“Classification” and “taxonomy” are two closely related words that some people find confusing. Both terms reflect the fact that we encounter large amounts of information in everyday life and our brains need some way to synthesize and contextualize that information. Concepts like classification and taxonomy help us make sense of the world by improving our ability to find important content in an information-rich world.

The Merriam-Webster definition of classification is “systematic arrangement in groups or categories according to established criteria.” The term is a broad one that encompasses any type of grouping according to criteria.

The same dictionary defines taxonomy as “orderly classification of plants and animals according to their presumed natural relationships.” Taxonomy is the process of giving names to things or groups of things according to their positions in a hierarchy. The items are defined according to their relationship with the other items in the hierarchy.

In biology, taxonomy is the study of identification and classification of organisms. Scientists use taxonomy to identify new plant and animal species. Careers in biology taxonomy are expected to grow, since many new and promising drugs and medical treatments can be developed from newly discovered and classified organisms and plants.

It is important to remember that taxonomies are more concerned with providing exhaustive lists while classification is not exhaustive. Taxonomies are based on providing a hierarchical relationship map between a multitude of items while classification usually only groups items according to one or two attributes. The fundamental difference is that taxonomies describes relationships between items while classification simply groups the items.
Taxonomies have expanded from browsing aids to the foundation for automatic classification. Early auto-classification methods grouped documents having similar collections of words, but current software can provide far greater accuracy. The taxonomy model is typically hierarchical with term specificity dictated by the end user’s need for detail.

Taxonomy represents the foundation upon which information architecture stands. If we view taxonomy in its proper place within a broader field of study, information architecture is simply a set of aids that match information needs with information resources. A well-implemented architectural design structures information in an organization through specific formats, categories, and relationships.

Standards govern and dictate how new information should be tagged and cataloged. A standards-based taxonomy can help you provide clear order to your data, which enables comprehensive search results. Standards are key to a solid taxonomy and comprehensive indexing.

Melody K. Smith

Sponsored by Access Innovations, the world leader in thesaurus, ontology, and taxonomy creation and metadata application.