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A Class in Classification

  |  September 11, 2002   |  Comments

If you work with information, you probably need to brush up your classification skills.

If you are a knowledge worker, you need to know how to classify content. Classification skills help you better organize content on your computer, categorize your emails, and compose documents. If you have responsibility for a Web site, classification is an essential skill.

First, a little background. Classification (taxonomy) is a type of metadata. The purpose of metadata is to provide essential information about a document. Metadata and classification are part of the discipline of information architecture, whose focus is to organize and lay out content.

Classification is not as simple as you may believe. Classifying 20 documents isn't difficult. That's because no matter how you classify them, it will be relatively easy to find what you want. Classifying 2,000 documents, however, is a very difficult task.

Classification is not something you can master in a weekend. Becoming an expert takes years. However, if you want to master content you must master classification.

Classification is an inherent part of creating a document. Every time you write a heading, you are creating a classification. If the document is long (more than 600 words), you should have subheadings. These are subclassifications underneath the heading classification.

Good internal classification has three key objectives:

  • To organize the document in such a way that maximizes its ability to communicate knowledge.

  • To allow the reader to quickly find specific parts of the document.

  • To allow the reader to extract specific parts of various documents and in so doing create a new document. For example, the reader might compile the summaries of 10 documents dealing with the European car industry. (XML is useful for this sort of task.)

Classification experts tend to focus on organizing complete documents, books, music, and other content. They classify for two reasons:

  • To organize the content so it can be found quickly

  • To place the content in context so it becomes part of a cohesive body of knowledge

Whether you are classifying your emails, your content on your computer, or the content on your Web site, these general rules of classification are useful:

  • Establish clear objectives. What do you want to use your email software for? Is it for personal use, business use, or both? Your objectives will frame the type of classifications you require.

  • Design classification like it will be written in stone. You don't want to be changing your classification every six months. Changes means a lot of work and will create confusion.

  • Design for the total content environment. Don't just design for the content you have today. Try to have a long-term perspective. This will result in a much more robust classification.

  • Be practical. Your classification should be lean and mean. Overdoing classification can be as bad as not doing it at all.

  • Avoid duplication. Creating two classifications that are essentially the same leads to confusion.

  • Test. You should do as much testing as possible. Get feedback, particularly where you are creating a classification you want other people to use.

  • Take your time. Speed is the enemy of quality classification. Don't rush. Consider each classification carefully. Your efforts will pay handsome dividends in the long term.


Gerry McGovern Gerry McGovern is a Web consultant and author. His most recent books are Content Critical and The Web Content Style Guide, published by Financial Times Prentice Hall.

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