The secret life of taxonomies: Web findability beyond browsing and facets

A taxonomy is essential infrastructure. Its visible forms such as menus and facets are only one application. It can also provide the crucial plumbing and wiring – the metadata and logic to guide your customers from Google to your site and finally, to the actual content they need. 

This month we feature an article written by Mekon’s Lead Consultant Joe Pairman for tcworld, the magazine for international information management – The secret life of taxonomies: Web findability beyond browsing and facets.


It has to be said that most people have never heard of taxonomy. Others associate it exclusively with plants and animals. In tech comm, however, taxonomies relate to the classification of things in general – not just in biology, but for information of any kind. Most visible in the digital world are the tree-like structured taxonomies that we see in website menus.

When trying to tidy up the implicit taxonomies in your current tools and content – the directory structures and tables of contents – you might uncover ambiguities and conflicts in the ways you or your colleagues categorize and name things. In fact, if the classification tree is all you know of taxonomy for information delivery, you may well become disillusioned with its dogmatism and exclusivity, where each thing belongs in one container only.

As information delivery catches up with e-commerce, we are starting to realize the exciting potential of faceted browsing, where customers filter content based on the criteria they themselves deem most important – the products it relates to, the tasks it enables, the date it was written. Without learning our taxonomy, they can quickly combine criteria to find the exact piece of content they need.

However, faceted search relies on customers finding their way to your site. The big search engines – Google, Bing, Baidu, and Yandex – are now everyone’s home page, everyone’s top-level navigation. Few people will start their hunt for information on your site, unless you operate in a highly specialized sector. If you are documenting a nuclear power station or a particular medical device, search engines may not concern you much. But most customers of consumer equipment will start their search on the open Web, and if you don’t put your information there, they will take it from other users or even your competitors.

Of course, websites still need top-level navigation, just as offices still need phones and photocopiers. But if trees and facets are all you see of taxonomy, you may relegate it to a position of mere infrastructure – necessary but not really a strategic asset to nurture and grow. Out of sight, however, below the floorboards, taxonomies provide some essential plumbing to help your content show up in search results and to make those results more appealing. They also link your content to related pieces of information, not only on your site but also in the overgrown but prolific garden of the Web.

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