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Web Classification Is Essential

  |  November 29, 2001   |  Comments

Before you build your Web site, take some time to do the upfront chores that'll ensure you'll have a firm foundation.

Classification (taxonomy, categorization) is to content as mapping is to geography. It is an essential tool that allows the person visiting a Web site to navigate it quickly and efficiently. Without professional classification, a Web site becomes a jumble of content that is confusing and time wasting.

Despite its importance, classification is poorly implemented on a great many Web sites. The following are some of the reasons why this is the case:

  • Classification is historically associated with libraries and as such is not seen as critical function of a commercial organization.
  • Classification is seen as something technical rather than strategic. Senior managers thus rarely get involved in designing classification.
  • There is rarely a link between the act of classification and its impact. The organization does not see frustrated and confused Web site visitors as they click their way through a poorly designed classification.

Classification design is a complex and difficult process for the following reasons:

  • There is no "right" way to classify content. If you give 10 experts a Web site to classify, chances are they will all come up with slightly different classification designs for the Web site. The more content, the more divergent these designs will become.
  • Web site classification impacts both the "map" and the "geography." Classification is not simply about mapping content that is already on a Web site. It also dictates the very structure of the Web site.
  • Web site classification is an ongoing process prone to error. Each time a new document is published on the Web site, it needs to be classified. If the document is classified incorrectly, then it undermines the entire classification design.
  • Web site visitors are impatient. They demand a classification that is simple and intuitive. While highly desirable, this is not always possible where large quantities of content are involved. Thus, there is often a trade-off between designing a classification that is comprehensive and designing one that is user friendly.
  • The organization often has a preexisting classification that is understood by its employees but not by its customers. A difficult decision needs to be made with regard to whether to design two classifications or create a single unified classification that is understood by both.

However complex classification is, it needs to be embraced. Here are some things to keep in mind when approaching its design:

  • Get senior management involved, particularly for the design of the top level of the classification. Whether, for example, you choose "Products," "Services," or "Solutions" says a lot about what type of organization you are.
  • Treat classification like it is the foundation and architecture of your Web site. It thus requires careful design upfront and is not something you should be constantly changing.
  • Design the classification for the person who is most likely to use it. Make sure that the terms you are using are understandable to this person.
  • Mock up and test the classification. Watch how people use it.
  • Strive to have consistent classification across your Web sites. This will be easier to manage and will create a more familiar environment for Web site visitors.

Before the Web, classification was some peripheral activity that happened deep in the bowels of the library. But the Web is a library. It is a place where people come to quickly find content. Quality classification facilitates their doing that.


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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