Your store shouldn’t be categorized

Fabio Martinelli
Fabio Martinelli December 28, 2017
Your store shouldn’t be categorized

Product categories were created on the assumption that e-commerce stores should mirror the dynamic of brick-and-mortar stores, and they have survived until now in virtual stores only because people are reluctant to abandon this mental model. Suggesting that a consumer browse through categories is like asking him to walk along the aisles of a physical supermarket.

Difficulties with categorization

In 2015, the internet divided between the black and blue dress and the white and gold one. The different perspectives of colors proved that people see different tones, not just because of external factors such as the lighting of the photo, but biologically: the unique eye structure of each individual affects the perception of colors.

The same is true of categories. In fact they are fictitious, nothing more than a cultural convention. Each definition is subjective, different and individual – and even so there are e-commerce businesses with teams dedicated exclusively to categorization.

The only reason why categorization is necessary is the limitation of space in the offline world. Someone looking for milk by category in a supermarket may find it in any one of three different sections – dairy products, beverages or organic products. This, of course, is financially disastrous for any business. Why therefore should we follow the same system in the online world?

As well as making browsing more difficult for the user, categorization creates a series of operating problems, which can include:

Sabotaging the shopping trip

Each time a category starts to get full, the tendency is to create new subcategories, increasing the distance – and therefore the number of clicks – between the main category and the product.

As a result, the category ends up being shallow and there is an increased risk of the product being hidden in a “super niche.” When you have a lot of categories you have to invest a great deal in navigability, to make your site user-friendly.

Difficulty in understanding

Electrical goods or household appliances? Where is a user going to start looking for a TV?

This item might also be found in another category, such as “Living Room” or “Leisure.” So the user may not be able to find a TV, because it is in a category that makes no sense to him.

Where are we headed?

According to the Baymard Institute, 54% of the major e-commerce business in the United States suffer from over-categorization. The best way of resolving this issue is to let the user define his search and find a product from its tags.

Tags are free, unlimited and organic, and so they are a help in organizing information. Any feature of a product can be indicated in a tag – color, use, technical specifications and so on. You can give a product as many tags as necessary, and users searching for any one of them can find it easily.

Whereas categorization is set in stone and predefined, tags let people surf through the store freely, and make it possible for users to find products in whatever way they wish. So what you are doing is giving the user the opportunity to follow paths according to the hierarchy that he himself determines.

The future is democratic and tagged

There is no limit to the number of tags you can create. But before you add a new one, you must decide two things:

  1. Will users recognize the term?
  2. Is the content already grouped under another tag?

Unlike with categories, the same product can be tagged with different terms, but you must be sure of the relevance of a new word and of its purpose.

One of the ways of deciding on tags for a product is to analyze what users enter in the search bar. In addition to the product characteristics, user searches give an insight into defining tags, since it is possible to know exactly what and how users are searching in your store.

Another way of creating tags is through Google Trends or SEO tools like SEMRush. They are very useful for identifying related keywords.

If you want to really get into the business of tagging, you can give them a social element, as happens with Twitter, Youtube and Wikipedia. The term folksonomy defines this process very well: this is a collaborative method of social indexation which, although at first site it may seem chaotic, results in the exact opposite: putting things in order and identifying them according to relevance.

With tags, browsing is more fluid and more directed towards what the customer is looking for. Suggestions for related products depend on people’s interests, and not on the physical category of the product being purchased. In other words, the time has come for e-commerce to make way for this trend and, at last, to let categories rest in peace.

Expected results

Some of these concepts and practices may sound like medium or long-term ideas, but there are already some examples proving the effectiveness of the model. One medium-sized Brazilian marketplace, which introduced the concept in 2016, has seen an 8% increase in the conversion rate.

Moreover, its internal procedures have become simpler and quicker, and the time taken to register a new product has fallen by around 25%. Decentralizing the current process allows you to identify quickly which tags apply to a new product, from a “pool” of preselected tags.

Another metric that should show a positive impact is the SEO, since the tagging process lets keywords be prioritized when the browsing structure is created.

What next after tagging?

The level of complexity attained by a mature marketplace is largely based on its curatorship of products and on categorization. But in practice the inefficiency of this model is clear: think about the millions of products on, in more than 30 categories, 200 subcategories and thousands of other levels: how many of them have you actually looked at in the last month?

By using tags linked to searches, you can define a structure to be exhibited to different profiles of shoppers. Netflix is one of the pioneers in this field: the home page is constructed to show films of the type the user has watched in the past.

By using a similar model in, it would be possible to reduce the number of categories shown on the basis of tags, highlighting only those that the user has browsed or purchased in the past. This we would expect to improve navigability and provide a better shopping experience.

If we look forward to an even more concentrated digital world, where the big retailers have become marketplaces, this will be the only way of presenting products consistently and correctly.