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Grocery stores taught me all I need to know about taxonomy for web


So I’ve been thinking a lot about taxonomy and how it relates to web. Like every major brand, looking for clues to relative meaningful words is the key to delivering great user experiences. Gone are the days when websites could just sit around and look pretty. Your
website shouldn’t be to “just to get users info”. The “information-only” website dose not exist any more. Every website should have a purpose and a corresponding success marker: get leads, download white paper (that results in name capture), create meaningful connections, apply/register, or sell you something.

I see so many brands using labels that are clear to them but not clear to those of us not indoctrinated by the brands industry. Here are some initial tips to start making taxonomy on the web easier.

Get rid of acronyms, the only people who should be using acronyms are in the military and to be fair, they need secrecy and vagueness to work for them. Joe the user, shouldn’t have to Google your navigation. Also, don’t assume your product or product line is so mainstream I know what it is. Unless you are Apple with iPhone, iPad, you need to associate your product with common language. Your brand will be more powerful if you use common names and marketing brands jointly on your website. Plus, you will teach Google this language as well.

Speaking of Google use it, put your navigation into search and see what pops up, if an industry that has nothing to do with your industry is the top search item for that taxonomy then you are already doomed. Reconsider your key words and terminology. An insightful look into your site analytics is always a great starting place.

Action orientated text is priority. What is the purpose of your website, to get information? Even that should require a proactive results driven approach, are they: registering, applying, attaining leads, or selling? All of these things are actionable and this needs to be in the language of your navigation and content. Your taxonomy should be a story that starts in the table of contents (your navigation) of your site and weaves into the deepest chapter (farthest page from home). And please do not use vague action items, like we need to “drive, push, or land”, these do not relate to an actionable item. What do you want the human to do? What do they have to accomplish to produce good web ROI? It you can’t pick it up and do it yourself it’s too vague. I want to drive? Drive what? If it’s really I want to drive them to buy my product then that should be a part of the taxonomy of your language.

Consider the taxonomy of a grocery store. When you approach a store you know there is a certain flow for all things within that store. Items in a grocery store are grouped by location and likeness: vegetables, diary, freezer, canned goods, etc. Also, the freezer section and the diary are closest to the checkouts, assuming you want your items to be still cold when you checkout. The store has set up their taxonomy in a way that produces the most groceries in your cart and doesn’t spoil your food on the way. This is like you starting at the homepage and progressing through the website step-by-step. However consider this, users don’t always use this model, sometimes I just run in for eggs and milk and never pass the vegetables or canned good sections at all. This approach is like opening up Google and simply putting in search and having the site land me in the middle of your site.

As a user, that is my right to follow an established flow or grab and go, in a one-off fashion. Most of the times the one-off grabs are done with urgency, I ran out of milk at home in the middle of making cookies…or I need to buy a travel pillow now because I forgot and my plane leaves Thursday at 1 p.m. And where do I get a travel pillow in a normal store? Who knows? The internet takes care of finding that for me and this is dependent on good taxonomy. When we set up navigation and taxonomy together we must consider that not only will there be users progressing but users grabbing. And without simple and direct terms and logical signposts they will abandon your business.

Now consider the labels and signage in the aisles, they are also a way for me to disrupt my order and pursue a grab and go shopping experience as well. I only use these signs the first time I’m in the store and when I’m looking for one-off items. These signs are very simple three to four word terms: dressings, potatoes, milk, eggs, etc. Your navigation should reflect these but these signs are not your navigational core.

Can you imagine if the grocery stores listed every item on these signs you would find in the aisles? I see this all the time and I like to refer to them as “junk drawer navigation”. Do not confuse navigation with search. Navigation is way-finding not index matching. These signs are really a way-finding tool within the store, not a full listing of products. I liken these signs to breadcrumb trails on the web, and they are also a key component to taxonomy. Remember grab and go users land in the middle of your site with sometimes no previous use history. If you have good breadcrumb trails a user can use these tools to accomplish your action driven goals.

So what can we learn from grocery stores in taxonomy?
First, define user and business goals. Find the happy place where they align. Where should the eggs be located in the store? Will they spoil if they aren’t closest to the checkouts? Architects and planners for grocery stores knew this was a business and user goal. They concluded: don’t have spoiled food, which equates to lost customers and lost assets to the store. If you don’t know the business and user purpose you can’t achieve your web ROI. Define these and get buy-in from the CEO him/herself. Your virtual brand should have just as many goals and directives as your brick and mortal store, if not more.

Define groups of products early on in site planning. Each group should have what I like to call a “bucket” to live in. This is the grouping or container for top-level navigation. This bucket list shouldn’t include more then a dozen terms. A grocery store only has about
12-13 departments and thousands of products that live in these groupings follow this example. Humans respond to order and groupings it’s why the biological classification systems exist. Next, build a list of accompanying breadcrumbs and subtitles for way finding purposes. These are your aisle signage and will help Google learn your site and produce better SEO (search engine optimization) for you.

Next, get action-orientated items high on your landing pages and weave these words into copy, titles, and navigation. Google likes the match game, when it sees key words in navigation, in titles, and in copy it assumes these are important. So match the taxonomy and tie your site together using this language. Just like the signs in the store, consistent look and brand on your signage will also help users accomplish your goals for them. This is a topic all in itself so I will try to address it in a future post. However it’s safe to say, simplicity will be increasingly more important as mobile drives the user experience going forward, simplicity is key when defining a mobile friendly experience.

Mobile thinking is forward thinking. Remember, our example of single words and common phrases on the aisles of the grocery store signage? This is also relevant for mobile considerations as well. That seven word phrase on desktop will wrap and be hideous looking on mobile, so simplicity is key to a consistent desktop to mobile experience. So keep it simple and you will be better prepared for emerging technologies. Consider this, technology will become more wearable and better integrated to our person going forward, long gone are the days of large clunky systems strapped to our backs and weighing us down. Can we say Google Glass anyone?

Finally, use user history and research to keep testing the validly of these items, just as language expands, so does taxonomy. I mean, who knew that the words and phrases like, “Twitter”, Tweet”, or “Google that.” would have existed 30 years ago. Don’t be afraid to question navigation, however using solid simple logic based action words will lessen reinventing the wheel every time the wind blows. Going back to the grocery store example, the reason we don’t see Pillsbury on the sign for the baked goods aisle is because its specificity would be lost on some people. Using common language doesn’t fade away, unlike brands and marketing speak, eggs will always be called eggs.

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