Website navigation and taxonomy are inextricably interconnected. When thoughtfully designed for humans and machines, it makes it easy to search for, find, and browse website content. Sadly, common mistakes often derail this process.
First, they may forget to establish goals. Without goals, many different hierarchies will seem like a good solution.
Second, groupthink sets in. Though compromise is generally a good idea, it's not a best practice in taxonomy design.
Third, they may forget to name the target audience of the taxonomy, or to validate the structure with the very people and machines who will eventually consume it.
Lastly, they embark on the effort without a guide.
Taxonomy Experts can act as mediators to expertly facilitate agreement and governance between stakeholders. Without a guide, the process is messier.
What Is a Taxonomy?
A taxonomy is simply a classification of ordered categories.
If you're new to taxonomies, think of it like a closet. You can organize a closet in many different "right" ways. Maybe you first put all your clothes into categories, like "shirt,” “pants,” “shoes,” and “jackets,” and then organize them secondarily by season.
Or, perhaps you put everything in the closet first by color, and then organize them into categories. You might even put long things together and short things together. Who knows! Whatever way you choose to organize it, it's still a taxonomy.
But have you ever had to share a closet? If you have, you quickly realize how important it is that the person with whom you're sharing the closet understands your taxonomy. Otherwise, your jackets could end up in the "shirts" or "short" section — or worse yet — the miscellaneous group.
Now, ask yourself if you would be upset if your closet co-habitant did any of the following things to your shared closet:
Surprised you by moving everything into their taxonomy rules
Removed your jackets and put them in the hallway closet
Put all your striped pants and shirts into a NEW "Pattern" section
Paired all your shirts with your pants to make looks
You get the point. These changes would understandably frustrate you. It's no different for internet shoppers.
How to Organize Your Product Information
A poor taxonomy results in a literal web of content that search engines can't index properly, and people can't find. Otherwise helpful consumer features like "filter,” “compare,” and “sort” become confusing to people and misunderstood semantically by crawlers and search engines.
SEO becomes more difficult and more expensive. Thesaurus entries are longer. Complications for features like breadcrumb navigation are often so challenging businesses pull the feature altogether.
Critical services like "coupons,” "promotions," and "shipping" require expensive platform customizations to account for all the special circumstances and compromises in the taxonomy rules.
If you're looking to improve your website taxonomy, here's a quick refresher on the tenets of any taxonomy:
It contains a restricted list of categories
Each term or category is mutually exclusive
Categories and subcategories are arranged in a relational hierarchy
Attributes and meta descriptions are applied consistently to each level of the hierarchy
Branches maintain good information scent (top to bottom)
Hierarchy is normalized across branches
It does not permit poly hierarchies for top-level categories and only rarely, if at all, at lower levels of the hierarchy
Finally, the whole system is governed by strict policies for adding, editing or deleting any part of the whole
A good taxonomy applies these additional qualifiers:
No more than 20 top-level categories
No more than 14 subcategories
No more than 3-4 levels of depth
Category and subcategory labels are brief — ideally nouns and never descriptors
Labels are comparable at every level and either singular or plural but never mixed
Capitalization and punctuation rules are applied consistently
Common Challenges in Creating Your Taxonomy
The hardest part of taxonomy work is making the right original design choices and putting governance in place that protects your taxonomy investment. Here are some of the most common challenges we see when working with clients to refine their taxonomies.
Challenge: It's hard to tell if this is a Category or an Attribute. Question: Is "New arrivals" a category or attribute?
Challenge: Fighting the insatiable urge to allow crossovers and poly hierarchies is miserably hard. Question: Why can't we make "Robes" part of three different groups? Robes could go in these 3 categories: “Apparel,” “Sleepwear,” and “Pajamas"
Challenge: It's difficult to define how categories and subcategories "relate to each other.” Question: This swim top coordinates with two swim bottoms (2 SKUs) but all belts coordinate with all pants with belt loops.
Challenge: Choosing the default sort orders for categories can be tough, too. Question: Should it be logical, dynamic, or alphabetical? and Should we be consistent in every category?
Challenge: Should we follow the leader? Question: Our competitors’ sales are up. Should we just do what they're doing? I like their website better, anyway.
Challenge: I can't stop comparing digital with physical stores or catalogs? Question: Our stores have hot buys on the end caps. Should we have hot buys in every category, too? Catalogs always show a full outfit, should we be manually curating a "Featured" subcategory?
If you’re struggling with any of these questions, ask Object Edge. We help businesses develop strong taxonomies specific to their brand promise and unique merchandise assortment. Reach out to our team to learn more about how we solve these common questions and challenges for our clients.
About the Author
VP, Experience Design
Digital pioneer with 20+ years of experience bringing innovative digital products and services to market successfully for many industries and within a variety of challenging environments ranging from start-up to Fortune 100 companies. Effective in gaining organizational alignment on strategy and delivering creative solutions that solve real business problems.