Ad-hoc taxonomy: owning the chess set doesn’t mean you decide how the little horsey moves

There was one of those little laugh-or-cry moments recently when I heard an anecdote about content strategy failings at a major online retailer. The story goes a bit like this: successful company in a highly commoditized marketplace succeeds on price and largely ignores its content team. Being relatively entrepreneurial, the founders are still knocking around, and occasionally like to “take an interest”. One day, they decree that clothing sold on the site can no longer be described as “unisex”, because this sounds old fashioned.

Sad now.

Let me just reiterate for the folks at the back: large retailer, commoditized market place, differentiating on price. That’s inherently unstable. Sooner or later, to keep growing, they’re going to need one or both of competitive differentiation and process optimization.

I can’t speak for the latter, since I’m hypothesizing off a raft of rumour, but one of the simpler paths to the former is to become – or rather acknowledge that they are a content business. Regardless, they need highly-searchable terminology.

Even in the face of tooth and claw resistance to noticing the fundamental position content occupies in driving sales (and SEO) on the web, there’s a clear information problem here.

Dilettante taxonomy is a disaster.

Ok, so this is a small example, but that kind of makes it a good one. Unisex probably is the best way of describing clothing designed to suit either men or women interchangeably. It certainly takes less time to type (and read). It’s established terminology, and as a single word, it’s significantly better for web readability than a phrasal workaround. Something like “fits men or women” is short, by could fall foul of clause-level discard in web scanning. It’s not an adjective, so for intuitive reading it’s never going to be near the start of a title or description. It would also clutter up search results, and impose cognitive load in list scanning. Sorry kids, it’s just worse.

Even if “unisex” were an archaism (which it isn’t), the only thing that would weigh against its being more usable and concise terminology would be evidence that this archaism were hurting conversions. Good luck with that.

We once – briefly – called one of our products a “Can of worms”. It was a bundle in a bug-tracking suite, and we thought it sounded terribly cool.

Guess how well that sold.

We have information and content professionals for a reason: to make sure that whatever we put in front of users is optimised to meet user and business goals. If that thinking doesn’t inform style guides, taxonomy, messaging, title structure, and so forth, you might as well be finger painting.