Michael S. Vasta
Product Taxonomy: Categorizing Your Website Hierarchy to Increase Sales
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Imagine you’re trying out a new recipe — one with a lot of unique, specific ingredients.
You head to the grocery store, only to find that eggs are in the bakery.
Chocolate chips are next to the toiletries.
You can’t find the checkout lanes, and the cart return is a mile away from your car.
You’re frustrated at not being able to find items and decipher the navigation of the store.
Unfortunately, this is one aspect of brick-and-mortar shopping that is all too easily replicated online, with poor product navigation and organization erecting a wall between customers and order completion.
There are a number of ways to combat this disorganization — with clear category structure and obvious product attributes.
Building out a complete and comprehensible product taxonomy enables your customers to find exactly what they need and complete their checkout, easily.
Taxonomy is a fancy Greek word that describes the laws of ordering — in short, it is organizing, categorizing, grouping and, most importantly, understanding why that is being done.
A successful merchant cannot simply throw together a few categories that look pretty in a header, toss in products, and call it a day.
Product taxonomy requires a deep knowledge of your products and then devising a logical way to present them to customers.
It is not as glamorous as showcasing sexy, high-resolution image assets, but all the window dressing in the world is useless without a structure that enables a purchaser to click that add to cart button.
Let’s take a look at a common shopping experience everyone has encountered: a simple apparel store. Upon arriving at our homepage, we find the clothing is organized by Men’s and Women’s. After making this first selection, we now see that those clothes are divided between shirts and pants. Simple, logical, and to the point.
Image via GetFriday
It is well known that visitors to your site fall into two categories (a taxonomy of visitors, as it were):
It is easy to understand how good product taxonomy benefits browsers.
These users are drawn to the header or hamburger menu, exploring categories and subcategories.
On the BonTon website, users are drawn to the easy-to-see navigation bar, featuring a number of categories of products.
It is also important to understand your customer base and provide a logical organization that reflects their shopping patterns.
To use our sample store above, why should your parent categories be Men’s and Women’s?
You can just as easily transform Shirts and Pants into the parents and Men’s and Women’s into the children.
In a vacuum, each of these is a reasonable choice, but by understanding the way your customers shop (through a careful study of site analytics, for instance), you can categorize your products in such a way that makes the most sense to them and leads to conversions.
Once a user visits the BonTon website and selects the “women” category, they’re given the menu option of all subcategories.
This does not just benefit browsers, though.
“Searchers” are not going to sift through levels and levels of listing pages. These customers go directly for the search bar as soon as they land on your homepage and arrive knowing what they want to find.
They will use keywords like “men’s shirts” or “women’s sweaters”.
Proper taxonomy empowers your internal search provider to return the right results. As technology becomes more powerful, it even encourages recommendations.
If you do not carry specifically what the searcher has typed in, the search provider can use the taxonomy to display related products, helping you get that conversion by offering something else.
Searchers are customers who go directly for the search bar as soon as they land on your homepage and arrive knowing what they want to find.
Organization affects the user interface and user experience of your site.
One of the first things to consider is where your products should actually live.
Most ecommerce platforms and advanced search options allow you to put your products in the “lowest” child category and have them still show in parents.
For instance, if your categories are “Lawn and Garden” > “Lawn Mowers” > “Self-Propelled,” you would not have your product added to all three categories, merely “Self-Propelled.”
If a customer lands on either “Lawn Mowers” or “Lawn and Garden”, however, they will still see all the contents of “Self-Propelled.”
By organizing products in this fashion, there’s an intuitive way for the customer to narrow down from broad to specific.
It is also worth thinking about the actual navigation process on the site.
The usage of the header and hamburger menu are obvious and should reflect your category tree.
In this mobile example, the Bliss “hamburger” menu expands to show a variety of organized categories.
Perhaps, though, your homepage would benefit from a grid of “featured” categories to guide users to the most popular (and searched-for) items immediately.
DressUp’s website homepage shows visitors four popular categories right off the bat.
