When you’re setting up your online store, one of the first decisions you’ll have to think about is how to organize the products on your site. This will not only partially determine the structure of your site, but will also affect the shopper’s experience and how easy it is to find something they’re looking for.
The big idea here is to have enough categorization to make things easy to find, but not so much that things get buried in categories and subcategories to an extent that they become hard to find.
You’ll have some intuitive ideas about how to structure your store, as your products might naturally fall within certain categories. Of course, you can also look at other businesses in the same industry and see how they’ve structured their stores. You can adopt the ideas you like, and make a note to avoid the ones you see aren’t working.
Looking at your Google Analytics account and your website’s search history can also help you conceptualize how to structure your product categories by showing you the kinds of searches people are doing most often, either to end up on your site in the first place or once they’re already on your site. Either way, the results may surprise you, because the way you see your product line may not be how your customers view it. For instance, if you sell furniture, you may think you should categorize your products by fabric type: cotton, leather, synthetic, etc.; your search results may show you that your visitors think of them by style: modern, mid-century modern, traditional.
Categories vs. Attributes
It’s probably worthwhile to draw a distinction here between categories and attributes as they relate to product organization:
Category and subcategory – the group within which the product belongs (Furniture > Living Room > Sofas
Attribute – a feature of the product that the user might be interested in filtering by (Sofas can be fabric or leather, different colors)
How do you know if something is an attribute or a category? The distinction can be fuzzy sometimes, and it’s ultimately up to you to decide. Usually, categories don’t have any overlap, in that a product will not belong to more than one category (to avoid redundancy). Attributes, on the other hand, can span multiple categories. For example, the attribute “fabric” or “leather” can cover Sofas under the category Living Room Furniture, but also Chairs under Office Furniture.
How Deep Is Too Deep?
If you run a large store, you may be dealing with main categories than then have to be split into subcategories on an intermediary page before the visitor actually gets to see any products. Such intermediary pages can be really helpful or they can lead to high abandonment rates — the way they’re implemented is key to their performance. Pictures of the products tend to be good on intermediary category pages, as they help users who may not be familiar with jargon in your exact categories.
You should also think about how you display your categories on your store’s homepage. While having the main categories with photos can be visually appealing, finding a way to include the subcategories as well is a good way to make your hierarchies “flatter” and prevent users from having to dig too deep to find what they’re looking for. Many ecommerce store owners choose to have a category menu on the left or right sidebars that features the categories and the subcategories all at once.
Finally, unless you’re selling very specialized products (auto parts, etc.), it’s a good idea to keep your categories from going more than 4 subcategories deep, as this makes products significantly harder to find.