How to Design an Effective Ecommerce Product Category Page

By Jon MacDonald
10 minute read | Last updated: May 12, 2017

The product category page is an essential step on your consumer’s pathway to purchase. Keep these rules in mind as you design it.

Is this statement true or false?

“The best ecommerce website design makes it quick and easy for visitors to locate desired goods, make comparisons to confirm the choice, then navigate the checkout procedure and arrange delivery with minimum friction.”

Before you answer, envision yourself shopping at a local brick and mortar store.

Which do you appreciate more – a store with clear navigation, properly marked items, and a short line at the register… or stores you can get lost in, wandering through a labyrinth where you can spend hours without worrying about buying anything at all?

If your answer is, “It depends,” then you’ve discovered something critical about marketing. The best stores help on-purpose shoppers get what they want and keep moving, but provide browsers the luxury of exploration.

That can be a tough bill to fill in a physical store, but it’s absolutely possible in ecommerce. And the hub of it all is one particular page: Product Category. Get it right there, and you’re on your way to getting rave reviews from happy shoppers. Fail there, and you… well, you fail.

Let’s take a look at product category page best practices. Your ROI on taking the time to review and share this article with your team could make it the best-leveraged decision of the year.

There’s a tough way and an easy way to approach ecommerce optimization:

  • The tough way: go at it as hard as you can and hope something sticks
  • The easy way: understand the buyer’s journey and remove barriers to their conversion

Let’s talk about the easy way. It’s not only more enjoyable, but a whole lot more effective.

Step one: Know the purpose of your product category page

Every page on your website has a purpose. Your job is to know what that purpose is and grease it as well as you can so the visitor will glide effortlessly through to the next step on the path leading from discovery to purchase.

Here are the two most important page types on your ecommerce website:

  • Product Category
  • Product Detail

The first allows the visitor to self-select the next step on the journey. The second provides enough information to either cement the sale or guide the prospect to a better-suited product.

Get those right and you will make sales. Confuse them, and you’ll confuse your visitors.

We’ve already gone over best practices for product detail pages. As we noted in that guide, the product detail page (PDP) is where “the prospect will determine whether to purchase your product or keep looking.” The PDP invites the prospect to go deeper. It provides in-depth information about the product it highlights, helping the consumer conduct their research.

Resource: 17 Product Detail Page Best Practices That Will Boost Conversions

Not so with the product category page (a point many ecommerce website designers fail to grasp). It stands at a critical juncture on the path to sales. It’s an intersection where the visitor must choose a direction… but it doesn’t provide detail. It says “Choose and keep moving.”

The product category page stands at a critical juncture on the path to sales. Click To Tweet

The job of the category page is to make that choice painless and simple.

It’s here that shoppers on a mission can quickly take the next step towards becoming an owner and browsers can decide which section of the store they want to investigate next.

The Category Page must be both obvious and humble:

  • Obvious, in that the choices it provides must stand out and be easily recognizable (this isn’t a page for obscurity)
  • Humble, in that it must never draw attention to itself; rather, it must point clearly to the product categories it displays

Know every page’s purpose, and make sure the page is optimized to carry out that purpose. That maxim is a good candidate for being named the “First Rule of Website Design.”

Step two: Make sure your product category page is designed for your customers, not for your staff

Your product category page is a traffic director, and it’s up to you to erect helpful road signs. The best-designed product category pages begin with road maps.

The best-designed product category pages begin with road maps. Click To Tweet

One question is central to the process: what does the visitor most need to know in order to continue along the sales journey?

For instance, let’s say your ecommerce website sells guitars. What would your visitors most need to know at a category level?

Remember, you don’t want to try to sell guitars on the product category page (though you should use every opportunity to build confidence in your brand and products). You want to be helpful. You want to help the prospect take the next right step.

Here’s a short list of potentials for guitar categories:

  • Electric guitars
  • Acoustic guitars
  • Student guitars
  • Youth guitars
  • Pro guitars
  • Beginner guitars
  • Guitar accessories
  • Used guitars
  • Sale guitars
  • Taylor guitars
  • Gibson guitars
  • Ovation guitars
  • Guitars under $500
  • Guitars made in the USA

“Wait!” you say. “That many categories will confuse the visitor.” And you’re right. Most ecommerce stores will need to use special features (sort by brand, for instance) on the product category page.

