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Taxonomy Implementation Best Practices

Have you ever found yourself wondering how to implement a taxonomy you’ve just designed or updated? You might have asked yourself, “How do I make this taxonomy work in SharePoint? In Salesforce? Oracle Knowledge Advanced?” You are not alone. Many of our clients struggle with not just how to design the right taxonomy for their content, but how to implement them in a way that allows for the realization of all those benefits we know taxonomies can bring. In my years designing and implementing taxonomies, I’ve come to understand that taxonomies are only as good as their application. In this blog I will talk about some of the important considerations for taxonomy implementation and how preparing for these parameters will help to ensure a smoother implementation and long life for your taxonomy.

Taxonomy Implementation Considerations

This images shows two examples of topic taxonomies, one that is a single-level topic taxonomy and the other is a multi-level topic taxonomy. The single level has flat lists, while the multi-level shows hierarchical lists that have multiple parent-child relationshipsOne of the most important things to keep in mind with taxonomy development or maintenance and its subsequent implementation is the primary use case(s) that the taxonomy must support. For example, the taxonomy will often serve users in one of three primary use cases: search findability, browsing, and content management. The use case should also inform or be informed by the method of application, or the system(s) within which the taxonomy will be stored, maintained, and utilized. While most taxonomies, especially business taxonomies, are designed to be system agnostic and flexible, namely so they can be used in more than one system or location, it is important to know the limitations and features of systems that will leverage the taxonomy while developing. For example, if your intended system does not support multi-level hierarchies, you may want to consider designing a taxonomy with a deconstructed hierarchy, or multiple flat facet lists instead of a deep hierarchy. Alternatively, if you have not yet selected the system, your defined taxonomy use cases can assist in evaluating the limitations of potential systems (e.g., customizable search filters, synonym dictionaries, hierarchical topic facets).

Depending on the features of your systems and your long term goals, you may also consider a taxonomy management tool as your source system for the taxonomy. Taxonomy management tools assist in mitigating limitations within a content management system, in supporting the use of the taxonomy in more than one system without adding to the maintenance burden, and ensuring you have the foundation for more advanced use cases including ontologies, knowledge graphs, and Enterprise Artificial Intelligence (AI).

Defining Taxonomy Use Cases

First, let’s define the four most common use cases including those mentioned above. 

  1. Search Findability: Taxonomy facets support search through both synonym dictionaries and categorical facets. Synonyms allow for the varied language of different use groups, allowing one person to search for “Auto” and another to search “Vehicle”. Facets allow users to narrow their search through defined and optimized categories that represent the different types of information about the content. For example, an insurance company might need a facet for “Product” to allow users to filter by “Auto Insurance” vs “Home Insurance”.
  2. Browsing: Similar to facets, the categories within a taxonomy can be selected and optimized to provide navigation or browsing as an option to find or explore content. This might be seen in the top header of a website, and allow people to select a Product and be taken to a landing page of some kind where all content about that product can be found.
  3. Content Management and Tagging: Taxonomies also often support the content management lifecycle through fields such as Content Type (Article, Procedure) or Status (Draft, Published, Deprecated) in addition to tagging valuable information to help manage each item.
  4. Recommendation Engines and/or Chatbots: Taxonomies provide the foundation for advanced use cases such as recommendation engines and chatbots. In these cases, a taxonomy may be larger, deeper, and more complex to assist in disambiguation and machine learning techniques, rather than assisting a user in navigating a website. 

Defining Taxonomy Implementation Methods

Taxonomies can either be implemented directly in the content or document management system(s) of your choice, or can be implemented within a taxonomy management tool that connects to your Content Management System (CMS) via APIs. There are pros and cons to both options, but the main criteria for choosing a Taxonomy Management System include complexity of the taxonomy, use of the taxonomy in multiple, separate systems, and limitations for the taxonomy in one of the intended systems.

Common Implementation Challenges

Often, what we see as implementation challenges fit into one of three categories: 

An image that represents each implementation challenge in the list below

  • System limitations: This is a consideration when one or more of the intended systems (often content or document management systems) is less than advanced in taxonomy management capabilities. This often can include a lack of features able to store or display hierarchies, inability to store synonyms for terms, inability to display multi-select lists, and inability or difficulty indicating required fields. In any of these cases, it is important to understand what tweaks should be made to the taxonomy (e.g. removing hierarchy, adding synonyms in a keywords field) to fit within the constraints, what impact those changes might have on usability or other systems, or identify the level of effort for customizing the system to address its limitations. 
  • Taxonomy limitations/updates: A second common challenge is not actually a challenge at all. It is part of the process of taxonomy design and maintenance. Implementation often illuminates needed changes or additions to a taxonomy that may not have been identified or prioritized during the initial design. This may include a missing metadata field that needs to be designed, a lack of sufficient synonyms to support search, or the need for content types to assist in flexible, custom implementation options for different types of content or different user groups. 
  • Tagging content: An important component of taxonomy implementation is the tagging of content with the new taxonomy. Manual and assisted tagging approaches provide a range of options for tagging content with the new taxonomy. Assisted tagging can include using a text extraction tool to suggest tags, or including logic in a migration script to map and apply tags. Often, a mix of both approaches is needed to accurately tag the full taxonomy. For example, text extraction tools can auto-tag topical taxonomies that are well aligned to the content’s text, while migration scripts and mapping may be better suited for tagging fields that are similar in the current state. Finally, manual tagging may be needed for new, administrative fields that are not accurately covered by the first two approaches. 

Tips to Mitigate Implementation Challenges

Remember that a taxonomy is a living, changing thing and taxonomy governance is of utmost importance. Don’t be afraid to make adjustments, but first ensure you understand the requirements, the options, and the impact on the taxonomy for other systems as well. Focus on your primary use case, e.g. findability, and its benefits for your users, to help navigate implementation challenges including system limitations or complex migrations. And finally, document, document your changes, the reasons for the changes, and any system specifics that you’ve encountered and adjusted for. This will be important for the longevity of the taxonomy and your implementation, reducing the need for rework.

Are you currently designing or working to implement a taxonomy for your organization? We would be happy to help guide you through this process and work alongside you to ensure the taxonomy implementation is optimized for your organization, use cases, and systems. Contact us at to learn more.

Jenni Doughty Jenni Doughty Jenni Doughty is a taxonomist who works collaboratively with her clients to develop taxonomies that break down information silos and improve the findability of information. More from Jenni Doughty »