Doing Product Category Page Optimization Right

    There are two key page types involved in e-commerce SEO (i.e. products or services) for both search engines and shoppers:

    1. Product information pages
    2. Product category pages

    The optimization of both plays a critical role in helping your products get traffic and converting that traffic into customers.

    Unless a visitor to your site enters through a specific product page through search, they will typically come through a product category page first. This post will focus on these pass-through category pages. I’ll discuss optimization of product pages another day.

    Overall, every product category page on your site should have a very particular focus. The goal is to display products that fit only the narrowness (or broadness) of the category and provide whatever information about the products is necessary to entice visitors to click-through to the products themselves. Within that framework, there are some very specific optimization strategies that you need to employ to get each page to serve its purpose more effectively.

    Create Proper Product Categories

    If you have any chance of creating effective product category pages, you have to start by making sure you have created the best categorization structure for all of your products. This means creating categories and sub-categories that help visitors narrow down their choices intuitively to find the product(s) that best fit their interest and needs.

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    The Wrong Way to Categorize Your Products

    But, before we talk about proper product categorization solutions, let’s look quickly at a poorly implemented solution. The image below comes from an apartment rental website where the menu does very little to help visitors find an apartment that meets their needs.
    navigation before
    What’s wrong with this picture?

    For starters, they have implemented something of a mega menu. Mega Menus are designed to reduce the number of clicks needed to get from the current page the visitor is on to the category page that best matches their interest. But this solution is often worse than the problem! Too many options in the menu prevents the customer from being able to focus on what they want. It becomes information overload, creating decision paralysis.

    Secondly, this menu doesn’t offer navigational categories that help the visitor drill down. Most searchers aren’t looking for apartments based on these categories. And unless you know where each of these addresses are in the city, that information does very little to help you find an apartment that fits your needs. You’d have to take the time to look at each address to know whether there is an apartment available that has the features and amenities you want.

    The menu offers a few more “filtering” options at the top that might be slightly more helpful, but not by much. If you search by location, you get a slightly more helpful way to find an apartment in an area you want to live in, but that’s only helpful if you are looking for an apartment in a specific location.

    Navigation 2
    If you browse by type, you just get the Urban, Signature, and Suburban categories again. Searching by Map allows you to see all the addresses pinned on a map of the city, and searching by Price lets you find an apartment that fits your price range.

    There is merit to each of these categorization options but, other than the search by price option; they are all focused on location, which only a small sub-set of apartment hunters are searching for. All told, this navigation isn’t helpful to the majority of apartment searchers.

    The Right Way to Categorize Your Products

    So now let’s talk about what you should do when it comes to proper product categorization. If you start with keyword research, you’ll learn a lot about how people search for apartments and what types of things they are looking for. With this information, you can create product category and sub-categories that allow you to create optimized landing pages that will cover 90% of what apartment searchers are looking for.

    Using keyword research, here is a product categorization plan we developed for the same site.

    navigation improved

    This navigation captures searchers who are hunting by any one of four ways: By general location (neighborhood), type of apartment they are looking for (style), the amenities they want, and how many bedrooms they need. These four categories alone cover just about all apartment searches.

    Those, of course, are just the broad categories. We then have created sub-categories for each that capture searchers who have a clearer idea of what they are looking for in an apartment. Each of the categories above is an option to build landing pages that will drive searchers to the available apartments that most closely match their search intent.

    And from there, the searcher would be able to further filter the results until they got only the available apartments that fit all of their criteria.

    For example, let’s say someone is looking for a furnished apartment. That’s their most important criteria, so they start their search there. They land on the furnished apartment page under Amenities and immediately are treated to all available furnished apartments. From here, they use real-time filtering to find a 2-bedroom furnished condo that has a gym in the hilltop area. Or they find a furnished 1-bedroom loft in uptown.

    The point is, by using this categorization, they were able to land on the page that meets their number one need. Every searcher is different, but we have created enough categories that will provide solutions for almost all searchers.

    Keyword research plays a big role in how your products should be categorized. Look at the language searchers use to find the products you sell. The goal is to create a navigation that fits your searcher’s way of thinking about things rather than your own.

    Quiz: Which provides better product classifications?

    • Top level categories for “motorcycle helmets” and “motorcycle gloves” or
    • Top level categories for “Mens Gear”, “Women’s Gear” and “Children’s Gear.”

    The answer is the first option. Even if a strong number of searchers are looking for “gear,” the only thing the second option shows them is you have gear for men, women, and children. It doesn’t tell them what specific gear you offer.

    By focusing on the actual product categories, you can offer pages that filter for men, women, and children within each category while making sure your actual products are what the visitor sees when they land on the site. Gear is just too vague, and it forces the visitor to pick who they are shopping for before they get to pick what they are shopping for. That’s backward.

    When developing your site’s product categorization structure, I suggest getting out the post-it notes and a nice wall or table to stick them on.

