Tessa Roberts

Aug 16, 2019

Product Taxonomy: Your Route to Increased Traffic and Sales

Taxonomy - it’s got nothing to do with paying your taxes, but it does have a lot to do with your bottom line. 

Any company wishing to sell products online needs to give them the correct names and put them in the correct categories. Otherwise customers, both current and new, simply can’t find them. 

Products that are not found are not purchased - and that’s the raison d’etre for product taxonomy. Like an astute librarian, it labels everything correctly and puts it in the right place.

Taxonomy classifies data - and data about data (aka metadata) to determine a product (Blouse), its category (Women’s Clothing > Tops), and its attributes (Fabric, Color).

What is Product Taxonomy 

Taxonomies organize all available products in a way that customers can find what they want in the least clicks possible. 

Generally they work as a product hierarchy put products into categories. Then tags are used to group products into each category. Attributes (e.g. color or size) are then applied to the products in each category. 

The end result is that customers can move easily through all levels to find exactly what they want.

Multiple independent taxonomies can also be overlaid for different views on the same data. For example, in a database of music a product could be found via genre, or record label. 

When the right product shows up in a search, the chance of it being purchased grows exponentially. Taxonomy organizes everything in the background to make that happen.

Taxonomy is Important - Here’s Why

Imagine a customer searching the ‘Fresh Food’ category to find bread. They come up empty-handed, as that product is only found in the ‘Bakery’ category. 

With limited shopping time, the customer becomes frustrated and abandons the search. Not an ideal result. When taxonomy is not properly carried out, the results are reflected in lost sales. Over time, confidence in the brand will take a hit too.

🛒 Read this next: Abandoned Shopping Carts? Close the Deal with Personalization [blog]

You might wonder why all of this can’t be handled via the search bar. 

The answer is: If data is not well organized in the first place, search doesn’t work. It’s the classic ‘garbage in - garbage out’ scenario. 

There is no avoiding product taxonomy. It’s the groundwork retailers must do to prevent users leaving their site before finding what they want.

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The Opportunity Costs of Ineffective Taxonomy

A Forrester research report found that poorly architected retailing sites sell 50% less than better organized sites. Where searches failed, 47% of users gave up after just one search, and only 23 percent tried three or more times. 

It’s clear that if information is not properly categorized, website visitors will rarely compensate by continuing to try and find the product(s) they want. They just give up.

Visitors to your site are generally searchers or browsers. With browsers, products must be in the right place, but you do get a little bit of extra time to deliver on the search terms. 

Searchers however, know exactly what they are looking for. They will be more specific and expect to find exactly what they want, alongside a list of alternative selections. 

📌 Read this next: How to make the shopping experience smoother with site search and merchandising [blog]

A well-built taxonomy will allow your website to display related products. Rather than losing a sale if a product is not available, you get that conversion by offering something else.

Conversion rates aside, taxonomy also has a big impact on internal decision-making. Strong reporting and analytics are needed to know which products are selling and which are not. 

As with any reporting system, good input is key. Distinct categories and correct labeling make it much easier to deliver accurate stats across a full product catalog. 

When it’s clear what each product is called and where it sits, reports are more reliable. Decisions on what products to feature or drop therefore become more data driven and effective.

Enter….. the Taxonomists

Many companies recognize the importance of a good, clean taxonomy, but not are all in a position to do something about it.

Some businesses put serious resources behind product taxonomy. They hire dedicated taxonomists, people with advanced degrees in library or information science, even linguistics.

That’s not possible for the average company however. In many cases, taxonomy is just a side project, one that’s added onto a long list of other tasks. 

Assuming most companies won’t have such dedicated resources at their disposal, how can they get their product taxonomy in shape? 

The main thing to remember is that good taxonomies are not created to be a vacuum. They interact with the world a user lives in, being informed by things like user behavior, trends, even cultural differences. Some best practices are outlined below.

Product Taxonomy Best Practices 

On the surface, it may not seem the most glamorous of endeavors, but building or improving your taxonomy directly leads to increased traffic and sales. 

Getting it right means looking beyond logic and navigation. A good product taxonomy will also account for the human element.

 Get people excited

It’s important to get the internal team on board. That way they will be more supportive. Part of that will be evangelizing the benefits of good naming and solid categorization.

