Creating a Future Proof Taxonomy

Taxonomy is the vocabulary your organization uses to communicate with your audiences. It includes the words your business uses to categorize and identify your products, services, audiences, industries, and potentially many other things. While there is no single right way to build a taxonomy, it’s important to create one that works internally, externally, and is able to grow over time.

When your taxonomy is not good, you can have inconsistent language that creates confusion for your customers. For instance, your website navigation says one thing, and your blog content says another. Bad taxonomy can also confuse internal teams, and may cause them to “invent” their own vocabularies or terms which will create a divergence from your main corporate taxonomy which will cause long-term issues.

A good taxonomy does several important things for your organization:

  • It provides a common vocabulary that you share with your customers which doesn’t require a steep learning curve
  • Organizes information effectively across your enterprise
  • Improves content discovery both internally and externally
  • Enhances all your marketing efforts, meaning that it can extend well beyond a website or online experience to all your channels

It’s important to have the right frame of mind when working on your taxonomy. Don’t think of a taxonomy as simply a “website” thing. It’s not just categories for your blog, or the way content is categorized in your Content Management System (CMS). While your taxonomy may have very technical, specific applications, it should come from the heart of your organization and extend to your customers.

Whether you are just starting out creating your taxonomy, or you are inheriting an existing one, there are six primary ways to make a future proof taxonomy:

  1. Focus on Your Customers
  2. Use Simple, Relevant Language
  3. Build Beyond a Single Channel
  4. Go Broad and Shallow
  5. Plan for the Long Term
  6. Define and Document

We’re going to discuss each one in more detail, as well as how you can implement them.

Focus on Your Customers

The taxonomy you create is to help your audience find the information they need and ultimately purchase something from you. If you don’t understand who you are selling your products/services to, then you won’t be able to create a taxonomy that meets anyone’s specific needs.

Your audience needs to be able to find information in a way that makes sense to them, so you need to find a way to understand what they are thinking as they are searching. Try talking to your customers, running user experience testing, examining search logs for terms used, and exploring keyword tools such as Google Keywords/Trends and others.

Here’s how you do it:

  • Research your own website’s search history. What terms do people use to search within your site?
  • Test, test, test. A/B test on your current site with terms you are considering using. Or you can A/B test on something like Google AdWords that will allow you to get relatively quick insights on keyword and term preferences.
  • Don’t be distracted by your competitors’ new website. They may be trying to “sound smart” by using the latest terms or industry jargon, but they may be alienating customers who don’t know the terminology.

Use Simple, Relevant Language

How customers and prospects talk about your products and services may be very different from how your employees talk about them. Be wary of internal-speak, or those words, acronyms, and phrases that everyone inside your organization may understand, but that no one else will. Also, stop thinking that the best way to describe things is in terms of your internal view of your organization. Your customers don’t care how your company is structured. They only want to solve a problem or get an answer to a question

Instead, let your customers drive the language and complexity of the taxonomy structure. What terms are they searching for within your site? How are they finding your content — what terms, articles, or other methods are driving them there?

Make sure you balance industry jargon with readability and usability. When in doubt, keep your language simple and straightforward. Avoid trendy jargon where possible because your customers may not be “up” on the latest buzzwords in the industry so tread lightly in regards to adopting the latest terms. Finally, remember that your content needs to be found. Using terms that are not part of the general vernacular may prohibit people from finding and/or understanding your content

Here’s how you do it:

  • Keep your terminology at a lowest common denominator-level. This may vary depending on your audience, but instead of using the fanciest words, write for everyone who is included in your audience. Obviously it varies depending on who you consider your target (PhD’s versus high school students, for instance), but strive to be inclusive.
  • Test, test, test. An easy way is to get a few people with varying levels of knowledge (that fit in your audience demographics) to review. A slightly more complex, but potentially more rewarding way would be to do a card-sorting exercise where people are asked to put subject matter in each of the taxonomy categories you’ve chosen.

Build Beyond a Single Channel

Your taxonomy does not only apply to a website, a blog or other online channel. Build and share your taxonomy across all your marketing channels, departments, and divisions to ensure a common language and understanding of your taxonomy.

While you may be focused on your website, your marketing channels need to stay consistent. Think about the other communication channels your taxonomy/categorization will need to extend to.

Also, as I said earlier, think from the customer perspective. They don’t look at each business unit as separate and having its own unique terms. Because your audience doesn’t pay attention to departments and other segments within your organization, they expect everything created by you to utilize the same language. Finally, make sure your taxonomy is functional. The taxonomy you design should focus on content that is needed to drive functionality.

Make sure your taxonomy supports the following:

  • Search marketing efforts
  • Website navigation
  • Personalization and other customer experiences
  • Integration with other business applications

Here’s how you do it:

  • Map it out. Make a map (similar to an information architecture) of all of the channels and properties that will use your taxonomy.
  • Determine each channel’s unique needs to make sure you are not forgetting anything. For instance:
  • An external blog might have categories and tags that are different from those you use on your main website.
  • Your Paid Search may have ads with specific words/CTAs that work well for acquisition.

Go Broad and Shallow

The most useful taxonomies are those that are broad and shallow, not narrow and deep. A broader taxonomy also allows for more future flexibility. Try to find a balance between being authoritative and complete and being accessible and remember both your end users as well as your content creators. If you make your taxonomy too difficult to use and manage, it will cease to be useful

Here’s how you do it:

  • Make it about your users. Don’t make a department map that your customers will need to try to navigate. Try to group things based on the questions/challenges/problems your customers have
  • Remember that giving people too many choices makes it harder for them to make a decision. Two may be too few, but ten may be too many. For instance, primary navigation shouldn’t have more than 6–8 items

Plan for the Long Term

While “future-proof” may not always be possible, but you need to be realistic that your taxonomy will change over time. New products and services will be added requiring new categories and topics, new metadata will support personalization and new approaches to search may pop up. To help with this, plan to regularly examine your existing structure and modify it as needed.

Here’s how you to it:

  • Talk about what will be happening in the next 12–18 months. Are there any shifts in the business, major product launches, etc. to be aware of?
  • Phase In complex taxonomies. If you have a fairly extensive taxonomy, or you want to build for future changes, consider implementing the taxonomy in stages. Remember that taxonomy isn’t helpful if there isn’t content to support it, so consider deploying those elements when you have the right content in place.

Define and Document

Every taxonomy design effort should begin with a clearly documented and shared understanding of audience, the content we’re categorizing, and the reasons why we are categorizing in the first place.

It should be easy for everyone in your organization to learn and understand how to use it, where it applies, and how it can be extended. This documentation will extend to several documents related to a website, including:

  • Information Architecture
  • Technical Specifications
  • Content Writing Guidelines
  • Other internal documents for other departments within your organization

Here’s how you do it:

  • Make taxonomy everyone’s responsibility. Create centrally-located document that outline terms/categories
  • Make sure someone is in charge. Changes to your taxonomy should go through a process with approvals. Be careful about adding new categories/branches; knowing that sometimes it is going to be necessary.
  • Don’t make the documents too technical. Non-technical people will ignore or think it’s not for them… IT IS!
  • Do regular reviews of your taxonomy to make sure it is still relevant


A good taxonomy can be defined by several things. It is easy to use and understand by all audiences, both internal and external, and it is easy to adopt by all of them. It also doesn’t “break” when it needs to be extended. Finally, a good taxonomy applies to all of your marketing and business channels, not just a single effort, department or team.

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