We introduce the operational genomic unit (OGU) method, a metagenome analysis strategy that directly exploits sequence alignment hits to individual reference genomes as the minimum unit for assessing the diversity of microbial communities and their relevance to environmental factors. This approach is independent of taxonomic classification, granting the possibility of maximal resolution of community composition, and organizes features into an accurate hierarchy using a phylogenomic tree. The outputs are suitable for contemporary analytical protocols for community ecology, differential abundance, and supervised learning while supporting phylogenetic methods, such as UniFrac and phylofactorization, that are seldom applied to shotgun metagenomics despite being prevalent in 16S rRNA gene amplicon studies. As demonstrated in two real-world case studies, the OGU method produces biologically meaningful patterns from microbiome data sets. Such patterns further remain detectable at very low metagenomic sequencing depths. Compared with taxonomic unit-based analyses implemented in currently adopted metagenomics tools, and the analysis of 16S rRNA gene amplicon sequence variants, this method shows superiority in informing biologically relevant insights, including stronger correlation with body environment and host sex on the Human Microbiome Project data set and more accurate prediction of human age by the gut microbiomes of Finnish individuals included in the FINRISK 2002 cohort. We provide Woltka, a bioinformatics tool to implement this method, with full integration with the QIIME 2 package and the Qiita web platform, to facilitate adoption of the OGU method in future metagenomics studies.