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How to launch and maintain an enterprise taxonomy

Taxonomy provides valuable structure for content management, but it often requires customization and ongoing attention.

The science of classifying content according to predetermined criteria is nothing new, but site taxonomies are...

becoming increasingly crucial as the Information Age progresses.

A strong taxonomy provides a clear framework for organizing, presenting and cataloging content, whether in a file cabinet or on the Web. Done well, this underlying structure can improve enterprise content management (ECM) search and help facilitate a variety of automated marketing efforts.

Author Kevin P. Nichols outlined the importance of enterprise taxonomy and steps toward building a good one in the following excerpt from his new book Enterprise Content Strategy: A Project Guide.

Taxonomies are integral to enterprise content strategy, since these tools structure content, label information, facilitate search and assist with system integration. However, taxonomies are costly to develop and maintain. The enterprise content strategist and the content team should recognize that a taxonomy project doesn't have a beginning and an end. A taxonomy requires ongoing effort and maintenance.

Maintaining a taxonomy requires a scalable and extensible infrastructure. Make sure that stakeholders understand the evolving nature of a taxonomy. When the content team signs off on a taxonomy, it agrees on the structure, labels and terms of a current snapshot, not a final unchanging deliverable.

Canned taxonomies exist, but they can present challenges and limits; I don't recommend using a canned taxonomy for an enterprise content strategy. Like content management systems, off-the-shelf taxonomies require customization and ongoing support for effective results.

Stakeholders are accountable not only for maintaining a taxonomy but also for continued development, which will be necessary as business objectives evolve.

Other considerations:

  • An enterprise taxonomy often comprises several taxonomies.
  • A taxonomy is system-independent and often system-agnostic. Content consumer and business requirements drive what goes into a taxonomy.
  • Taxonomies must evolve and progress as the business changes.
  • Taxonomies require governance for maintenance and evolution.

The following suggestions do not provide a comprehensive guide to taxonomy development. Rather, they contain best practices and key steps within the process. If you do not have taxonomy expertise, then consider employing a taxonomy professional to complete this work.

Before building the taxonomy, consider the following preparatory tasks:

  • Identify the relevant stakeholders. This includes people who must weigh in, review and approve the effort. Conduct interviews so that you understand the business context and taxonomy use cases.
  • Create a list of terms that are used within the organization. These include all content types, consumer-facing search terms and any categorization schemes based on the content inventory. In addition, take into consideration anything that relates to the future-state content scope. Ask for any existing taxonomies, metadata schemas, data models, glossaries, or lists of acronyms. Product catalogs are often derived from a taxonomy.
  • From the content inventory, survey the content types and determine how to identify each with appropriate labels.
  • Capture any synonyms or additional terms a content consumer might use to search for the information.
  • Capture any related terms associated with each preferred (or primary) term.
  • If you require a faceted taxonomy, make sure that the content team has adequate time to validate each facet.

Now you are ready to decide on the taxonomy model (or models; more than one taxonomy may be necessary for an enterprise content strategy). From all of the information gleaned during the current-state analysis, the content team should determine if a faceted taxonomy is required. You will need a faceted taxonomy for projects requiring parametric navigation, which is a faceted navigation approach that enables multiple pathways and/or filters to access information. For example, if a user wants to search for a product or narrow down products in navigation for women's clothing she can do so by color, price, size, etc. This approach enhances many types of product offerings. It also requires a faceted taxonomy to account for each of those facets (colors, specifications/sizes, price range, etc.).

Note that a taxonomy is not the same as navigation; a taxonomy organizes information and content based on the essence of that content.

Selling an enterprise taxonomy

Enterprise taxonomies bring immense value to an organization when they are designed, implemented, and maintained correctly. But an enterprise taxonomy can be costly. It requires continual attention, and you need resources to build, grow and maintain it. Thus, you might have to sell it to a management team within an organization. To do so, emphasize the benefits of an enterprise taxonomy:

  • Disambiguates terms and reduces search errors
  • Enables cross-sell and up-sell in consumer-facing interfaces
  • Enables multisourced content
  • Enables systems to be integrated across an enterprise with a controlled and structured vocabulary
  • Improves user experience through consistency across brand channels
  • Enforces publishing standards by overseeing the consistent use of terms within the content domain
  • Facilitates content reuse
  • Facilitates personalization by creating a set of terms that map to defined target consumers, which then serve content according to each user type, persona or segment
  • Gets the highest quality and most relevant content to the right user at the right time in the most efficient manner possible
  • Helps the content consumer retrieve information with appropriate and consistent content labels
  • Provides an organization structure that enables easy navigation or parametric search, which speeds searching
  • Supplies the terms necessary for recommendation engines

All of these benefits can translate to enormous business value, and you should highlight them to ensure that the primary stakeholders understand why a taxonomy can prove invaluable to an organization's success.

About the author
Kevin P.Nichols is an author and digital industry enthusiast with more than 19 years of professional experience. Nichols is author of the recent book "
Enterprise Content Strategy: A Project Guide," co-authored "UX for Dummies," and has written numerous articles on content strategy, user experience and digital strategy. He previously led one of the world's largest and most successful content strategy teams at SapientNitro. Follow him on Twitter at @kpnichols or learn more at kevinpnichols.com.

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This was last published in July 2015

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