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22 June 2017 / News

SEO Challenge: when navigation filters affect organic search visibility


Many large-scale, in particular ecommerce, sites use filters to help users navigate complex product sets. A good example is clothing, where the user can filter the products they see into dynamically created pages according to attributes that are important to them, such as brand, size, colour, style, length, occasion or any number of other options. This kind of filtering is known in the trade as “Faceted Navigation”.

From a user experience (UX) point of view, this is a great feature that is employed by many of the best e-commerce websites that really helps with the sales process on site. However, there are potential issues from an SEO point of view, depending upon how it has been implemented.

"It may not be obvious to a brand owner that they are missing opportunities."

It may not even be obvious to a brand owner that they are missing opportunities in this way. But given that for the types of the sector using this kind of functionality, such as retail and FMCG, margins are often tight and reliant upon selling as much product inventory as possible within a given period, any opportunity to drive marginal performance can be a significant win.

While brand loyalty and ensuring users can visit a site and then explore is most certainly important in sectors such as fashion, organic search is a key route to attracting new customers, both for the latest on-trend item and cementing a brand’s position with its audience.

"Search behaviour is a key consideration in any brand’s acquisition strategy."

Therefore it follows that the search behaviour of both potential customers and your website is a key consideration in any brand’s acquisition strategy. However, implementing an SEO friendly faceted navigation is quite technically involved and so can be easily overlooked by even some of the most experienced digital marketers.

In the first instance, it’s important to understand what people are looking for and ensure where there is a suitable product match that there is content available to deliver against that search query.

"Building an ever-changing list of URLs from dynamic filtering creates a lot of duplicate content."

With faceted navigation, the problem often occurs as building an ever-changing list of URLs from the dynamic filtering options creates a lot of duplicate content. Where there is duplicate content on a site or across multiple sites, search engines become confused about the content and are less able to determine which page is the most relevant as they are too similar to each other to be clear to the algorithm.

Furthermore, this proliferation of pages eats “crawl budget”. Crawl budget is essentially what governs the number of times in any given day that Google crawls your site in search of new things it can include in search results.

On the one hand, you want Google to crawl your site in order to ensure it has noted your content and delivers it in search results; the more popular your site and fresh your content is, the more Google will want to crawl. On the other, you actively don’t want Google to be crawling your site all of the time or at higher speeds as this affects the performance of the site for your users. So this is an important metric to manage in SEO for large-scale sites, such as e-commerce operations with lots of product lines.

"You want to make sure Google is crawling your range of products, rather than wasting your “crawl budget”."

Indeed, you want to make sure Google is crawling your range of products, rather than wasting your “crawl budget” on the same thing over and over again that at first sight looks as though it is fresh due to the dynamic URL building from the faceted navigation, but in fact is just the same content displayed slightly differently. This also means Google is constantly “indexing” (recording and storing content according to the algorithm) many versions of your content, which dilutes the value or “equity” of each related page on your website. This nuancee of content often gives Google the impression it is crawling a poor quality site as it isn’t actually finding new content. So it stops crawling as much.

"A loss of visibility equates to lost opportunities."

Even if some of the more technical terms are less familiar to non-SEOers, most marketers understand the concept of a quality score and its impact on visibility. And of course, a loss of visibility equates to lost opportunities.

However, filter functionality is key to helping customers find and buy what they want. So, what can you do?

Category grouping is all-important. This means categorisation must be as discrete as possible to deliver greater logic and avoid the clutter that can come from terms that are too similar.

There must also be plenty of products in each category to deliver on user experience. Overly fine or deep filters may not deliver many, or even any, results but still create a unique URL; and limited product on the landing page of course means limited revenue potential.

"CMS’s must be controlled carefully, without inhibiting the natural need to follow trends."

To achieve good categorisation, CMS’s must be controlled carefully for this logic, without inhibiting the natural need to follow trends. Keyword research will drive the information architecture of the website and filters. In fast-moving categories, such as fashion, it is necessary to repeat the exercise regularly. Additionally, CMS users uploading new products need to be well-trained to adhere logically to the protocols.

Not only will good categorisation reduce unwanted crawling of pages created from unnecessary categories, but it will also deliver a far better user experience on-site.

"It could have a significant impact on the bottom line."

The nature of the technical solution to delivering this can be somewhat varied, with a number of options derived according to the current situation, technical set-up, development budget and other relevant SEO factors. This is why any retail e-commerce manager must ensure they select the right kind of expertise to deliver a solid strategy in this area. It could have a significant impact on the bottom line.

If you use faceted navigation and would like us to review its performance, get in touch. We’d love to hear from you. Email us at [email protected] or call 02 8084 2214.