Taxonomy & SEO – Integrating Perspectives

My last few blog posts on keyword research tips have generated interest from our readers regarding the relationship between the SEO task of keyword research and taxonomy. The purpose of today’s post is to examine the intersection between the two and offer a little advice for reconciling the internal perspective of taxonomy with external internet search.

We can harmonize these perspectives using a data-driven approach to understand the “mental model” of the external searcher.

Taxonomies Drive Information Organization

The purpose of a taxonomy is to define consistent organizing principles for information based on language people use to achieve their goals. (Whether finding a product, executing a task, solving a problem, etc)

Taxonomy terms can standard industry vocabularies, language unique to the organization or even general marketing speak.

Regardless of the context, taxonomies define the preferred terminology along with its synonyms, word stems, variants and relationships to other concepts. These classification schemes are intended to help users locate specifc documents and content as they go about their business.

Taxonomies Drive the User Experience

For the typical taxonomy, different branches are consumed by different systems at different levels of granularity. For an organization with a large e-commerce website, part of the taxonomy will be responsible for supporting how visitors interact with the site once there. It becomes an important part of the user experience as terms and labels are exposed via:

  • Site Navigation – Navigational hierarchy (global and secondary), breadcrumb trails, guided navigational elements and even text or content clouds are derived from controlled values.
  • Enterprise Search – Site search leverages metadata facets as a framework for refinement and improving information findability.
  • Dynamic Merchandising – Identification and display of related products and services meeting the customer’s need which subsequently leads to increased conversion opportunity.

Once on the site, taxonomy becomes a key factor affecting the visitor’s ability to successfully interact with the structure and information offered. If the terminology used on the site doesn’t match the mental model of the visitor, it can detract from the overall site experience. But, before any of that can happen, users need to find your site.

Taxonomies help users find informati0n on your site, keywords from taxonomies (along with search optimization techniques) can help your user find the site in the first place. Let’s take a look at how keyword research can be used to better inform the terminology of your taxonomies.

Search Engine Fundamentals

Let’s start with a little background. Unlike enterprise search applications that leverage the structured organizing principles of taxonomy and metadata to improve the on-site search experience, commercial search engines such as Google, Yahoo and MSN must implicitly derive the meaning of a web page based on the content itself. What this means is the structure of the content on a site along with the words used become the foundation from which the search engine attempts to understand what the site is all about. To illustrate, let’s take a look at a page on the topic of food processors from Target.com. The image below is what you see when you visit the site:

Food Processors

Food Processors

The information on the page is organized visually in a way that makes sense to human visitors. There’s a consistent header across the top which includes global navigation and search. There are pictures of food processors to also let the visitor know that this is the right page for this product.

But, what if the visitor to the site was a search crawler rather than a human? What would the search engine see? For the same page, the experience is dramatically different and can be illustrated as follows:

Search Engine View

Search Engine View

As you can see, the search engine’s experience of the site is purely textual. To put all that text into context, it uses signals like the occurrence of words and the relative value of those occurrences, including position, weight and semantic relationships to infer meaning. It does so through the analysis of html page elements such as metadata (title, description and keywords), headlines, content formatting and link text.


A content cloud generated from text on the page shows what the inferred topic of this page might be from the viewpoint of the search engine. You can clearly see that from a contextual perspective this page looks to be more about furniture and appliances than it does food processors. Further, you’ll also notice that many of the supplementary words that also appear are really unrelated to the concept chosen.

Content Cloud

Content Cloud

A simple search in Google confirms the ranking on the keyword food processors for this page to be 50th (as an aside, the ranking for the same page on the singular form of the keyword gets pushed all the way back the fifteenth page, or 151st). Not many people are willing to click through five pages of results to find what they’re looking for.

Uncovering Searcher Intent

Search engines strive to provide searchers with the most relevant set of results for a particular query. If you’ve ever had the opportunity to attend one of Seth Earley’s presentations on this topic, you’ve probably heard him use this quote from Microsoft Research:

“…search terms are short, ambiguous and an approximation of the searcher’s real information need…”


Take for instance the word twister. Does an engine like Google really understand the intent of the searcher that enters the query? Can it really know exactly what it is that’s being looked for? Is the purpose of the query to locate information on or about…

  • Helping to understand the scientific nature of tornadoes?
  • Maintenance tips for a Honda Twister 250 sport bike?
  • A promotion offered by the radio station KTST-FM 101.9 The Twister?
  • The 1996 movie starring Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton?
  • Tongue twisters the searcher used to know as a kid but has since forgotten?
  • The 1960’s game from Milton-Bradley?

What typically happens next is the searcher begins the process of disambiguation by entering additional keywords related to the original query as a refinement. This back and forth demonstrates the notion that search really becomes a conversation between the searcher and the search engine. The point here is that it’s important to have an understanding of the language being used by your potential customers when searching online. Remember, if you call it one thing and your potential customers call it something else, your paths are likely to never cross.

Keyword Research Informs Taxonomy Values

As a result, a key part of the process that needs to be taken into consideration when developing and implementing site taxonomy is the keyword research piece of search engine optimization. It can help you make intelligent decisions regarding which words to target and in what order those words need to appear. Many of those words or phrases might in turn become preferred terms in the taxonomy and, as part of the process you’ll also likely uncover some really great synonyms, word stems, variants and related concepts.

Once defined, this terminology can then drive the targeted formulation of a web page’s html elements along with page copy and cross merchandising modules. On very large sites, systems can leverage these user driven taxonomy terms to wisely target content dynamically by using business rules to structure the placement and prominence of keywords throughout these elements.

Informed decision making based on data derived from search behavior will undoubtedly have a positive impact on the amount and type of traffic your website receives. Remember that as a searcher, the context I use to conduct a search might be very different from the context you might use for the exact same query. Therefore, it’s next to impossible for a search engine algorithm to know this particularly when it comes to ambiguous query terms. As a result, leveraging keyword research to inform your site taxonomy can have a significant impact on how visitors not only get to your site but also the experience they have while there.

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