One of the frequent mistakes e-commerce website owners do is to assume that category pages don’t really have SEO value, and aren’t great conversion or sales drivers either.
If this is your attitude towards category pages, it’s easy to understand why you don’t pay that much attention to the design and copy of these pages. But the truth is category pages can be just as valuable, if not more important than product pages, and they can help improve your conversion rates and sales volume.
If you think of it for a second, it’s just like in offline shopping: you enter a store because you want to buy a pair of shoes, but don’t know which one exactly, and don’t have a specific brand in mind either. All you know is that you want a pair of summer shoes.
You enter the store and you see many different products displayed on shelves, so your mind starts to apply filters, just like you do when shopping online: no, I don’t want a black pair, I prefer something light-colored, and it definitely shouldn’t have heels. So you filter and filter and in the end you select a couple of pairs and try them on.
Online shoppers do the same: they enter the category page and start applying filters: color, size, type of shoe – heeled or non-heeled, season and so on. When they’re done filtering, they select a couple of products and open the product pages for more details. If they find what they’re looking for, they buy.
Now, imagine you entered a physical store where the products are displayed like this:
[image source: http://www.shutterstock.com/ ]
You can’t find any helpful detail – price, size, producer, materials, maintenance instructions or reviews – and there’s no sales agent to give you details on the displayed products either.
The design and copy of your category page should help visitors find the product they need, not drive them away from your website. So if your category page has a high bounce rate and a low conversion rate, you may need to start optimizing the copy, design and some additional SEO elements.
In this article, I’ll guide you through the step-by-step optimization process for e-commerce category pages.
Part I: Optimizing the content of your e-commerce category page
Your webshop’s category pages should be regarded as landing pages, because individual product pages are more likely to expire.
Here are two examples from http://zappos.com/womens-shoes – the first page is from June 2014, and the second example is from June 2016.
[Images source: http://web.archive.org]
The products on this page have changed and will continue to be constantly replaced, as new collections are launched and old ones become obsolete. But the category page itself remains in place, and maintains its authority.
Now here’s an interesting thing Zappos does on its main category pages: below the recommended products and featured product reviews, you’ll find a long description of that category.
[Image source: http://zappos.com]
The Bags & Handbags category page description for example has 457 words, and a lot of internal links, as you can see in the above image. Macy’s Handbags and Accessories category page has a similar description.
[Image source: http://www1.macys.com/shop/handbags-accessories]
So this is the first thing you should do in terms of content optimization for your online shop’s main category pages: add a category description with internal links to other relevant pages.
How much text should you add?
Brian Dean from Backlinko analyzed 1 million Google search results and found that longer content tends to rank higher in SE. The average Google first page result contains 1,890 words.
That may seem like a lot of text for an e-commerce category page, and it is! But you can kill two birds with a stone and please both your visitors and Google by writing a longer category page description and displaying only a part of it, with a “Read more” option. Or you can opt for a shorter description, of around 500 words, like Zappos and Macy’s do.
[Image source: https://www.fossil.com/uk/en/bags.html]
Where should you place this text? Above the fold or below your products?
E-commerce website owners often neglect the category page description because they don’t see its real value: the category page is part of the sales funnel, and the perfect opportunity for displaying valuable text that actually helps visitors, shows your authority and your passion for what you’re selling.
Descriptions on category pages are also excellent for SEO purposes, and the perfect place to add your target keywords and some related LSI keywords for creating a favorable context. And as previously shown, they’re also a good place for creating some internal links.
Where you place this text doesn’t matter that much, but if you add it above the fold, make sure you use the “Read more” option. Why? Because your category page should be created for people, not for Google, and people who browse for bags are probably more interested in buying bags than in reading about bags.
So if you place the content above the fold, display only a short part of the description. If you place it below the products, it’s up to you to decide on the length, but again, keep in mind that the purpose of the category page is to serve users in the first place.
How many keywords should you include in the category page copy?
The rule of thumb here is to write content for people instead of stuffing it with keywords for search engines. As Rand Fishkin from Moz shows here, you can target 1 keyword per page or 15 different keywords, as long as they’re placed in the right context and the content actually provides value and helps the shopper.
Brian Dean offers another valuable lesson on keyword usage for on-page SEO purposes: drop the targeted keyword in the first 100 words of the copy. Although his rule refers mainly to blog articles, it’s something you can apply for e-commerce category page descriptions as well.
However, avoid applying the old SEO rules that say you should have a certain keyword density. Google’s algorithms have evolved a lot and keyword stuffing no longer works. In fact, Matt Cutts, Google’s former head of the web spam team, confirmed that the ideal keyword density is a myth.
Part II: Optimizing the SEO elements of your category page
Until now we’ve talked about the importance of relevant content on category pages, but SEO elements shouldn’t be neglected either. Help your visitors, but don’t forget about Google and the elements that matter for it: metatitles, metadescriptions and URLs.
How to optimize metatitles and metadescriptions
For metatitles, a good practice is to add modifiers that reflect the purchase intent, such as “buy”, “cheap”, “review”, “best” and so on.
