Help your clients build taxonomies for their Web sites

Building a taxonomy requires a logical, user-friendly approach to a Web site's content. Technologies that aid in indexing, searching, and retrieval--such as Microsoft's SharePoint Portal Server--make it easier to implement a taxonomy for a client.

I heard a fellow consultant say that the only thing more difficult than finding a piece of information on the Web is finding that same piece of information again. Your clients probably have the same problem. Why not help them out a bit? It makes sense when helping a client construct a Web site (whether internal or external) to make it easy for your customers or employees to locate information quickly. This is especially true if they constantly add content to the site.

The process of grouping online information in a meaningful way is known as creating a taxonomy—a method of categorizing data and making the data available to the users in the easiest manner possible.

The Yahoo taxonomy
Yahoo is a good example of a taxonomy; you can go to the Yahoo home page and use the links to quickly navigate to any piece of information in the hierarchy. For example, if you look at the Yahoo screen capture in Figure A, you'll notice quick links on the right side of the screen. These links give you quick access to news and stock market reports. At the bottom of the screen (not shown) are links that you can use to quickly navigate to a piece of information.

Figure A
Yahoo provides a great example of an easy-to-use taxonomy.

While Yahoo may have the best user-friendly taxonomy, it has a few advantages that other businesses don't, such as an entire staff of human reviewers and editors who work on link placement and categorization. Since the Yahoo Web site is Yahoo's main business, it also dedicates more money to the Web site than a traditional brick-and-mortar business might.

Building a taxonomy
You can use a couple of techniques to mimic Yahoo's approach to taxonomy at a fraction of the cost. If you study the Yahoo Web site, you'll notice that it relies on hierarchical categorization and a search engine. With a little work, you can implement both of these on either a private or public Web site.

For instance, my Web site doesn't have nearly as much content as Yahoo does, but it does have hundreds of technical articles. When I created my Web site, one of my biggest challenges was making the information easy to find. For instance, the home page has some technical content, but most of the content is in the Knowledge Base, which can be accessed from the main menu. I've also integrated a Google search into my site to make it easier for people to find specific information.

In the Knowledge Base of my Web site, I used hierarchical categorization. I designed the site so that people should be able to find what they're looking for within three clicks. When you enter the Knowledge Base, you're presented with a menu that allows you to select among categories such as Windows 2000, Windows XP, or General Security. If you clicked on Windows 2000, you'd be taken to a menu, which breaks Windows 2000 into areas such as security, Active Directory, and administration. Once you make a choice here, you're taken to a screen with links to the articles that fall into that category.

An internal Web site
The techniques that I use internally would be appropriate for any intranet or Web site that has to manage a lot of documents. For internal use, I take the idea of hierarchical categorization quite a bit further than I do on my public Web site.

I write a lot of articles. As my archives began to grow, it became increasingly difficult to locate pieces that I had written on a specific topic if I needed to review them later. One way I've solved this location problem is with the file structure that I use to save my articles. At the top level of my structure, I have a folder for articles, another for business records, and others for various aspects of my operation. Within the Articles folder, I have subfolders for each company that I write for. Within the company folder, I have folders for everyone within the company that I write for. Beneath that, I have folders for different years. This structure makes it easier to backtrack and locate an article when an editor asks me about something that I have written for them in the past, but it did not solve the content problem.

SharePoint keeps track of it all
To make the location process even easier, I've implemented Microsoft's SharePoint Portal Server. It's specifically designed for creating taxonomies that deal with the challenges of content management. When users save documents, the documents can be placed into specific categories and indexed by keywords. Other users can then check the document out of a document library, make changes to the document, and check it back in. SharePoint keeps track of the versions as changes are made and makes old versions available in case you need to revert to a previous version.

Another benefit of SharePoint is that you can use it to index the contents of public folders on Exchange Servers and favorite Web sites. A client can use a single search interface to search local documents, documents on Web sites, and the contents of the Exchange public folders.

In SharePoint, you can create categories manually or automatically. Figure B shows how the categories are set up. This figure is from one of my test servers. Notice that the SharePoint Web site contains a search engine that you can use to search for individual documents, or you can click on an individual category to look for documents within that category.

Figure B
SharePoint can either create categories automatically or you can create them manually.

Use a document summary
Although SharePoint can do full-text indexing on documents in the document library, one final way I organize my files is by supplying a document summary using Microsoft Office. If you've ever used the Properties command in Office XP on Word documents, you've probably noticed that you can enter a document summary, as shown in Figure C.

Figure C
Office XP has a built-in document summary.

This information can be used by SharePoint to make searches more accurate. If you aren't using Office XP, you can enter this information manually the first time you check in a document.

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