A few years back, when clients would come up to me and ask, “How can I implement taxonomy in my SharePoint collaboration portal?” I’d say, “You can’t. At least not without some serious pain and suffering.” Back in 2007, SharePoint and taxonomy just didn’t play well: You couldn’t do hierarchical tagging without clunky workarounds, faceted search was near impossible… It was a misery for Microsoft customers, but a happy playground for many taxonomy management tool vendors, who jumped on the opportunity to create add-ons to fill this wide gap.

There are now a dozen different options on the market that provide various functionalities to help structure content in SharePoint, including:

  • External taxonomy management (including import/export)
  • Tagging interfaces
  • Automated classification
  • Taxonomy navigation
  • Faceted search refinements

But things have changed since the launch of SharePoint 2010, which boasts a much-evolved taxonomy management framework. As I and my colleague Jeff Carr have written about before, the new version brings in the ability to manage taxonomies directly in SharePoint, a relatively robust tagging interface, and some functions to leverage the taxonomies in search and navigation.

So Do I Still Need Those Add-On Vendors?

So what does this mean for all those add-on vendors? Are they all obsolete?

Well, yes and no. The new taxonomy functions in SharePoint 2010 are probably enough to satisfy the needs of about half the users I run into, who just want to manage some simple vocabularies and tag documents. These folks will likely be satisfied with what’s out-of-the-box and avoid having to implement any additional tools.

But for the more sophisticated users who need to really leverage their taxonomies for search and navigation, I’ve found that SharePoint 2010 still has enough gaps and rough edges to warrant investment in a third party add-on. The user interface of the out-of-the-box faceted search refinements and taxonomy navigator are quite clunky and unintuitive, and there is no advanced modeling, such as related terms.

Tips for Comparing Vendors

If you’re in the market for an add-on, there are a few important things to note while comparing vendors.

1. Although a taxonomy tool vendor may say their module is compatible with 2010, it doesn’t mean it was designed to complement it.

Some tools may have rocked 2007, but when SharePoint 2010 came out and stole the taxonomy thunder with the new term store, many vendors just retrofitted their tools to work in the new version rather than redesign to enhance the new SharePoint features. You’ll find that some tools are just the 2007 functions warmed over.

2. Beware the strange interface.

A lot of tools say they do cool things, but when you see how they do it, the user interface seems bolted on and even ghostly. I recently saw a demo of an auto-indexing tool that relied on faith as part of its design: When you click the “index” button, everything stays blank. You can’t actually see or interact with the resulting data until after you save, so you just have to assume it’s doing its job. Users are often not so forgiving.

3. You don’t necessarily need to spend a lot.

Some add-ons made by taxonomy tool vendors can get a little costly. This is because they have a wide range of web-parts included in the suite, and in some cases you might need to get their base taxonomy management tool to really get the benefit you’re looking for. However, there are also inexpensive options that have very targeted functions that might plug a smaller gap. Look at options like KWizCom, or Layer 2, especially if you have an IT team willing to get their hands a little dirty.

If you’re looking for a broader tool set, here are some taxonomy management add-on options available for 2007 or 2010:

Consider Enriching Your Toolset

Overall, I think SharePoint 2010 has made some great strides toward enabling content intelligence. Some of the new functionality has definitely eliminated some of the use cases for taxonomy management add-ons. But there are still enough gaps that are cause for those who are serious about taxonomy implementation to consider enriching the toolset. Make sure you’re clear about what functionalities you need and what you’re willing to spend to achieve it.

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