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

Related: The Ultimate Guide to End-to-End Content

In this article, we’ll walk through the essentials of what taxonomy is, why your organization needs it, and basic types 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 at Content Science

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)

Sometimes it’s useful to define a concept by defining what it’s not. Taxonomy is related to, but not the same as, these items:

Why Your Organization Needs Taxonomy 

Today, customers or users now expect the right content at the right time regardless of channel—for the entire relationship with your organization. And when this doesn’t happen, there are consequences. We found that customers perceive content as 53% less effective for when they perceive 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
Related: User Journeys Course on CSA

Types of Taxonomy

Now that we’ve established what a taxonomy is and its relationship 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. While that can be useful for classifying species or other items, it’s not very practical for classifying content in digital experiences. For example, it’s tough to put a cook book in one position. It would fit in a content formats category or a cuisine category.

This brings us to polyhierarchy, a more flexible version of a hierarchy. In this model, a topic or item can have more than one parent. For example, “blood tests” might be relevant to both patients and medical practitioners.

Facet system: Clearly defined attributes 

A facet structure is, ironically, 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

 

For most complex digital ecosystems, a faceted taxonomy is most appropriate. 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 or topic categories. 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 possible because each single facet provides a pathway to the same content. It handily addresses the issue of different people classifying the same information in different ways. Users can find their way to the content using the route that makes the most sense to them or to the path they’re taking. An ecommerce website might have a dog costume appear in the “animal costumes’”category as well as the “Halloween costumes” category, for example. Or a media site could have an article tagged as both an “interview” and a “celebrity” story.

Additionally, the right facets are critical to driving personalization, such as suggesting relevant content or items to customers, and to more efficient and useful analysis, which can drive manual or automated content optimization

Related: Content Engineering Certification

To start defining facets, think about the content connections that could be useful to the customer experience and to your analysis of performance and effectiveness. Jump start your brainstorming with these five considerations for organizing content:

  • Location such as user location, company / org locations
  • Alphabet such as an employee directory or glossary in alphabetical order
  • Time, such as date, phase, step, or chronology
  • Categories, such as product category, customer type, topics / subjects, formats
  • Hierarchy / priority, such as editor’s picks, most popular, in season, level of importance

To learn more about defining a taxonomy for your organization, check out How to Develop a Content Taxonomy.

The Authors

Content Science partners with the world’s leading organizations to close the content gap in digital business. We bring together the complete capabilities you need to transform or scale your content approach. Through proprietary data, smart strategy, expert consulting, creative production, and one-of-a-kind products like ContentWRX and Content Science Academy, we turn insight into impact. Don’t simply compete on content. Win.


Colleen Jones is the author of the top-rated book The Content Advantage and president of Content Science, a growing professional services firm that turns content insight into impact. She has advised or trained hundreds of leading companies 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 and training through Content Science Academy.

A member of Mensa and crusader against misinformation, Colleen has earned recognition as a top instructor on LinkedIn Learning, one of the Top 50 Most Influential Women in Content Marketing, and a Content Change Agent by Intercom Magazine. She speaks about content issues in artificial intelligence, digital transformation, and customer experience at corporate and industry events around the world.

Follow Colleen on LinkedIn.

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