Get Organizized

Jun 07, 2005


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To paraphrase Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver: "We all gotta get organizized." Otherwise, how will our Web site team know where to put all our content?

"Let's develop an ontology," says one. "We just need a good taxonomy," says another. "Can someone call an information architect," says a third. "You can't design an architecture until you do a content analysis," says a fourth, "and we can't analyze our content until we do a content audit."

"The really important content doesn't exist yet," says the first. "We have to align our content strategy to our business strategy."

"How can the Web site team articulate the business strategy? Will it just break itself into sections that match the architecture of the Web site," asks the third.

"If we had the business strategy, we could do a needs analysis, then we could identify our required content and line up content contributors and their workflow," says the fourth.

"But how do we arrange all that content so people can find it," asks the third. "Maybe we do user research," suggests the second. "We need a navigation design," says the third.

"First we need to cluster our content into some basic content types or categories," says the fourth. "We can do this with some affinity diagramming and card sorting."

"Yes," agrees the second, "then we can arrange the types in a taxonomy, classify the content and assign it some metadata." "But metadata just helps with our advanced search engine," says the third, "it doesn't help us architect the Web site."

Chorus: "We gotta get organizized!"

Do You Need A Taxonomist?
For starters, you may be surprised to find that you already have both a taxonomy and an information architecture. They may not be optimal, either for your content contributors to know where to put things or, more importantly, for your users to know where to find them.

Just take a look at your site. Every Web site has a "natural" taxonomy. The main links on your home page are its implicit top-level categories, like products, services, support, resources, and about us. Do these links have drop-down menus? If so, you're revealing the second-level of your taxonomy. Do menu items have sub-menus? You got it: the third-level of your taxonomy. Jan Wylie's second edition of Taxonomies: Frameworks for Corporate Knowledge from the Ark Group says most users can't navigate past a three- or four-level taxonomy. Don't worry too much, your site probably doesn't support deeper menu cascades anyway.

An Acid Test
Now you should undertake a two-step acid test. When you put your mouse over a link what does the path look like? If it says www.mycontent.biz/index.asp?id=73bc1&session=98487542 or if every path is on the same level, like www.mycontent.biz/something.php, your content contributors and your users are in trouble.

On the other hand, if it says www.mycontent.biz/products/software/content_management, you have just discovered a second natural taxonomy of every Web site, the path names into its folders and files.

You may not know how to define "taxonomy" precisely, but you have been putting content into files and folders on your desktop forever, and your site is no different. It has a root folder (one way to say taxonomy is to say it looks like a tree with a trunk and roots), and the folders inside the root folder are its main branches (your top-level categories). Folders inside folders correspond to submenu items, and eventually the files in a folder look like the leaves on your taxonomy tree.

The second step of the acid test is whether paring back the path name lets you find things where you expect them. Does the browser report "directory access not allowed" when you strip off the filename or one of the folders in the path? Your users have a natural "folk taxonomy" sense that they should be able to find things at www.mycontent.biz/products/software. Your authors do two so don't let them down. Provide a "landing page" for every natural section.

You may not need multi-level drop-down menus. Many sites use a second left/local navigation scheme to complement their global/banner links. If this local navigation changes to reflect the contents of each major section, if it uses indented structures or drop-down menus to indicate third and lower levels, you are all set.

Wylie also says be sure when developing content to include a "don't know" section in your taxonomy. If it isn't obvious where to put some content, put it in "don't know" until you start to see another natural category developing.

A fresh look at your existing Web site may reveal you are more organizized than you ever thought.