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by Michael P. Hill May 19, 2016

New Shopify users often find it difficult to get acquainted with the unique language and terminology the platform uses. The terms and jargon often get thrown about without much explanation, so things can get confusing pretty fast.

In this post, we’ll examine four key areas of Shopify terminology that are a frequent source of confusion — and clarify each one.

Shopify Support v. Shopify Experts

One common point of confusion is the difference between Shopify’s official support and Shopify Experts. The key difference, however, between these two is important to understand.

Shopify Support team members, also referred to as gurus, are employed by Shopify and officially trained on the Shopify platform.

On the other hand, Shopify Experts are completely independent from Shopify. Shopify doesn’t have any official way of certifying or training Experts and therefore has no control over the work and services provided.

However, in order to be listed as an Expert on Shopify’s website, the Expert does have to meet certain minimum criteria in terms of experience with the platform.

While Shopify Experts and Shopify Support can help out with many of the same areas, Shopify Experts typically are able to provide more extensive assistance, especially in the areas of customization, development and design.

Shopify Support, meanwhile, typically won’t be able to assist with designing your site or making customizations to your store or theme. Instead, gurus focus on helping merchants understand how the Shopify platform itself works.

Theme v. templates v. layouts

A Shopify Theme is a general, overarching term that refers to the files that control the look and feel of a Shopify store. From a technical standpoint, a Shopify theme combines HTML, CSS, JavaScript, Liquid and image files into what shoppers see on screen, or the “front end.”

Often, however, there’s confusion between a Shopify themes, templates and layouts.

In the Shopify system, layout files are used to control the overall layout or composition of the repeating elements of the site, such as the header, footer and other areas that appear on all or most pages. Most Shopify themes only have a single layout since multiple layouts is typically a more advanced feature.

A layout file will also have a special Liquid tag that tells Shopify where to output the specific content of the page, which, in turn, is controlled by templates.

More specifically, Shopify templates refer to specific files that are outputted inside of a layout. All Shopify themes contain a base set of templates that control the layout of the homepage, collection pages, product pages and other pages such as contact, about or gallery type pages.

A Shopify theme can have an essentially unlimited number of templates. For example, creating a new separate template is often the best way to create special layouts for certain product types, such as items requiring personalization.

Collections v. categories v. subcategories

The use of the word “categories” is actually a bit of a misnomer for Shopify users.

Officially, Shopify products are always organized into what Shopify calls  collections, not categories. There’s also no way to create a hierarchy with collections — in other words there’s technically no such thing as a subcategory or subcollection in Shopify.

That said, it’s still possible — and fairly straightforward — to create a hierarchical relationship between collections by using Shopify’s built in navigation system.

For example, a store owner can “nest” links to specific collections under links to others to create a subcollection or subcategory. It’s also possible to filter a collection by tag and direct shoppers to what is essentially a subset of a larger group.

For example, a menu link to a “Jeans” collection could actually be a link to a more general “Bottoms” collection that has been filtered to show only products that have a “jeans” tag.

The lack of hierarchal organization for Shopify collections can be a bit confusing from a store owner’s perspective because all collections will appear within the same master list of collections in the Shopify admin.

Also keep in mind that many users have a tendency to think of collections as folders similar to the folders you have on your computer's hard drive. However, this is a bit inaccurate because a single product can belong to one or more — even hundreds — of collections, unlike folders, which typically only allow a file or object to be located in a single folder at any one time.

Note that collections can also be used to organize products in non-hierarchical ways. For example, many Shopify themes use collections to determine what items appear on the homepage or in another part of the shop, such as a more custom version of the "related images" section for a given product.

Vendors v. product types v. tags

Shopify offers three additional ways of organizing and classifying products: by vendor, product type and tag.

However, many store owners are confused by the differences between these and how they should be used.

Vendors https://help.shopify.com/manual/products/add-update-products#vendor is probably the most straightforward of these three labels, and is typically used to associate, as you might expect, a vendor, designer or manufacturer with a product.

It’s typically best to restrict the use of the vendor feature to these types of uses since many themes use the vendor label for features such as filtering and browsing (it’s also possible to use the vendors feature to show different size charts for each vendor in your store). It’s also important to remember that, in Shopify, products can only have a single vendor — so it’s not possible to label a product with more than one vendor.

If you don’t want to use the word “vendor” it’s easy to change it to something more appropriate for your business such as “brand” or “manufacturer” — though the word “vendor” will continue to be used within your admin panels.

Product type, meanwhile, is another distinct identifier that each product can have. Like vendors, products can only have a single product type. Product type is a helpful way to further organization products and, like vendors, is often used by themes for filtering or sorting features. Like all of these labels, product type is also helpful for you, as the store owner, to help organize and locate specific products.

The final label, tags, is perhaps the most flexible. Tags are unique in that a product can have one or more tag, unlike vendor or product type. Tags have a wide variety of uses and many themes make use of them for related product functionality or for, like the other labels, filtering and sorting.

The one downside to tags, however, is there’s no way to group them. For example, you can’t say that the tags “green” and “red” are colors, while the tags “silk” and “linen” are fabrics.

Shopify’s built in search tool also heavily relies on tags, so it’s important to keep this in mind when adding tags.

All of these labels are extremely useful when using automatically generated collections since they can all be called upon as criteria for items to be included or excluded from a particular collection. This can be incredibly powerful if you need to create highly specific collections.

Michael P. Hill
Michael P. Hill

Michael P. Hill is a Shopify, Shopify theme, content marketing, digital marketing and product management expert based in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelphill or connect on LinkedIn.


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