The Accidental Taxonomist

As online shopping expands, the business of products for sale on e-commerce websites becomes progressively important, and there is more standardization also. Websites present the option to either search (used by customers who know very well what they need and what things to call it) and browse (utilized by customers who aren’t sure about what they want or what things to call it). For holiday gift shopping, browsing tends to be more prevalent than usual, so displayed taxonomies take on an especially high visibility at the moment.

For browsing, e-commerce websites typically organize their products into hierarchical categories, which are narrowed by the use of facets then. Top level categories correspond to “departments” and may be only 2-3 for a specialty retailer or as much as 12-17 for a general/mass merchandise retailer. Usually the hierarchy expands a couple of more levels deeper, although an extremely large store might find the necessity for an occasional fourth level.

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At the low levels of the hierarchy, the customer will then refine the group of products by use of facets (also called attributes, filters, refinements, proportions, “limit by,” or “narrow by”). The facets are four characteristics that cut across multiple categories. Facets may be for size, color, price range, materials, brand, style, special features, and even customer rating perhaps. These facets shall vary with respect to the department or the broader category type.

The terms within a facet, known as “facet values” or “attribute values,” are usually in a flat list The user selects a value from each of multiple facets in mixture. In some full cases, if check containers are provided, an individual is permitted to select some value from within the same facet.

Typically merchants are more worried about the choice and implementation of technology than in the look of the taxonomy. After all, a hierarchical taxonomy of products would appear simple to design, and the facets are not too challenging to build up even, especially with plenty of competitor e-commerce websites to analyze and compare. However, my experience working as a taxonomy consultant on e-commerce taxonomies has led me to understand that creating and editing e-commerce taxonomies is much less easy as it appears.

At the bigger levels, categories are clear. Standard facets (size, color, price range, etc.) are also obvious. But the distinction between your most specific subcategories and specialized facets can get blurred. Could be a facet “type”? Is a “plaid shirt” a subcategory of shirts, or is plaid a value in a “pattern/type” facet? Are gas and electric stoves subcategories of stoves, or is “energy source” an element of stoves?

Factors to consider in making these decisions include consumer perceptions and the number of existing levels of subcategories and numbers of facets. You can find product categories that are difficult to classify often. For example, do video gaming belong in “Toys and Games” or in “Electronics”? Does HOME ENTERTAINMENT belongs in the “Television/Video” or the “Audio/Stereo department?