Fruit section of grocery store

Lately, I’ve been getting lots of phone calls about taxonomy. These calls come from companies who are just starting to think about organizing their content. They come from companies that have been using a taxonomy for many years, but feel that it is out of date and not helpful. And there are companies who don’t realize they are asking for a taxonomy, they only know that they can’t find their content. I’ve spoken at conferences about taxonomy and written about taxonomy in the past. In fact, the post, “Taxonomy and Terminology: The Crossroad of Controlled Vocabulary,” is one of the most popular posts on this blog.

What is interesting to me, is that people seem to think that taxonomy is a new concept. Something wild and crazy, developed in response to the endless amount of content on the internet. Of course, this could not be farther from the truth. Taxonomies have been around since people started organizing their Skittles. Actually, even before that. Let’s take a look at some obvious and not so obvious taxonomies.

Online Taxonomies

Online taxonomies are, of course, the most obvious. For example, let’s say you want to buy a pair of shoes from Zappos. Easy-peasy, right?

You go out to

Zappos Homepage displaying gender, age, and bags & accessories categories

The starting taxonomy is right there for you, in the left column. The initial sort is by gender, age, and bags & accessories.

Let’s say you want women’s shoes. Click Shoes under Shop Women’s.

Zappos Online Store Boots Section

You’re starting to traverse the taxonomy. You can look for the shoes you want using different categories:

  • Style
  • Size
  • Specialty
  • Trending
  • All
  • New Arrivals
  • Clearance

You can find the same pair of shoes starting even by starting with different categories. It’s all in how you want to search for them.

Let’s take a pair of women’s size 7.5 rain boots. I could start by searching on Boots. Or I could start by searching on size 7-7.5. Or I could start by searching Rain Boots. Regardless of where I start, I will eventually wind up at this page:

Zappos Online Boots Taxonomy

After all, I wanted women’s size 7.5 rain boots. There are 36 different women’s size 7.5 rain boots. And I can further specify what I want until I get to the one or two pairs for me.

Online taxonomies are rather obvious and common place. We are accustomed to using them. In fact, when they are poorly formed, it is extremely frustrating. We know a good taxonomy when we interact with one.

Other Taxonomies

Taxonomies certainly predate the internet and e-commerce. We’ve used taxonomies all our lives. Here are some examples:

Supermarket Taxonomies

Imagine if there was no taxonomy to govern the items in a supermarket. If you wanted to buy a can of baked beans, you would never know where to look for it. It could be located right next to bread. Or perhaps next to orange juice. Because there is a taxonomy for the supermarket, we know that we go to canned food to find baked beans.

Have you ever noticed that sometimes the same food item is displayed in more than one place in a supermarket? Take those baked beans. Not only are baked beans in the canned food section, but there are also types of baked beans in the section that has ethnic foods. I can find the very same type of beans in either place. This allows me to find the beans that I want more conveniently. Kind of like searching for rain boots, but in the physical world.

Luckily, most supermarkets use a similar taxonomy. Almost every supermarket I’ve stepped foot in has certain sections “around” the store, and certain sections “inside.” For example, produce, deli, and meats are almost always around the perimeter of the supermarket. Frozen food, canned goods, cleaning supplies, cookies, and so on, are usually found in the middle of the store. This makes shopping at different supermarkets quite intuitive. The supermarket taxonomy doesn’t stop there. The shelves have their own organization. We all know that the most expensive products are at eye level. The cheaper, generic brands are above and below.

Ever gone into a new supermarket that uses a different taxonomy? Oh my goodness, it is so frustrating. I love Trader Joes. I love the food. I love the prices. But I don’t love the shopping. I can’t ever seem to find what I need. The cookies are above the fish. The cleaning supplies are next to the protein bars. Totally confuses me. Instead of a quick “shop and go,” I end up searching around and around and around the store.

Brick and Mortar Shoe Stores

Going back to our Zappos example, brick and mortar shoe stores have their own taxonomies. DSW is one of my favorites. It took me a while to figure out the taxonomy of DSW. Some of it was easy. The men’s shoes are on one side of the store. The kid’s shoes are on the other. The women’s shoes are the enormous mass in the center. I still haven’t quite figured out the taxonomy for the center. It does seem to change all the time. In any event, the back wall has clearance and sale items. Socks? Front of the store.

Then There’s Costco

To me, Costco is a special case. Almost every time I go to Costco, things are not where they were from the last time I was there. I think they move things around on purpose. That way, you have to go up and down every aisle at least once. Sometimes more than once. And who doesn’t put random stuff in their cart when they walk up and down the aisles at Costco? It is extremely annoying when I walk into a store and the taxonomy has been switched up. Can’t find a thing. Grrrrr.

Lots of Taxonomies

There are many more examples of taxonomies in our daily lives. We build our own, unique taxonomies for things, as well. My kitchen is organized differently from yours. But, my mom can walk into my kitchen and immediately find the olive oil. You get the picture.

With all of the taxonomies around us to focus on, it’s no wonder that taxonomies are a big topic. And in the world of content, being able to organize, store, and retrieve information is paramount. After all, the amount of content we create isn’t getting any smaller, any time soon.

Need help building a taxonomy for your content? Give us a jingle. We’re happy to help.



Val Swisher
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