Without considering a website’s homepage, category pages on e-commerce sites generate most of your organic traffic - are any of you surprised by this statement? If this comes as a shock, I have bad news: you might need to reconsider your information architecture. If you have done your job right then you have nothing to worry about.
Curious about how much organic traffic category pages actually account for, I decided to dig into the Google Search Console of a client of Distilled which has been a very successful e-commerce site for several years. These were my findings over the past 6 months (at the time of writing, November 2018).
Bear in mind this is just an example that shows a fictitious URL structure for an average e-commerce site - the level of category and subcategory pages often differs between sites.
|Type of page||Proportion of Clicks||Example URL|
|1st level subcategory pages||25.0%||example.co.uk/mens-jeans/skinny-jeans|
|2nd level subcategory pages||16.5%||example.co.uk/mens-jeans/skinny-jeans/ripped|
This simple exercise very much confirms my thesis: category & subcategory pages on e-commerce sites do account for the biggest chunk of organic traffic outside the homepage - in our case, about 50% of the total.
So, we have now shown an example of how important these pages are from an organic standpoint without answering the question of why. Let’s take a step back and look the bigger picture.
Why are category pages so important for SEO?
Put simply, users are more likely to search for generic, category-like keywords with strong intent rather than very specific product names. If I want to buy a new jumper, chances are I will start searching for broad search queries, such as “men’s jumpers” or “men’s jumpers 2018” with the potential addition of “brand/retailer” to my query, instead of a very precise and long tail search. Who really searches for “Tommy Jeans icon colorblock cable knit jumper in navy multi” anyway unless you are reading from the label, right? For such specific searches, it is your product pages’ job to capture that opportunity and get the user as close to a conversion as possible.
Having optimised category and subcategory pages that match users’ searches makes their life much easier and helps search engines better crawl and understand your site’s structure.
Image source: Moz
Sitting close to the top of the hierarchy, category pages also benefit from more internal link equity than deeper or isolated pages (more on this later). And let’s not forget about backlink equity: in most instances, category and subcategory pages receive the highest amount of external links pointing to them. As far as we know in 2018, links remain one of the most important off-site ranking factors in the SEO industry, even according to reputable sources like SEMrush.
By now three main elements should be clear: for e-commerce sites, category pages are key from a traffic, information architecture and linking point of view. Pretty important! At this stage, the next question is simple: how do we go about creating new pages then?
Creating new category pages: when and why
Before starting with the process, ask yourself the following questions:
What is my main objective when opening a new page? What am I trying to achieve?
If your intent is to capitalise on new keywords which show an opportunity from a search volume standpoint and/or to improve the hierarchical structure of your site for users to find products in an easier manner, then well-done, move to the next question.
Do I have enough products to support new categories? Are my current category pages thin already or do they contain enough items?
In order for category pages to be relevant and carry enough SEO weight, they should be able to contain ‘some’ products. Having thin or empty category pages makes no sense and Google will see it the same way: both the SEO and UX value associated with them would drag the page’s rankings down. There is no magical minimum number I would recommend, just use your logic, check the competition (if your top competitors are selling 100 products and you are selling 10, chances are your category page will not be as strong) and most importantly, think about the users first here. Do you want users to come to a page where you display only 2 products? It is likely they will bounce back to the SERP immediately and not remember your site for granting a good experience.
When should I think of opening new category pages? Which instances are recommended?
Normally speaking, you should always keep an eye on your categorisation, so it is not a one-time task. It is vital that you regularly monitor your SEO performance and spot new opportunities that can help you progress.
As for specific instances, some of the following situations might be a good time for you to evaluate your category pages. Marketing or branding are pushing for new products? Definitely, a good time to think about new category pages. A new trend/term has gone viral? Think about it. 2019 is approaching and you are launching new collection? Surely a good idea. A site migration is another great chance to re-evaluate your category (and subcategory) pages. Whatever form of migration you are going through (URL restructuring, domain change, platform change etc..) it is vital to have a plan on what to do with your category pages and re-assessing your full list is a good idea.
Always bear in mind to have a purpose when you create a new page, don’t do it for the sake of it or because of some internal pressure that might encourage you to do so: refer to point 1 & 2 and prove the value of SEO when making this decision. You might soon end up with more risks than benefits if you don’t have a clear idea in mind.
How to identify the opportunity to open new categories
After having touched on some key considerations before opening new category pages, let’s now go through the process of how to go about it.
Keyword research, what else..
Everything starts with keyword research, the backbone of any content and SEO strategy.
When you approach this task, try and keep an open mind. Use different tools and methodologies, don’t be afraid to experiment.