You can also add click magnets like “x% off” or “$x discount”. Although the best strategy for choosing between these two ways of displaying discounts is to test and see what works for your e-commerce store, if you don’t know what to choose between absolute values and percentages you can start with this rule: for prices under 100, display discounts in percentages; for prices above 100, use absolute values.
For metadescriptions, a good practice is to use not only your target keyword, but also LSI terms. These help create the right context for Google to understand what the page is about, and many voices say LSI keywords influence the authority of a page and the perceived relevancy of a page.
Another effective trick for metadescriptions is to add terms like “FREE shipping”, or “1-Day Shipping”, or to create scarcity by displaying the number of items left in a category.
[Image source: http://backlinko.com/ecommerce-seo#chapter3]
How to optimize category page URLs
This is a tricky one for sure, as the structure of your category page URLs is influenced by the architecture of your e-commerce website. Take a look at the picture below:
[Image source: https://www.wordtracker.com]
If I land on this page and I want to buy green tea, it’s easy for me to find it, and if I’m interested in Chinese oolong tea, it’s also easy to find it, because the webshop has a good category architecture and is user- and SE-friendly.
The breadcrumb menu for Chinese oolong tea in this example would look like this: Home / Oolong tea / Chinese oolong tea, and the URL would look similar to this one: http://tea-webshop.com/oolong-tea/chinese-oolong-tea.html
So your URLs should, first and foremost, reflect the category and subcategory of the product, and should be as short as possible, as there seems to be a correlation between URL length and SE rankings.
[Image source: http://backlinko.com/ecommerce-seo#chapter3]
Obviously, for e-commerce stores links tend to be longer, because product names are longer, but do your best to keep URLs as short as possible, while including the necessary keywords (category name, subcategory, product name).
[Image source: http://www.practicalecommerce.com/]
[Image source: https://seomoz.app.box.com/]
Do not include colors, sizes, materials, product features and other such details in the URLs for your category pages, unless they’re essential for differentiating categories from one another. These are filters and should appear in your category page URLs after the “?” separator. Use as many filters as needed to help visitors find the product they’re looking for, but don’t index filters.
For example, if you sell men and women shoes, you can have two different categories with the following URLs: http://webshop.com/womens-shoes/product-1.html and http://webshop.com/mens-shoes/product-1.html, but http://webshop.com/blue-womens-shoes is not a good category page URL in most cases. In this case, “blue” should be a color filter.
A common question here is whether brand names should be included in category or products names, or should be used as filters as well. If we listen to SEO experts, it’s good to use brand names in the faceted navigation (the navigation found in the sidebar or your category page, which contains facets and filers), and these should be indexed.
[Image source: http://www.johnfdoherty.com]
Also, do not use numbers in your category page URLs. For the previous tea shop example, http://webshop.com/category-1 is not a good URL for defining the oolong tea category, but http://webshop.com/oolong-tea is.
Part III: Optimizing the design of your webshop’s category page
We already saw how important is to have a short description on the category page, and to optimize the SEO elements. Now let’s discuss about improving the design of these pages.
Should you add banners on e-commerce category pages, or just list the products?
My recommendation is to avoid banners on these pages, unless they add value for the customer and provide new information that cannot be found in other places on the website. For example, you can add a banner that displays a promotional code valid only for that category, but it’s useless to display a banner that simply illustrates the product category.
If you choose to use a banner, don’t forget to add a relevant alt tag for the picture. In fact, this should be done for all images in your store: optimize the image titles and alt tags, as well as the sizes, to make sure they don’t affect the page load time.
Should you display products as a grid or as a list?
The answer here depends on your niche, and on how customers differentiate the products.
Shopify says that similar products should be grouped together horizontally, because customers will perceive more variety, while different products should be displayed in separate rows. This rule can be applied on your home page for example, or on category pages where you sell different types of products. Here’s an example from Amazon:
[Image source: https://www.shopify.com]
However, for products in the same category, the golden rule is to display them based on what’s more important for the customer: the product features or the product image. For electronics for example it’s better to display the products in list format, so that users can easily compare the features, while for fashion items it’s better to use grid view, as the images are more important.
[Images source: http://www.ecommerceillustrated.com/]
What about pagination vs. infinite scrolling?
Here, the answer depends on what you want to optimize your page for. Pagination tends to work better for conversions and is the preferred solution for a large number of e-commerce websites. Because pagination has a beginning and an end point, it’s easier for users to remember on what page they saw a product they loved, and to return to that page.
Compared to infinite scrolling, pagination offers greater control on searches, and although infinite scrolling may be used for extending the time spent on page, pagination is preferred for driving conversions.
But, from the UX point of view, neither pagination nor infinite scrolling win the battle: if your focus is on usability on the category page, then you should opt for a combination of “Load more” button and lazy-loading infinite scrolling, but don’t forget to add a “Back” button.
I hope you’ll find this article useful and encourage you to post your comments and questions below!