Taxonomy: Content Strategy’s New Best Friend

Now more than ever, content strategists need to think like librarians. Need proof? Look no further than Pinterest, one of the fastest growing social networks in history.

Content Strategy

This series of articles explores content strategy and interaction design. Curated by Colleen Jones of Content Science, each article highlights a new voice, a new way of doing content strategy, or applying tried-and-true content principles to new situations.

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Sure, you can search Pinterest, but what makes the site so much fun is the exploration and element of surprise, in large part enabled by categorization of content by both the Pinterest team and the site’s users. As user trends continue to shift from search to discovery, creating the structure and process to support that discovery requires a sophisticated content strategy.

Taxonomy is about so much more than categorizing content. When crafting a content strategy, we consider the people, processes and technologies that support the content throughout its lifecycle. The same goes for creating taxonomy. As content strategists, we have to think about taxonomy from the perspective of what terms and structure will help the content perform best and support the organization’s business goals. We also have to consider the longevity and flexibility of the taxonomy.

The Taxonomy of a Pin

On Pinterest, users can explore boards in one of 32 categories—31 specific categories plus the catchall “Other”—and uncategorized boards. But when users create a board, they’re not required to assign one of the 32 taxonomy terms to their board. For someone exploring Pinterest by topic, this leaves a gap between content that exists related to that topic and content that has been categorized as that topic. This means that pins on a food-related board named “Recipes” or “Vegetarian Dishes” may not appear under “Food & Drink,” preventing people from discovering them.

Pinterest could help close this gap by requiring users to categorize their boards at the time they create and name them. Instead of requiring users to categorize each board they create, however, Pinterest’s strategy is to involve other users. When someone comes across an uncategorized board, they’re asked to help by selecting one of the 32 categories from a dropdown.

 So while Pinterest gives its user community a lot of free reign when it comes to naming and organizing content, this strategy is supported by well-placed guidance to help the community improve the quality and reliability of the content. Pinterest strikes a balance between flexibility and structure by involving users in enhancing site categorization while lowering the barrier to entry for users who would rather not spend their time categorizing.

Wondering how to bring together taxonomy and content to form a strategic user experience—and how doing so benefits your organization? Read on.

Taxonomy & Content Strategy: a Match Made in Metadata Heaven

Taxonomy can help support an organization’s content strategy, and vice versa, by:

  • Helping users discover and interact with content that’s interesting and relevant to them. Taxonomy enables us to use related content to tell a story and keep users engaged. Want to increase the time people are spending on your site or the number of pages they’re viewing? Make your first impression, “This is great, now give me more of it.” Then use taxonomy to serve up related articles, photo galleries, videos, product descriptions and other content. Paired with an interaction designer, a content strategist can make recommendations for calls to action, prompts, cues and other microcopy that guides users through related content.
  • Promoting older but still relevant content. Creating and promoting new content is important, but leading users to older content may also be part of your content strategy. As content strategists, we can work with information architects and developers to find ways to give prominence to content that may otherwise be buried in an archive. For example, for a series of reports usually listed in chronological order and filtered by date, a content strategist may use supporting research to recommend that users also be able to interact with this content by subject.

The Pew Internet & American Life Project does a nice job balancing the latest content with relevant information from its archives. Within each topic page, the emphasis is on the latest research, but users can also filter reports by content type (e.g., report, data set, infographic) and by year. Then, on each report page, the Pew Research Center serves up “Related Research” on the same topic, even though some of the related items might be from a few years ago. In the sidebar, a data point from the report serves as another method of encouraging visitors to explore additional content.

Each of Pew’s reports is served up with related—but not always the most recent—research

  • Elevating content from deeper sections of the site. Even if you’re not a strict adherent to the three-click rule, reducing the amount of time it takes your users to discover relevant content can’t be a bad thing. Taxonomy allows us to showcase content that, on a sitemap, appears to be many levels deep on the homepage or secondary pages.
  • Relating and reusing content across multiple platforms and site installations. For example, part of your content strategy is to build a stronger connection between your website and your blog, which just happen to be driven by different content management systems. Taxonomy can help. Assuming you’re using the same taxonomy terms in both systems, you can still dynamically relate content using a tool like RSS, pulling relevant blog posts into web pages that are categorized with the same terms.
  • Helping our clients manage content now and over time. Content strategists, information architects and developers should work together to determine how taxonomy plays into the content management system, from creating content types to establishing workflows. Using dynamic relationships to populate content in multiple places means less work for the content administrators, who no longer have to update multiple pages or sites with the same information. And presenting content administrators with term lists instead of relying on them to enter metadata reduces human errors and inconsistency.

