In this blog post we will talk about the importance of site structure with regard to eCommerce SEO. In other words, how should your online store be structured so that it shows up at the top in Google Search?
Specifically, this blog post will address four important website challenges:
- How should you organize the navigation bar?
- How should you organize category pages?
- How do you avoid duplicate content?
- How do you clean up and maintain your site’s structure?
Why is the structure of your eCommerce website important?
Long story short, you want people who visit your website to be able to easily find what it is they’re looking for. And because Google factors in how pleasurable it is for users to actually use a website, not only does good site structure help when someone is on your site, it helps get your site discovered because Google is more inclined to show a website that’s a pleasure to use than a website that is an absolute organizational mess.
Site structure has an impact on usability
The user experience (UX) is largely based on the structure of your website. The chances that your visitors will become customers greatly increase if they are able to easily find what it is they’re looking for. Helping them navigate your website by making it intuitive to find the important information is key.
Therefore, a lot of thought should be given to how your products are categorized so that visitors can, within seconds of landing on your website, understand how they can go about finding what they’re looking for. But it’s not just about the products. It’s also important to make it easy to find other information, like shipping information, usage instructions, or customer service, for example.
Site structure has an impact on SEO
There are two main reasons that site structure is important if you want your eCommerce website to show up in Google Search:
1. Good site structure increases the likelihood Google will understand your website
When Google crawls your website, it’s doing so in order to determine several things, but two that are most obvious: What is it looking at and how should it display it (if at all) when someone searches related keywords. Having a solid, intuitive site structure helps Google understand what your site is about and where it can find information, including which information it should hold in higher regard and therefore display most prominently. Therefore, a good site structure can improve SEO by convincing Google that a real human being will find the site helpful and valuable.
2. Good site structure prevents you from competing with your own content
The nature of eCommerce websites presents fairly serious SEO challenges. That’s because duplicate content is really confusing for Google, and chances are, if you have an eCommerce website, you have lot’s of duplicate or very similar content. Imagine you’re selling 20 types of flower vases. While each product is different, it’s still difficult to create copy for each product that isn’t at least very similar. The result is that Google won’t know which of the product pages is the most important one. You need to pick one page that is most important. Otherwise, you’ll literally be competing with your own products for a high ranking.
What should that one page be? Usually the category page. For example, you might have a category page for all of your vases that are made out of glass. That page should be the page you aim to target ‘glass flower vases’ keyword variations with, and then all of the glass flower vases product pages should link back to that main category page. If you have more than one category, that’s perfectly fine. For example, you may also have category for porcelain flower vases, in which case you’d do the same thing that you did for the glass flower vases product pages (link back to the main category page).
Site structure addresses the issue of changing products
Another inherent challenge many eCommerce websites encounter is dealing with sold out or discontinued products. Because you don’t want Google to show outdated product pages—or worse, pages that no longer exist and land the user on a 404 page—it’s important to structure the website to deal with the inevitability that products won’t be available forever.
How should you structure the navigation menu?
Your navigation menu guides your visitors to your products and important information, and it’s also a very important tool in terms of communicating your purpose. In other words your navigation bar tells the visitor two things:
- What your website sells
- What your website is about
Tip: Did you know that cognitive studies suggest that people remember the words that either come first or last in a sentence? That means that when organizing your navigation bar, it may be best to put your most important navigation options at the beginning or at the end of the menu.
We can barely count the number of times we’ve encountered clients who end up wanting a million menu items in their navigation bar. The thought is that anything and everything must be visible in the menu, otherwise people won’t find it. While it’s true that you do want the most important things to be visible, it’s not true that anything that isn’t is doomed to never be discovered—that is—so long as your site structure is solid.
One of the best ways to know which pages to include in the navigation bar and which to either leave out or use as part of a drop down is by looking at the user flow data in Google Analytics.
It’s really helpful because it gives you a visual of what page a user typically starts on and where he or she goes immediately after that and so on.
What to put in the navigation if you have a purely eCommerce website
If your site is purely eCommerce (or at least a website whose shop is the most important aspect of the site) the navigation bar should, most likely, show the store’s main categories.
In the above example, you’ll notice that Under Armour (shoutout to Baltimore!) has a really simple navigation despite having many, many products. But it makes sense. As a visitor to the website, if you want shorts, you wouldn’t want to start in the shorts category because it would show you shorts for both men and women. Instead, when you arrive at Under Armour’s website, you are able to begin by scrolling your mouse over the main category that fits you (or whomever you’re shopping for), and then the options get more and more specific from there.
