Magazine article Online

The New versus Old Schools of Taxonomies, Metadata,and Information Architecture

Magazine article Online

The New versus Old Schools of Taxonomies, Metadata,and Information Architecture

Article excerpt

In its "Technology Predictions for 2009," released on Dec. 16, 2008, content management industry observer CMS Watch (www. cmswat ch. c om) , pr o claime d, "Taxo no mies are dead. Long live metadata." Its analyst said, "With social computing coming to the fore, it's never been more obvious that everyone does not, and will never, categorize things in the same way. ... I will assert that the days of the traditional, definitive, and single -hierarchy taxonomy are long behind us."

Far from being dead, taxonomies are more important than ever. In this article, I'll talk about the renewed importance of taxonomies from a number of perspectives:

* How multiple perspectives are accommodated with taxonomies

* The fact that taxonomy is not synonymous with navigation

* New ways to leverage taxonomy and metadata

* The renewed value of taxonomy


In my 15 or so years of taxonomic experience, we have never advocated a single, galactic, übertaxonomy to classify and organize all things - even for a narrow domain of knowledge. It is true, however, that people have different mental models. They classify things based on their perspectives and experience, as well as their understanding of the intent of their ultimate users.

Multiple perspectives have to be combined and synthesized; various stakeholders need to be brought into alignment. Successful taxonomy projects get people to agree on very nuanced and granular details about how the organization communicates.

Taxonomies seem so simple on the outside. A well-developed taxonomy can appear very obvious and intuitive - once it's done. But these elegant solutions typically become obvious only after the fact. Getting to a simple, elegant set of organizing principles belies the incredible effort that goes into arriving at that outcome.

The taxonomist always faces the question of how to leverage a taxonomy following all the hard work of understanding users, analyzing content and processes, and getting agreement among diverse groups of stakeholders.

Multiple taxonomies, then, need to be constructed to represent various perspectives within the organization. Do not confuse this with having multiple navigational hierarchies. A navigational hierarchy is an access structure. It is dependent upon the content being indexed. However, building multiple taxonomies and surfacing them with new tools will allow for maximum flexibility in navigational constructs.


When users seek information, they are doing one of two things - browsing or searching. In the old- school days of taxonomy, most content management and document management systems treated these as distinct functions with differing underlying mechanisms. Browse was done through a physical layout of links that corresponded to a physical directory on a server (taxonomy equaled navigation). Search was accomplished through an engine that looked at all the documents sitting on that server and built reverse indexes that compiled lists of terms occurring in documents and pointers to all the documents where those terms Jived.

Increasingly sophisticated mechanisms have evolved to improve the relevance and ranking of search results to help divine the user's intent. Meanwhile, the old advanced search box, which allowed savvy users to more precisely define what they were looking for, languished. (It languished for many reasons, but mostly because it required an extra step, and users don't like extra steps.)

Meanwhile, the ability to browse with taxonomies has improved with the use of tools that no longer restrict taxonomy to navigation but actually apply advanced search concepts while tricking users into thinking that they are simply browsing. Now, clicking on a link does not just bring you to a physical location it can also execute a search behind the scenes.

There are a number of clever us er- interface (UI) tricks that have made this approach - faceted search - as useful and appealing as it is. …

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