Structured vs. Unstructured Product Content: An Important Choice for Manufacturers

Manufacturers are far better served by creating electronic catalogs comprised of structured product content than unstructured content. While it's tempting to simply scan unstructured PDF documents into online catalogs because of the limited up-front effort, the longer-term benefits to manufacturers of using structured product content are far more compelling.

Why would a manufacturer knowingly create an electronic product catalog comprised of unstructured data information? Simply stated, it is because of confusion regarding the differences between structured and unstructured content. Unfortunately, manufacturers do not understand the ramifications of storing their online catalog information in unstructured formats or using tools designed to manage unstructured content for their structured product content. This confusion also arises from the broad use of the term "content management," especially by vendors that focus on unstructured content and wish to suggest that they can also handle structured content. In fact, in most cases, they can’t.

What is unstructured content?

Unstructured content is often document–based information, with no internal hierarchical structure. It is a single "file" that cannot be easily dissected into parts. Examples include e-mail, traditional HTML Web pages, Word or PDF documents, as well as audio, video and image files.

What is structured content?

Structured content, on the other hand, is product information that is broken down into manageable, searchable parts. It includes all the attributes related to specific products, including descriptions and pricing, as well as categorical classifications of the products. Structured product content is more robust and much more difficult to manage than unstructured content.

The following provides further examples of how structured product content and unstructured product content differ:

  • Structured product content can be re-purposed quickly and easily for various tasks. For example, pricing information (list or trade price) can be extracted for a price list, while ampere ratings can be extracted for technical specifications. With unstructured content, re-purposing is very difficult and time consuming.
  • Structured product content can be validated for each attribute. For example, a product price should always have a numeric value. Unstructured content cannot provide attribute-level validation.
  • Structured product content can have workflow controls -- ownership, approvals, audit trails -- associated with each attribute. For example, a pricing committee can control pricing, while a technical team can control ampere ratings. Unstructured content cannot provide attribute-level workflow controls.
  • Structured product content can be maintained within product families, eliminating the need for multiple entries. For example, a product description that is shared across all products in a specific product family can be maintained in one place only. Unstructured content cannot provide product family data maintenance; users must replicate information across files, making it very difficult and cumbersome to maintain.

Manufacturers should care about these fundamental differences between structured and unstructured product content, because without robust, manageable and searchable product information and a proper hierarchical structure, their online catalog capabilities simply won’t be effective sales tools. And their buyers typically have very little patience. They are opting to find and purchase products online in order to save time and reduce hassles.

Customers who use online catalogs generally look for products via keyword searches, category drill-downs or parametric searches. Without structured content, categorization and parametric searching (finding items based on particular attributes) are impossible, making it difficult for Web catalog users to find the product information they are seeking.

Following is a practical illustration of some of the differences between structured and unstructured content and the impact they may have on manufacturers and their customers. Consider a product catalog that contains the following structured product information:

  • Manufacturer: Best Of Breed, Inc.
  • Item Number: Motor 123
  • Description: Three phase, AC motor, 230 V, 2 HP.
  • Horse Power: 2HP
  • Voltage: 230V AC
  • NEMA Frame*: 143TC
    • Number Of Phases*: Three Phase
    • RPM*: 3600
  • Price: $601
  • UOM: Each

Consider a buyer looking to replace a 230V, 2HP motor that fits a 143TC frame. Using a parametric search, he could easily identify Motor 123 as a substitute product by selecting the desired values for the Voltage, Horse Power and NEMA Frame attributes. If price was an important consideration, he could search within any price range. Likewise, he could search by RPM or Number Of Phases. Beyond making the buying experience easier for customers, the manufacturer also benefits. Notice the NEMA Frame*, RPM* and Number of Phases* (all noted by asterisks), which are all shared attributes between multiple products within the same product family. Structured product content allows the manufacturer to specify these values for the product family and each product within that family can "inherit" the value.

Now consider if the same company stored information about its motor products in an unstructured manner:

Best Of Breed, Inc.

Item No. 123

Three Phase, AC Motor, 230V, 2HP

Specifications: Frame 143TC, Voltage 230V AC, RPM 3600, Three Phase

Price: $601 each.

In this example, the potential buyer couldn’t search within a price range or via attributes such as Horse Power, Voltage, Frame, etc. He could only search by item number. Further, if the RPM rating changes, the manufacturer needs to repeatedly make the same change for each product in the family, whereas with structured content it only needs to make the change once.

It’s clear from these examples that manufacturers are far better served by creating electronic catalogs with a structured product content solution. While it’s tempting to simply scan unstructured PDF documents into online catalogs because of the limited up-front effort -- or try to efficiently "do it yourself" -- the longer-term benefits to manufacturers of using structured content are far more compelling. When doing so, however, manufacturers need to select a tool that is designed specifically for managing structured product content, and developed by an experienced vendor.

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