By David Dorf on Oct 26, 2009
There are three related yet often confused terms that creep into conversations about retail. I started a conversation on that topic over at the ARTS Linked-in discussion board that has some interesting comments. The three terms are (with definitions from Wikipedia):
Hierarchy "is an arrangement of items (objects, names, values, categories, etc.) in which the items are represented as being "above," "below," or "at the same level as" one another and with only one "neighbor" above and below each level."
Taxonomy "is the practice and science of classification. Typically this is organized by supertype-subtype relationships, also called generalization-specialization relationships, or less formally, parent-child relationships."
Ontology "is a formal representation of a set of concepts within a domain and the relationships between those concepts. It is used to reason about the properties of that domain, and may be used to define the domain."
Did I loose you on that last one? Ignore it for now. When we classify merchandise, do we use a hierarchy or taxonomy? The generally accepted term in the retail industry is "merchandise hierarchy" but I'm not so sure its accurate.
The classic example of a hierarchy is that of the organization. The lieutenant reports to the captain who reports to the major in the Army hierarchy. For a taxonomy, the classic example is the classification of animals. The dog is a canine, carnivore, mammal (sparing you lots of Greek and Latin words).
So which term fits Electronics --> Televisions --> Plasma --> Panasonic TH-50PX60U best? Looks like a taxonomy to me because each successive layer gets more detailed. I'm amazed at the lack of standards in this area. Supplier/retailer data pools should be much simpler than they are.
Which brings me to my final rant. Until we, as an industry, straighten this out we'll never achieve the machine-to-machine communications we strive for in the Semantic Web. This is where the term "ontology" becomes relevant, as it provides the discipline to define a constant view of the retail domain that moves us from information to answers.