Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Creating Taxonomies from Scratch

When I first got into taxonomy work, my impression was that the trend was increasingly to revise, redesign, merge, and update existing taxonomies and less for creating new taxonomies. As taxonomies became more common in large organizations, it seemed obvious that there would be less original taxonomy creation needs and more taxonomy improvement needs.  Taxonomies need to be updated when content changes, terminology changes, users change, indexing methods change,  content/document management systems change, etc. Older taxonomies may also need to be repurposed, merged, or mapped. While there is no shortage of work on existing taxonomies, to my pleasant surprise I have found recently that there are many projects for new taxonomies as well.

Who needs taxonomies from scratch

In the field of taxonomy consulting, different taxonomy projects go to different consultancies. Large organizations with large taxonomy projects tend to hire taxonomy consultancies with multiple consultants to handle their projects, and it is the large organizations that by now tend to already have some taxonomies, even if they need a lot of work. Smaller organizations tend to hire independent consultant-contractors, and smaller organizations more likely are new to taxonomies and need to have one built from scratch.  When I started out consulting, I was employed or subcontracted to consultancies that served larger clients and worked more on taxonomy redesign projects, but then when I became an independent consultant I was contacted by and often served smaller clients, including startups, and thus became involved with more projects to build original taxonomies.

The types of projects that start-ups have for taxonomies are really quite interesting and they reflect a trend in innovative content-based products and services. In the past couple of years I have been contacted about creating taxonomies (some of which I did) for the following:
  • A subscription, web-based software with taxonomy for photographers to tag and classify their own images
  • A web-based market place for craftspeople and customers to meet to buy/sell customized objects
  • A website of quotes by famous and not-so-famous women with related content
  • A web database of yoga poses associated with a yoga studio
  • A web service of sites for artists to promote themselves
  • A loyalty marketing and data software platform for retailers
  • A mobile app that pulls content from LinkedIn to help professionals and job seekers make connections and obtain career advice
Yet it may not even be the size of the organization seeking taxonomies that has an impact in the demand for new taxonomies from scratch. It could also be that taxonomies are becoming better known across all industries, not just the fields of publishing, information services, and ecommerce. There is also no doubt that the growing amount of content in all areas necessitates better methods of organization and retrieval.

How taxonomies are built from scratch

Even taxonomists with considerable experience in editing taxonomies might not know where to begin if they were to create a taxonomy from scratch. There is some uncertainty over whether to take a predominantly top-down or bottom-up approach.  I recommend a hybrid approach, with some initial top-level development, but most of the work on the specific taxonomy terms built from the bottom. If a navigational tree hierarchy is to be displayed to the users, then at least some initial top-down development is needed.

Developing the top terms (or facets, as the case may be) is based on best practices, understanding the users, adapting to any user interface constraints, and general experience as a taxonomist. Developing all the detailed terms within the taxonomy from below, however, is quite a different task that requires different taxonomist skills. Despite the fact that a spreadsheet, such as Excel, is inappropriate for managing taxonomies, I have found that even with taxonomy management software available, Excel is the most usable tool for the initial stage for gathering candidate terms along with information about their sources and/or for comparing terms side-by-side from multiple sources and at the same time putting them into a hierarchy. Finally, if a taxonomy is somewhat specialized and technical in nature and to be used by subject matter experts, it’s also possible to let the subject matter experts propose their own taxonomy and then review it with them and heavily revise it to bring it up to standards.

I will discuss this in more detail in my presentation, “Taxonomies: Everything you Need to Know to Start a Taxonomy from Scratch,” at the SLA conference in Vancouver, BC, on June 8.