How to Make Sense of Your Site Taxonomy (Tips, Tricks, and Best Practices)
Originally published April 6, 2017. Updated September 16, 2021.
Has the phrase “site taxonomy” always kind of scared you? Or do you feel like it’s too big and complex topic to wade into?
In reality, with the right approach, making sense of your site’s taxonomy can be a painless and rewarding undertaking. In this blog post, we’ll show you how to do just that, and also throw in some tips, tricks, and best practices for good measure.
What is website taxonomy?
In general, taxonomy is defined as a “scheme of classification” and is typically used in biology to define and group organisms. Website taxonomy shares a similar definition. While we’re not grouping together reptiles and mammals, we are grouping together pages and content in a way that makes sense to users and search engines.
Why is site taxonomy important?
Taxonomy is a powerful way to drive profound and long-lasting performance gains by bringing search strategy to life via website structure. When considering how and where to present websites among search results, search engines heavily weigh website signals that are indicators of authority and concentration on a given topic. Our experience is that, because of its relative permanence, site architecture (which is the physical manifestation of taxonomy) can be a particularly impactful search signal – and that site architecture that is carefully attuned to market demand (as expressed by search patterns) can both drive exponential gains for site owners and establish a market advantage that is difficult for competitors to overcome.
There are two parts to developing and refining your site’s categorization. The first part is research: understanding what the keyword landscape looks like for your industry and what your competitors are doing on their sites. And the second part is testing: after all the time you’ve spent trying to develop the “ideal” taxonomy, we need to understand if what we’ve laid out matches how users intuitively think about and use our site.
How to develop your site’s taxonomy
1. Market demand
Keyword research is foundational for taxonomy development. It’s through understanding search patterns that we gain understanding for market demand and can begin to map that demand to what our site offers. Put more plainly, there can be tremendous value in aligning your category naming conventions with the words your customers actually search.
So where to begin? I recommend starting with primary categories and working through successive levels of sub-categories and their “children”. As you do so, work to create a category structure that applies broadly applicable, high-volume search terms to primary categories, then identifying and applying more specific and lower search volume keywords to sub-categories and their children. Each of these pages should be considered as new landing pages so you’ll want to carefully consider the taxonomy you identify and alignment to the landing experience you can provide.
Say you are starting an outdoor apparel company, and you sell a variety of clothing categories such as jackets, footwear, socks, shirts, and more. Each of these categories includes subcategories. For example, the Sock category might contain Wool Socks, Crew Socks, Running Socks, and more.
Categories must be named in a way that aligns with both search habits and what we have to offer. Consider the outdoor apparel example above, which might offer down jackets, rain jackets and skiing coats? Given the search volume data below, what might be a good category name?
In this case, we might want to go with “Jackets” as it has the most search volume and aligns with the types of products we are selling in this category.
Work your way down through your categories and product selection, looking for ways you can provide further breakout. Should you have breakouts under the Hats you offer for baseball caps, beanies, visors, and sun hats? is there search volume around those terms and are you using the best naming conventions? Popular tools that can help you with this are Adwords Keyword Planner Tool, keywordtool.io, Majestic SEO, among others.
Takeaway – Systematically work through your current taxonomy and product selection finding ways you can break out products into categories, subcategories, and sub-subcategories. Review naming conventions used to ensure you are using the highest search volume term that is applicable to your business.
While keyword research is important, it is equally important to review search results for particular keyword term to ensure the results match the context and user intent you want to serve. For example, let’s say your outdoor apparel company is going to sell baseball caps, and you pull search volume for a few terms:
Looking strictly at the search volume, you could mistakenly name your category “Caps”. After all, we sell baseball caps and that term has the highest search volume. But will targeting that term address the user intent we want to serve?
What can existing search results tell us about context and whether our targeting is correct?
As you can see, the search results for “caps” give us a pharmacy, sports results, and a few other irrelevant results in the top positions.
Now let’s look at search results for “baseball caps”:
So, although search volume for “baseball caps” is much lower than for “caps”, a quick check to ensure our targeting matches user intent shows us that “baseball caps” is more likely to place our site in a context that will best match what we have to offer and the users we want to serve.
