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by Robin Peterson

With the rise of online shopping, navigating an eCommerce site has become intuitive for many of us. eCommerce hierarchies are a familiar part of this experience. If you are shopping for an artificial Christmas tree from a home improvement retailer, you will probably click on a parent category such as “Holiday Decorations” before you select “Artificial Christmas Trees.” Likewise, just as customers use these hierarchies to find the products they want to buy, companies understand how the structure of an eCommerce hierarchy is integral to the merchandising and marketing of their products. For example, grouping “Power Tool Kits” and “Grills” under a temporary, seasonal category of “Gifts” is a great way to help move those products.

How a Master Attribution Hierarchy Drives Better Customer Experiences

But for companies that are concerned with enriching and optimizing their product data – and all of them should be – there’s another type of hierarchy that’s important to know. It’s what we in the product data world call a master attribution hierarchy.

The hierarchy that is displayed on an eCommerce site is designed to be navigable by the customer. Ideally, it’s also flexible in order to accommodate a constantly changing and evolving product catalog, as well as to create seasonal product assortments such as “Gifts.” 

However, product data is not limited to merchandising and marketing. For every product, whether a flannel shirt or a bag of ice melt, companies need to capture technical information about it in order to sell it. That’s where attributes come in, and with them, the need for a master attribution hierarchy.

Attributes and Their Importance

An attribute is a characteristic of a product that is useful to know. Imagine shopping for a snow shovel. At the very least, you’ll want to know the blade material and the handle length. But if you’re shopping for an electric snow blower, you’ll be interested in a different set of attributes, such as the width of the clearing path and the drive type (push or self-propelled).

Building a Master Data Hierarchy

An eCommerce hierarchy might group both these types of products under “Snow Removal.” But in a master attribution hierarchy, “Snow Shovels” and “Snow Blowers” will always be separate categories. That’s because they have different sets of attributes. (The set of attributes for a particular product category is also known as its schema.)

As the name suggests, a master attribution hierarchy is built to manage product attributes. Think of it as the “back-end” hierarchy that captures clean, accurate product data needed for an outstanding eCommerce experience. Although most of us encounter the eCommerce hierarchy first, the master attribution hierarchy is foundational because it’s at the heart of the product data model. Hierarchy design should be one of the first steps in any digital transformation.

Hierarchy design is informed by the principles of library and information science. Some best practices are simple: the hierarchy should be navigable, each child category should “fit” under its parent category, and category names should be clear and specific. But the most important principle of a master attribution hierarchy is summed up by the word “is-ness” – in other words, what the product is as opposed to what it is used for, who it is sold to on the customer side, or who manages it on the business side. Returning to our snow shovel vs. snow blower example, if we ask the question “do these products have a different is-ness?” the answer is yes. Even though they are both used for snow removal, a snow blower has a very different form factor than a shovel, and will therefore have a different set of attributes.

For companies with large, complex catalogs, hierarchy design is a major project. It is best executed by product taxonomists and information architects, who help companies apply best practices throughout the course of a taxonomy build. Working closely with a company’s product experts, a taxonomist may need to ask the question “do these products have a different is-ness?” hundreds of times, weighing the answer against a variety of factors such as competitive references and the number of products in the category. The outcome of this process is a logical, easily navigable hierarchy for “mastering” product data.

In Conclusion

A well-designed master attribution hierarchy paves the way for the creation of product attributes and the population of attribute values. There’s no substitute for a hierarchy that optimizes data management, especially for a company embarking on the implementation of a PIM or MDM system. Seasons and trends come and go, but product data continues to matter because a customer shopping for a product will always need to know certain key facts about that product. Taxonomy design is about starting with the basics of what a product is to categorize it and capture those key facts. 

By: Robin Peterson
As an Information Architect at Pivotree, Robin Peterson builds product taxonomies and attribute schemas for Fortune 1000 companies. She supports manufacturers, distributors, and retailers with data modeling expertise in order to implement PIM and MDM solutions with a strong data design.


About Pivotree: Pivotree designs, builds, and manages frictionless commerce experiences for brands and their customers around the world. We provide end-to-end solutions and services in Commerce, Data Management, and Supply Chain for hundreds of brands globally.


1. How does a master attribution hierarchy differ from the eCommerce hierarchy typically seen on websites, and how does it contribute to optimizing product data management?

A master attribution hierarchy differs from the eCommerce hierarchy by focusing on managing product attributes rather than just facilitating customer navigation. While the eCommerce hierarchy is designed for customer usability and flexibility, the master attribution hierarchy is built to capture technical information about products, ensuring data accuracy and consistency. This distinction helps optimize product data management by providing a structured framework for organizing attributes across different product categories.

2. What role do product taxonomists and information architects play in designing and implementing a master attribution hierarchy, especially for companies with large and complex product catalogs?

Product taxonomists and information architects play a crucial role in designing and implementing a master attribution hierarchy, especially for companies with extensive product catalogs. They collaborate closely with product experts to determine the most effective hierarchy structure based on factors such as product characteristics, customer needs, and competitive landscape. Through extensive analysis and iterative refinement, they ensure that the hierarchy is logical, easily navigable, and aligned with the company’s data management goals.

3. Can you provide examples of how the "is-ness" principle influences the design of a master attribution hierarchy, particularly when distinguishing between products with similar functionalities but different attributes?

The “is-ness” principle influences the design of a master attribution hierarchy by emphasizing the inherent characteristics of products rather than their functionalities or user contexts. For example, when distinguishing between products like snow shovels and snow blowers, the principle prompts taxonomy designers to focus on the fundamental differences in form factor and attributes rather than their shared purpose of snow removal. This approach ensures that each product category is accurately represented in the hierarchy based on its unique attributes and characteristics.