What to put in the navigation if you are adding an online store to an existing website or blog
Sometimes a website doesn’t start with the intention of selling anything. Then, because it gains a following, the owner of the website decides there’s an opportunity to sell something of value to his or her fans and visitors. Take a blog, for example. In that case, the navigation bar might have evolved over time to feature the blog’s most read categories of posts. But now, with a shop being added to the site, there’s an important questions you must ask yourself:
How do you add a shop to the website and make it easy for people to use if the navigation bar is already full of important pages that your users rely on to enjoy your website?
The answer is, in most cases, fairly simple. Instead of the Under Armour example where the navigation bar of the website is organized according to the main product categories, all you have to do is add “Shop” to the navigation. Clicking “Shop” should then take the user to a completely separate section of the website, most easily and clearly delineated by using a subdomain.
For example, clicking “Shop” would take the user from fakewebsiteforthispost.com to shop.fakewebsiteforthispost.com. Then, once on the shopping website (which is, effectively, a separate website), the navigation bar can consist of the main product categories as explained in the Under Armour example above.
Tip: To make the “Shop” item more visible in the navigation bar, make it red (or some other standout color).
In order to make it really easy for the website visitor to find what he’s looking for, it helps to have a submenu. Take Apple’s website, for example. When you click on “Mac” in the navigation, it takes you to the Mac page, and also displays a submenu or secondary menu with more detail:
In most cases, however, the submenu appears when the user scrolls over the main menu item with his mouse. For example, the Under Armour website:
Your menu should change as your website and offerings change
You may start out as a blog but then begin selling a few products. Then, one day you find yourself selling a bunch of products—to the point where having “Shop” as the only navigation option just isn’t cutting it anymore (meaning, your users aren’t having as good a user experience as they could). Maybe you know this because in looking at Google Analytics you notice that users are landing on your website and immediately clicking “Shop” where they then dive into the product categories. Would it be better, in that case, to start showing product categories in the navigation bar on your main website? Maybe! And then clicking that could bring the user to shop.fakewebsiteforthispost.com/fake-product-category so that they are already in the shop and the category they would have navigated to in the first place. Including that category in the main navigation on the main website saved the user a click, which is good!
How should you treat categories and tags to improve eCommerce SEO?
Categories and tags are examples of what are called a “taxonomy system.” In short, a taxonomy system is a way of grouping things together. Therefore, categories are a fantastic way to organize the products you sell on your online store. If used correctly, it can provide a huge boost to SEO.
Categories, subcategories, and tags. What’s the difference?
Categories are hierarchical, meaning, you can have categories and then subcategories. Subcategories are in at least one category. Subcategories can have subcategories also, bundling information into even more specific groups. Imagine a family tree. Your parents are the category, you and your siblings are the subcategories, and then your children are the subcategories of the subcategory that is you (which is the subcategory of the main category: your parents).
Tags, on the other hand, simply group content together without a hierarchy. Think of a cloud, or cluster of related information. You can tag anything, and not all tagged content has a category.
Why is it important to give thought to and optimize your category pages?
Because on eCommerce websites, category pages are landing pages. They are the main pages of the website. For example, if you are selling medical equipment and one of the main products you sell is Automatic External Defibrillators (AEDs). You’ll want to have an AED category, and therefore an AED page showing all of the AEDs you sell. The goal is to have that page show up in search results when someone types in a search query, e.g., ‘buy an aed online.’
As mentioned earlier on in this post, we talked about the importance of site structure to prevent problems that can arise as products are discontinued or are out of stock. With optimized category pages, it doesn’t matter if a few of the AEDs go out of stock or are discontinued, because Google will recognize the category landing page as the most important page, and therefore the page to show people on its search results page.
Because categories prevent individual product pages from competing. If you sell AEDs, you wouldn’t want to optimize each and every AED product page for ‘buy aed online.’ Instead, you’d want to make them all different by focusing on the individual brands and details, and link them all to the main category page that is optimized for ‘buy aed online.’
What are breadcrumbs and why are they important for category pages?
Breadcrumbs are really useful for the users of the website. They show the hierarchy of the site structure, making it easy to know how they got where they are, and how to get back.
Not only does it show Google and your visitors the structure of your site, but it also enforces the authority of the category pages.
Don’t create categories and tags with the same name
For example, you shouldn’t categorize something as ‘shirts’ and also tag it as ‘shirts.’ Instead, have a plan and stick to it. If you have a category for ‘shirts’ and a tag for ‘shirts,’ how will Google know which one to rank first? That’s also true for using singular or plural versions of words. You don’t want to tag something as ‘shirt’ and ‘shirts.’ Pick one and stick with it.