Likewise, the page that the user lands on after logging into their account could offer direction by calling out certain categories with attractive category images, or by calling out categories that they’ve shopped in the past.
on the Bliss website, your account features a page that shows items you’ve recently viewed, so you can pick up right where you left off.
Another possibility is that when you land on a listing page that contains subcategories, there is a grid or carousel of the subcategories as well as the left navigation.
The Phil Gilbert Toyota website has a well-organized left navigation, as well as several call-out categories arranged in a grid on the page.
Make sure that you are also testing out the functionality of your taxonomy, just the same as you would anything else on your website.
If you re-organize your products, perform a full end-to-end test as if you were a regular customer.
How many clicks does it take to get to a product?
Are you able to find something easily?
Are you overwhelmed by clutter, or is it so simplistic that there’s no organizational structure at all?
Make sure that the user experience is top-of-mind for any decisions you make, says Ryan Garrow, Director of Partnerships & Client Solutions at Logical Position.
“A structure that seems logical to you and your team may not be the most intuitive structure for your customers. Your customers’ experience with other websites crafts their sense of navigation, and you must account for that in your own product taxonomy.
A well-segmented taxonomy allows users to find your products through ads much easier, so don’t get too wild or revolutionary, especially if your brand isn’t established.
The trick is to strike a balance between the logical relationships between your products and the natural inclinations of buyers—which will often align, but not always. Keep it traditional enough so they don’t bounce out of confusion but sensible enough so that once they become familiar, the experience is as efficient as possible.”
As a store owner, you know your products better than anyone else, but that information needs to get out of your head and into a place where your team and customers can benefit from that knowledge.
Depending on the size of your catalog, start by identifying a handful of your best products – these can be top sellers or items you want to be top sellers.
Assign “product owners” who can have clear accountability to prepare the following:
Two to three bullet points that summarize the most important aspects of your product. This should not exceed a sentence or two for each bullet point. Talk to your salespeople about how they position the product in just a few words or visualize the box your product would come in and how you would need to communicate to a potential customer in limited space. For the nerd-minded among us, imagine the aesthetic of a Silver Age comic cover – there’s no time or space for wordiness, so get to the point! If it was good enough for Jack Kirby, it’s good enough for anybody.
Identify the facts that separate this item from the rest of your catalog. Often, this takes the form of the “statistics” of a product: what color or size it is, what it is made of, etc.
Look at your competitors and look at major retailers like Amazon to determine how they describe similar products.
This exercise will help you focus on essential information about your products (and you might as well use this as an opportunity to make sure you’ve got good product descriptions!), identify what categories they ought to belong to, and determine what useful search facets should be created.
We have already talked about the importance of taxonomy as pertains to product recommendation on internal searches. But if too many results are returned, you might as well be back where you started.
Every search engine results page (SERP) needs facets, distinguishing attributes that allow you to narrow down your results.
To return to our simple apparel store, let’s add “Color” as an attribute, with “red” and “blue” as values.
It does not make sense to distinguish these as entirely separate categories, but they are useful distinguishing factors. If someone only wants blue shirts, take away the clutter with a simple click!
Taxonomy also benefits external searches as well.
Crawlers work best when provided with structured data, and clear organization, with hierarchy and distinctions called out, is a bright beacon telling Google exactly how to find your content.
Product taxonomy powers the facets and filters on your search engine results pages and helps make sure that the proper products are promoted in searches.
A truly successful taxonomy will also take into consideration what matters to your customer.
If you sell repair parts, identify which brands the part is compatible with.
For a health-conscious food store, call out potential allergens, allowing customers to filter out what they want to avoid.
Does size really matter, or is it only relevant for one product?
Should color be included in the title or it a widespread distinction that points towards a parent-child relationship instead of a “flat” catalog?
Depending on your time or resources, carry out this exercise across the entire catalog.
If you’re limited, make sure you’ve chosen a representative sample as it will quickly expose important facts about your products.
Below you’ll find a collection of additional best practices that will help your product taxonomy and categorization.
Use something that allows you to visualize the taxonomy, either drawing the tree on a whiteboard or using software like Lucidchart.
