Optimizing Ecommerce Site Taxonomy for SEO

Karen Bone
Reading time: 11 minutes
30th October 2017

Taxonomy is a sexy word.

It has always been a sexy word to me, and while most don’t share in my arousal, there is no denying its importance in shaping the success of your ecommerce website.

What is Taxonomy? Taxonomy is the science concerned with the classification (systematics) of information; also known as the arrangement of information. For thousands of years, libraries have followed this science for classifying hundreds of thousands of books into a system that makes logical sense to store and find the information you seek. Getting turned on yet? You can even see this in action within search engines themselves (I won’t dive into this, but here is an easy explanation)

Not all companies have a taxonomist (yup, it’s a job) employed for them, but there are some general rules you should follow if you’re setting up a new site or looking to overhaul your existing structure, that play a key role in driving organic traffic (SEO), so pay attention!

#1: Classifying relationships to form your hierarchy

Many taxonomies have a hierarchical structure – so you can see how this folds into your site structure (if you didn’t already grasp that). So building your site’s hierarchy requires the use of scientific classification, and understanding the relationships in your own hierarchy.

Let’s use Consumer Electronics as an example. The website carries a number of different Apple iPads; which is technically a Tablet, and a Tablet is a Computer. So your hierarchy might look like:

Apple iPads (child), Tablets (parent), Computers (Root), Consumer Electronics (umbrella)

Within the Root for Computers, you likely have Laptops, Desktops, Monitors, Accessories, etc. Which, pending your assortment, could also become Parents to Child pages themselves!

When grouping your individual products, you’re looking for a lower common relationship between them to classify the child-categories, then into a parent (for which other children are linked). These will likely all fall under one Root, within a greater umbrella.

Tips:

  • Avoid over thinking your commonalities when classifying products. Common product attributes will be reviewed later and can be used as category filters.
    • Exceptions come if your umbrella is already narrow. For example, say your site only carries Tablets, then perhaps categories based on common product attributes such as screen size, retina display, and storage size make sense. But if you carry all forms of consumer electronics, this is going to be far to complex and cumbersome on your site.
  • Don’t class a single product into multiple categories. Most CMS’ won’t allow for this, but a product should only have one true parent (and breadcrumb). It’s like a multiple choice test: which is the best answer (you can’t choose all, you’ll fail). Better to rethink the categories.

From an SEO perspective, we’ve got the early makings of an optimal internal linking structure, breadcrumbs, and subdirectories.

#2: User Feedback and Data when Classifying

Now that you’ve got your rough hierarchy, seek feedback! You know the saying “too many cooks in the kitchen” forget it – get all the cooks!  Unless you plan to have one person shopping on your site (and hope they really like you), you’ll want to gather as much insight into different user journeys and intentions as possible. Test to see if your hierarchy is intuitive and logical and make sure to base your decisions on data (not the just opinions of a few people in the room).

Remember that you’re classifying information at this stage, and not arguing collaborating about whether the category should be called TVs or Televisions (yet).

Tips on getting the data before making changes:

  • If your site is already live (doing a re-structure) this is easier. Let your existing users tell you by leveraging navigation patterns, page entries, time on page, conversion rates, etc.
  • Create a user group within your organization to test specific scenarios. Identify the user end-goal, and different entry points on the site. Document how they navigated to the end goal and what roadblocks they encountered finding the product you tasked them with.
  • Using 3rd parties like Usertesting.com (user experience testing) can help generate these tests for you and provide great results to the overall usability of your site and how it should perhaps be mapped.
  • If you are starting from scratch (no live site) – you can run these tests against the site you’d consider to be best in class (competitors).  No site is without its flaws; so the results may surprise you and give you the insights to build a hierarchy that makes sense with your classification (grouping) of like-products you plan to carry.
    • Note that Usertesting doesn’t require a live site to run these tests.

#3: URL Structure & Navigation

Ok you’ve got a classification of your product assortment you’re happy with! Yay science!

Now we look at the sub-directories (folders).

  • How many folder levels deep are we going?
  • How are they connected?
  • Are all your categories going to live within one folder and products in another?

This last one surrounds great debate but one thing that is often mis-understood: your URL folders do NOT have to match the hierarchy you have created.

Example: an iPad product page doesn’t have to look like this: example.com/consumer-electronics/computers/tablets/ipads/ipad-minis/apple-ipad-mini-4-128gb This is too deep; you’ve gone too far! And makes it harder to make future changes to your site should you need to update your structure.

From an SEO perspective, it’s an unnecessary folder structure (placing less authority on pages further from the domain). Instead, it might make sense to have it created as: example.com/products/apple-ipad-mini-4-128gb and the parent category closer to: example.com/tablets/ipads

This is where you may need to really start thinking about your site experience for the user and what content you want to display at each folder level and page.

Tip:

  • Avoid too many subdirectories (folders); unnecessary at the URL level
  • Avoid a flat hierarchy (no classification) where everything lives off the domain (including products), therefore; no folders
    • The same logic applies for why you wouldn’t have a flat organizational structure (think of the Mignons)

#4: Category Naming & Keyword Research

OK SEOs it’s what everyone (annoyingly) knows you for – Keyword Research. This is your time to shine and start naming the groupings! This is fairly intuitive; ensure the page is called what people are looking for and not something ambiguous.

Here is a poor example of a flat navigation, and one where the page names are ambiguous to the content (content is differentiated via the DeptId):

Now if you can’t see what the difference is with these pages; how should a search engine differentiate and assign relevance (all else equal)? Which page should rank for the term “plus size bras”? This is an exaggeration of unoptimized URL naming for similar pages (could be worse, at least they used a keyword after all).

