Category Pages: When to Create and Optimize
by Geoff Hineman
Aside from the homepage, the most important pages on any website—especially an ecommerce website—are the category pages. They will consistently generate the most organic traffic. Collectively, they will almost always garner more organic traffic than the homepage.
Category Pages are the Lifeblood of Ecommerce SEO
In short, searchers are more likely to run a search query for broader and less precise keyword terms. That's how categories work, they collect the precise into the broad for the sake of top-down organization. For instance, if I am in the market for some swanky new socks, I would likely do a search for "men's designer socks." I might add a particular brand name or retailer; these are common suffixes to ecommerce search queries. The odds that I would search for a term like "Bacco Bucci HB7076 Cotton, Nylon Socks," are much less likely, unless I had a catalog right next to me. For the first query, you want users to land on the proper category page. For the second query, the proper product page.
To get a user closer to conversion, you don't want them landing on your homepage and then trying to navigate to what they need on their own.
When you have well-optimized category and subcategory pages, it becomes easier for search engines to understand your site and match relevant search queries to your most relevant pages.
Because category pages are closer to the top of the site hierarchy, they receive more links, both internally and from external sources. In terms of backlinks, they repeatedly garner more links than product pages or other isolated pages (e.g., about us, contact, etc.). This is particularly important, because high-quality (and to a lesser degree, a high quantity of) backlinks are a cornerstone ranking factor.
So, to be concise, category pages are critical for traffic, navigation, and linking. For this reason, there should be a sound strategy in place when dealing with these pages. The first consideration for creating new pages should be timing.
When and Why to Create New Category Pages
When you are entertaining the idea of creating new category pages, there are three primary questions you should be asking:
- What is the primary objective for creating a new page? What is the end goal? Ideally, the answer to this question will revolve around the desire to improve the site hierarchy to make it easier for your customers to find what they need, as well as take advantage of new keyword opportunities that show promise in terms of search volume and your ability to meet searchers' desires. If that is what you are thinking, great! The next question is...
- Are there enough products to really substantiate a new category? Are your existing category pages pretty sparse or are they well-populated? For a category page to really warrant its own existence, it should contain a "competitive number" of products. If your category pages are too sparse, Google will recognize that. The SEO value, not to mention the UX, will decrease; rankings will decrease in kind. We use the term "competitive number," because there really is no magic number. This will vary depending upon your industry and your competition. For some categories, 100 products will be a pretty standard number; for others, it could be 10. This is where you need take an honest look at your situation and use your best judgement. Put yourself in a customer's position, too. Would you find a page that contains just one or two products useful? Would you bounce right back to the search results if that is what you found? You most likely would... and so would your customers.
- When is the right time to create a new category page (or pages)? In general, you'll always want to be keep close tabs on your site categorization. In that sense, it's not really a one-and-done approach. When you are watching your organic channel and user experience metrics, you can start to see when opportunities are arising.
That said, there are certainly some instances that naturally lead themselves to new category creation.
- Are you launching a new brand or new collection of products? If so, you should definitely consider new category pages.
- Is there a trend that is really taking off? Maybe deserving a new category page, but worth thinking twice about the evergreen nature of the trend and how it would affect your site to create that category, then remove it when the trend is over.
- Do you have a new collection that is launching? Seasonal offerings? These are good opportunities to highlight those with their own categories.
Another time to really consider your categorization is during a site migration. In general, these are times when the site is going through a number of significant changes all at once. Folding category changes into this migration might make better sense than trying to do it after those changes. Let search engines get it all in one fell swoop.
It's worth emphasizing that you should always have a clear purpose in mind for publishing a new category page. Questions 1 and 2 were designed to make sure you can legitimatize the creation of important pages like these. Without a clear focus, you could wind up doing more harm than good.
Finding the Real Opportunities in New Category Creation
Once we have carefully examined the factors that go into deciding whether to publish new category pages, we need to take a look at the way to best go about it.
The foundation of every SEO strategy should start with diligent keyword research.
There are a variety of different keyword research tools out there. Perhaps the most popular is Google's own Keyword Planner. You'll want to take Google’s suggestions with a grain of salt, though. Google provides this data so you will spend money in Google Ads, so it's a bit like having the fox guard the henhouse. Other tools that can help with keyword research include: Moz, SEMRush, Word Tracker, Ahrefs, Answer the Public, and more.
At Lett Direct, we use a few different keyword tools to ensure that there is, at the very least, consistency from tool to tool regarding relative degrees of search traffic. Once we find terms that have a viable number of search terms, we are on our way.
Examine the Current Page Rankings
Before we take a full leap into creating new category pages, we will want to take stock of the organic visibility of our current pages. We consider four primary factors:
- Are the current category pages ranking for terms we didn't expect? For instance, if you have a page that sells men's pants, but the page is also ranking for "man capris" or "men's overalls," then there might be opportunity here. We'll want to keep watch on those keywords to see if they are getting clicks and driving traffic. Depending on what shakes out, you may want to amend your new category plans to ensure you are not accidentally shooting yourself in the foot.
- Are any of the current category pages ranking for variations of the main product? Let's stick with the men's pants example. Are you ranking for "men's dress pants" or "men's golf pants?" If so, this might be a good opportunity for a subcategory that really focuses on that particular product variation.
