Taxonomy relies on three key elements: characterization, classification and nomenclature. All three elements are dynamic fields, but each step depends on the one which precedes it. Thus, the nomenclature of a group of organisms depends on the way they are classified, and the classification (among other elements) depends on the information gathered as a result of characterization. While nomenclature is governed by the Bacteriological Code, the classification and characterization of prokaryotes is an area that is not formally regulated and one in which numerous changes have taken place in the last 50 years. The purpose of the present article is to outline the key elements in the way that prokaryotes are characterized, with a view to providing an overview of some of the pitfalls commonly encountered in taxonomic papers.