First, let’s review what ‘taxonomy’ means when we apply the word to a website. The basic definition of ‘taxonomy’, according to Merriam-Webster, is “the study of the general principles of scientific classification” and, more specific to the world of science, it is defined as “the process or system of describing the way in which different living things are related by putting them in groups.” However, in the purpose of being used for a website, Google would define it simply as “a scheme of classification.” Personally, I would define a website taxonomy as:
“The hierarchical structure of a website as it relates to what is on the site (content, products, etc.) and how that is meant to be delivered to the site’s users.”
Essentially, we mean that it looks at the highest level of messaging (think your homepage) and then gradually dissects the website based on consumer purpose and the informational hierarchy of the market(s) it is meant to service.
One of the greatest product taxonomies on the internet is what Amazon has created to classify the millions of products and product varieties they sell in “Browse Tree Guides” and all the content associated with explaining it as well as shown below:
Because of this, Amazon is now where 50% of shoppers start their product search. This only happens when product shoppers feel comfortable with how to find the products they are looking for and, which is definitely true for Amazon, they can easily see a variety of products that fit what they are looking for. Once this is done, they may look for a more local source to get what they want or, since it was so easily found on Amazon, they may just buy it right there.
The key to what makes a taxonomy powerful, is that it can be built for the present, but even with the right experience, be built for the potential short, medium and long horizon expansion targets of an organization. What defines a good taxonomy is the sense of simple organization, by level, that is also mapped to how individuals use language to describe things they are looking for. This last sentence describes why this becomes powerful for search engine optimization of a website…go read it one more time. The words assigned at each level of a taxonomy…the words…after all, that is the basis of what search, SEO or otherwise, is meant to target, the words.
A true SEO taxonomy can be described in words and, almost anyone, should be able to understand the increasing specificity. As an example, think about how your brain auto classifies everything when you hear the word ‘car’. That single word immediately eliminates vans, SUVs, trucks and motorcycles. Now, take that word and imagine that the level above it was ‘toys’. All of a sudden, the word ‘cars’ immediately conjures up the image of toy cars, or, for someone my age, of Hot Wheels and/or Matchbox. A good taxonomy not only provides the instant cognitive recognition of where they are, but of what options would be above that and the potential options that would be below.
When it comes to SEO taxonomy, the user HAS TO BE put first, not the keywords. The keywords and phrases will follow, so, the first step is to define your hierarchy based on the common language that relates to your website. To provide a real life example from Amazon itself, just click and download their taxonomy for “Toys & Games”. Below I show that spreadsheet from Amazon with the “Node Path” dissected to show a more visually digestible format to look at it.
As you can see, I pulled the section that shows even more classifications using the word ‘cars’, yet, by seeing “Hobbies > Models & Model kits” you can quickly and easily digest what exactly you will find in this area as a shopper. For a machine programmed by humans to digest context via labels, this sort of thought through website taxonomy does the same thing. Additionally, when truly thought out, you can more easily evolve it. Let’s say, hypothetically, that it becomes really cool to build skateboard model kits. Well, all Amazon needs to do, is add that to the “Model Kits” node right there along with “Spacecraft Kits” and individuals will immediately know where to find them. Google and the other search engines immediately understand the difference between these skateboard kits and a real, full-size skateboard.
So, before I get too deep into this (I could talk about taxonomies all day), you should be able to get the context now of why this is a great exercise for any website. Many websites have grown organically through in-market expansions and they have not always taken the time to revisit how those new product lines fit into the mix.
So to wrap this up with a last “special-sauce”, when it comes to a website and building in the SEO layers through the use of descriptive language, the key is maintaining a consistent internal linking structure AND leveraging your own knowledge of your business to influence those organically obtained links across the web. Always assign each node of the category a ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ keyword and make sure people know and/or have access to that list. Got a blog writer whose job it is to talk about new and hot seasonal products and product categories? Make sure they have the taxonomy so they can reference it for which word or phrase is mapped as the primary or secondary term so when they build a reference in their article, they are linking the RIGHT descriptive phrasing for whichever category they link to.
So, when was the last time your company did a true review of your website’s taxonomy? If the answer is more than 5 years ago, it may very well be time for an update. If you can’t even find the original documentation for your website’s navigation, well, that would be another indicator that it is time to re-evaluate it or, if it is good, at least re-document it.