Breaking it down: What is a Taxonomy?

A few years ago, I did an activity at a leadership retreat where each person slowly whittled down a list of words to a single word that most represented them. The word that I ended up with was “simplicity,” and I have tried to hold myself to that ever since. I don’t like text that’s long or complicated for the sake of sounding smart. When designing technical solutions, I often ask, “why do I need this?” so that I don’t overcomplicate solutions.

I appreciate when ideas can be broken down into concise parts, and that’s what this blog series is about–breaking down knowledge management topics into simple, easy-to-understand pieces. This blog covers “What is a Taxonomy?” a question I often asked when I joined EK.

How EK defines Taxonomy

I’ve always said that a taxonomy is a list of stuff to describe your stuff. However, that’s pretty vague, so let’s try something else. EK’s definition of a taxonomy is,

The controlled vocabularies in the definition are lists of options. These are the filters you see on the left-hand side when searching for items on an online store. These are also the options you get when looking at a site’s navigation, like the one at the top of EK’s website. For example, the list of Services is part of a taxonomy.

The options within the controlled vocabularies are often called concepts. Concepts are abstract ideas or known things, independent of the terms used to describe them. For example, let’s assume our taxonomy lists cities in the United States and contains a concept for Washington, D.C. This concept would have multiple terms used to refer to the same city:

  • Washington, D.C.,
  • D.C.,
  • District of Columbia, and
  • U.S. Capital.

It could even have labels in other languages, such as “Washington, Distrito de Columbia.” These labels are synonyms or translations, all referring to the same concept. Synonyms are one key element that enable taxonomies to standardize how information is described in an organization. Regardless of how different people, departments, or cultures label something, we can relate all of those labels to the same concept in a taxonomy.

Additionally, the controlled vocabularies can have multiple levels (parent-child relationships) in their hierarchy. That is, there could be a “Product Type” category that contains “Clothing,” “Electronics,” or “Food.” If you expand “Electronics,” then you can see the next level, which has “Computers,” “Mobile Phones,” and “TVs.” We can create lists of concepts with multiple labels and levels in a hierarchy and use them to describe concepts of information and the relationships between them.

The definition states that taxonomies are used to describe or characterize explicit concepts of information. These concepts of information, or more simply, content, can be anything from people to the pages of a website. What is considered content depends on the use case and what is described. When looking at an online store, the products are the content. When looking at EK’s knowledge base, the content is the individual news items, blogs, case studies, and other postings that we want to ensure are uniformly described so that users can reach the content relevant to them.

Taxonomy Use Cases

Now that we know what taxonomies are, let’s discuss how they are applied, as denoted by the second part of the definition, “for purposes of capture, management, and presentation.”


When creating or updating content (a document in a document management system, a page of web content in a content management system, an image uploaded to a digital asset management system, etc.), we associate the content with concepts from the taxonomy to describe it. At this stage, we are capturing the context of that content so that we can display this context to users and help them understand the content. Choosing what context to capture is important as the context helps users find and discover content.

Often the capture of context is manual, requiring authors to assign concepts to content through metadata fields. Sometimes auto-tagging can be leveraged to determine concept relevance to content automatically. After the associations are created, the content and concepts are stored in a management system and used to enhance the display of the content. Leverage a taxonomy in multiple metadata fields to describe the content in a uniform way, helping users find what they need.


Continuing with our example of a product in an online store, applying a taxonomy to products allows us to manage the products. We can easily organize an entire catalog of products as we group them by product brand, product type, size, color, or other describing features. Imagine if vendors that supply the products could input a custom color for each product. Then, when you try to filter those products by color, you may end up with variations of reds, blues, and purples, let alone “grey” versus “gray.” The freeform input will make it hard to identify the products belonging to a specific color. Each set of options that we can use to describe a product ensures that we are uniformly describing the content, making it easier to keep track of an extensive catalog of products.


After we capture and manage the content metadata, the remaining step is to present the content and metadata to users. Taxonomy design best practices encourage us to create intuitive taxonomies such that labels are familiar to all users and the layout of the taxonomy is easy to follow. This is especially important as taxonomies are leveraged for website navigation and menus, helping users browse a website to find what they need.

A screenshot of the breadcrumb, Books, Computers & Technology, and Computer Science, for the Making Knowledge Management Clickable book by Joseph Hilger and Zach Wahl.

In online stores, a breadcrumb shows how a product relates to a describing taxonomy. This is only doable because we captured this context when creating the product, allowing us to present that same taxonomy to users to locate the product. Taxonomy design is as crucial as taxonomy application, the primary way users interact with information. Filters and site navigation need to be intuitive so that users can be presented with and find information relevant to them.


Taxonomies are a core piece of most, if not all, knowledge management efforts. A well-designed and applied taxonomy facilitates findability and discoverability through the capture, management, and presentation of content metadata. If you found this blog helpful or have a topic you would like us to cover next, reach out and let us know. There are many more topics for us to break down, and we are excited to continue this blog series.

EK Team EK Team A services firm that integrates Knowledge Management, Information Management, Information Technology, and Agile Approaches to deliver comprehensive solutions. Our mission is to form true partnerships with our clients, listening and collaborating to create tailored, practical, and results-oriented solutions that enable them to thrive and adapt to changing needs. More from EK Team »