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Build a Clear Path to Your Products Online with Good Taxonomy

taxonomy-headerIt may sound like a highly scientific term, but taxonomy is actually a pretty simple concept when it comes to eCommerce: it involves creating a logical classification of products and their characteristics so customers can easily shop for and find them in your online store. A good taxonomy leads people to your products in as few clicks as possible. The fewer the clicks, the faster the sale.

Building a proper taxonomy for your product catalog takes research and thought, but the payoff is worth it. The best way to categorize your products is with a funnel approach where you start from the top down by developing high-level categories or divisions first, then breaking those categories down into more specific categories and, finally, creating the product characteristics or attributes for those categories. Let’s talk more about these different hierarchies:


The first categories you should create for your product catalog are the primary divisions of products that you offer. These level-one categories are general product groupings and should be given names that your customers would use, not necessarily ones that your internal organization uses. Choose these high-level category names wisely because they act as critical search words that support search engine optimization (SEO) to drive people to your site, as well as searches performed by buyers on your site. Tools, for example, would be a great level-one category name. It’s descriptive enough to lead people looking for tools to your site, yet general enough to house more descriptive category names within it, like Power Tools and Hand Tools. These more specific category names are called level-two categories and are used to provide a clear path to the most focused categories – the level-three and level-four categories.

Your third- or fourth-level categories should get customers to the actual products they’re searching for because, as we mentioned earlier, it shouldn’t take but a few clicks for a person to find the product they’re looking for on your site. Here’s an example of a taxonomy hierarchy that starts general and funnels down to three specific categories of products:


The key to successful category names is using consistent naming conventions and common terminology. Names should include popular terms that buyers will understand and search for, and should be built consistently across the categories. In other words, you wouldn’t want to name one category Masking Tape and a similar category Tape for Packaging; you would call it Packaging Tape. You also don’t want to use generic terms that don’t offer any value to a customer. Categories that include the words Miscellaneous or Accessories won’t help navigate someone to a product; this holds especially true in level-two categories. Customers need a clear path to the final level categories or they may get lost on your site quickly.

While you may think you have a handle on how to name your product categories, it’s always best to rely on concrete data to drive naming conventions. That’s where reporting comes into play. First, utilize your search logs to determine what the most popular terms are that your site visitors are using. Then make sure you’re incorporating those terms into your taxonomy. If you find that some common terms are coming back with too many results, consider creating a landing page to help direct buyers to the proper path. If the logs show people are searching for terms that aren’t found on your website, you can use this as an opportunity to add those terms as synonyms to your category names, or possibly fill gaps in your product offerings. Search logs can provide great insight into terms that may be under-utilized in your taxonomy.

Also look to industry research to make sure your category names are on track. Google Trends is a great resource to aid in your taxonomy building. Use it to compare potential category names to determine the most popular search terms, or to see regional preferences for terms. Google Trends can also identify new terms that perhaps you hadn’t previously considered.

There are also different exercises that can be done to help gain insight on your taxonomy. Card sort exercises involve pulling a team of product experts and non-experts together to get feedback on naming and categorizing items. Using list terms and photos of products, team members try to label and organize the cards the best way they see fit. Their perspectives can offer direction for category development. Tree testing, also known as reverse card sorting, helps evaluate the findability of topics in a website. Treejack is one testing tool that has participants find a product in a given taxonomy, then analyzes the paths they take and the dead-ends they find. This tool pinpoints any problems or confusion that may exist in your current taxonomy.


Once you’ve locked in your category names, the next step in product taxonomy is to develop names for the characteristics of your products, the attributes. Attributes describe critical product aspects, such as type, color, application and dimensions – all the important information a buyer needs to make a purchasing decision. Focus on providing essential attributes people need; not optional ones that only pertain to a small number of products within a category. The goal is for each attribute to be populated with a value for at least 80% of the products in a particular category. High attribute fill rates of 80% or more are key to on-site search because they not only direct buyers to the specific product(s) they want, they also power the filtering functionality on a site. Well-built eCommerce sites include filtering in the left navigation as another way to search for products. But filters do much more than just provide a search option; they guide your customers to the specific product they want, so in order to convert a search to a sale, attributes must be populated.

As with category names, attributes should also utilize common and consistent terminology. Attribute responses can either be free-form (where anything can be typed into the field as a response) or structured (a list of standardized values to choose from). While free-form attribute responses offer more flexibility for multiple products in a category, structured responses provide consistent, clear data for product understanding and comparison. Here’s an example where free-form responses were entered differently for items, causing an inconsistent display in the left navigation filtering:


Make your online store easy to shop by structuring your site with data-driven categories and attributes. By keeping your taxonomy understandable, consistent and relevant, you’ll provide buyers easy-to-navigate paths to your products online. With good product taxonomy, a potential sale is just a few clicks away!

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