Locations and Products: What’s in a Name?

This is the third in a series of blog posts looking at the parallels between locations and products.

The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,
It isn’t just one of your holiday games;
You may think at first I’m as mad as a hatter
When I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.

“The Naming of Cats”, by T.S. Eliot

Cats may need to have three different names, but locations need at least two — address and coordinates. The industry hasn’t landed on how many products need yet, but it’s more than three. In our last post on the parallels between locations and products, I mentioned that products could have GTINs, EANs, UPCs and ISBNs, many of which are subsets of the others. These so-called unique identifiers most closely parallel location latitude and longitude. But just like we don’t usually use latitude and longitude to talk about location (unless we’re sailors or maybe hikers), we don’t usually use these identifiers to talk about products.

When we refer to a physical location, we usually use its street address. To tell people how to find the Indix Seattle office, I tell them to go to 818 Stewart Street, Suite 910, in Seattle, Washington rather than to 47.615645, -122.335058 and 35.668 m (although now I’m tempted to do that to see if it’ll work). However, sometimes we’ll use a building’s name, like the Willis Tower or the Guggenheim Museum.

There are strong parallels between street addresses and products. Before street addresses existed, most businesses were known by building names, much like products originally had only names and no other descriptors. For example, people didn’t ask, “how do I get to Piazza della Rotonda, 00186 Roma” they simply asked, “Where is the Pantheon?”

When using only building names became confusing, people started using street names to clear things up. For example, the Golden Eagle on Main Street was a different place from the Golden Eagle on State Street. When product names became confusing, people would talk about getting bacon from Bob the Butcher or getting bacon from the General Store.

Later, when the postman needed to be able to track and distinguish houses, street numbers came about, and when manufacturers and stores needed to be able to easily track and distinguish products, they invented manufacturing part numbers (MPNs) and stock keeping units (SKUs), respectively.

For products online, unlike for locations, we have a big shortcut for the full street address: the product’s URL. Sure, we can get a URL that specifies a particular place on a mapping site, but that’s not quite the same as having a URL that will allow you to directly acquire the product. We could only push the parallels so far!

Like location, product names also have standardization challenges. Stores might have slightly different product names and different SKUs. If you’re familiar with one format, you can easily be confused by another. For example, many countries put the street number after the street name, so you may be confused if you’re looking at it from the US, where we put the street number before and the apartment number after the street name. Likewise, if you’re accustomed to looking for pack size under description on one retail website, you may be confused by another site that lists it in the product title. Sometimes you may have to translate ounces to grams or figure out that “blk” indicates the color black.

Many governments have solved one big address standardization problem, however, with postal codes. Unfortunately, as we mentioned in our last post on this topic, GTIN can’t be the same standardization as postal codes, since GTIN can be reused and postal codes cannot.

We have other ways we talk about locations beyond their mailing addresses, just as we have other ways we talk about products beyond their titles, stores, and code-based identifiers like SKU or MPN. In my next post, I’ll look into both locations and products in terms of classification and category.

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