Retail website navigation and taxonomy are inexplicably interconnected. When thoughtfully designed for both humans and machines, it makes it easy to search for, find and browse Website content.

Four Common Taxonomy Mistakes

Sadly, taxonomies and site navigation are more often designed by a committee who make common mistakes. First, they may forget to establish goals. Without goals, many different hierarchies will seem like a good solution. Second, group think sets in. Though compromise is generally a good idea, it’s not a best practice in taxonomy design. Third, they may forget to name the target audience of the taxonomy or to validate the structure with very people and machines who will eventually consume it. And lastly, they embark on the effort without a guide. Retail Taxonomy Experts can act as mediators to expertly facilitate agreement and governance between stakeholders. Without a guide, the process is messier.

So, What is a Taxonomy?

Well, it’s simply a classification of ordered categories. Sounds simple, right? Well, not really.  If you’re new to taxonomies, think of it like a closet. You can organize a closet so many different “right” ways. Maybe you put all your clothes into categories first like “shirts”, “pants”, “shoes” and “jackets” and then organize them secondarily by season. Or perhaps you put everything in the closet by color first and then organize them into categories. You might even put long things together and short things together. Who knows! Whatever way you choose to organize it, it’s still a taxonomy.

Have you ever had to share a closet? If you have, you quickly realize how important it is that the person you’re sharing the closet with, understands your taxonomy. Otherwise, your jackets could end up in the “shirts” or “short” section — or worse yet — the miscellaneous group.

Now, ask yourself if you would be upset if your closet co-habitant did any of the following things to your shared closet:

  • Surprised you by moving everything into their taxonomy rules
  • Removed your jackets and put them in the hallway closet
  • Put all your striped pants and shirts into a NEW “Pattern” section
  • Paired all your shirts with your pants to make looks

You get the point. These changes would understandably frustrate you. It’s no different for Internet shoppers.

A Tangled Web of Taxonomy

A poor retail taxonomy results in a literal web of retail content that search engines can’t index properly, and people can’t find. Otherwise helpful consumer features like “filter”, “compare” and “sort” become confusing to people and misunderstood semantically by crawlers and search engines. SEO becomes more difficult and more expensive. Thesaurus entries are longer. Complications for features like breadcrumb navigation are often so challenging retailers pull the feature altogether. Critical services like “coupons”, “promotions” and “shipping” require expensive platform customizations to account for all the special circumstances and compromises in the taxonomy rules.

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Improving your taxonomy

If you’re looking to improve your Website taxonomy, here’s a quick refresher on the tenets of any good taxonomy.

  • It contains a restricted list of categories
  • Each term or category is mutually exclusive
  • Categories and subcategories are arranged in a relational hierarchy
  • Attributes and meta descriptions are applied consistently to each level of the hierarchy
  • Branches maintain good information scent (top to bottom)
  • Hierarchy is normalized across branches
  • It does not permit poly hierarchies for top level categories and only rarely if at allat lower levels of the hierarchy
  • Finally, the whole system is governed by strict policies for adding, editing or deleting any part of the whole

A good retail taxonomy applies these additional qualifiers

  • No more than 20 top level categories
  • No more than 14 subcategories
  • No more than 3-4 levels of depth
  • Category and subcategory labels are brief — ideally nouns and never descriptors
  • Labels are comparable at every level and either singular or plural but never mixed
  • Capitalization and punctuation rules are applied consistently

Common challenges when refining taxonomy

The hardest part of taxonomy work is making the right original design choices and putting governance in place that protects your taxonomy investment. Here are some of the most common challenges we see when working with clients to refine their taxonomies.

  1. Challenge: It’s hard to tell if this is a Category or an Attribute.
    Question: Is “New arrivals” a category or attribute?”
  2. Challenge: Fighting the insatiable urge to allow crossovers and poly hierarchies is miserably hard.
    Question: “Why can’t we make “Robes” part of three different groups? Robes could go in these 3 categories :Apparel, :Sleepwear and :Pajamas”
  3. Challenge: It’s difficult to define how categories and subcategories “relate to each other”.
    Question: “This swim top coordinates with two swim bottoms (2 skus) but this all belts coordinate with all pants with belt loops. “
  4. Challenge: Choosing the default sort orders for categories can be tough, too.
    Question: “Should it be logical, dynamic or alphabetical? and “Should we be consistent in every category?”
  5. Challenge: Should follow the leader?
    Question: “Our competitors sales are up. Should we just do what they’re doing? I like their website better, anyway.”
  6. Challenge: I can’t stop comparing digital with physical stores or catalogs?
    Question: “Our stores have hot buys on the end caps. Should we have hot buys in every category, too? Catalogs always show a full outfit, should be manually curating a “Featured” subcategory?

Object Edge has a formula for helping retailers develop good taxonomies specific to their brand promise and unique merchandise assortment.  If you’re interested in learning how we solve these common questions and challenges for retail clients, contact Sarah Falcon so setup a taxonomy workshop and address your unique challenges and questions directly.

About the Author

Blue dotted circleSarah Falcon

Sarah Falcon

VP, Marketing Global

Sarah is a nimble and creative marketing leader with 15 years of experience in a mix of agencies, B2B, and B2C enterprises. She brings a background in building and driving impactful marketing practices and processes for growing businesses. Sarah has expertise in brand, content marketing, lead generation, and marketing operations. She’s a co-author of the 2019 book on B2B eCommerce Digital Branch Secrets: eCommerce Playbook for Distributors.

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