3 Simple Tips for Site Navigation and Category Structure

Have you ever been frustrated by a website with confusing structure and impossible-to-find products? It's especially infuriating with an ecommerce site, as poor navigation can deter you from shopping with that particular site altogether. The merchant misses out on a repeat customer due to something as fundamental as the usability of their site. I know there have been times when I’ve paid more for the convenience of doing business with an intuitive and simply structured website instead of the cheaper, more confusing option. Much to the chagrin of my wallet, my brain wants function and simplicity when it comes to the shopping process!

The structure and ease-of-use of your online store can go a long way toward building trust with your customers, not to mention staying in Google’s good graces. Here are a few pointers that are easy to incorporate into your site if it needs a bit of a structure and navigation cleanup.

Start at the Beginning

Your customer's ability to easily find what they’re looking for largely depends on what they’re shown the minute they arrive on your homepage. It’s important to naturally categorize your products or services at the very top of the page. For example, if you sell a variety of athletic rehab supplies, then a natural, top-level category structure would probably separate braces from muscle creams. This not only makes it easy for customers to know which path they need to take; it also helps reinforce the keyword structure of your website so search engines know to look deeper than the homepage.

The example below shows how a physiology supplies merchant separates their products using both generic category terms as well as brand names.


The generic product menu at the top left allows less-informed customers to search more broadly, and helps search engines more clearly understand what the most prominent keywords are for this website. More informed or repeat customers can use the brand menu down the page if they are loyal to a particular product line. These pages can be optimized for each brand name individually, which provides more specificity for search engines.

“But that seems like a ton of work and I don’t even know where I’d begin!”

You can quickly try this approach by dragging and dropping your categories in the admin area of your store. It’s fast and reversible, so worry not! You’re never locked in to the changes you make. You can learn more about your navigation menu options by reading our Knowledge Base article.

Funnel Down to the Specifics

Now that your homepage menu options are in tip-top shape, we need to keep sending customers down the right purchasing funnel. What secondary ways would you segment your selection of products? Would it be by color? By material? Or by specific parts of the body? Let’s stick with the athletic rehab supplies merchant to illustrate this. vblog_navigation3

I’ve clicked on their Supports & Braces section and I’m given this range of options. This is a perfect example of further segmenting the navigation to guide your customer to the correct location. Piling all of these braces onto a single landing page would clutter things up and irritate customers by forcing them to search through hundreds of braces to find the right one. On top of that, a cluttered landing page will confuse search engines as to what the page's exact purpose is. A web search for knee braces is quite different from a search for elbow braces, and your site should distinguish between the two in order to answer the customer’s search query as precisely as possible.

“This looks super helpful, but I don’t have the resources to design nicely arranged tiles with images like this.”

No worries! On the admin view of the category page in question, click on the Advanced Info tab and select Category Images to add a Subcategory Image. You can then make that page render as a clickable tile within its parent category by clicking on Advanced Info and selecting Subcategory Display from the expanded menu. Subcategory Display Mode 2 has options to choose from. Take a look at our Category Settings article to learn more about what you can do with your landing pages.

Ask Customers What They Thought

Once you’ve completed that transaction, the order has shipped, and a week or so has passed, be sure to send follow-up emails to see what customers thought of the purchasing process. Was it easy to find the right category from the start? What about subcategories? Were products well organized on the page? You work on your store so often that you’re bound to miss details that a neutral third party will pick up, and having that objective eye is important.

“But Jacob, how am I supposed to keep track of sending emails to thousands of customers?”

Simple! Go into the Settings field on your store’s admin area, choose Config Variables from the dropdown list and search for “survey.” Check the box to enable an automatic survey after purchase, and adjust the number of days before it sends, keeping your typical shipping times in mind so customers will have a chance to physically try the product before writing a review. If that still sounds like something you don't want to do, you can always ask a friend you trust to go through your site and give you their honest feedback.

Other Things to Consider

You can make other simple changes to your Volusion store to improve the structure and flow of your website. Their applicability may depend on your industry and products, but they tend to be appropriate for most merchants.
  • Reduce the number of products displayed per page, which will reduce scrolling fatigue and improve page load speeds.
    • Advanced Info > Product Display > Display Columns & Rows
  • Hide product descriptions and description shorts from displaying on their parent categories, which de-clutters the page and prevents large blocks of text from disrupting the uniformity of the landing page.
    • Advanced Info > Product Display > Show Description & Description Short
Proper structure and navigation of websites isn’t a new topic sweeping the internet, and we’ve talked about it before, and will continue to address in future blog posts as well. Looking at your website’s structure and navigation objectively is a great way to solve for the needs of the customer, and it makes your website easier to scan and index from a search engine perspective. What are some hurdles you’ve run into regarding your site’s navigation and category structure? Share them with us in the comments below and we’ll be happy to provide some insights!