Are Taxonomies Dead?

Posted on January 09, 2004

The taxonomy was always supposed to be the be-all and end-all of information architecture. A good, solid category structure was how all the information in an enterprise was supposed to fit together.

But they’re harder to build than you think. There are shades of gray and complications. You need related categories so people can jump from branch to branch; you can slice information so many different ways; who can agree where something fits, etc. I’ve tried to build a half-dozen, but I can’t point to any major successes.

Is the ideal of taxonomy possible? Or is it just better to invest in a good search engine? Think about it, when you visit a site, do you ever browse a taxonomy, or do you just go right to search? If you’re looking for something you’ve seen on this site, do you wade through the category list, or just hit the search engine?

When was the last time you actually browsed Yahoo! or DMOZ? I know they’re there, but I haven’t visited them in ages. Last time I did visit, what was the first thing I did? That’s right – typed something into the search box.

Search is a lazy man’s taxonomy. It’s not as organized or structured as a taxonomy, but human beings – imperfect creatures than we are – tend to settle to what’s easier. So, as an information architect, do you stand on principle, or do you cater to the lazy way your users are going to look for information?

This comes from my current infatuation with wikis. There is no categorizing of pages in wikis (even after my railing against all their shortcomings a few months ago), there’s just search and linking between pages. But the search is good, and it always seems to work. Same with the search on this site – when I’m looking for a previous post, it just always seems to work, and that search is nothing but a SQL “LIKE” query, the dumbest search of all.

So, are taxonomies an ideal that just don’t survive the reality test?

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