When people can find products quickly, they buy more and they’ll keep coming back. Loyal customers benefit everyone in the company. 

Explain why building or refining the taxonomy is an important process. Try to build an understanding that customers may use a different vocabulary to the one used in-house. 

Illustrate these differences to bring it to life. For example, a customer might not refer to a product as being a particular RAL color. They might use terms like ‘moss green’ or ‘racing car red’. 

 Identify users and empathize

Taxonomies should be built for users, so this practice comes with an element of (data-driven) psychology. You need to understand people’s behavior and the language they use.

To understand the type of taxonomy that suits your customers, you need to study them a little. 

See how they navigate your site. Mine data on their search behaviors to see how they think and how they might approach your site to find a product. 

Data mining aside, you can also just talk to people. Ask what they like and what they don’t like about the current setup. See if they can describe what their ideal system would look like. 

If it’s not working, resist the urge to blame the user. They may not always type in the right terms, but it’s not their job to figure out your site. 

Remember, a good taxonomy is built for the user, not the other way around.

📍 Read this next: 2019 Online Personalization in eCommerce [report]

 Know your content

Get a deep understanding of the data you’re working with and how it’s structured. Is it documented? Does it come from multiple sources? Where does it all sit? 

Armed with the fuller picture, any efforts to organize things will be more effective. This will also help you estimate the project’s size and to prioritize. 

For example, it could be the case that you don’t have enough content to support a particular category. If so, consider incorporating that at a later stage. 

Sometimes things can wait, while you focus on items that are more pertinent. When you know what content really matters, it will be easier to make those decisions.

 Keep it simple, and human

Building a product taxonomy can begin with something as simple as writing on cards. 

Write terms on cards and sort them. Visualize the product categories. Determine where products, with their various attributes, sit within them. And lay it all out.

A complicated taxonomy won’t work, so keep it simple. When it comes to options and the list of choices beneath them, go broad and shallow, rather than narrow and deep.

Keep hierarchies to 2 or 3 categories. Yes, users want organization, but they don’t want an endless list of categories to trawl through. 

Be consistent with names and remember the user at every stage. Use terms they can understand and employ synonyms to facilitate search. Even for B2B customers, try to avoid a heavy use of industry jargon.

Although it can be tempting for products that don’t seem to fit anywhere, try to avoid the dreaded ‘Other’ category. In reality, users rarely spend time looking there.


When you have built a taxonomy, you need to observe how people use it. Be prepared for people to interact with your taxonomy in ways you never imagined. 

This work is never truly done, taxonomies constantly change, especially in retail. Regular reviews and modifications of the existing structure will be part and parcel of an ongoing effort. 

New metadata will be used to drive personalization, pretty much continuously. 

It will all come down to what users are doing. New ideas (like selfie-sticks) will appear out of the blue and they will quickly become must-have terms. Adding product names, categories and attributes never stops.

All the while, the taxonomy should be shared across business units. Customers don’t have, and don’t want, any visibility over the internal company structure. Make sure everyone speaks with the same voice.

📌 Read this next: How to Turn Your Data into Profits and Win New Customers for Life [guide]

eCommerce is Powered by Taxonomy 

In essence, proper naming and categorization minimizes the amount of work each customer must do to buy exactly what they want. That’s the end goal, and the driver behind the science of taxonomy. 

As you embark on your own taxonomy project, there are plenty of tools to help along the way. Classification templates and smart database management software are just some examples of what’s available.

Product taxonomy is an important foundation for ecommerce success and it’s an area that is changing rapidly.

🛍️ Read this next: The Top 3 eCommerce Trends to Watch in 2019 [blog]

Retailers can fast-track their efforts to build or improve their taxonomy with the help of a good technology partner. This partner can sort through the details, make sense of it all, and deliver a workable taxonomy. 

With all of this under control, a retailer can focus on what counts - keeping up with what the customer is saying and making sure that’s translated back into the taxonomy.

How Taxonomy Works with Search

Retailers can help shoppers along the way, stem the flow of lost opportunities and make their websites convert better than ever. 

They just need to make search make sense.

At the root of that is the relatively unknown, yet vital practice of product taxonomy. It’s the unsung hero of smart search and strong conversion rates. For any company wanting to make it in a digital world, it’s not to be ignored.

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