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Going Beyond Taxonomy for Ecommerce Innovation

To innovate in Ecommerce, manufacturers and distributors have to keep pushing the data-organizing envelope to improve the user experience, say experts at Earley Information Science roundtable

This is not your father’s taxonomy. 

In the ever more complicated and competitive world of Ecommerce, it’s been a long time since you could manage all of your product information on a spreadsheet. To survive, manufacturers and distributors have become much more sophisticated in building navigation and classification hierarchies. 

But to thrive, they have to go beyond thinking of the resulting data architecture, or taxonomy, as just a hierarchy and instead use it to drive advanced marketing capabilities, according to a panel of marketing, distribution and knowledge management experts at an Executive Roundtable hosted on Sept. 28 by Earley Information Science (EIS), a leading consulting firm focused on organizing information for business impact. 

Properly designed and regularly updated, cutting-edge taxonomies can improve site search, can be essential in merchandising (by assessing your product mix and by grouping products for specific targets and solutions) and can help with personalization, the panelists said.

What every online company is trying to accomplish is to help website users answer their questions and solve their problems. So the goal “is to get them to the products that they need most quickly, efficiently and effectively,” said Seth Earley, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of EIS. You have to think through your products, he added, “in a way that aligns how they are organized” with how the users will deploy them in finding their solutions.   

And that means, Earley said, taxonomy becomes “a set of organizing principles,” destined to have an impact on “the entire user experience and the overall customer journey” in ways that are very different from its traditional role of navigational guide. The new bottom line: “It’s foundational to product management . . . it becomes the driver of consistency of all the digital machinery that runs the organization. It becomes your common business language.” 

The roundtable discussion, “Beyond Taxonomy: How Manufacturers and Distributors Are Innovating in Ecommerce,” was led by Earley and included Marc Shimpeno, Taxonomist and Data Specialist at Etsy, the peer-to-peer shopping site; Megan Koleff, User Experience Lead at the Genuine Parts Company, a distributor of auto and industrial replacement parts, among other items; and Noel McDonagh, Director of Information Development at Dell EMC, which provides a range of data-related products and services, including storage and security.

Shimpeno described his company’s approach to aligning taxonomy’s back-end hierarchy (in Etsy’s case, how sellers classify things) and the customer-facing front end. The back end, he said, “can be very different sometimes to how a buyer actually tries to find things.” Some people know exactly what they want, including many specifications, while others are just looking for a simple pair of scissors. On Etsy’s back end, “we have been trying to pare things down to what the thing actually is, and then having our sellers answer questions and describe attributes like color, size, material,” adding, “We do a lot of one-to-one stuff, to find more flexibility between the back-end seller and the front-end buyer.”  
In part, becoming more effective depends on understanding “that the way people look at things internally can be very different from the way people look at things externally,” Earley said. 

“There are many different varieties of customers,” said Dell EMC’s McDonagh, “and we have to segment those categories so we understand what they need. We have to align that understanding to the back end, where we are actually creating the information, and also align it to the front end.” Because the segments have different needs, a variety of information components, or systems, is required, putting the burden on “the creators of the information to utilize that same information across the board for those multiple systems. It’s a matrix that we are always looking at, evaluating how it is being used.” 

“There’s the technical customer who wants to get into the details,” McDonagh said, “and there’s the architecture customer who wants to understand the interconnectivity of different systems. Understanding those customer profiles relates very much to the front-end hierarchies, and then we have to support those front ends with the back end.”  

To keep pace with the needs of different customer groups and changes in products and services, how do you handle the updating of taxonomies? How do you manage the enablers in the process: merchandisers and subject matter experts? 

“From a day-to-day perspective, we hire a lot of people who straddle areas of expertise,” said Megan Koleff, from Genuine Parts. They need “a good foundation of knowledge in our industries as well as technological expertise so that they are able to implement.” It is a challenge, “as we start to overlay more customer demand. How does that core taxonomy shift and change? Do we need to set up other virtual taxonomies for different users (along with different tools) because we are overlaying the customer’s mental model?”

“It’s a good challenge to have,” Koleff said, although everything is getting “significantly more complex.”  

The roundtable featured a real-time survey of the webinar attendees:  

  • Other than a primary product hierarchy, what navigational hierarchies does your website provide? Applications  (32% of respondents), standards (24%) and industries (22%), with 30% saying “nothing else” and 27% choosing “something else”  
  • How does your website leverage product relationships? Merchandising product groupings (42%), solution bundles (39%), “users who bought this also bought . . .” (39%) and qualified product-to-product tagging (related parts and accessories, etc.) (21%). Twenty-four percent said “none of the above”  
  • How do you ensure that taxonomies are effective? “We have informal reviews by our internal subject matter experts” (32%), “we perform competitive analysis and survey our customers” (18%) and “we have a rigorous formal process for testing and validation driven by use cases and compared with baseline metrics” (18%). An additional 25% said that “we perform very little, if any, testing”

Please use these links to access the roundtable recording and a related article.   

The Earley Executive Roundtable is an educational webinar series focusing on topics of interest in the areas of digital transformation and information science. Each month, EIS leads a lively discussion with a panel of industry experts.

The next roundtable is scheduled for Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2017 at 1 p.m. ET, on the topic of “Training AI-Driven Support Bots to Deliver the Next Generation of Customer Experience.” Click this link to register for the webinar.

About Earley Information Science: EIS is a specialized information agency. We support business outcomes by organizing your data—making it findable, usable and valuable. Our proven methodologies are designed specifically to address product data, content assets, customer data and corporate knowledge bases. We deliver governance-driven solutions that scale and adapt to your business as it grows. For more information, visit