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5 Key Product Taxonomies and How They Drive Your Business

If you Google “taxonomy” you will learn that it is the branch of science concerned with classification, especially of organisms. However, taxonomy as a system of hierarchical classification also plays a crucial role in the context of business.

In business, taxonomy has many uses. We see it used as terms libraries for search engines, information architecture behind AI applications like chatbots, to index knowledge such as company documents, and customer taxonomies to understand behaviors for engagement to name a few.  Some companies attempt to use one taxonomy for multiple purposes, but this would be a mistake that is fraught with inefficiencies and problems. It is much better to develop taxonomies that are specific to a purpose. One such purpose is organizing product data for commerce applications. There are several scenarios to consider each having different purposes requiring that they be structured accordingly.

In this article, we’ll focus on 5 taxonomies related to the product data in your ecommerce processes, their purpose and key best practices for maintaining them:

  1. Reporting
  2. Attribution
  3. Navigation
  4. Syndication
  5. Publishing

1. Reporting Taxonomy

This taxonomy is commonly used in an Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system and its main purpose is to help streamline operational, supply chain and fiscal reporting data. This is usually organized by an internal company structure that aligns with operation or sales reporting. ERPs often have a fixed hierarchal depth so each level often has an overarching level assignment such as Company - Division – Family – Product – SKU. This allows for ease of reporting and clear instruction to governance but it can get messy due to not always having a clear value for each level and results in duplication of values if it is not done right and evaluated for the necessary depth. Some companies may need only a three tier hierarchy while other may need a six tier hierarchy. It depends on the complexity of the company and its products.

2. Attribution Taxonomy

This taxonomy is often the backbone taxonomy in a Product Information Management system (PIM) or Master Data Management system (MDM) and is used to organize category specific attributes. It is organized by is-ness which is how we refer to organizing by what a category factually represents, not what it does or how it is used. An example of this can be illustrated with hinges.

If hinges are organized by is-ness then we may see the following path “Hardware > Hinges” but if we allow something like application to come into play it may split between “Door Hardware > Hinges” and “Cabinet Hardware > Hinges”. We now have hinges in two locations because the taxonomy wasn’t focused on a primary organizing principle of is-ness.

Is-ness allows for a clean and consistent structure that allows for attributes to be managed from the global to terminal level. On the global level you may see attributes such as “Brand” and “Price”. As you go down the structure the attributes get more specific. A lightbulb may have attributes assigned at the terminal category level such as “Voltage” and “Light Technology” whereas a sawblade would have attributes like “Number of Teeth” and “Hook Angle”.


Some key best practices when managing an attribution taxonomy include mutual exclusivity which refers to one product in one place. An item or SKU can only be classified to one category. Conversely this taxonomy also must be collectively exhaustive, having a category that provides attribution for all items. Labels should be clear and concise without attributes or company jargon such as brand or family name stuffed into the labels.

3. Navigation Taxonomy

A navigation taxonomy is used on an ecommerce site and is primarily focused on findability. The primary product taxonomy is usually organized by is-ness, but there are possibilities of secondary taxonomies allowing for additional organizing principles such as application, industry or persona based taxonomies.

This allows the ecommerce site to provide multiple ways the customer can shop for their product. The primary is-ness structure can start with the same taxonomy used in attribution but then it needs to be adjusted for findability. Categories of higher priority should be raised to the higher levels of the taxonomy while lower priority categories can be deeper in the hierarchy.

Poly-hierarchy that allow for categories to be in multiple locations and junk drawer categories like “Other” should be avoided. The taxonomy should be tested to find weaknesses in the structure and that can point to areas where the taxonomy can be optimized. 


4. Syndication Taxonomy

This taxonomy is for the purposes of managing incoming and/or outgoing product information. If you have product data being sent to a distributor such as Amazon or Grainger, this structure will allow you to map from your attribution taxonomy to a mirror of their taxonomy and allows the map of the attributes.

The attributes may not be a simple one to one map, so some rules may be needed to flag when a format differs from the distributors to allow for adjustments. Your attribution may have a temperature range, while the distributor separates this “Temperature Range” out into two attributes for “Minimum Temperature” and “Maximum Temperature” for example. This works similarly for incoming data. If you have suppliers providing data, a syndication taxonomy can be used in a supplier portal to allow for the data to be mapped into your attribution taxonomy. 


5. Publishing Taxonomy

This taxonomy organizes the different categories and items that might be in different publications like catalogs, flyers or customer specific product offerings. This can be managed in a PIM, MDM, Publishing system or even a CRM. This allows the use of templates to layout a print page and allows you to drag and drop products or categories into that template as needed. The data is mapped from the attribute taxonomy without modifying that taxonomy or muddying the waters.

Each of these taxonomies have a clear purpose and organizing methodology. They each support the business in different ways and have their own importance. The design, development, and application of these business critical taxonomies requires uniquely specialized skill sets. Our team of information science specialists are ready to jump in to assist. Contact us to learn how we can help. 

Chantal Schweizer
Chantal Schweizer
Chantal Schweizer is a taxonomy professional with over 10 years of experience in Product Information and Taxonomy. Prior to joining Earley Information Science, Chantal worked on the Product Information team at Grainger for 9 years, Schneider Electric’s PIM team for 2 years and had some previous work in PIM consulting.

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