How to Optimize an eCommerce Category pages

Today’s post is in response to a question that came in via email asking, “How do I optimize a department/category page with a lot of products?” This is a fairly common question, but it has some subtleties and nuances to it. I’ll try to address those issues in this post.

The first aspect is how many is “a lot?” Is it 100, 1,000, or 10,000? If you have category pages with fewer than 200 products on them, you can list them all on one page. Yes I know Google recommends no more than 100 links per page, but as long as you don’t have a crazy number of other links in the sidebar/masthead/footer, you’ll be fine (see how to silo your website, the sidebar). However, sometimes putting that many products on a page isn’t such a great user experience, so you’ll want display less by default and have a” view all” option. If you go that route you want to keep the bot away from the page with less products and on the one with all the products.You’ll need to use a combination of no following the links, the no index/follow meta tag, and the canonical tag to point to the version you want indexed. This can be tricky and there are plenty of ways to shoot yourself in the foot. Make sure you double check your configuration and have a colleague review your work.

make sure you interlink all the paginated pages, or at least as many as possible without creating a bad user experience …

Another option to consider is using Ajax. Yes, you read that right: an SEO recommended Ajax as an optimal solution. What you want to do is serve the bots a flat HTML version with 100 products, but serve then people an Ajax version with 10 or 20 products, then use Ajax to reload/shift/change the products. But wait–isn’t that cloaking? … Yes and no. If you went with a strictly technical definition, yes it is cloaking, but there’s intent to consider here as well. So detect for the flash component, and serve Ajax, JavaScript, or HTML based on its presence (see changing content based on user intent).

However, what do you do if you really do have a lot of products per category, like say 5,000 different kinds of screws or nails? Ideally, you would want to break the category into sub categories of a hopefully more manageable size, and use the solution above. But if that’s still not possible, then you will have to use a paginated solution. If you go this route, list the most important products first to ensure the search engine spiders reach them first. Second make sure you interlink all the paginated pages, or at least as many as possible without creating a bad user experience. The spiders should be able to reach pages 2, 3, 4, and so on from page 1. Search engine spiders should never have to crawl through 1 to get to 2, through 2 to get to 3, and so on.

A few final thoughts. If you want the search engines to index the department pages, you want to give them some editorial qualities like a beauty shot/photo and some editorial non linked text. If you are just serving up a page with product links and nothing else, there isn’t a lot of value for the search engines, so noindex/follow the page with robots. The closer your department pages are to your home page or to internal link hubs (see what is an internal link hub), the better. Pages that are closer to link hubs are more likely to get deeply/completely crawled. If your category pages are 3 or more levels away, it’s unlikely a bot will crawl the 4th level to reach the products.

So what are the takeaways here:

  • If possible try to show the search engine a category page with all of the products, unless there are a very large number of products
  • If there is a large number of products you will need to paginate
  • If you are forced to paginate put the most important products first
  • Interconnect all the paginated pages, don’t connect them sequentially

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