    Each post-it will represent a specific product category. Create as many options as you think make sense, based on the keyword research, and then organize them into primary groups and sub-groups.

    One final tip. Your top-tier product categories should be your website’s main navigation options. Don’t hide these under a navigation option for “Products,” “Services,” or worse, “Browse”!

    Optimize Every Category Page

    I mentioned this above, but let’s dive into this in more detail here. Every product category page should be a landing page that is optimized for targeted keyword searches. Scroll back up and look at the new navigation layout I created above. Every one of those options is there because it can serve as a landing page for searchers.

    To optimize these category/landing pages, you have to know what the purpose of the page is. For product category pages, the purpose is to provide confirmation to the visitor that the page fulfills the intent of their query. From there, its purpose is to provide the signals needed that get the visitor to take the next action, which is to click into the next level sub-category or a specific product page.

    Let’s look at how to do that.

    Customized Heading Tag

    Too often, the topmost heading tags on product category pages tells the visitors very little about the content on the page or why they should stick around. Headings have two distinct purposes: 1) confirm to the visitor that they landing on the page that meets their needs, and 2) entice them to stick around. Sometimes just clearly outlining the page content is enough. Other times, you may need to add some value indicators.

    In the example below, the heading reads “Apartments in Capitol Hill.” That fulfills the first requirement. But what about adding “Affordable” to the beginning? That one word provides an enticement to keep engaging with the page and the heading now fulfills both.

    Apartment heading

    If you want your primary heading to stick to just iterating the product category, then consider using a secondary heading for the enticement. Newspapers, books, and magazines use this format a lot. Stick to the facts in the main heading/title and follow that up with the value-added statement.

    Make sure that your topmost heading on the page is wrapped in an H1 tag. The sub-heading, if you choose to use it, would be an H2.

    Optimized Content

    I’m a firm believer that every page needs content, even if it’s not what most visitors want (or think they want). We have to remember that there is a difference between what visitors want and what they need. Visitors want products, but they need content if they are going to be sold on the value of those products.

    One great example of this is Google’s “I’m feeling Lucky” button. In 2007, Google estimated that only 1% of searchers use that button (and causes the company to lose $110M per year!). So why doesn’t Google remove it? Because they determined that removing the button cost them a greater loss in brand perception! Searchers don’t want the “I’m feeling lucky” button, but Google needs it to maintain the perception of being a “fun” company.

    Ok, so that’s not the same type of content I’m referring to, but it does illustrate the want/need issue. If you want a better example, go to any museum. They don’t just display pieces. Each piece is accompanied with content. You don’t go to the museum for the content; you go for the pieces. But it’s that content that informs the visitor the reasons for the pieces being there. Product category content fulfills the same purpose.

    Visitors think they just want the products, but the content is a mechanism to provide them valuable information about the products in that category. Some will read it; some won’t. Those who don’t need it don’t care that it’s there, provided it doesn’t impede their shopping experience. Those that do need it will be less likely to buy without it.

    Matches Searcher Intent

    Another key component of optimizing these pages is to make sure the page (from the content to the products) clearly matches the searcher’s intent. For example, if a searcher is looking for “honda motorcycle batteries,” make sure they land on a page specific to Honda batteries, and not a page for all batteries. Similarly, if they are looking for “women’s ski boots” don’t land them on a page that includes ski boots for men and children.

    You want the visitor to have to do a minimal amount of work once they land on the page. If they want to filter further, great, but don’t make them filter products on your site just to get to what they searched for to begin with. Be sure you focus completely on meeting the needs as you best know.

    Provide On-Command Content

    One of the problems often cited when it comes to optimizing product category pages is there is no place to put optimized content. Furthermore, the argument goes, when most product searchers land on a website, they want to see the products, not a bunch of text.

    There is, of course, truth to these arguments, but we all know that content is an important aspect of the optimization and conversion process. Any text you add to the page will tend to push the products further down and off the page. Can you give visitors both what they want and need at the same time?

    Many designers don’t like content on these pages because they think a bunch of content destroys the aesthetics of the page. And if you’re talking about more than a paragraph of content, that’s probably true. So start with a single paragraph. You can easily get a paragraph of content above your products without pushing the products too far down the page and format it in an aesthetically pleasing way. And if you need more than a paragraph to outline the value of those products, make the rest of the content available on demand.

    Here is a site that did just that.

    On demand content

    If you click on the read more link, additional text appears, pushing the products further down the page:

    read more show

    You can make the argument as to whether this additional text is at all needed to sell the product or not, but assuming it is valuable content, using the “read more” option makes the content available to those who want to learn more while keeping it out of the way for those who just want to view the products themselves.

    One thing to keep in mind is that search engines devalue the hidden portion of your content. Slightly devalued content that is available, however, has way more value than having no content available at all.

