12 Tips for Optimizing Your Ecommerce Category Pages

Ecommerce Best Practices | 12 mins

As an ecommerce retailer, it’s tempting to devote all of your attention to improving your product and checkout pages. After all, your sales happen there. But another element of your online store is equally deserving of your attention: category pages.

Like an aisle in a retail store, ecommerce category pages show groups of related products. New customers often use category pages to get a broad sense of an online store’s product offerings, so their appearance and usability can affect your business. If these pages aren’t compelling and informative, shoppers are unlikely to reach individual product pages—again, where your sales happen.

Google cares about your category pages, too. Category pages provide a structure for your site, which search engines use to crawl and index your information. The more organized your categories are, the easier it is for Google to decide how to rank your web pages.

Guide more of your store’s visitors to make purchases—and encourage Google to rank your page higher in search results—by revamping your category pages with engaging copy, navigational elements, and design.

Category Page Writing Tips

When backed by an SEO strategy, the right copy can boost the visibility of category pages and encourage shoppers to browse your site.

Write Clear Category Names

Don’t get creative when naming your categories. What you may think is clever may confuse, not guide, shoppers who are new to your store, your brand, and maybe even your industry.

Instead, keep category and subcategory names simple and directly related to your products. Consider, for example, the straightforward categories on furniture company Interior Define’s homepage.

The “Living,” “Dining,” and “Bedroom” categories take visitors to pages with furniture for each of these room types. “Guides” leads shoppers to design resources, and “Free swatches” goes to a page where site visitors can order 10 fabric samples.

Be direct when writing category names, so customers know how to find your products.

  • Avoid adjectives. Use them only when necessary. The “Free swatches” category in the screenshot above, for example, wouldn’t receive many visitors without the “free” adjective.
  • Use one or two words. This limit will make it easier for shoppers to scan categories.

Don’t worry about being boring. Your goal is to clearly communicate with shoppers what types of products they will see when they click on a category name. Don’t make them guess what you’re thinking or second-guess themselves. You’ll have plenty of opportunities to engage them with images, copy, and more on product pages.

Optimize Your Category Pages for SEO

For your category pages to rank in search, they must be optimized with keywords that your target customers are frequently searching. If your pages include these phrases, Google will recognize them as relevant resources for your shoppers and place them higher in search results.

Build a list of popular keywords that are relevant to your brand with a search engine optimization (SEO) tool like Google Keyword Planner. It will indicate how many monthly searches the phrase receives and how difficult it is to rank for that keyword.

There are no magic target numbers for search volume and difficulty rankings. A “good” keyword is going to vary from retailer to retailer. Ideally, though, find keywords with high search volume and low difficulty.

Once you have a list of target keywords, place them throughout your category pages:

  • Page title
  • Page description
  • Body text
  • Headings
  • Alt text
  • URL

Avoid keyword stuffing, especially in body text, by placing target phrases in relevant spots. Google notices when sites are unnaturally stuffed with target phrases and ranks them lower to penalize the practice.

To learn more about optimizing your category page for SEO, check out this resource from Squarespace.

Welcome Shoppers with Category Descriptions

Shoppers looking at category pages are often new to your brand. They’re trying to gauge whether your products are worthwhile before clicking on individual items. Sell shoppers on the value of your products with compelling category descriptions.

The home goods company Snowe, for example, includes a sentence for each subcategory of bedding to explain why you should purchase their sheets, pillowcases, duvets, and shams in each section.

Encourage shoppers to explore your products with short, captivating descriptions:

  • Highlight details that speak to the product’s quality. Snowe, for example, notes that their sheets are European-milled — a product detail that highlights their luxurious nature.
  • Keep it brief. Shoppers on a category page are just browsing and don’t want to read long chunks of text. Write category descriptions that could be read in a few seconds to keep site visitors moving.

Follow these tips to write engaging category descriptions that hint at what makes your products exceptional. The enticing copy will leave shoppers wanting to learn about your items in more detail.

Avoid Duplicate Category Names

For some ecommerce retailers, it’s possible to have two or more subcategories with the same name. For example, a home goods store might have a “Rugs” subcategory under the main category “Bath” and another under the main category “Outdoor.”