Here at Distilled, we love Ahrefs so check out a post on how to use it for keyword research. Their content gap feature is also brilliant, so I recommend taking advantage of that.
Here is my personal list of things I use when I want to expand my keyword research a bit further:
- Keyword Planner (if you have an AdWords account with decent spending, otherwise data ranges are a downer)
- Ahrefs: see the post to know why it is so cool
- SEMrush: particularly interesting for competitive keyword research (more on that later)
- Keyword Tool: particularly useful to provide additional suggestions, and also provides data for many platforms other than Google
- Answer The Public: great tool to find long tail keywords, especially among questions (useful for featured snippets), prepositions and comparisons
(Data being obscured unless a pro version is paid for)
If you find valuable terms with significant search volume, then bingo! That is enough to support the logic of opening new category pages. If people are searching for a term, why not have a dedicated page about it?
Look at your current rankings
Whatever method or tool you are using to track your existing organic visibility, dig a bit deeper and try to find the following instances:
- Are my category pages ranking for any unintentional terms? For example, if my current /mens-jumpers/ page is somehow ranking (maybe not well) for the keyword “cardigans”, this is clearly an opportunity, don’t you think? Monitor the number of clicks those unintentional keywords are bringing and check their search volume before making a decision.
- Is my category page ranking for different variations of the same product? Say your /mens-jumpers/ page is also ranking (maybe not well) for “roll neck jumpers”, this might be an opportunity to create a subcategory page and capitalise on the specific product type is offering.
- Are my product pages ranking for category-level terms? This is clearly an indication I might need a category page! Not only will I be able to capitalise on the search volume of that particular category-level keyword, but I would be able to provide a better experience for the user who will surely expect to see a proper category page with multiple products.
- Last but not least: are my category pages being outranked by my competitors’ subcategory pages for certain keywords? For instance, you dig into your keyword tracking platform of choice and see that, for a group of terms, your /mens-jeans/ page is outranked by more refined subcategory pages such as /slim-fit-jeans/ or /black-jeans/. Chances are your competitors have done their research and targeted clear sets of keywords by opening dedicated subcategory pages while you have not - keep reading to learn how to quickly capitalise on competitors’ opportunities.
Check your competition
Most of the times your competitors have already spotted these opportunities, so what are you waiting for? Auditing your competition is a necessary step to find categories you are not covering.
Here is my advice when it comes to analysing competitors’ category and subcategory pages:
Start by checking their sites manually. Their top navigation combined with the faceted navigation menu will give you a good idea of their site structure and keyword coverage.
Use tools like Ahrefs or SEMrush to audit your competitors. If interested in how to use SEMrush for this purpose, check out this post from another Distiller.
Do a crawl of competitor sites to gather information in bulk about their category URLs and meta data: page titles, meta descriptions and headings. Their most important keywords will be stored there, so it is a great place to investigate for new opportunities. My favourite tool in this regard is Screaming Frog.
Content on category pages
Different SEOs have different views on this as it is quite a controversial topic.
Just take a look at an internal Slack conversation on the topic - we surely like to debate SEO at Distilled!
Some say that descriptions on category pages are purely done for SEO purposes and have very little value for the user. As with many other things, it depends on how it is done, in my opinion. Many ecommerce sites out there tend to have a poorly written 150 to 250 character description of the category, often stuffed with keywords, and either placed at the top or the bottom of the page.
Look at the example below from a fashion retailer: the copy is placed at the bottom of a handbags and purses page, so the user would need to scroll all the way down just to see it, but most importantly it does not add any value as it is extremely generic and too keyword-rich.
My preference is the following:
- short but unique description which can be expanded/collapsed by the user (especially convenient on mobile where space is precious)
- keyword-informed description in a way that is useful to the user and provides additional information compared to the meta data (yes, makes that extra effort)
- placement at the top of the page and not at the bottom so it gets noticed by the user and the search engine’s bot
By using the description as a useful addition to our page’s meta data, we are helping Google understand what the page is about - especially for new pages that the search engine is crawling for the first time.
Also, let’s not forget about internal linking opportunities such content may be able to offer, especially for weaker/newer pages we may have on the website (more on this later).
Looking closely at the previous example on Next’s Men’s Knitwear page, we can see how they used the copy on the Men’s Knitwear page for internal linking purposes.
Have you considered your Quality Score?
Also, very important note, a description hugely helps an underrated element of our digital marketing: our PPC’s Quality Score, which is an aggregated estimate of the quality of your ads. Since category pages then to be the main destination for PPC ads, we should do whatever is in our power to improve the quality and efficiency of our work.
