Setting a Foundation for SEO with Product Categorization

Proper product categorization makes your site easier to understand, both for your customers and for search engines. One of our Team Leads explains methods for achieving SEO success with customer-minded categorization.

One of the most important yet overlooked parts of setting up an ecommerce store is organizing the category architecture in which your products will live. An ecommerce site’s category layout has a large effect on the customer’s interaction with your store and, in turn, the success of the site. A successfully organized ecommerce site will assure visitors they are in the right place and empower them to find what they want to buy.

The power of putting things in the right place

Picture a brand new sporting goods store. You’ve never heard of this store before, but you decide to check it out. Upon entering you notice clearly marked signs directing you to the different sections of the store: Exercise, Team Sports, Golf, Apparel, Outdoors and Shoes.

As you enter the Exercise area of the store you notice aisles devoted to strength training, yoga and cardio. In the corner of the Golf section the putters are on display conveniently located next to the practice green. After sinking a 20 foot putt (darn - nobody saw), you head to the footwear section, where shoes are divided with men’s, women’s and kid’s signage. Then shoes are further sectioned by use, such as running, cross training and so on. You are able to locate the product you need easily, making this a pleasant and efficient shopping experience.

The principal of putting products in the right place transcends into ecommerce, but once online it not only results in a positive shopping experience, it can also impact your visibility in the search engines.

Operating in the ecommerce realm, there is a high probability that visitors that enter your ecommerce store from a search engine have not heard of your business before. It’s critical that your website leaves a positive impression and category organization plays an important role in this. Logically organized categories empower the customer to locate products quickly and with less effort. They also set the framework for search engine to crawl and understand a website’s value, while also impacting which pages are displayed in the search results for specific queries.

Planning your store’s categorization

When setting up a website you need to organize products into categories that intuitively make sense to customers. There is no 100% correct way to set up categories and sub-categories as this changes industry to industry; however, understanding how your target customer perceives and searches for your products will help layout categories and assign products to them. For the majority of websites, the first categories created will be what the product is: tools, hot sauce and jeans are all good examples. Other sites will organize categories by what a product does, who uses them or the issue a product solves.
Pro tip: If you’re having trouble creating the structure of your website check out other highly respected websites in your industry and take note on how their top level and sub-categories are laid out. If you are using Shopping Feeds or PPC advertising, check out this blog on how to use your Google AdWords and the Keyword Planner data to create meaningful categories.

The SEO benefits to effective categorization

One of the primary SEO benefits of creating a logical category hierarchy is the ability to target various keyword phrases on each landing page. By taking a broad-to-specific approach you can help Google bring a customer to your site based on the specificity of their search query. For example: a search of “sporting goods store” may present a sporting good’s Home page as a search result, a more specific search like “soccer gear” will land on the Team Sports>Soccer page, and a search of “slip-in shin guards” may take the customer to the Team Sports>Soccer>Shin Guards>Slip In category. Of course this site will need to optimize that sub-sub-sub category’s Meta fields and category description for “slip in shin guards” but by knowing your products and how your target customer sees and describes them will improve their shopping experience.

As you go deeper into the site, use more specific keywords and adjectives. Customers using similar search phrases will be able to land on a pertinent category and these longer-tail keywords are shown to convert at a much higher rate.

Pro tip: Have a flat architecture rather than a tall one. Tall site architectures have excessive subcategories between the home page and the products requiring many clicks to get to the product you want. This makes it difficult for visitors to find what they are looking for and signals to search engines that these deep pages are less important. Flat architecture brings products closer to the homepage so that they are only a few clicks away from any customer.
Every category should be there for a reason, more categories doesn’t equate to more traffic. (In fact, too many could be detrimental if they sit on the website as landing page ghost towns that no one interacts with or leaves immediately upon viewing.) If there are only a few products in a category, there is no reason to add more sub-categories. If you have more than 100 products on a category, sub-categories will be helpful for both the user and search engines.

An important part of Google’s algorithm and determining if they trust your site will be determined by a user’s behavior and interaction with your site. Once a customer lands on a page, do they click the back button immediately? Or do they browse for several minutes, find the product they are looking for and complete the purchase? The more positive interaction customers have with a site, the more value will be perceived by search engines. Having Google Analytics installed on your site allows you to make the decision if your categories need an extreme makeover or just a minor tweak.

When investigating a site’s analytics and trying to determine if categories need to be reworked I prefer to look at Google Analytics’s Behavior data. Here you’ll be able to visualize the traffic and behavior flow of customers. If you notice a particular category appears high on the “Exit Pages” report try to investigate why this is. Perhaps it is incorrectly categorized.

The “In-Page Analytics” is particularly valuable as this report shows the click-through percentage for each category and link on a page. If you notice users are immediately going to a sub-category when they reach the site you might move that page to be a main category. The following fields are of particular value when examining a site’s category architecture: Visits, Pages/Visit, Avg. Visit Duration, % New Visits and Bounce Rate.

Pro Tip: Users are shown to read web content in a F-Shaped pattern. First, in a horizontal movement across the top of a page. Secondly, across the page in another horizontal movement slightly lower and shorter. Finally, the user reads vertically down the left side of a page. This is why Volusion’s template designs rely heavily on Top and Left navigation menus that hold the categories.

If you choose to feature the same category in both the Top and Left navigation be sure these two navigations link to the same page – not two different pages containing the exact same products. Having two duplicate pages not only dilutes the website’s effectiveness in search results (the search engines are unsure which page to present to a query), it also creates duplicate content issues which are heavily penalized by search engines.

To avoid this, be sure to only create a single landing page and use the Alternate URL advanced category setting to set a preferred category URL. Creating duplicate categories without this enabled will cannibalize the search visibility of both pages.

Go forth and categorize

Now that you understand the importance of strategic website categorization – both from a conversion and SEO standpoint – you should give your website categorization the same attention you would your store’s design. It’s time to dig into your analytics, research the competition and examine the search terms used when potential customers are searching for your products. Use these insights to map out your website for the best customer experience.

Have questions or tips regarding store categorization? Post your comment below!