Keep in mind that implementing or revising a taxonomy can require change management. Choosing well-researched and tested vocabularies can support an intuitive user experience, but may also require some guidance—instructional content on the administrative interface, for example—for content authors and managers. They may be used to using the organization’s internal terms, not the terms site visitors are using when looking for information, to define content.

  • Providing context for tagging. You may decide that users, not your organization, are going to define how your content is classified and labeled. Take a look at Goodreads, a social network for readers. You start with the simplest of taxonomies: three default bookshelves called “read,” “currently-reading” and “to-read.” From there, you can create and name other bookshelves, or categories, from the basic “science fiction” to the clever “it-was-earth-all-along,” and place books on more than one shelf.

This approach empowers Goodreads to support discovery in many ways. For example, on each book’s page, you can see a “Genres” callout showing how readers most often classified the book. You can also follow the “See top shelves” link for the full list of shelf names. Whether you prefer to find popular books by broad category or dig into unique, quirky lists made by other users, Goodreads provides ample opportunity to do both.

Genres and bookshelves for The Hunger Games.

Whether you call it “folksonomy” or “social tagging,” your role as a content strategist is to provide the context to empower your users to make the best decisions about tagging your content. What information do they need to tag their content in a way that supports your business strategy, but with minimal effort on their part? And what information does your organization need to maintain, promote and otherwise take advantage of the content users have indexed? Going back to our Goodreads example, the site offers a set of “Bookshelf Tips” to help users get the most out of their categories.

  • Empowering designers to create more engaging interactions. Taxonomy, together with other components of information architecture and data modeling, helps designers create the interactions that drive users find the content they need and want to share. Sorting, filtering and visualizing data wouldn’t be possible without the right content structure behind the scenes.

Because taxonomy can impact everything from interface design to content management system development, the best conversations about taxonomy and content strategy usually involve diverse members of your team. The information architect and content strategist should invite designers, writers, search engine optimization specialists, CMS developers, marketers and site administrators to contribute ideas and voice concerns. With input from your stakeholders, it’s time to get started.

Getting Started: If the Taxonomy Fits…

Tags or categories? Open taxonomy or closed vocabulary? How deep should your hierarchies go? Your content strategy should help drive which type of taxonomy to use when.

If your organization’s strategy is to build a collaborative community in which engaged users are creating content, then a closed taxonomy with a limited vocabulary may send the wrong message.

If you plan on creating content about the same subjects for the foreseeable future, then relating content through taxonomy can work well. But if the subjects will change often, then relating specific pieces or types of content to each other rather than linking them via taxonomy may work better.

You may also decide to limit your use of taxonomy, for example, if your organization is highly risk-averse and leaves nothing to chance. Relying on taxonomy-driven dynamic relationships, rather than manually creating the relationships between pieces of content, may not be the right content strategy for you, since you lose control over exactly what displays where. When a database, rather than a human being, is creating content relationships, the results may be humorous or even inappropriate.

When it comes to developing the list of terms you will use, a card sort can be a good starting point. Through this usability method, you can learn how users would organize your content and what labels they would assign to each category—information commonly used to inform sitemap development but just as useful when building out a taxonomy.

What Are You Waiting For?

Gather a multidisciplinary team and look for opportunities to integrate your taxonomy and content strategy. Get up close and personal with your content management system to see how you might be able to create more dynamic relationships between content. Review your archives and dig deeper into your sitemap to see what content deserves a promotion. Figure out where you’re still making updates manually, and see if introducing a taxonomy can help reduce the time you spend administering your content across channels.

Your rewards? Engaging interactions, consistent content and happy content managers, to name just a few.

Natalya Minkovsky

Natalya (@hejhejnatalya) is the director of strategy and user experience at Rock Creek Strategic Marketing, a branding and communications firm in the Washington, DC, metro area. She’s an organizer of DC’s content strategy meetup and a department editor for the Content Marketing Institute’s Chief Content Officer magazine. Natalya spends a lot of time thinking about grammar, plain language, open source technology and, of course, taxonomy.

3 comments on this article

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  3. Bilal Jaffery on

    Great and informative read. Wonder why other content folks don’t look at content through this lens. Taxonomy and success social tags can solve lots of content related issues that we face in our organizations externally and internally.