WordPress & Taxonomies: Part 1, Taxonomies & Terms

In Part 1, I’ll just cover what taxonomies are and how websites use them. Most content management systems (CMSs) have them, but I’ll focus on WordPress since it’s what I use every day to build websites.


Making Information “Findable”

A website must organize its information so users can find what they need. Search is useful, but isn’t for everyone. ((At least one study found that at least half of web users are “search dominant.” The other half aren’t.)) Menus are similarly useful, but again, do it all.

That’s where “Taxonomies” come in. Most Content Management Systems (CMSes) have them, but many people who could benefit from them don’t know about them. Starting from the basics, I hope I can get more people using them.

To help keep all these ideas straight, I’ll use the example of my made up food recipes blog, “Mark’s Meals.”

Definitions: Taxonomies and Terms

A taxonomy is “a classification of things or concepts,” according to Wikipedia. A taxonomy contains multiple “terms.”

On Mark’s Meals, I have a “Meals” taxonomy with the terms “Breakfast,” “Brunch,” “Lunch,” and “Dinner.” I also  have another taxonomy called “Ingredients” with terms like “Cheddar Cheese,” “Blueberries,” “Saltines,” and “Milk.” Every recipe I post on Mark’s Meals belongs to a meal and multiple ingredients.

How Visitors Use Taxonomies

Each term in a taxonomy generates its own “Archive” page that lists every post assigned to that term. On Mark’s Meals, the sidebar lists all the Meals terms. Clicking one of the meals lets readers see every recipe for “Dinner” or “Lunch.” Similarly, maybe a user doesn’t care about the intended meal of a recipe and just needs to see all the recipes that use “Milk” before that gallon expires tomorrow!

For real world examples of “Archive” pages, here’s a list of all the Grocery Stores in White Center and here are the posts about collaboration on my blog.

The Benefits of Taxonomies

In thinking about how taxonomies can be useful, the word “browsing” probably triggers most people’s experience using them. For instance, here are some taxonomies from an Amazon search for “laptop:”

Amazon Laptop Taxonomies

In a WordPress site, it’s more common to just see links to pages listing posts in each term. Here’s an example from this very blog’s sidebar:

The list of "Blog Topics" on this site.

These taxonomies give ways for people to narrow their list of posts. ((This specific interface that allows users to narrow search results by selecting one or more terms in one or more taxonomies is called “Faceted Search” or “Faceted Navigation.”)) As you can imagine, the different taxonomies may be of more or less interest to various site visitors.

Amazon uses a menu-like system to display all “Laptops” (a subsection of “Computers and Accessories”) and then these taxonomies provide a more fine-grained way of finding and comparing laptops. That is to say that you can find all brands of sizes of laptops with “Windows 8” or both Macs and PCs with a 13-13.9 inch monitor.

Wrapping Up: Taxonomies

Where search and navigation menus fall short—when users don’t know exactly what they’re looking for—taxonomies provide a great way of grouping information by assigning one or more terms to each post. Taxonomies are used behind the scenes on all sorts of websites we all use every day to power “browseable” interfaces, and you can use them to with WordPress!

Next Time on “WordPress & Taxonomies”…

In Part 2, I’ll discuss the two default taxonomies in WordPress, “Categories” and “Tags.” These are often a source of confusion to new WordPress users.

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