How to properly structure your shop’s product categories

Online stores are supposed to provide the perfect shopping experience. After all, there are no broken shopping carts, no misplaced products, and no aisles to get lost in while looking for the checkout. Right? Well, unfortunately, e-commerce businesses tend to mimic the real-life shopping experience a little too accurately, and it’s not uncommon to find websites where, due to poor navigation features, consumers frequently get lost among a plethora of poorly categorised products. Granted, creating a clear product hierarchy is no easy feat, but it is a necessary process for any successful e-commerce store.

The decrease in attention spans observed by scientists in the last 10 years has made creating a clear informational hierarchy essential for a website’s success. If users don’t find relevant information within the first couple of seconds, they will simply bounce off and shop someplace else. And why wouldn’t they? Unlike brick-and-mortar shops, where it takes effort to get from one shop to the next, in the virtual world, it takes just one click.

That’s why, today, choosing the right product categories is more important than ever. Succinct and relevant product categories can guide potential customers towards their desired purchase, thus contributing to a seamless shopping experience.

Each online shop has its own product catalogue and inherent challenges, so there are no clear directions one can follow, but we can identify a series of guidelines that can help businesses find the right categorization solution for their particular circumstances.

Focus on your consumer’s perspective

When first creating a web shop, it’s natural to be excited about the products you will be selling, however it’s more important to be excited about the customers you will be delighting with these products. What are they looking for? What phrases are they using? Try not to get carried away and focus on creating a simple system of categories and subcategories that your customers will be able to understand and navigate intuitively.

You don’t have to get it right the first time. If, in time, a particular item starts outperforming other products, you can create a new main category for that specific product. For instance, if you own a small web shop that sells T-shirts, caps, mugs imprinted with funny messages, and you notice that products from these categories that are related to bachelorette parties or other personal events perform better, you can create a separate category and make them more visible for your customers. If your best-selling products change with the seasons, you can even create a featured section and promote your best-selling products there.

Google Analytics or other similar tools can help you keep an eye on how your products are performing, so you can adapt your chosen category system accordingly.

Name your product categories using keywords

The name of each product category is relevant for both internal website queries and search engine queries. That’s why it’s important to identify the most important keywords for your products and to make sure your product category names and additional tags reflect what your audience is actually looking for.

Users are not always patient enough to navigate to the desired product step by step, one subcategory at a time. Those who already know what they want are more likely to use the search bar and look for a very particular item like “alpaca wool socks”. If products are not properly tagged, the potential buyer will have to browse through 30 pairs of wool socks before finding the one pair made of alpaca wool. Chances are that the user will just click away.

Optimising your product categories for search engines is also important because it allows users to find the right page directly when using Google. Crawlers use your product category hierarchy to navigate and help the Google algorithm guide users towards the right section of your website. And the less actions a user has to perform before checkout, the more likely he is to convert.

Avoid creating too many subcategories

It’s important to allow consumers to narrow down the product they are looking for by using relevant subcategories. However, you don’t want consumers to be overcome by analysis paralysis when faced with too many options: Funny T-shirt, Printed T-Shirt or Sports T-Shirt. Just like when entering a brick-and-mortar shop, most consumers don’t actually have a clear picture of what they want when they first start browsing. In short, they just know they want a T-Shirt and are hoping to decide once they get to the right aisle.

However, as we’ve mentioned in the previous section, nobody wants to sift through a large number of items in hopes of finding the right product. That’s why it’s strongly recommended to consistently implement a relevant product tagging system and to create appropriate filters. Filters act like shop assistants that direct users towards the product that most likely suits their needs. Sizes, colours and cuts are some of the most popular filters used by clothing web shops. Nevertheless, there is no one size fits all when it comes to creating great product categories and filters. So, it’s important to analyse common practices in your industry, and adapt them to your own products and target audience.

Use UX design to guide users towards your product categories

After choosing the right category names, it’s essential to make sure you are providing a great UX experience that guides users towards them.

According to UX specialists, ideally, a website should not have more than 7 product categories, but the number can go up to 10, particularly when eliminating more categories does not make sense from a consumer’s perspective. It’s all about finding the right balance between what your consumers are actively looking for and what your e-commerce provides. If, for instance, you decide to eliminate a category and turn it into a subcategory, users looking for those products will, most likely, not have the patience to browse through the available subcategories and may leave the website instantly.

Choosing the right number of categories is important but displaying them in an appealing way is also paramount. Usually, all categories are displayed when users click on the main menu of the homepage, with sub-categories clustered under each main category. However, there are other ways to create appealing shortcuts towards your most popular categories, using design elements such as grids and sliders. To sum up, there is no one way of creating an effective product category system. Each online store is responsible for identifying the most relevant categories across the industry and adapting them to its products. This does not mean that product category names are the sole defining factor of a great product taxonomy. Paying attention to subcategories and filters is also important. Product category names, subcategories and filters should always reflect consumer expectations, so they need to continue to change in order to keep up with mindset shifts within the target audience. It might sound difficult, but a clear and relevant product category system can greatly improve user experience, thus improving sales.

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