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Leveraging Industry Standards to Create a Compelling Web Presence

This Articles, by Jeannine Bartlett and Seth Earley, was published on RetailOnlineIntegration.com on June 29, 2011.

The nice thing about standards is that there are so many to choose from. They're valuable and are used throughout the web development process. Certainly the web is comprised entirely of standards, from HTTP to HTML, web services, transaction processes, linked data processes and new methods of sharing information across shopping channels like Milo. 

Standards allow systems to communicate and help to save time and effort by not reinventing the wheel when it comes to sharing various types of data. If someone has done this before, can’t you borrow it? Don’t industries have standards for interoperability? If I want to share information amongst manufacturers in the supply chain of the aerospace industry, there are agreed upon specifications for transmitting data as well as unstructured content such as technical manuals, project-related documentation and proposals.

Companies that use channel sales can also syndicate content from their websites through partner sites in order to support end customers with help materials, manuals, troubleshooting guides and other content.

In the e-commerce realm, there are standards for transacting on specific websites — iTunes has a set of metadata standards that sellers must comply with in order for placement in the iTunes catalog. The rule of thumb here is that standards are very useful when transmitting and sharing information across companies, partners and suppliers.

Complying with standards ensures interoperability and is a source of efficiency. Syndicating content to a partner speeds time to market. Having consistent standards from a supplier makes it easier and cheaper to add products to a retailer's offering. Many new classes of functionality, such as integration with social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, depend on shared web standards in order to transmit and receive information about user preferences and social commerce functions. (This is still in its nascent stage, but not something to be ignored in the future.)

What about standards for how information is displayed on a website? Does it make sense that display taxonomies are completely standard since there are only so many ways to show categories like “Electronics” or “Home Furnishings”? Well, perhaps not. In fact, there are standard taxonomies for products such as those in Google Commerce Search. However, in that taxonomy, diaper bags appear under "Luggage." If your site specialized in products for parents of infants and toddlers, it's unlikely you'd have a “Luggage” category. At Babies"R"Us, luggage fits under “Gear” along with “Strollers” and “Car Seats.”

Site taxonomy is more nuanced and complex than many people realize. Consider a physical store layout. The character of the store — i.e., its look and feel — is in part determined by signage and furnishings, but also by physical product layout. A plan-o-gram is used to study, optimize, standardize and formalize the physical layout of products.

A site taxonomy can be considered part of a virtual plan-o-gram. No two plan-o-grams will be identical. A great deal of effort goes into differentiating offerings in the physical retail world. Competitive advantage is gained through the differentiation of offerings, either through selection, quality, service or price or more of the subjective experience such as the store's look, layout, feel, convenience of checkout, cleanliness, sounds, smells, even textures and types of fixtures. Friendliness, expertise, capability of staff, overall store ambience, and ease and completeness of information access are also important differentiators.

Since the online experience is completely information driven, your information must be differentiated. That's where competitive advantage is gained. Back to the Google Commerce example. One bit of data that's captured is “Feature.” Feature is a challenging attribute since there are many ways to define features.

What's the difference between a feature and a specification, for example? What if there are multiple feature sets that need to be considered during faceted search? There are likely ways to deal with this in Google Commerce, however, the point is that there may be more attributes that are important to consumers than those outlined in the Google Commerce standard specification. 

The bottom line is that terminology, taxonomy, attributes and data are the sources of efficiency and enable external communication. If your goal is competitive advantage, then organizing principles like taxonomies, attributes and metadata must be leveraged to differentiate your site from its competition.

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