Part 1: Using taxonomy to grow

Why is such an ancient and omnipresent feature of the web so poorly used and understood by so many?

Pop quiz…

You use your website taxonomy to:

  1. Decide what content you should write next month
  2. Explain what concepts you think are related to your audiences
  3. Visualize organizational shifts in strategy or focus year over year
  4. Feed your company’s pet gerbil
  5. Tag stuff in articles that “kinda feel right.”

Mhhmm…. We get a lot of “E” answers.  When we dig into how our clients are using taxonomies the exchanges usually goes a little something like:

PTKO: Do you have a taxonomy?
Client: Of course we do.

PTKO: Is it good enough?
Client: Yeah probably. (In a slightly hopeful tone of voice)

PTKO: Does it address all the terms people would use to describe your work?
Client: Eh, no, we’re likely missing a bunch. (Often accompanied with a slightly dismissive wave of the hand)

PTKO: Do you apply all your terms to relevant content, consistently?
Client:  Oh, no, not really. We usually skip it, or just pick one term, maybe two if we’re feeling feisty… (Eyebrows raised in a “where are you going with this?” kinda way)

PTKO: Do you want to personalize content for your audiences, or maybe voice enable your content for something like Alexa in the future?  Are you interested in using machine learning or AI to help suggest interesting things to your audiences?

Client: TOTALLY!!!!

PTKO: (oh, good) Let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work!


Why does taxonomy seem so unimportant?

Why do organizations take responsibility for their taxonomy so lightly? Google

Google’s algorithms have an incredible job at parsing and unpacking the meaning of all of our content, and Google allows us to use Google’s understanding of our content to discover it via Google Search. Because of this, it is easy to assume that nuanced understanding of our content “just happens.”  You just type your question into Google and you get rewarded for it in the form of useful search results. If Google understands us, why should we bother managing our own taxonomy, and how could we do it better than them?

Google is solving for a different problem than you are, and at a vastly different scale.  Google search results juxtapose and create competition between content that is bucketed into a very narrow and use-case specific container.  While you hear about people going down YouTube or Wikipedia rabbit holes all the time, you don’t hear the same thing about Google searches. This is because the serendipity of finding one interesting piece of content, and then discovering what’s connected to it, related to it, or juxtaposed next to it all happen better on systems with strong taxonomies. 

Solving for connections and relationships between topics, not instant relevancy, is the use case that you can solve better than Google.  Your own outreach efforts, via your website, email marketing, social outreach, podcasts, and whatnot, need to reflect your nuanced and deep understanding of your areas of expertise.  You can’t provide personalized content on the web, or drive marketing automation tools without a rich map of who cares about what topics, and what content you have about those topics.  (And perhaps just as importantly what content is interesting that is NEAR or RELATED to something you know an audience member is interested in.)  


Taxonomy as strategy

Perhaps the most underutilized aspect of Taxonomies for organizations is the unifying and force multiplying effect they have internally.  By using the same concept of knowledge map across the organization, your staff all can use the same terms and phrases for concepts, discover your content, expertise, and digital assets readily.  When anyone in the organization is conducting outreach with your audiences, in person, at events, on the web, Twitter, or wherever they can all be speaking with a unified voice, and have opinions on what someone should read next, or who to connect someone with.  All of the above is really just a nice network effect of Taxonomy.  

A little deeper into the strategic hopper we find some real missed magic.  Taxonomy is a strategy tool, an organizational diagnostic, and a lifecycle management system all neatly wrapped up into an easy to use bundle.  If your organization starts each strategic planning process looking at your organizational taxonomy, they can see the areas they want to promote, the areas that have lost importance, and has a visual hierarchy of which concepts and focus points are more prominent than others.  This would flip on its head the terrible and common practice of organizations focusing content creation and outreach on all the bottom components of the hierarchy instead of telling great stories about the trunks of the of the taxonomy tree supported by the leaves and branches.  

That same strategic process would identify the branches and leaves of the taxonomy tree that aren’t as important, or as relevant, to the strategic focus of the organization.  These items should be shuffled in the taxonomy to reflect their strategic importance and to help anyone looking at the taxonomy understand what is current and what is historic in strategic importance.

Last, and by far not least, taxonomies provide a ready made framework for analysis of your content strategy & editorial calendar. Is your organization focusing on the right topics, and writing on the most useful topics?  If you analyze your content creation (or content creation plan) against the taxonomy, it will quickly become apparent which topics you aren’t writing about that you should, which topics have many articles (perhaps too many) written about them, and which are neglected.  Taxonomy terms with zero or very few articles written about them highlight strategic risk for the organization. If you can’t create content about it readily, you may not be able to create strategic progress on that topic either.

This blog post is part one of a two part series.  Read Part 2: Using taxonomy to point the way to learn more about the superpowers of taxonomy.