- Are there any product pages ranking for what would be considered "category" keyword terms? If so, you absolutely need a category page for it. If you already have a category page for it and the product page is still pulling rank, you need to improve the category page. When users come to the product page from the search results, the only chance you have of converting them is if that product was the exact product they wanted. Getting them to the category page offers them options, which is ideal.
- Finally, are competitors' subcategory pages outranking your category pages? Sticking with the men's pants example, do you see that, for a certain number of terms, a competitor is outranking your category with a subcategory page, such as "tweed pants" or wool pants?" In such cases, it is likely that the competitor has spotted an opportunity before you and published a dedicated subcategory page to capitalize on that opportunity. If so, two can play at that game... and we will get to that.
Evaluating the Competition
Often competitors have already identified some opportunities you have not. You may have even noticed the opportunity because you saw it on a competitor site. Doing a cursory competitor audit is really a necessary step to uncover category opportunities you may be missing.
At Lett Direct, we have a fairly straightforward approach to analyzing competitor category and subcategory pages. It goes something like this:
- Do a manual check of the site. Their main navigation and faceted navigation will provide a solid blueprint of their site architecture and keyword strategy.
- Use a 3rd-party tool to conduct a competitor audit. Some of the tools listed above for keyword research can also assist in site audits.
- Crawl the competitor site. In this way, we can gather a bevy of useful keyword information from URLs, page title, meta descriptions, meta keyword tags, and more.
Keyword Copy on Category Pages
There are a variety of viewpoints on this topic and that is primarily because, as a technique, this has often been very poorly executed by naive SEOs out to game algorithms.
To that end, many people see it a merely a way to influence search engines without providing much value to actual users. Indeed, you don't have to go very far to see keyword-stuffed copy that is often repetitious to the point of being frustrating. There is a better way to execute this copy:
- Keep it tidy and useful. If your page doesn't have any copy on it at all, then starting with 80-150 words can be plenty. This is enough room to explain what the page is about and a unique value proposition or two. That is beneficial to search engines and users.
- Getting this copy at the top of the page is preferred, but the bottom will do if that is the only option. Hint: Having the copy tight and informative/entertaining makes it a lot easier to argue for placement at the top of the page.
When you coordinate solid keyword-laden copy with a good meta description and page titles, you can inform search engines as to what the page is really about. This is critically important for brand new pages that Google doesn't already have in its index.
The content copy on a category page is also a great place to include some internal linking, which can be helpful for getting newer category pages found and indexed. A few links from other categories to the new category pages can only help.
The Quality Score Factor
No channel of digital marketing exists in a vacuum. When you have well-written copy on your category pages, it can benefit your PPC Quality Score, which is an estimate of the quality of your ads. This is because category pages are often the main landing page for PPC ads. If those pages are of a higher quality when paired with the ads pointing to them, and they help satisfy the user's needs, the Quality Score goes up.
When your quality score goes up, the amount of money you have to bid on keywords to get the same level of placement goes down. This creates more flexibility in your ad spend budget. You can use that flexibility to be more aggressive on certain terms that are particularly important to your business. Or you can use that budget to expand your keyword list and go after some terms for which you previously didn't have budget available.
What Are the Risks Surrounding the Creation of New Pages?
The reason we have placed so much focus on setting objectives for new pages and doing at least some cursory research is because making changes to category pages does have some inherent risks.
Okay, so you've decided that a new category page is in the cards. You've done the keyword research and competitor audits. We are ready to churn out some great meta data and on-page copy. Before we step off that diving board, however, we need to look at the risks of keyword cannibalization. This is an overlooked step in too many cases. It is usually only discovered after a new page has been published. You'll save yourself a lot of time if you check before the page is published, rather than discovering (and fixing) it later.
When you have multiple pages that are very closely related with regards to SEO elements, such as page titles, headers, copy, etc., the symptoms of cannibalization can start to manifest. When your site’s assets are represented in too similar of a fashion, the pages doing so will be in competition with each other and, as such, neither will be doing as well as it could be if it weren't competing with the other internal page.
This is because, search engines can encounter difficulty when trying to discern which page is most relevant for which search queries. Further, this inward competition could actually lower the ranking for the original category page so that neither page is getting the traffic that the lone page used to get. In addition, search engines could end up sending users to the less-optimal page for their search, which decreases your odds for conversion.
The best way to avoid this is to make sure everything about the new page is a unique as it can be. If you have done your keyword research, this shouldn't be too difficult. You should also keep in mind that this is digital and not print. What you create doesn't have to live on forever. You can tinker and tweak optimizations over time and measure the results accordingly. With new categories, you don't always hit a home run on the first swing.
Internal Link Equity
Internal linking is one of the best ways to help search engines know which pages are associated with certain keyword terms. If your anchor text and links accurately reflect the content of the destination pages (e.g., golf pants, dress pants, etc.), then search engines can more easily leverage that information for factoring matches for users' search intent. When you publish a new page, you will want to make sure that you are giving it some internal link love. Keep in mind the importance of the page in relation to other pages, though. You don't want to go overboard and start replacing links from more important pages just to ensure your new page is getting internal links.
When you launch a new category page, review your existing navigation and site content to see where it makes sense to add new links to the new page. Make it feel organic and not forced; your customers can tell the difference.
While your homepage might be the face of your ecommerce site, it's your category pages that are the muscles. When new category pages are implemented in a strategic way, the entire site becomes stronger. With the pointers listed above, you can determine whether you even need a new category page, and, if so, the best way to go about launching one with your entire site in mind.