Many people are confused by the terms taxonomy and terminology. Are they the same thing? Are they different? Do I care about one more than the other? If so, which?

In this article, I will demystify taxonomy and terminology. Be confused no more!



A taxonomy is a way to classify words into hierarchical groups. The biggest use of a taxonomy is for search.

Terminology is a system of words that belong to something in common. Terminology allows content to be:

  • Consistent
  • Standard
  • Readable
  • Retain the Brand

Taxonomy and terminology overlap in something called controlled language. Controlled language defines which words to use, where to use them, and when to use them. Both taxonomy and terminology belong to the category of controlled language. Controlled language has an organization structure that needs to be governed.


A taxonomy defines groups of words. It can be multilayered or flat.

In the following example, we have a taxonomy for food. At the top level, we have two groups: type and cooking method. Under each, we have sub-categories of groups.

chart showing how you might organize and categorize the taxonomy of food

We can further categorize the type of food as follows:

a more complex example of categorizing food

The taxonomy can become even more granular. Let’s take Food -> Type -> Vegetables -> Leafy:

An example of taxonomy chart showing a way to organize vegetables further. Food -> Type -> Vegetables -> Leafy:

Using this taxonomy, if I wanted to categorize romaine lettuce, it would be as follows:

Food -> Type -> Vegetables -> Leafy -> Lettuce -> Romaine

Taxonomy example: Food -> Type -> Vegetables -> Leafy -> Lettuce -> Romaine


Terminology is a system or collection of words that belong to something in common. The system is managed to make content more consistent and standardized. Terminology helps improve readability, translation, and brand perception.

Terminology is not necessarily hierarchical. Instead, it is a grouping. Using our same example:

In this example, food, type and method are groupings of words. Here is what they might contain:

shart showing food, type and method are groupings of words

It is possible to have nested groups within terminology, such as:

terminology nested grouping example chart

Which Terms Need to be Managed?

Not all words need to be managed. However, there are certain categories that you should pay attention to. For example:

  • Synonyms:
    • Food
    • Grub
    • Chow
    • Cuisine
    • Sustenance
  • Trademarks, service marks, brand names, and product names, such as:
    • Coca-Cola ®
    • CocaCola
    • Coca Cola
    • Coke-Cola

You want to make sure that everyone uses the same version of a trademarked term.

  • Variants of the same term, such as:
    • Porterhouse
    • Porter house
    • Porter-house
  • Words that you or someone else made up:
    • eBook
    • daughterboard
    • gamification
  • Words that have switched parts of speech:
    • Google
    • Fedex
    • Facebook
    • Xerox

What Aspects of a Term Should I Include?

There are a number of things that you can include, along with the word itself, when you manage a term. Here are some suggestions:

illustration of what else you might include when managing terminology

Of course, not everyone needs to include each of these categories. The ones you select to include will be determined by the use case of why you are managing terms, and what aspects of the term you care about.

Best Practices

There are a few best practices when it comes to managing taxonomy and terminology.


As a best practice, all of the words in your taxonomy should also be managed in your terminology. Here is what it might look like if we put terms from our taxonomy example into terminology.

an example what it may look like to put terms from our taxonomy example into terminology

In the taxonomy, these words formed a hierarchy. In terminology, they all belong to a group.

Changing or Removing Words

There may be times when you decide that you no longer want to use a particular word in your taxonomy and terminology. If this is the case, you should follow these steps:

  1. Disallow the word in both the taxonomy and the terminology.
  2. Replace the disallowed word with the new preferred word.
  3. Eventually, remove the disallowed word from the taxonomy so that people can no longer use it in search.
  4. Leave the disallowed word in the terminology forever, so that no one ever uses it.


Governance is a critical component of managing both your taxonomy and terminology. You need to decide, in advance, many things. For example:

  • Criteria for adding words
  • Criteria for removing words
  • Frequency of changes
  • Decision tree
  • Who is alerted when changes are made

And so on.

It is a good idea to have people from the taxonomy team on the terminology team, and vice-versa. Clear and frequent communication is an important part of maintaining both your taxonomy and your terminology.


Taxonomy and terminology are both examples of controlled language. Both taxonomy and terminology determine which words to use, where to use them, and when to use them.

Taxonomy is a hierarchical method of classifying words. It is used mainly for search.

Terminology is a system of words that belong to something in common.

Implementing a taxonomy will help your users find content. Implementing terminology will help them to read it and understand it.

Val Swisher
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