Taxonomy: What media professionals need to know

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All media websites need a taxonomy. A carefully crafted taxonomy improves the usability and searchability of your website. The process of thinking about, building and maintaining a good taxonomy will force a healthy examination of the relationship between your content, your readers, and your business.

What is a taxonomy?

Taxonomic science was originally the biological classification of plants and animals, but it has been adopted by other disciplines, notably library science. It is a complex enough topic that there are consultancies devoted to helping companies develop information taxonomies. This post is for media companies, so I won't be diving into uber-geeky variants like ontologies. If you want to go there, I found both of these to be useful and comprehensible:

Here's a graphical representation of all the craziness you could get into with if you were a complete library science nerd, courtesy of Patrick at Green Chameleon:

A taxonomy, as we're using the term here, is both a hierarchical classification scheme and a controlled vocabulary of terms that properly identify your content. Most modern CMS platforms include the capability for creating a controlled vocabulary that editors can use to label their posts.  Here's an example of a typical classification hierarchy:  

Media Industry (Vocabulary)

  • Print Media (Term)
    • Newspaper Companies (Term)
      • National (Term)
      • Regional (Term)
      • Local (Term)
    • Magazine Companies (Term)
      • Consumer (Term)
      • B2B (Term)
      • Enthusiast (Term)
      • and so on...

Occupation (Vocabulary)

  • Editorial Staff (Term)
    • Editor (Term)
    • Copy Editor (Term)
    • Writer (Term)
  • Sales Staff (Term)
    • Sales Manager (Term)
    • Account Executive (Term)
    • and so on...

Folksonomy vs. taxonomy & tags vs. terms

A taxonomy is a top-down, controlled vocabulary. We often refer to the process of applying a taxonomy term to an article as "tagging," but this can lead to some confusion with the bottom-up, many-to-many practice of readers tagging content with keywords. The collection of descriptive metadata that accumulates in this process is called a "folksonomy." A folksonomy can add valuable meaning and insight to your content, but it is no substitute for a taxonomy when you have a business to run.

If you're interested in an academic exploration of the uses and limitations of folksonomy, this paper by Adam Mathes is a good starting point.  

There is also the practice of letting editors and contributors manually tag content as they go rather than forcing them to choose from a structured taxonomy. This is what I call a mess, and it pretty much destroys the main benefits of a real taxonomy, while not having sufficient scale to have the benefits of a folksonomy. Avoid this at all costs.  

Taxonomy is not just navigation

Terms (or categories) may be used for navigation elements, ad serving, site search, and related article recommendation. So, taxonomy is much more than navigation. Rather, it is a way to add additional layers of structured information to your editorial assets so that you can do more interesting and profitable things with those assets.

How to leverage a taxonomy

  • Display related content and resources next to articles.
  • Leverage "term pages," or pages with lists of all the stories with a common taxonomy term to create both a reader resource and critical mass for search engines.
  • Encourage readers to dive deeper into your content by displaying the terms with each article, linked to the term pages
  • Create taxonomy-based ad targeting by passing taxonomy terms from a story into your ad tags.
  • Create taxonomy-based sponsorship opportunities or category sponsorships. As long as you have content and traffic to support it, you can keep narrowing the focus of popular categories to create highly-targeted branding or response campaigns.

Well-designed taxonomies increase page views, improve ad response and attract sponsorships. It's good to keep three points in mind when developing a taxonomy for your media website:    

  1. Reader needs
  2. Advertiser needs
  3. Appropriate granularity

1. Reader needs

What are readers looking for? 

A good place to start is to look at both internal search queries and external search queries. If there are certain keyword phrases that appear with some frequency, those are probably excellent candidates for inclusion in your taxonomy. This is actually a good excuse to start some serious keyword research and analysis. From a list of thousands of keyword phrases that internet searchers use to find content like yours, there are probably 20-30 phrases that are both relatively popular and particularly apt for your audience and brand. This should be the basis for your taxonomy. If the words that are most often used are at odds with what you call something, be open to using the term that your readers are comfortable with.   

You are not a library. 

One misconception some media sites have is assuming that the creating the site's taxonomy is similar to cataloging content as if it were in a library. This results in a tremendous number of categories that overwhelm and frustrate users. Instead, think of your site as your favorite retail store. Men's clothing is on one side, women's clothing on another, casual in one area, formal in another. You can either browse the store to find things you like or quickly identify the right area and go directly there.  

Taxonomy for search

While you can create a specialized taxonomy for search, it's rarely worth the effort. Your site search should be able to use your site taxonomy to create filters for search that help users usefully narrow search results. Common filters are author,  taxonomy term or content type.  

2. Advertiser needs

What are advertisers selling?

Make sure your taxonomy includes terms that map to advertiser needs so that ads can be targeted and sponsorships sold.  The best possible scenario is categories that are in demand by both readers and advertisers.  

Can you categorize your content by reader segment?

In other words, can you find 50 articles of particular interest to long-distance motorcycle touring enthusiasts, or hospital interior designers? If you regularly produce content with a narrow focus, this may be another way to both guide readers to appropriate content and segment your audience for advertisers.  

3. Appropriate granularity

You need to be granular enough for categories to be meaningful to both readers and advertisers, but not so granular that editors have a tough time locating and applying the right terms. Also, readers can only deal with so many choices. As long as your choices are based on keyword research and not solely on intuition, it is better to err on the side of too few terms.  More terms can be added as editors uncover gaps in your taxonomy. If you decide that it's worth having categories for reader segments, for example, it will probably make sense to create a separate vocabulary for those terms.  

Don't get lazy

Building an effective taxonomy also requires discipline and attention to detail. Repeating the same term in different vocabularies, creating terms you don't have enough content for, or developing your taxonomy without some keyword research are all indicators of a lazy approach. Don't settle for the lazy way out, and the result will not only work better, it won't have to be overhauled in six months.

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