Using pagination for categories with a lot of individual products
What if a particular category archive has 100 items? For example, what if you are selling shirts and there are 100 different shirts on your website for sale? When someone clicks ‘shirts’ should they be shown a category archive page with 100 shirts on it? Not if you want the page to load within the hour. Instead, you might show 20 items and allow the user to click ‘Next’ and then ‘Previous’ to get back. To do that, you’ll want to add rel=next/rel=prev tag in the header. This is a bit complex, so ask your web developer about it.
What elements make up a perfect category page?
First of all, a category archive page (a page you want to rank in Google Search) should be treated like any other page at the start. Meaning, it should be optimized for the keyword or keyword cluster just like you would any other page on the website. Many times you’ll find eCommerce websites that have a bunch of products on their category archive pages but next to no text. That’s a huge mistake. Instead, you’ll want to write an introductory paragraph, including links in the paragraph to other related categories and landing pages. So, the first element to ensure exists on your category archive page is text.
Watch a video about the importance of having at least 300 words of text on a page
It’s also really user friendly to show the subcategories on the page, somehow. In an image above we saw how Apple displays the subcategories on the Mac category archive page. But it’s more common to see it as a sidebar, like on the Moleskine website:
And if you look at the image above, you’ll see the other main component of a category archive landing page: The products themselves. What’s important is to be mindful of what you write to encourage people to click on them.
Your pages need a call to action
If you look at Moleskine’s website, you’ll notice that there isn’t a call to action on any of the products. There are calls to action when you scroll over the products, but even so, there’s no way to quickly add it to your cart. Perhaps they’ve tested it and made that conscious decision. Or maybe they haven’t…
Product images are really important, obviously
It sounds obvious, but we can’t stress it enough. People judge books (and basically everything) by the cover. Good product images are, for that reason, important.
Sometimes, eCommerce websites have similar products, like screws for sale, and the manufacturer doesn’t send different images for each because they merely differ in size. That’s why it’s so important to make the title of the product unique—so that users can identify which one they want to click.
More about the product title
The product title should contain the brand name and product name—and when necessary, like in the example above, the dimensions.
Tip: Are your website visitors searching based on the SKU? If so, definitely include it in the product title!
Duplicate content is really bad for SEO
Think about an eCommerce site that sells the same article of clothing in different sizes and colors. Oftentimes, each is its own URL, meaning there are pages with essentially the same exact content. That can really confuse Google because it won’t know which one to show in search results. Another problem occurs when people want to link to the page. Which should they link to? They probably won’t even know the difference. But Google will, and the benefit you could have been getting as a result of earning several links to one page is now spread thin because there are links going to many pages that are different in URL but the same in terms of content.
What is duplicate content?
The best way to think about duplicate content is by appreciating what it is that Google is in the business of doing: Answering people’s questions. When you enter a search into Google, you are essentially asking Google to return search results that address your search query and answer the question you were asking. For example, when you type best car wash near me you are asking Google, “Google, what is the best car wash near me?” The results it returns are its best attempt at answering your question. Because Google does a really good job answering questions, they dominate search; most people use Google, by a long shot.
So, think about duplicate content. It’s content that is the same on two different URLs. Because Google has a limited amount of space per search results page, you can rest assured it’s not going to return two pages with the exact same content. So, it will either pick one and never show the other, or it will not pick either one because the authority of those pages is thinned out, essentially. And to make matters worse, any links one page gets is a link the other page didn’t get. It’s much better to have one page instead of two duplicates so that all backlinks are sent to one page, increasing the page’s authority and subsequently its ranking.
Types of duplicate content
There are many ways a website can develop duplicate content. And sometimes even the best web developers don’t recognize duplicate content when it exists. For example, many web developers consider website.com/something the same as website.com/something/ but that trailing backslash technically makes that two different URLs, even though it’s pointing to the same page. It doesn’t confuse the website visitor, but it can potentially confuse Google, ultimately negatively affecting rankings.
Duplicate content as a result of not understanding how URLs work
When you write a blog post or add a new item to your online shop, there’s only one page for that post or product. But because your website is probably powered by a CMS (content management system) like WordPress, for example, or Shopify or BigCommerce, there’s a chance that the CMS allows for access to that page through more than one URL. A web developer will recognize the id for that page as the unique identifier. But a search engine is different; it focuses on the URL, and if there are several that display the same content, that’s considered duplicate content.
