point, and site search remains unreliable.

    In addition, I think it’s impossible to talk about “metadata” on its own because the risk is too great to overlook the importance of defining a formal schema. Tagging becomes inconsistent without a solid mapping of terms. So in a particular content domain where people have many ways of finding what they need, the metadata must be applied consistently according to the structure to ensure that everything falls into its rightful “place,” regardless of how the visitor defines that “place.” My own goal for content is to have it arrange itself wherever the visitor expects to find it, rather than defining a website structure to hold it.

    What do you think?


  6. rsgracey says:

    Hi, Laura! My colleague @paintingblue, who’s a librarian, says that taxonomy is really only of interest to the information architect, as it lies behind the site. The user will never see it, and even the content authors have limited access to it: Done right, most of it is applied automatically. Therein lies that challenges: Because content owners can’t see it, they have trouble understanding why it’s there. Likewise, in one of my own horror stories, content owners assume that if there isn’t primary navigation leading directly to a section of content, people won’t find it. I maintain people find good content regardless of the site structure, and no amount of direct access will increase traffic to useless content.

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