Organizing product taxonomy for B2B eCommerce

Product taxonomy has evolved over the years from being a way to search and find information on a website to establishing an innovative e-commerce experience and competitive advantage. Retailers have invested great resources to create ideal user experiences and present the appropriate content and products to the right users at the right time. Information users see is matched with their past purchase history, wants and needs, location and behavioral data.

Manufacturers and distributors must also provide a good customer experience, and offer products and services that match their customers’ needs. Whether it is B2C or B2B, the ability to easily answer customer questions is key to success. In the retail space, there is typically a large amount of products, but a limited number of questions that B2C buyers have about those products. Industrial products adds more complexity because each product can have thousands of uses or applications. Many B2B products exist in combination with systems, components, and engineering designs that can be used in combination with other products and solutions, which presents more questions and challenges for the buyer.    

The B2B space has evolved slower than B2C due to these complexities. Historically, large industrial catalogs that B2B buyers used as sources of reference and design ideas were considered their “Bible”. Many manufacturers and distributors of B2B products published paper catalogs, which grew larger and larger as their product line expanded. 

The role of information

B2B customers visit an e-commerce website of a specialist manufacturer because that supplier has incorporated knowledge about solutions to problems into the engineering and manufacture of its products.  However, surfacing that physical solution (knowledge embodied in a physical product) requires surfacing information about that solution from various perspectives. Users consider their problems in different contexts and have varying mental models to describe their needs. Many factors can be relevant when a B2B customer is looking for a sophisticated product. 

The questions that will lead users to solve that problem need to be represented by data on the manufacturer’s website – typically in a way that can be searched or queried as the user answers progressively more detailed questions about their needs.  In the pre-Internet era, this was handled through a conversation, either in person or on the phone. Because it is difficult to capture all the knowledge for hundreds of thousands or millions of products with endless use cases, scenarios and details, many manufacturers of complex devices and components have depended more on expert interactions than on their websites. As the industry evolved, more of this information became readily available, but human experts are still part of the process, and B2B organizations are still challenged in developing the correct structures for accessing solutions.  

Organizing product taxonomy

Taxonomies can be based on the fundamental nature of the product. For example, drills and saws are tools; plywood and 2x4s are different types of lumber. But they can also be organized according by the characteristics of an object that would cause a customer to choose one version over another, such as how much power they have (in the case of tools) or what type of wood they are made of (in the case of lumber).  That is where the nuances of product details and attribute models come in to play.  Product taxonomy can provide a broad grouping, but sub-groupings are created according to specific characteristics.

Applications and solutions

Taxonomies can also describe applications of the product. What are the typical problems that the product solves? Use cases are designed for audience and industry. Certain products in the B2B space have vastly different applications across industries. There may be hundreds of use cases and problems to solve across all industries, but only a few dozen when applied to a particular industry combined with an application. Classifying products by application can narrow the options to a realistic number.  


Another way to describe products and product groupings is by solution. A solution addresses a particular need through a combination of products or products and services. Certain products might improve safety, or be more cost effective. Others might have been designed to be more lightweight than previous versions of products, or energy efficient. Solutions can be considered from an engineering point of view, as a system of products, or they can be used to describe a more ambiguous requirement that has many different possible approaches. “Green” or “sustainable,” “energy efficient” or “extreme conditions.” These terms can be used in a product description to describe a benefit achieved from using a particular product. Or from an application of the product. These ideas can be subjective and are usually dependent on context.


Describing and codifying expertise 

Descriptive taxonomies need to be developed specifically for each industry.  The quality of the user experience is dependent not only on the quality of information but also on how well it aligns with the way a customer is thinking about the problem they want to solve. Solution and application taxonomies present the expertise of the supplier, and how that supplier organizes their product knowledge.  


Choosing one supplier over another is partly determined by how well users can navigate and retrieve information to solve their problems and satisfy their need. Specialists know more about the unique technologies than the buyer typically does about their challenge. A buyer may not be aware of new ways of combining technologies and products that could save them money, increase reliability, improve safety, reduce turnaround time or offer other benefits to the customer and end-user. The unique competitive advantage of a B2B company is therefore dependent not only on product selection, depth and quality, but also on how those differentiators are captured, organized and represented through the user experience.  

The implication is far reaching – market value and the value in the mind of the customer – depends as much on expertise as an engineer of information as it does on your expertise as a product specialist.

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