How to Create Taxonomies for Technical Documentation

On my quest for best practices for taxonomies I‘ve come across an insightful webinar on this topic hosted on BrightTALk and conducted by Scott Abel (the Content Wrangler) and Heather Hedden. Heather is a taxonomy consultant for intranets, enterprise content management, SharePoint, research databases, websites, e-commerce, etc.

I‘ve summarized the main takeaways below:

What Does a Taxonomist Do

The work of a taxonomist (excerpt from can be defined as follows: „The heart of being a taxonomist is with concepts, figure out what words are best to describe them, and determining how best to relate and arrange the concepts so that people can find the information they are seeking. The task requires a degree of logic as one must scrupulously analyze relationships between terms. It is neither entirely technical/mathematical nor entirely linguistic but a little of each. You always need to keep in mind how others might look for information when considering how to word a term, create nonpreferred terms, structure relationships, and contribute to the design of the user interface display“

Content Findability

Methods for content findability. There are several tools to connect users to specifically sought content:

  • Indexes
  • Search engines
  • CMS with tagged content. I‘ll focus on this option.

Tagged content:

  • The attributes used to tag content are customizable
  • Supports both categories and tags
  • Supports predefined taxonomies and free searches
  • Provides better results that search alone, as it includes suggestions and related concepts
  • Supports content discovery
  • Useful for both novice and experience users

Categories VS Tags

There are two major approaches when it comes to creating taxonomies:

  • A hierarchy of categories
  • A predefined vocabulary set to be added (manually?) to each topic

The following table compares categories and tags:

Folder where topic is storedWhich topics are discussed in the content
HierarchicalOften unstructured
For browsingFor searching


There are also two main standards for taxonomies:

ANSI/NISO Z39.19 -> this is a standard for consistent design for user experience.

SKOS -> Simple Knowledge Organization System. Developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). It is readable by humans and machines. It specifies how to define relationships, labels, concepts and schemes.

How to Plan a Taxonomy

  • Define who must be involved
  • Define the project scope
  • Define the use cases
  • Define the taxonomy type (hierarchical VS facets)
  • Take into account CMS limitations
  • Define maintenance tasks
  • Consider your content (toc, headings, metadata), your users, and existing glossaries, vocabularies, etc…from different stakeholders (marketing, sales, support, PM, POs…) and SMEs
    • A note on glossaries: beware that taxonomies should only contain glossary terms for which there is a significant amount of content.

Steps to Create a Taxonomy

  1. Analyse your existing content (docs)
  2. Run interviews with stakeholders
  3. Define use cases
  4. Review existing material provided by SMEs
  5. Build a first draft of the taxonomy
  6. Get feedback from stakeholders and enhance the first version accordingly
  7. Test it with users
  8. Define maintenance guidelines

Free Software

You can find some links to free taxonomy management software at:

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