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.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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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