“Taxonomy” is an overused term. There are both different kinds of taxonomies and different definitions of taxonomies. In general, taxonomy is a hierarchical structure for the classification or organization of data, historically used by biologists to classify plants or animals according to a set of natural relationships.
In content management and information architecture, taxonomies are typically leveraged as a tool for organizing content. Strictly, a taxonomy is just the hierarchical structure of the content, but with most complex content ecosystems, the term also often refers to metadata and controlled vocabularies.
“Metadata” describes an asset and provides a meaningful set of attributes that can be used to further classify or consume content. A “controlled vocabulary” is a restricted list of words or terms used for indexing or categorizing, often with cross-references pointing from a non-preferred term to the preferred term. To make it more fuzzy, the taxonomy (hierarchical structure) is also metadata.
Now that we’ve cleared that up, let’s move on to the differences between taxonomy and “information architecture”, another loosely-used term. For purposes of this discussion, the information architecture (IA) represents the structure of a web site as exposed to users. A taxonomy can represent the information architecture of a web site, but does not have to.
Though people often use the term taxonomy to describe a site’s organization, for larger sites where content is used in multiple places – or for enterprise content management systems where data can be consumed on various platforms – taxonomy and IA are more often distinct from one another. In anything other than small sites, it’s important that the IA and taxonomy aren’t too closely tied together so that changes to the IA aren’t more difficult than they need to be, and so that the underlying content can be easily accessed and repurposed.
In sum, the two main ways that a web site’s content are organized include:
- Universal hierarchy – When content contributors utilize the content management system, they add, remove, and manage content in a structure that closely resembles the navigation and hierarchy of the delivery framework.
- Content mapping – Structures and metadata are maintained in the content management application independent of the delivery system’s organization (navigation). By some rules or algorithms, material gets “mapped” to the presentation framework, which may be managed by some other means.
As companies develop more and more information to manage, the content mapping approach will be much more cost-effective and flexible than the universal approach. If part of a site’s creation or redesign involves using content (text, images, video, audio) that could effectively be used in other ways throughout the enterprise, it is a good time to suggest an ECM consultation – we know of a few good consultants here – and work to create both an IA and taxonomy structure that serve different but related purposes.