    Display More Products Per Page

    Sites with a lot of products in a single category often limit the number of products displayed on each product category page. The visitor will then have to click a link to take them to the next page of product results. This is another example of a solution that fixes one problem but creates several more.

    For the most part, limiting the number of products displayed at a time is done to speed up the page load speed. Fewer products and images per page make each page load faster. This is good for visitors. But what isn’t good for visitors is forcing them to click page after page after page to see all available products. Eventually, they will tire of this, and the products at the end of the list will be seen by very, very few people. And the search engines will tend to assign less weight to the products on the last page verses those at the beginning, if it gets to them at all.

    The best option for both visitors and search engines is to display all your products on a single page, with on-demand image loading and strong product filtering options. Not only does this help get more products into the search results, but it also doesn’t add unnecessary page load time.

    Let’s say you have a product category page that covers 1,000 products. If you tried to load the thumbnail images for all of those 1,000 products, you’d run into some long download times, which can frustrate the shopper. However, if you only load the images in the viewable screen area, you’ll decrease the page load time significantly.

    The remaining images don’t load, initially, but as soon as the visitor scrolls down and those images come into viewable range, you quickly load the next batch of images. The delay will be minimal because you’re only trying to load a handful of images at a time.

    image loading

    But we still have the problem of forcing the visitor to potentially scroll through a thousand products to find the one they want. Some visitors are happy to do that, but most aren’t. (Incidentally, visitors will see a lot more products scrolling than they would by clicking “next page”!)

    The best way to reduce the number of products the visitor has to scroll through is to set up product filters. Create as many filters as make sense for your products. For example, a page for ski boots might have filters for men’s, women’s, boys, girls, brand, performance, weight, height, skill level, fit, flex, buckle count, color, price, year, heated, etc. Each click of a filter reduces the number of viewable products making finding just the right one easier on the shopper.

    Product filtering

    Use keyword research to determine which filters require their own landing pages and which do not. For our ski boot filters, there are probably few searches for ski boots by color. That can be a real-time filter that edits the products shown on the page without switching URLs. However, there are probably quite a number of searchers looking for ski boots by brand. This is worthy of its own optimized landing page.

    Search engines follow the filters that lead to unique URLs, which helps get these filtered product pages into the search results, and provides a greater likelihood that the products will end up in the search indexes as well.

    Alternate Option

    Okay, so what do you do if, for whatever reason, you can’t create filters or on-demand image loading? That puts you back into splitting your products into page 1, page 2, page 3, etc. If that’s you, there is still some hope.

    Use the rel=”prev” and rel=”next” tags on the links to the pages before/after the current page. I suggest you keep your optimized content only on page one, so it’s not competing with duplicate content on the other pages.

    previous next

    Just make sure you use the canonical tag on that first page, as it is often the case that the first in a string of pages can be accessed by two different URLs:

    • (this is your canonical URL)

    The canonical tag makes sure that only the URL you want is indexed.

    Google also suggests creating a page that allows visitors to “view all” products on a single page, without the pagination. This is the page they prefer to show in the search results, which would be the page with 1,000 products. When using this approach, you can set your canonical tag for all the paginated pages to point to the “view all” page. You also will want to add a no-index tag on all the paginated pages, and put your optimized content on the view all page as well.

    Optimized Sale/Closeout Pages

    One final point when it comes to creating a great set of optimized product category pages: Most sites focus on their products only but forget that people search for those products in many different ways. A good number of searchers are often looking for your products using terms such as  “discount,” “sale,” “closeout,” “deals,” etc.

    We talked about optimizing for the intent of the searcher, which means that unless you only sell discount products, you don’t want to drive these searchers to your main product category pages. Instead, create a “sale” section of your site in which you then build additional landing pages for each of your product categories. The only products displaying in these categories will be those that have been reduced in price. Optimizing these landing pages is a great way to capture these discount searchers while reducing older product inventory more quickly.

    It’s All About the Visitor

    Product category pages are often the first line of conversion when it comes to your visitor’s shopping experience. If the visitor isn’t yet searching for a particular product or service, they are searching for the product category so they can learn more. Optimizing your product category pages not only brings more shoppers to your site, but it is an important step in providing each shopper with a valuable on-site experience. If your product category pages don’t deliver as expected, visitors leave without ever seeing the products they came for.

    What did I miss? What do YOU think are essentials for product page optimization?


    Image Credits

    Featured Image: Image by Stoney deGeyter
    In-post Photos: All images by Stoney deGeyter
    All screenshots by Stoney deGeyter. Taken August 2016.

    Stoney G deGeyter

    Stoney G deGeyter

    Stoney deGeyter is the author of The Best Damn Web Marketing Checklist, Period!, and President of Pole Position Marketing, a leading web presence optimization firm helping businesses grow since 1998. Follow him on Twitter: @StoneyD.

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