There is a saying in the software industry that goes, “Choose two: fast, cheap, or good.” The same can be said of content, commerce and community -- otherwise known as the three C’s of web experience. It’s difficult to make two of these elements work together; three is a herculean task. But it doesn’t have to be.

The problem is that content, commerce and community are generally managed in different systems. Content is the domain of the web content management system, commerce is managed in an e-commerce platform or ERP, and community requires a social business or community platform. Moreover, each of the three C’s has a distinct workflow. A website visitor writing a social review is very different from a web marketer creating a web page, or an e-commerce transaction with fulfillment.

Yet, there is only one customer experience, and content, commerce and community need to be seamlessly woven into that experience. The best way to achieve this is with taxonomy. Taxonomy is the common thread that can make content more discoverable, apply social reviews and content across the website, and drive commerce and transactions on a site.

What is Taxonomy?

Taxonomy is just a fancy word for categorization, with a twist -- taxonomy is hierarchical. At each level of taxonomy you have categories and sub-categories. For example, a taxonomy that describes geographic locations will include sub-categories for regions, countries, states or provinces, counties, cities, and so forth.

Taxonomy can define any type of category or topic on a website. You can build taxonomies for audiences, product attributes, pricing, topics or any other “facets” you want visitors to your site to use in discovering content.

Why is Taxonomy Important?

Taxonomy can bridge disparate systems and tie all of the elements of a content, commerce and community site together. Whether surfing a website using search, faceted or guided navigation, or recommended content, taxonomy is the glue that holds the experience together.

Navigating the Three C’s

There are eight ways people generally navigate a content, commerce and community website. Let’s look at how taxonomy underlies these pathways.

The following table outlines each navigation type, the software system where it is generally managed, and whether it is based on a categorization or taxonomy system.

Content, Commerce and Community Navigations

Navigation Type Description System Taxonomy
Information Architecture (IA) Defines all sections, sub-sections and tertiary pages. It is how people navigate your website. Web CMS No
Search Encompasses keyword search as well as category search. Search Engine Yes
Faceted Navigation Also called “Guided Navigation.” Provides browse-by-category navigation.  Web CMS Yes
Catalog Listing Product information and data. ERP or Commerce Yes
Bi-Directional Classic example is product accessories. Related content is complex because it is generally a two-way link (the product links to the accessory and the accessory to the product) and a many-to-many relationship (many accessories for each product and many products for each category). Web CMS Yes
Contextual Implicit content recommendations and audience segmentation. Cross Web CMS, marketing automation, community, and other systems Yes
Tags A simple “flat” taxonomy. Can be user generated or created as part of the overarching taxonomy. May be expressed as links or tag clouds. Community Yes
Inline Links Simple, yet powerful, inline links are created in web and social content to point to other web pages. Web CMS and Community No

Of these eight types of navigation, only two are traditional web navigation: the information architecture and inline links. All of the other navigation types are based on taxonomy concepts such as keywords, categories and segmentation.

In defining how a website works and how information is discovered, it’s essential to start with the underlying taxonomy. You need to make sure you have the right categories, the right hierarchy, and the right associations to pull information across systems and deliver a compelling user experience.

Taxonomy at Work

At our firm we often work with customers with complex content, commerce and community requirements. Often the solutions we recommend are based on taxonomy. The following real-world implementations illustrate a few examples of this.

Taxonomy and Search

When supporting complex product relationships, large volumes of content, and a large product catalog, search needs to go way beyond basic keywords. Strong search integration delivers the opportunity to fine tune search results using weighting and other approaches so site visitors can find information faster and site managers can maximize the ROI from their website.

Home Hardware is a good example. This leading retailer in Canada manages over 60,000 products in their online catalog. The search system is powered by Endeca and leverages a large taxonomy that drives web CMS content and commerce.

As an example, a search for Wood Fences on the website returns not only the products that match the keyword, but also related products, related home improvement projects, and a set of facets to filter the search results by category or collection. See the image below. While the product listings are commerce-based, the recommended projects are content driven. Taxonomy provides the common link between the product catalog and the web content.


Social Taxonomy

Taxonomy can also drive the connections between web and social content. The example below is, a leading online insurance service owned by AIG.


As you can see from the image above, customer reviews are key part of the Term Life Insurance page. In fact, there are nearly 800 customer reviews associated with this product alone. If you drill in deeper to the product reviews, you see a tag cloud that shows the most popular categories as well as taxonomy filters driven by product type, term, age and gender.


Taxonomy not only relates customer reviews to the products on the website, but also provides ways to explore the social content to make it more relevant to the end user.

Product Accessories: Bi-Directional Links

Bi-directional links are a very common requirement in product or catalog websites. Without the right tools they can also be very difficult to manage.

A classic example is product accessories. Think about a smartphone with accessories like car chargers, head phones, cases, Bluetooth, etc. The relationship, or links, is bi-directional. While an accessory is related to a product, a product is also related to an accessory.

Illumina provides a good example of a company that uses taxonomy to manage complex content relationships.

Often called the “Microsoft of DNA,” Illumina is one of the fastest growing technology companies in the world. Their systems are used by researchers worldwide.

The image below from illustrates a complex example for managing bi-directional links and accessories through taxonomy. This page is for one of their systems, the HiSeq 2000. For each system there are related kits. A kit can be associated with multiple systems. Complicating the matter, kits are also dependent on relationships with applications and assays.


Taxonomy to the rescue.

Illumina creates categories for each application and assay. They also created categories for markets and areas of interest. By associating products and accessories with these categories, they can filter content by a wide array of categories and manage the many-to-many relationships between each product and kit.

What to Look for in a Taxonomy Solution

Taxonomy is a key feature in most web content management systems. But not all taxonomy solutions are built the same. The following features are useful in supporting the use cases we most often see in content, commerce and community websites.

  1. Hierarchy: By definition taxonomy is hierarchical. It has parent and child nodes that are nested in a tree. The ability to easily organize categories is essential. Categorizing information in a hierarchy also provides the ability to navigate content based on the relationships between the categories.
  2. External ID: Taxonomies are often shared by multiple systems. The External ID creates a cross-reference between taxonomy categories in multiple systems, which allows you to bridge the categories and support integration requirements.
  3. Import and Synchronization: Whole taxonomies can also be imported or exported between systems. This can be supported as a file, a web service or a feed format like OMPL.
  4. Similes: Essential in managing large taxonomies. Similes are two words that have the same meaning -- car and automobile, for example. You should be able to have one taxonomy category and then associate an unlimited number of similes.
  5. Security: Taxonomy is critical data and needs to be protected. From an end-user perspective, it is also helpful to filter categories by sections of the site or group. This makes the set of categories more relevant and manageable for people working in the CMS.
  6. Localization: If you plan to support additional countries and languages, you need the ability to localize your taxonomy.
  7. Taxonomy Navigation: The CMS should provide an easy way to create indexes based on taxonomy categories. Taxonomy navigation should support the ability to query multiple categories, to cross-reference against sections of the website and types of content, and set how deep in the taxonomy you want to query.

Conclusion: Think like a Spread Sheet

Even web professionals tend to think about websites like documents. We like to format the text, insert images and tables, and apply the styles. But to be successful in content, commerce and community strategy, you need to think like a spreadsheet.

Spreadsheets are designed to easily sort and query data. While the data in the spreadsheet can be text-based narrative, the real power comes from using standardized or structured data that can be easily sorted and queried.

Intelligent use of taxonomy allows you to support a broader range of navigations and search experiences that make content discoverable, simplify management of complex product relationships, and connect web, social and product information.

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