Don’t do it. It creates confusion for both shoppers and search engines—Google will wonder which of the duplicate pages should be connected to related keywords.

If you have multiple categories with the same name, consider these alternatives:

  • Create a single category for the overlapping sections of your store. In the example from above, a retailer could build a main “Rugs” category instead of multiple “Rugs” subcategories.
  • Use an alternative category name to sort the products in that section. A department store, for example, might create a “Candles” subcategory instead of having multiple “Fragrances” sections under “Home” and “Beauty.”

The words on your category pages matter. Refine your copy with these tips to drive more visitors through search and to keep them engaged once they’re on your store.

Category Page Navigation Tips

If a site is difficult to navigate, most shoppers will leave. Minimize friction on your store with these tips for structuring your category pages.

Allow Shoppers to Explore Every Category Level

Every online store has intermediary categories, ones that fall between the highest and lowest category levels.

“DENIM FITS” is an intermediary category because it falls between the highest category “DENIM” and the lowest subcategories beneath it, such as “Skinny Jeans” and “Curvy Jeans.”
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Online stores sometimes make these intermediary categories unclickable, like in the example image from Madewell above. Retailers assume that shoppers just want to explore lower product-focused subcategories. However, people who are in the early stages of the sales funnel often want an overview of the store and aren’t interested in looking at individual products yet.

Let new users explore your site by designing intermediary category pages that give shoppers a preview of the category. Consider showing the product types, instead of individual items, to provide an overview, as Target does below.

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After exploring your intermediary categories, shoppers will have a better sense of your product selection and be likely to explore individual items.

Guide Shoppers with Breadcrumb Navigation

Most of us have, at one time or another, been lost in a department store. You think you’re on your way to the checkout only to realize after a few minutes that you have no idea where you’re going.

Similar confusion can happen in online stores with category pages. Shoppers try to return to a category, but they can’t quite remember what they clicked to get there.

Breadcrumbs are navigational visuals that help shoppers retrace their path. They show which pages users have visited and how to get back to pages they visited earlier.

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Use breadcrumb navigation with these tips to guide shoppers through your categories.

  • Offer breadcrumbs if you have three or more category levels on your store. If you only have two levels and a small number of SKUs, breadcrumbs might not be necessary.
  • Separate each level of navigation with a symbol. Many sites use the right arrow symbol (“>”).
  • Link every page in the path except for the one the shopper is currently on. Or leave out the current page, as REI does in the above image.

Breadcrumb navigation goes a long way toward helping shoppers navigate categories and explore your products. Check out this developer resource to add breadcrumbs to your store.

Sort with Filters, Not Just Subcategories

While categories help shoppers navigate your store, too many can be overwhelming. Instead of creating a large number of categories and subcategories, allow shoppers to sort products with filters like size and color, so only items that match the criteria are displayed.

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This feature is especially useful on low subcategory pages that display a series of items. With a filter, shoppers can make sense of the large list of products.

Encourage site visitors to explore your store’s categories by creating filters that are both relevant and flexible.

  • Create category-specific filters based on the products in that section. In an online furniture store, for example, “Red” might be a filter option in the “Sofas” subcategory but not the “Tables” subcategory.
  • Allow users to change filter selections once they’ve been made. Some stores will force users to click “Back” on their browser to change the filter selection. Make the shopping experience as seamless as possible by allowing users to adjust all filters without leaving the page.
  • Shorten the list of filter options to minimize clutter. Make the list expandable with an ellipsis button, or allow users to scroll through the filter options like Zappos does in the image below.

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Instead of creating more subcategories, let shoppers filter your inventory to see the product variations they’re most interested in.

Display Categories with a Dropdown Menu

On some online stores, there is no way to preview all of the site’s subcategories from the homepage. Instead, you have to click on one of the main categories to be led to a new page that shows the subcategories. Shoppers may find this frustrating because they want to see what the store has to offer before they dive deeper into the site.

Give shoppers an overview of your store’s content with a dropdown menu at the top of your site. This feature appears when shoppers scroll over the main category tabs at the top of a store page.

