Monday, February 6, 2012

How Taxonomy and Metadata Leads to Findability

Kathy's note: This is the ninth installment in a 12-part series by Theresa Putkey that discusses the intersection of content strategy and user-centred design. Read all posts by Theresa.
Taxonomy and metadata are becoming much more popular these days. Companies need to keep track of their information, but can’t use traditional classification systems, such as Dewey Decimal or Library of Congress Subject Headgings. In the last 10 years, faceted taxonomies have taken on new importance on the web; XML has upgraded the visibility of metadata.
Having the skills to create taxonomies and metadata will serve you well. Most people don’t have the instinctual skills to create information organization structures that are useful or the practical knowledge and experience to be confident in the structures they create. Understanding how taxonomies and metadata feed into user interfaces allows you to recommend good designs that improve findability.

Technical writers, content strategists, other writers, business analysts, requirements analysts, information scientists, information architects, information designers, etc., are trained to organize knowledge and are perfectly positioned to help people build new, non-traditional knowledge structures.

Practical Observations
As an information architect, I work with companies who are struggling with information organization. They recognize the need to put their information into a content management system (CMS) to ensure digital information or digital surrogates for physical objects can be found. As a consultant, companies hire me to help build metadata and taxonomy structures.

Not only am I hired for a third-party, outside view, but also because these skills have not been kept in-house. Historically, companies have seen information structures grow organically according to idiosyncratic tastes. Employees create structures that are useful to themselves, but they don’t have an understanding or the research to make a structure that fits for a larger population. These structures are not ecumenical or scalable.

I’ve also observed that people who do have a naturally good grasp on information organization rarely have confidence in their ideas. I've been thinking lately about how people in North America may often be taught how to use classification structures, the prime example being the Dewey Decimal Classification while in grade school, but aren’t taught about the fundamentals of information organization. We know how to use the system, but we don’t know why the system is structured and organized the way it is.

Just like different library classification systems, each CMS needs a different information organization system because it is based on the company’s domain and the users in that company. The technology the company is using is different too, so the way the taxonomy and metadata are implemented can vary. We can create taxonomies, but companies need to be educated on how to use a taxonomy and metadata, how to build a user interface that allows employees to find information, and how to manage the taxonomy and metadata over time.

How You Can Learn About Taxonomies and Metadata and Findability
Last year I wrote a paper about faceted classification and rounded up a bunch of resources. There are a lot of them out there, but here are a few of the freely available ones:

A useful how-to article:
How to make a faceted classification and put it on the web:

Interesting background on the Art and Architecture Thesaurus:
Getty Trust “About the AAT” from

For an example of a thesaurus: Getty Trust Art & architecture thesaurus online

One of my favourites:
National Information Standards Organization. (2005). ANSI/NISO Z39.19: Guidelines for the construction, format, and management of monolingual thesauri

A useful explanation of how to make a faceted classification:
A simplified model for facet analysis: Ranganathan 101



While we can create taxonomy structures and tag digital content with metadata, all this classification doesn’t help if users can’t find the information. Findability is part of the taxonomy and metadata arena where we will be able to use our understanding of information seeking and retrieval. Morville defines “findability” as,

“a. The quality of being locatable or navigable, b. The degree to which a particular object is easy to discover or locate. c. The degree to which a system or environment supports navigation and retrieval” (Ambient Findability, 2005, p. 4)"
To increase findability, we can advise on and design interfaces for digital environments. Lately I've started realizing how important it is to recognize that users of these interfaces will not be familiar with or understand Boolean searching and will most likely be more familiar with full text search (or Google or Bing). While Google and Bing might be easy to use, Boolean searching can be more powerful.

It is extremely important to bridge the gap between a single search box and complex search parameters to allow inexperienced users to find precise, appropriate information. We can also design and manage metadata and taxonomies to ensure users can continue to find information and that systems support navigation and retrieval.


About the Author 

Theresa Putkey is an information architect consultant living in Vancouver, BC. With a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of California, Davis,    she focuses on integrating user needs into website and software design projects. She's currently doing her online Masters of Library and Information Science at San Jose State University. You can find out more about Theresa at, or follow her on twitter @tputkey.
Read all posts by Theresa.


  1. Theresa,

    I do agree completely with your post. So much, that after many years of working with strcutured and unstructured information in medium and large orgs, a few months ago we decided to create an application to allow companies to maintain simple taxonomies, and to associate them to content to improve findability. It is called thotz and can be accessed at

    If you have a gmail account can try it straight away and comments would be very much appreciated.


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