Why Every Website Needs a Taxonomy

by Joanna Pineda Posted on December 1, 2011

Remember the days when the web was new and we spent hours surfing and checking out random sites? Yeah, neither do I because that was soooo long ago. These days, I spend time on e-mail, the Matrix Group corporate intranet, my favorite news sites, Google reader, and sites linked from my favorite e-mail newsletters. When I’m looking for a resource on the web, I rely on Google or Bing. Or, if I’m familiar with a specific website, I go there for specific subject matter information.

This pattern is validated by user interviews and surveys that Matrix Group conducts for clients when doing a redesign. People visit websites because they need something; they don’t just randomly visit or navigate a site aimlessly hoping to find something useful. But here’s the rub: users rarely know exactly what they need. What they do know is that they need help with a specific topic or problem.

For example, a contractor might be facing an OSHA inspection so she visits her trade association website looking for resources on prepping for an OSHA inspection. She doesn’t know if she needs a book, a CD, a checklist, a webinar, white paper or consultant. All she knows is that she’s got 48 hours to prepare and she needs help fast.

But think about it. Jane contractor needs help re: OSHA inspections, but the website she’s visiting is organized by Events, Publications, Newsletters, etc. What she would love is to be able to find everything offered by her association that will help her with the upcoming inspection. A search is useful, but it might return too many results, and it’s often not curated. How does she know which search result will be most valuable?

This is where taxonomy comes in. If you’re one of my clients, you know that I am a taxonomy fanatic and I won’t let clients get away with NOT having taxonomy on their sites. A taxonomy is a fancy word for a classification system. At Matrix Group, we work with clients to develop a set of categories or topics that reflect members’ needs and special interests. Then we integrate that taxonomy into the content management system (CMS) and the association management software (AMS) so that everything can be categorized: news items, newsletter articles, magazine stories, meetings, webinars, publications, even supplier members.

Here are some great examples of taxonomy at work.

Leadership and staff of the American College of Sports Medicine know that members of the public visit the ACSM website looking for information on specific topics, e.g., exercise for women. So we implemented a taxonomy that lets the staff categorize everything on the website. The result is a topic index that lets the public view ACSM positions, brochures, fact sheets, books, news, events and outside resources. Today, a website visitor does not need to know what kind of service he needs, he can simply click on a topic to find everything offered by the association on that topic.

The Association of Small Foundations did something similar when we helped them create the Tools and Resources portion of their site. ASF knows that their members call, e-mail and visit the website when they need something, and that something is often related to a known set of issues associated with running a foundation with zero or few staff members. If a member needs help with governance, he can browse the Boards and Governance category and find resources on Building Your Board, Board Roles, Board Policing and Running the Board. These resources include articles, sample policies, FAQs, upcoming seminars, publications for sale, and a consultants. In ASF’s case, members and the public can browse the topics, but only members can access the protected content.

Now you see why I love taxonomies. Taxonomies connect people to content and let them more easily find the information and resources they need.

How about you? How are you using taxonomy on your site? Got any good examples of taxonomy in action on a website or app?

One reply on “Why Every Website Needs a Taxonomy”

Well said…taxonomies are a crucial bridge between users and content! Not just in terms of navigation, but related content and search, also. Great post!

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