If you want to win in the content game today, you must have a clear taxonomy. A taxonomy serves to supercharge your content—helping you connect customers with the right content, deliver content across digital channels seamlessly, and analyze content performance on an ongoing basis. 

In this article, we’ll walk through the essentials of taxonomy. 

Defining Taxonomy 

Taxonomy can be a confusing concept. Let’s break it down. Here’s how Dictionary.com defines taxonomy:

  1. the science or technique of classification
  2. a classification into ordered categories

When it comes to content, this is how we define taxonomy: A system for organizing content in a complex ecosystem. The system often involves:

  • Content structure (e.g. models of types + templates)
  • Metadata (including tags)
  • Controlled vocabulary (driving attribute + tag terminology)

To clear up some of the confusion around taxonomy, here is what it is NOT:

  • Navigation
  • Site map
  • Content inventory

Why You Need a Taxonomy 

Today, customers aren’t just looking for any content. Customers now expect the right content at the right time regardless of channel—for the entire customer relationship. And when this doesn’t happen, there are consequences. We found that content is 53% less effective for people who experienced difficulty in finding it. A bad experience getting to the right content also distorts other customer perceptions, including their views of the content accuracy, relevance, and usefulness

Chart displaying effect of content findability on user perceptions of the content

Taxonomy acts as connective tissue, which can make content easier to…

  • Organize into navigation.
  • Optimize for search (internal and external).
  • Deliver in personalized ways (push instead of pull).
  • Aggregate + segment for landing pages and campaigns.
  • Deliver across different channels and customer / user journey stages. 
  • Organize and analyze for performance reporting

Taxonomy makes content more effective for every business function:

If you’re trying to do this...Taxonomy helps by doing this ...
Improve product experience to increase adoption or reduce churnEnabling reuse and personalization of product / support content
Increase engagement with thought leadership, entertainment, or buying researchEnabling improved content findability and suggestions of related content
Increase salesEnabling improved product / service content findability and suggestions of related products / services / features
Make content operations more efficient / easier to scaleEnabling automated reuse of content

Types of Taxonomy

Now that we’ve established what a taxonomy is and its role as it relates to content, let’s explore some common taxonomy types.

List: Collection of terms

The simplest form of taxonomy structure is a collection of items with some relationship to each other. Think of a shopping list, for example, or steps in a process. You can usually understand the common unifying principle behind a list of items at a quick glance. However, long lists can become cumbersome and hard to quickly scan.

Tree: Clusters of lists

This is the structure most traditionally associated with taxonomies. Multiple lists, clustered under parent categories, result in a tree structure. But these aren’t always predictable or easy to navigate. It can be difficult to maintain consistency between levels.

Hierarchy and Polyhierarchy: Tree with strict rules

Enter the hierarchy: a tree structure that follows strict rules, which are applied at every level. Categories must be mutually exclusive, as any overlap or ambiguity would result in inconsistency. In other words, a given topic can only fit in one position in a hierarchy.

The beauty of this predictability is also its downfall, as this model is not very practical in reality.

This brings us to polyhierarchy, a more flexible version of a hierarchy. In this model, a topic can have more than one parent. For example, “blood tests” might be relevant to both patients and medical practitioners. For a polyhierarchy to work well, you’ll need crystal clear principles.

Facet system: Clearly defined attributes 

A facet structure is highly flexible. It relies on clearly defined attributes that can connect content in various ways.

Think of your content as a Lego brick and the knobs as facets
Facet attributes serve as connectors. Think of a Lego brick, where each little knob represents a facet attribute


Generally, you’d use a system of facets in a content taxonomy. An individual facet can take the shape of a list, tree, or hierarchy. Each facet describes a different attribute, for example, document types or job roles. Facets must be distinct from each other and, able to stand alone, to avoid potential confusion.

Taken together, facets provide a deep view of content. This is made possible because each single facet provides a pathway to the same content. It handily deals to the issue of different people classifying the same information in different ways. They can find their way to it using the route that makes the most sense to them. 

Facets are ideal if you want to offer easy ways to navigate large collections of content. They offer a clever way to satisfy the needs of different user groups. However, you’ll need to tag each piece multiple times, for each relevant facet that applies. An ecommerce website might have a dog costume appear in the ‘animal costumes’ category as well as ‘Halloween costumes’. Or a media site could have an article tagged as both an ‘interview’ and a ‘celebrity’ story.

Moving Forward

Now that you have an understanding of taxonomy, you’re ready to take the next steps. 

For a deeper dive, including video and worksheets, check out the Taxonomy Resource Center

Or enroll in a certification course. This article features content from Content Science’s Content Engineering Certification program, which is part of our Content Science Academy.

The Author

Colleen Jones is the author of The Content Advantage and founder of Content Science, an end-to-end content company that turns content insight into impact. She has advised or trained hundreds of leading brands and organizations as they close the content gap in their digital transformations. A passionate entrepreneur, Colleen has led Content Science to develop the content intelligence software ContentWRX, publish the online magazine Content Science Review, and offer online certifications through Content Science Academy.

Colleen has earned recognition as a top instructor on LinkedIn Learning, one of the Top 50 Most Influential Women in Content Marketing, a Content Change Agent by Society of Technical Communication’s Intercom Magazine, and one of the Top 50 Most Influential Content Strategists by multiple organizations.

Follow Colleen on Twitter at @leenjones or on LinkedIn.

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