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Make the most of this navigation feature by building clearly organized menus.

  • Make the hierarchy obvious. If you are showing two subcategory levels in your menu, set apart the higher ones with a different font and/or bolded text.
  • Make the category text clickable since shoppers tend to assume that menu text labels will be linked.
  • Feature subcategories that are loosely related to a main tab on the side of the dropdown menu. The computer retailer Newegg, for example, includes subcategories for sellers on the right portion of their “Featured Sellers” menu.

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A dropdown menu with a clear layout is invaluable for an online store. It encourages new shoppers to browse your categories by showing the product types they can look forward to viewing.

Place internal links to keep shoppers on your store

Internal linking doesn’t just help shoppers find their way around your store—it also helps them discover your store through search.

This tactic leads people to different parts of your store, so it encourages shoppers to stay put and keep browsing. It also helps Google determine how to rank your category pages in search. The search engine interprets backlinks as a sign of value, so linking to your category pages from other internal pages will help them rank high in search.

Not sure where to link to and from which category pages? There are more opportunities than you might expect.

  • On main category pages, link to the subcategories within that section.
  • List popular products within a category and link to them on the section’s page.
  • Link to categories in breadcrumb paths.

For more internal linking strategies for ecommerce brands, check out this resource from marketing agency Gorilla 360.

Category Page Design Tips

It doesn’t matter how well made or unique your products are. If your category pages are unappealing, it’s unlikely that shoppers will browse your site. In a study from Adobe, 38% of people left a web page if they found it to be unattractive. Encourage shoppers to explore your products and make a purchase with these category page design tips.

Use a Minimalist Design for Parent Category Pages

Shoppers who visit parent category pages, or those with subcategories beneath them, are looking for an overview of the products in the section. Too much information—images, promotion pop-ups—will leave them feeling overwhelmed.

Ease shoppers into exploring your products by minimizing clutter on parent category pages.

  • Highlight subcategories on the parent page instead of all of the products within the category. If there are a large number of subcategories, feature the 10 most popular ones on the parent category page.
  • Keep your page image-focused. Users who are new to your brand and just want a preview of your products are unlikely to read long amounts of text.
  • Use white space to minimize distraction and keep shoppers focused on the subcategories you’ve highlighted.

Less is more when it comes to parent category pages. Keep users on these pages by using a minimal, image-centric design.

Highlight social proof

Even after browsing your store’s intermediary category pages, shoppers may not be sure about which products to look at first.

Guide them along by highlighting current customers’ favorite items on category pages. Once people see that other buyers love an item, they’ll be more likely to click on the product and check it out themselves.

To highlight customer favorites, consider displaying a list of best-selling products from each category. You also might create a “Trending now” section to showcase products that have been popular recently.

The outdoor retailer REI is particularly innovative in emphasizing social proof. Instead of highlighting products that are generally popular, the company features products that “People who viewed items you browsed ultimately bought” on their main category pages.

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As a special touch, REI also shows the average product rating and the number of reviews for each of the items.

Shoppers place a high value on what other people think of your products. Show them your customers’ favorite items on your category pages.

Minimize the Number of Main Categories

You might think that you’re helping shoppers by giving them a large number of top categories to choose from. In reality, they’re probably experiencing decision fatigue.

Make it easier for shoppers to find your store and navigate it by limiting the number of main categories. Orbit Media recommends having no more than seven.

Look for opportunities to consolidate groups. For example, you might bundle similar items into a single category with an “&” symbol, such as “Socks & tights.”

The visual experience of an online store has a major impact on whether a shopper decides to continue browsing or leave. Keep potential customers on your site by designing your category pages with these three tips in mind.

Experiment to Continually Strengthen Your Category Pages

Category pages may not have a “buy now” button, but they still encourage purchases. With SEO-backed copy, these pages can appear high in search results and bring shoppers to your store. Once potential customers are on your site, category pages can lead them to find products that they will love.

To continue guiding shoppers towards making purchases, follow these tips to revamp your category pages. Use this guide as a starting point, and then experiment to find the best practices for your store’s categories. With this testing, you’ll craft category pages that lead to conversions.