Landing page experience is “Google Ads’ measure of how well your website gives people what they’re looking for when they click your ad accounts” and is one of the most important elements of a keyword’s quality score. By using the category page’s content to cover some of the keywords we are targeting in our ad copies, we are heavily impacting our overall quality score, which directly impacts our CPC, hence the whole efficiency of our account!
What about the risks of creating new pages?
Creating new category page is a delicate decision that should be thought through carefully as it does have its risks.
Be aware of keyword cannibalisation
You are at the stage where you have decided to create a new category page and are about to focus on writing great meta data and description for your new page, off the back of the keyword research and other tips provided above - great! Before rushing into copywriting, take a minute to evaluate the potential risk of keyword cannibalisation. This is an often forgotten task that will save you a lot of time further down the line in case you do happen to come across this issue once the new category pages have been created. When doing so, it is important to make sure your new page’s meta data does not cannibalise your existing pages.
The risk of cannibalisation is very real: having pages which are too closely related from an SEO standpoint, especially when it comes to on-page elements (title tags, headings in particular) and content on the page, can cause some serious setbacks. As a result, the pages suffering from this problem will not live up to their full organic potential and will compete for the same keywords. Search engines will struggle to identify which page to favour for a certain keyword / group of keywords and you will end up being worse off.
An example of minor keyword cannibalisation can be seen on this website: https://www.mandmdirect.com/
Their Men’s Knitwear page title is the following:
Mens Jumpers, Cardigans & Knitwear, Cheap V-Neck Cable Knit Jumpers, UK Sale | MandM Direct
Not only it is overly optimised and too long, but it clashes with its subcategory pages which are optimised for most of the terms already included in the parent page’s title.
Their Men’s V Neck Jumpers page title is the following:
Cheap Mens V-Neck Jumpers | MandM Direct
When opening their subcategory page, Men’s V-Neck Jumpers for instance, I personally would have tried to re-optimise the parent page’s title in order to allow the subcategory page to live up to its full potential for its key terms:
Re-optimised Men’s Knitwear page title:
Mens Jumpers, Cardigans & Knitwear - UK Sale | MandM Direct
How do you prevent this from happening? Do your research, monitor your keywords and landing pages and make sure to write unique meta data & on-page content. Also, don’t be afraid to re-optimise and experiment with your existing meta data when opening new categories. Sometimes it will take you more than one attempt to get things right.
Crawl budget concerns
Google defines crawl budget as “the number of web pages or URLs Googlebot can or wants to crawl from your website”.
One of the arguments against opening new category pages might be crawl budget consumption. For large e-commerce sites with millions of pages, opening many new category pages might come as a risk in a way that could prevent some parts of your site not to be crawled anymore or not as often.
In my opinion, this is a concern only for (very) large e-commerce sites which are not necessarily well-maintained from an SEO point of view. Gary Illyes from Google seems to be on my side:
In particular, a well-structured and optimised faceted navigation is vital not to run into crawl budget issues, so I recommend reading this MOZ post written by another Distiller.
By following overall SEO guidelines and regularly checking Google Search Console and server logs, it is possible to determine if your site has a crawl budget issue.
If interested, learn more about server logs.
Internal linking equity
This is more of a real problem than crawl budget, in my modest opinion, and here is why: creating additional pages means that the internal linking equity across your site gets re-distributed. If not closely monitored, you might end up diluting it without a clear process in mind or, worse, wasting in across the wrong pages.
My colleague Shannon wrote a great piece on how to optimise website internal linking structure.
When creating new pages, make sure to consider how your internal link equity gets impacted: needless to say that opening 10 pages is very different than opening 1000! Focus on creating more inlinks for important pages by exploring options such as navigation tabs (main and side navigations) and on-page content (remember the paragraph above?).
The rule of thumb here is simple: when approaching new category pages, don’t forget to think about your internal linking strategy.
Category pages are the backbone of e-commerce sites, hence they should be closely monitored by SEOs and webmasters. They are vital from an information architecture and internal (and external) linking point of view, and attract the most amount of traffic (beyond the homepage). By following the above tips, it becomes easier to identify opportunities where new category pages can be ‘opened’ in order to capitalise on additional organic traffic.
I am curious to hear other people’s opinions on the topic, so please get in touch with me or Distilled by using the comments below or my email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the author
Sam joined Distilled in July 2018 as a Consultant. Originally from Italy, Sam studied Economics in Modena before moving to London for his Master's degree in Strategic Marketing at Imperial College. He has been working in