Tip:

  • Choose a structure with keywords that disambiguates the URL so it can stand on it’s own and be clear to the user what they will find upon entering, AND be what searchers are commonly looking for:
    • TV vs Televisions, Coat vs Jacket, Couch vs Sofa. This may be dependent on a country or region; and take note of different spellings for the same words (neighbour vs neighbor).
  • Don’t keyword stuff your URLs:
    • tablets.com/shop-tablets/asus-tablets/mini-tablets
    • URLs aren’t the only place you can optimize your page for keyword relevancy; so don’t panic!

#5: Category filters from product attributes

Ok circling back to this topic – the common attributes you know your audience is looking for but you didn’t create a category for them. Use navigational filters!

Oh but wait – you have 1,000s of attributes? Well it sounds like you need to create a taxonomy for those too! Who turned the heat up…

Class like-product attributes together and create appropriate filter-categories. In Consumer Electronics this might be: Size, Colour, Memory, Operating System, where you have multiple options under each. Or it could be as simple as “Features” if the category itself is fairly simple. For a fashion site: Size, Colour, Style, Fabric. Typically included you’ll also find Brand, Price and Customer Ratings on most sites.

Tips

  • Avoid everything and the kitchen sink! Keep them grouped for the best user experience
  • Ensure your attributes are named consistently by your product copy teams
    • Scenarios where one calls it NIKON and another Nikon (this created two Nikon brand options within the Brand filtered selection)
  • Create different groupings depending on the category.
    • The attributes for filters on Clothing will be different from Shoes (should you sell both on your site) or Home Theater from Major Appliances.  Try to keep the same for each Parent or Root though, so it doesn’t get complicated or a disjoined customer experience

Filters can also cause some SEO headaches and there are a few ways to make them work in your favour:

  • Generate facet-URLs that can be indexed for long-tail keyword searches (bonus)!
    • Ayima has a blog on exactly this – Stay tuned for the link!
    • If the above can’t be achieved, then ensure the parameters used to change the page content are blocked. Otherwise, a high volume of filtered-URL combinations (thin pages) can be generated and picked up into the search index. This can become highly problematic.

#6: Where do “Shop All” pages fit in?

On most ecommerce website, you’ll see some variation of a “Shop All” page (whether you know it or not). We have seen where sites create a category page that looks more like a homepage for that category (banners, content, etc) and another version of the same category that is a listing (browse) page of all the products available in that category (should they want to just shop all and not navigate to a specific sub-category).

Now you have two pages targeting the same keywords and assortment. In some CMS’ this is unavoidable and you should have a strategy in place for how you will or won’t use them on the site and in your hierarchy.

  • Which page is optimal for the user experience?
  • Which page is optimal for conversions (sales)?
  • Which page do you want Google to have in it’s index?
  • Can you combine the experience to a single page (landing page with a browse) rather than duplicating the page?

You can certainly opt for having the landing page in the navigation and noindex the “shop all” page or ensure that the “shop all” is optimized differently so that it doesn’t compete with your main page.

Above is an example of where from each page’s breadcrumb you can access a “shop all” for every product on the entire site; but they don’t have this option at each parent level (good). The Parent page itself combines an experience with banners (lifestyle) but also allows you to browse the full assortment (therefore, not creating a duplicate page which is optimal).

Learn what your CMS limitations are and be prepared to factor these pages into your site structure. Pagination for your category assortment (list of next pages, in addition to a view-all) might be of interest for you; please check out his article on Pagination for SEO.

#7: Left navigation vs Top (global) navigation

Here’s a tricky one for some sites. Understanding what elements of your navigation are hard coded or dynamic to the classification of categories in your CMS.

If you have the flexibility to make changes to your navigation – be careful! Changing these at will can be problematic (see TESTING) and shouldn’t differ from other internal navigation within the site (making the user experience disjointed and confusing).

Tips:

  • If you can add useful elements to a hardcoded navigation to help your customer, rather than distract, this is a great way to build more internal links to content on your site
  • Don’t name a category differently in the Top navigation from the left-navigation (or page navigation)
  • Keep your Header Tags (H1), and Title Tags consistent with the URL, which  has been optimized and likely tied to your CMS navigation (and checked by your SEO team, so it’s the BEST keyword choice already).

#8: TESTING!

You can test your navigation; you can test only certain categories and even test the filters you’ve chosen! Testing is key to ensuring you have made the right choice for optimal conversions on your site. A few tips for testing:

  • Follow a structure: Data gathering, Hypothesis building, wireframing, Testing, Results Analysis
  • Know your current conversion rates and your minimum improvement rate you want to detect that you have a successful test
  • Ensure you have enough traffic for your test. Look at your average number of daily visitors, and how many will be included in the test, 30% vs 100%, how long does the test need to run to make it viable? Don’t get impatient!
  • This falls into CRO (conversion rate optimization); which we can certainly help you with!

Summary

Taxonomy is a sexy word. Just look at it!

When someone wants to make a change to the ecommerce site structure – speak up and slap them if they don’t have a process that takes the above into consideration!

This is not an exhaustive list of items to look for when optimizing, but it checks-off some big areas that are sadly and often overlooked in the planning stages.  While not covered above, its important to note that each page in your site’s structure should have careful consideration for unique content (avoiding any duplication of pages or content on those pages) and avoiding thin content (which can mean having pages created for a single product).

Even small changes can have a big impact. Using the science of classification paired with SEO elements can make for a heck of happy marriage; one that brings about many children (ugh – traffic growth and market share).

If you think you could use help with your taxonomy, please check out our ecommerce site strategies and get in touch!

Written By Karen Bone
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