If you find yourself overwhelmed by the number of categories or that your tree looks more like a tiny shrub, then it is definitely time for a refresh.
It will also be a quick way for you to identify things like duplicate categories or “potpourri,” where random products sit in an unorganized pile.
One unintended consequence of doing a taxonomy exercise is that you might over-organize. If you find that a viewer of your site has to spend more time navigating than looking at actual products, you have too many levels and subcategories.
Elyse Smith, Project Manager at DigitlHaus, says keeping it simple is her best recommendation.
“This is key when it comes to product details, organization and structure.
Your hierarchy of depth should be kept to a maximum of 2 or 3 categories (2 preferred).
The least amount of clicks = lower the bounce rate. If you have a large catalog, take advantage of faceted search and filtering. And please, for the love of all that is good, refrain from putting Other as a category.
No one goes looking for Other. Be smart and let your categories be necessary and to the point.”
Make sure that your category tree follows a clear hierarchy, moving from the general to the specific.
If your parent category is “Shirts”, do not subordinate “Women’s”, and then below “Women’s”, have “Shirts”, “T-Shirts,” “Long Sleeve Shirts.”
To use our analogy of a brick-and-mortar, your website is the store, your parent category is the aisle, and your child category is the shelf the product lives on.
Avoid duplicate categories as much as possible.
If you find the same category names are repeated over and over in every single branch, consider opportunities to combine categories or whether this repeated category is better understood as an attribute that leads to a search facet.
Consider your audience when you name your categories, and rely upon your expertise here.
If you run a B2B site with a very specific audience, it is important that you utilize terms that members of the industry would understand.
If it is a general audience B2C retail site, a hyper-specific classification that only your Italian fashion buyers would understand is all but useless.
By including that industry jargon as a search synonym for the category, however, you ensure that both expert and casual audiences can find what they are looking for.
Fundamentally, the same lessons apply to both B2C and B2B sites.
Clear navigation, useful facets, and strong organization are universal benefits.
The very different audiences do require special attention though, and it is important to you consider your market when building your taxonomy.
A B2C site will have more “casual” users who will visit and use your site, but do not necessarily need it.
As such, they may not necessarily have a deep familiarity with your site, your product line, or even your industry.
Use broad terms for the names of categories and common terminology. In an effort to avoid overwhelming your B2C customers, rely on parent-child relationships for products.
A seemingly smaller, more focused catalog with a wealth of options on the product details page ensures quick movement through the site and towards the “add to cart” button.
Because B2C consumers often have a wealth of options to purchase from and may only be looking for a single product, your site benefits from a quick and efficient conversion.
B2B sites often have a more dedicated audience, especially if you are the manufacturer of the products being sold. These customers are interested in the deep technical details and are not necessarily overwhelmed by deep category trees so long as the organization is logical.
Industry jargon is more important as B2B customers tend to have a specific idea of what they need – re-ordering supplies or a certain replacement part that does not involve “shopping around” as in B2C.
You may also see larger carts, both in terms of average order value and number of SKUs purchased.
That means that users are spending more time on your site and it is important that the process to find those items is as efficient as possible.
HTML was originally designed to provide an outline structure to documents. While today’s developers are able to do things far beyond what the original innovators imagined, organization is built into the very core of the language that makes the internet possible.
In content writing, you encounter this whenever you use your H1 or other header tags, preparing a clear hierarchy for your content that is certainly not just a font size.
In the ecommerce world, by preparing a strong taxonomy for your products, you rely upon the fundamental building blocks of the internet and create a site that makes it easy for search engines to find your products, for your customers to add items to their carts, and ultimately, complete that order.
Mike Vasta is a project manager working on BigCommerce who has been with Americaneagle.com since April 2017. In that span of time, he has launched twelve sites, from smaller B2C companies creating their first site to re-designs of large scale B2B sites. In a previous life, he was a college professor with a PhD in Classical Studies from Indiana University, meaning he can babble at length about ancient Rome and Greece. He lives in Mount Prospect with his math teacher wife and their six-year old son, with whom he shares identical interests and uses as an excuse to play with Legos.