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Taming Taxonomy Terrors
Volume 41, Number 6 - November/December 2017


OK, so now you’ve drawn up the plans and are ready to start building or modifying your architecture.

It is generally the case that you already have what you need. The real challenge is redesigning it and connecting the parts in meaningful ways. Start with the most important systems and consider which ones have better adoption in your organization. If a system already has support, can it be repurposed as an entry point for other systems? Can the other systems be effectively “hidden” behind a primary interface users already actively use? In terms of the house metaphor, can you knock down or add a few walls to create a new space that is more appealing to those who have to live in it?

For most businesses, the technical workability of the architecture and framework is up to the IT department. As a business user, don’t be afraid to ask for a lot, even if it seems unobtainable. IT will be able to work with the business to determine what is possible with the current budget, resources, in-house technologies, and any external resource or technical needs that may arise.

Build a solid foundation using the most important systems and information; the rest can be built and expanded over time.


Finally, you’ve powered your way through this belabored metaphor and have arrived at the fundamental components weaving their way through your dream home.

Let’s talk taxonomy. If taxonomy is the wiring, what does that imply?

One, it comes up everywhere. When you automatically or manually select metadata to classify your content, it comes from the taxonomy. When you type into your search box and there are auto-complete suggestions, they come from your taxonomy. When you look at the global navigation, the values come from the taxonomy. When you apply text analytics to content to determine what it is about or to cluster items by topic, classification terms come from the taxonomy, and extracted concepts go back into the taxonomy.

The end goal is to have a common vocabulary tying to gether content across many systems, or, in our metaphor, rooms full of content. While a single enterprise taxonomy may offer some simplicity in management and governance, it will also create challenges in scope, depth, and alignment across the organization. Multiple taxonomies to suit various needs offer more specificity to different groups across the organization but also potentially create a fragmented information environment, undermining your original intent to create a unified information architecture. You need to decide what works best for your organizational culture, specific in formation use cases, and internal skill sets.

Another implication of taxonomy as wiring is that it powers as well as unifies. Taxonomy use is not the passive application of metadata. It is the active management of vocabulary and metadata which then powers applications such as search, automatic content classification, theme extraction if used in conjunction with text analytics, and other valuable, user-based work functionality. Taxonomy is essential to the practices of content and knowledge management (KM), DAM, and product management, among others.

Taxonomy is a powerful hidden partner of search. Most users don’t necessarily understand or interact directly with taxonomies, but they do use search, especially if it works well and delivers relevant content. When a search engine fails, it is often a result of garbage in/garbage out and poor manage ment of content.

Search is the plumbing which delivers content directly to the user. When users turn the tap, they expect results. Un fortunately, sometimes when turning on a tap, users are inundated by a flood of irrelevant content. It can be the wrong temperature, off-color, and a little smelly.

It usually doesn’t matter whether you use a search engine built directly into your CMS or you use a standalone search product. There are very powerful search engines available, even for organizational use. What does matter is that search can access valuable content. Why the emphasis? There’s a common belief that search should connect to all content, not just selected content. However, when you open the flood gates, you drown. Although potentially laborious, identifying your valuable content sources and thoughtfully selecting what search can access can result in a better first product. Just as a filtration system provides better quality water to your home, filtering content will surface more valuable content. In addition, a common taxonomy can group and filter all of the underlying content, making the user search experience much more unified.


Y ou’ve built a house. You’ve added wiring and plumbing. You’ve provided a clean look and feel by adding walls and painting them nicely. You’ve prepared a room to greet your guests. Now, wouldn’t it be great if you could put everything exactly where it belongs in the house?

Nope, not going to happen. The movers dropped every thing off and unpacked it for you. There’s a spatula in your sock drawer. Your towels are in the garage. The bookshelf is in the living room and the books are in the kitchen. What happened? You didn’t label the boxes, and it’s not the mover’s job to put things where they belong. Does this sound a little like your organization? No one could be bothered to apply metadata (label the boxes) or put the content in the right places (like the movers).

You have options. One, conduct a content audit, identify what valuable content lives where, and make sure it’s all together. Get all your kitchen stuff in the kitchen. Get all your bathroom stuff in the bathroom. Well, that would be nice, but here is where my house metaphor starts to break down a little. Another option is to go around the house and label each item as to what it is and what it does, regardless of where it lives. If it’s tagged properly, search will find it. Doing this after the content is already there is painfully time-consuming, but it can be worth it. Another approach is to draw a line in the sand and only tag new content with taxonomy values, leaving older content for ongoing search relevancy improvement (or archiving it in that garage of ours). Even better, a well-tuned auto-categorization software using your taxonomy can auto matically apply metadata for improved retrieval.

You’ve now gone from literal house to virtual house in which any content, anywhere, in any room, is accessible be cause it’s labeled and indexed by search. As your house gets messier—as it inevitably will again despite all of the information governance you put in place—your taxonomy and search infrastructure can surface all those objects just as if they were put away in their proper places.

Imagine if your dream home were this way as well. Looking for your keys? Make a query and you’ll know they are in a jacket pocket in the bedroom closet. Where did that sock go? Sorry, search returned no results. Lost socks stay lost forever.

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Ahren E. Lehnert is senior manager, text analytics solutions, Synaptica.


Comments? Contact the editors at

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