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Testing taxonomies

Testing taxonomies

  • Article 18 of 26
  • M-iD, May 2005
A taxonomy can help an organisation to classify and later find information. But how should it be implemented?

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The more information an organisation or web site has, the harder it becomes for people to find exactly what they want. And while search engines can help, without some sort of context for the engines to 'understand' the collected data, the results they return can be poor. What is needed is a map of the information for both people and search engines to cut down search time and improve the results.

'Taxonomies' provide such maps. Looking like inverted trees with a single root at the top and successive branches and leaves (or 'nodes') cascading down, taxonomies are hierarchies of categories for classifying information and objects.

A taxonomy of company processes might, for example, start with the company at the top, sub-departments such as human resources, finance and administration on the next level, posts within each department on the next level and jobs performed by each post on the last level.

When used in the right context and done correctly, taxonomies can bring much benefit. Yell.co.uk, for instance, started off as the familiar Yellow Pages phone directory.

However, the Yellow Pages only classified advertisers according to a simple system: 2,000 categories and alphabetical order. This was inadequate for a web-based search system where expectations are higher. Users might, for example, expect the directory to provide information on all the Corgi-accredited plumbers in Reading available 24 hours a day to fix boilers. By creating a rich taxonomy that matches the kind of categories people use for search, Yell has been able to make searching faster and more accurate - and therefore more profitable for both itself and its customers.

To create a useful taxonomy, however, requires a significant investment of both time and money, as well as expertise in information science. Nevertheless, there are steps that organisations can take to ensure that their taxonomies match their needs without stretching budgets too much.

Asking questions The most important step is for the organisation to decide what it really wants the taxonomy for in the first place.

"You'd be surprised how many organisations say, 'Ah, we hadn't thought of that'," says Simon Alterman, vice president of content at Factiva. "A taxonomy is a tool that suits a particular business purpose or problem, so it's really important to get to the main business purpose before embarking on taxonomy design."

A good place to start are surveys and workshops with existing users of information systems. These should investigate how they perform their job, their frustrations with the existing system and the kind of information they search for. If there is a need for a taxonomy, as with most major IT projects, buy-in should be obtained at a senior level. This almost goes without saying, but being able to justify such a project can be harder than with other projects that can offer more tangible results.

Tales of deals that were lost because of failures in search - not just raw statistics - can also be useful catalysts in obtaining the necessary high-level buy-in. It is also wise to avoid creating a taxonomy entirely from scratch. Without help from specialists, many organisations will create a taxonomy that simply mirrors their file plan, which will not help search in the slightest.

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