Takeaway – When choosing category/subcategory names be sure to perform an incognito search for that query and look at the results. Are they relevant to your product selection? Are they transaction-oriented if you are an ecommerce site? Do you see your competitors in results?
3. Competitive landscape
While you are performing keyword research and reviewing search results in support of your taxonomy project, check out what your best performing competitors are doing. How are they classifying their categories, products and content and with what kind of language? How deeply (and specifically) do they subcategorize and with what kind of nesting? While your competitors may not be doing things exactly right, it can be helpful in terms of directional insight.
For example, when structuring your outdoor apparel website, you may want to evaluate Patagonia:
This gives you a great place to start with taxonomy.
Takeaway – Check out how your competitors (big and small) are classifying their content and product, it can be a great way to get started
So, you’ve done your keyword research, you’ve checked out the competition, you’ve analyzed search results – time to populate that perfect category with all the product and content you don’t have…Avoid making this rookie mistake, as many have before.
Ensure you have adequate product or content to populate any category or subcategory that you launch. Now, you may not need 20-plus products per category, as that will depend on your business and industry, but think to yourself, does this page provide a good experience? Chances are that a subcategory that only has 1-2 products shouldn’t be its own category regardless of search volume.
A big benefit of all the exercises up to this point, including merchandising, is that you can identify gaps in your product selection and content. If your outdoor apparel competitors all sell rain jackets, but you only sell wind jackets, there may be a great opportunity for your company to explore offering rain jackets too. Also, look for complementary products. Say your outdoor apparel company is selling trail running shoes – you may want to explore carrying running clothes. This also gives you a great opportunity to cross link between relevant categories and highlight related products on product detail pages.
Takeaway – Ensure you have adequate product or content to populate any category or subcategory on your site. Look for new merchandising and content opportunities along the way that hold value.
How to test your site taxonomy
After you’ve done the research and put together one (or more) versions of what you want your site’s architecture to look like, we recommend running a few user tests before consolidating content, creating new pages, setting up redirects and the like. Here are a few methods we like to use to test whether our site architecture plans actually match user intuition:
1. Run a Card Sorting Test
Okay, so you’re technically still doing more research in this phase. Card sorting is a user research technique for determining how people understand and categorize information. We use Optimal Workshop’s Optimal Sort tool to conduct card sorting tests, but you could achieve similar results conducting a live, in-person test using sticky notes.
With card sorting, we begin by labeling cards (digital or physical) with page names (typically child pages we want to include in our navigation). We then distribute these cards to participants and ask them to sort the cards into pre-determined categories or into categories that they can name themselves. After the tests are complete, we look at the data from both a quantitative and qualitative lens. What common trends are there? What are some ways of classifying the information we had not considered or had disregarded?
2. Conduct a Tree Test
Tree tests can be conducted independently of or directly following a card sorting test. The purpose of tree tests is to determine if a proposed site architecture provides a good way to find information. With tree tests, we can set up a demo site navigation and ask users to complete tasks by clicking around the demo navigation — for example, “find a women’s running shoe” or “check for children’s hiking poles.”
We use Optimal Workshop’s Treejack to conduct tree tests. After the tests are complete, we can look at the data for sources of friction within our site architecture. In some cases, we may just need to change how a parent or child category is named. Other times, we may need to rethink how we’re merchandizing our products or services.
Go forth and prosper my friends!
Taxonomy is a BIG project, so be sure to start that second pot of coffee before diving in – and plan to do this several days running. But remember, the effort is worth it. Taxonomy projects can deliver big business value by aligning your naming conventions and nomenclature to how people actually are searching for your products. Be sure to involve your content or merchandising teams during the process as they can add insights along the way. We find laying out current taxonomy in a spreadsheet allows us to organize the information while developing optimized taxonomy in a new tab. In this way, we can easily see the overlap, know where to cross-merchandise and how to redirect categories that are no longer needed.
We also want to reiterate that testing is a major part of restructuring your site’s taxonomy — one that shouldn’t be overlooked. Remember to factor tests into the battle plan for restructuring your site. Failing to do so could leave you with a messy, confusing site that people have trouble navigating.
Best of luck as you dive into your site’s taxonomy, and comment below if you have questions or comments along the way. You can also reach out to us directly if you’d like to chat more — we’d love to hear from you!