Do a test… Go to your website. If the URL shows up without the www, try manually adding the www to the URL, then pressing enter. Does the URL automatically change back to the non www version? Or does it show the website but this with the www in it. If the latter occurs, you likely have an entire website that is a duplicate of your main website.
Session IDs can cause a lot of duplicate content
This post is not meant to be overly technical, so we’ll abstain from the technical jargon. The easiest way to explain session IDs is by imagining using an online store yourself. You land on an online store and you start shopping. You add something to your cart and then go to another page to look at another item. Then, you do the same thing a few more times, landing on different pages, all the while the items in your cart remain, even though you aren’t signed in. How does the website do that? Well, to put it simply, it creates a unique session ID—an ID unique to you—and it does so in the URL. Imagine how many new URLs are created when 100 people shop on your online store… That’s a lot of duplicate content.
URL parameters for tracking and sorting
Similar to session IDs, websites the use URL parameters for tracking purposes, for example, end up building a huge amount of duplicate content. If you use BigCommerce, this may be a helpful resource: URL Parameters and Duplicate Content
One solution is canonical URLs
When several URLs point to the same content, it’s a problem. You can solve this issue by choosing which of those URLs is the main URL, and therefore the one you’d prefer Google and other search engines to regard as such. In that case, canonical URLs could be a solution.
How do you know if you have duplicate content?
One of the best ways to find duplicate content is by using Google Search Console. Choose your Search Console property and go to search appearance>HTML improvements and you’ll be able to see if Google identified any duplicate content issues.
You can also use search operators, which are ways to use the full potential of Google’s search functionality. Instead of simply typing in a keyword, you can limit which websites to include in results, and even which words must exist in all results returned. For example, you might want to know which URLs on your website contain a particular product name, you’d type this:
site:example.com intitle:”name of product”
Tip: try copying and pasting one or two complete sentences from a product description and using that as your search query. Google will return the results and you will be able to see other pages that have those exact sentences. Remember to look toward the bottom and choose to see the results Google omitted.
Solutions for duplicate content
Once your decide which pages are the main pages for each product category, it’s time to take action. Here’s a list of issues with solutions:
- Session IDs in your URLs: Oftentimes you can simply disable these in your system’s settings.
- Parameters in a different order: You can actually program parameters to always be in the same order. And it can be done using a script.
- Issues tracking links: You can use a hashtag to track campaigns instead of parameters.
- www versus non-www: It doesn’t matter which you pick, but your website should either have the www or it shouldn’t. One should redirect to the other, and doing so is really easy. You can have your web developer do it, or you could call your domain name registrar (like Godaddy, for example) and have them walk you through it.
Shop Structure Maintenance
More often than not, online stores go through a lot of changes over time. Products are added and removed, sold out and on sale, and sometimes entire categories disappear or are created as inventory and overall direction changes. While planning goes a long way, rarely are all instances automatically accounted for; most of the time things change in ways you never expected, and what important is to know how to respond to those changes so that your online store doesn’t become a mess of a million pages and links that are no longer relevant.
What should you do if a product is removed from your store or sold out?
If you stop selling a product or if a product sells out and you no longer plan on selling it again, you should remove the page and redirect it. Where should you redirect the page, you ask? To a similar page, the main category page for that particular product cluster, or as a last resort, the homepage of the website. That way, any links to the product page you are removing that you’ve earned up to that point will still benefit your site, which is really important for SEO.
How should your navigation bar change as your products change?
It may seem obvious, but the main thing to remember is that—like your website as a whole—your navigation bar is not set in stone. It should evolve with your business, the products you sell, the categories of the products, etc. If you need to add top level items to the nav bar, do it! If you need to remove top level items because it no longer makes sense to dedicate valuable real estate to them, remove them. If they still have value, make sure to link to them from related pages so search engines can still find them when crawling your website. It’s a good idea to create an organizational chart from time to time to make sure your website is organized as intuitively as it can be in order to maximize the user experience.
Like your navigation bar, you should revisit your categories from time to time as well.
Maybe you start selling more of a certain type of product. Maybe you realize that one category of products sells much more than others and you want to combine the others into one larger category to balance out your site structure. In that case, it may mean you should create or modify your categories. That’s fine! And it’s what you should do. But remember, always redirect the old categories that you delete so that you don’t send search engines and users to 404 pages.
Is there anything else you should do after you restructure your website?
YES. Tell Google about the changes. To do that, resubmit your sitemap to Google Search Console.