Getting to the bare bones essentials requires a sound knowledge of your audience, the terms they use in search (keywords), and how they approach the task of finding products in your niche.

The last thing you want to do is enlist categories based on terminology you use instead of on terminology your customers use.

If your products aren’t findable in search, then your ecommerce store doesn’t exist. It’s absolutely essential that you know the words your customers use to describe your products and the way they categorize them in their minds.

It’s absolutely essential that you know the words your customers use to describe your products Click To Tweet

Your ecommerce job isn’t to design a website that makes sense to your staff, your peers, or your industry; it’s to make sense to the people who purchase what you sell.

That could lead us into a discussion of keyword research and user testing. For now, though, we’ll not go that route. Our aim here is to focus on the elements you’ll want to include on the page, not talk about how to choose those categories. Don’t miss this critical point, though: effective product category pages begin with research and strategic planning.

Effective product category pages begin with research and strategic planning. Click To Tweet

Let’s first list the common elements just about all product category pages should contain. Then we’ll consider extras that may or may not apply to your business.

Essential elements of product category pages

Here are the two basic elements:

Product category name

Every case is unique, but you’ll typically want to use the name your prospects use for the category, not a branded or esoteric name. That not only helps the customer understand your categories, it helps the search engines key in on them.

Example: The guitar store may choose to go with Acoustic Guitars, Electric Guitars, Classical Guitars, and Guitar Accessories on their primary product category page. That would allow visitors to take a giant step towards honing in on the exact guitar needed. The next category selection would drill down to the specifics within each of those main categories. Using cute or branded terms like “Rock Star Guitars” or “Electric Vibe Axes” probably wouldn’t be a great choice.

Category image

Make sure this is a generic image representing the entire category. Make it a hero image of the product by itself. The simpler and more obvious the better. The images should be consistent in size, but should stand out as different from one another. Guide the eyes and the minds will follow.

Example: The guitar store wouldn’t use a Gibson or Ovation guitar photo. The image shouldn’t portray the unique features of any particular brand. Rather, it would go with a stock acoustic guitar, stock electric guitar, stock classical guitar, and perhaps an image showing a guitar case, strings, and capo as the accessories icon.

Take a look (see the screenshot below) at how the Musician’s Friend ecommerce site handles categories and subcategories.

That’s it.

Your product category pages start at the most logical first decision point your visitors will need to make: Name and Category.

From there, guide them via sub-categories to the next logical decision, and do that as many times as you need until prospects end up at the Product Detail Page for the item they have chosen.

The sequence doesn’t change, but the method of travel through the sequence can.

Let’s move on to list the features most likely to be helpful to shoppers as they move from primary category, through the sub-categories, and on to the selected Product Detail Page.

Category price ranges

Depending on your products, it’s often helpful to list price ranges at the Category Page level. That helps qualify shoppers and can prevent disappointment.

It’s usually better to give shoppers the option of selecting the price range that best fits their budget than to lead them to a product way out of range. The sales department may argue the strategy, but we’ve found well-informed customers are usually the happiest customers.

Category ratings

Ratings and reviews can be valuable additions at the product category level. Here’s where the sales department may indeed have valuable input. Shoppers will often bump up in price for higher quality… and quality is typically reflected in the reviews.

Featured items

Don’t confuse the shopper, but don’t be afraid to make suggestions either. Depending on placement, featured items can draw the eye and lead to a larger sale.

Note (see the screenshot below) how Amazon handles the positioning of their “Featured deals.” That example also highlights the strategic use of Ratings.

Filtering

We’ve seen conversion rates jump by 20 percent or more when product category page filtering is optimized. There’s no easy answer here, and no one-size-fits-all prototype to offer.

With our clients, here at The Good, we begin by scoring the site to look for stuck points™ in the conversion sequence, then we work with the client to create an individual strategy, test the assumptions, and optimize for conversions leading to sales.

This is an area where you can stay simple and effective or get elaborate and effective… just be sure to maintain the “effective” part. Note Amazon’s filtering solution in the screenshot below:

Amazon opts for pop-out subcategories that appear when the visitor hovers the mouse pointer over the primary categories. It’s simple and effective.

How does your current product category page design measure up?

Let’s face it, ecommerce digital marketing is a dynamic and fast-paced field of work. What’s true today may be old news tomorrow.

Our aim is to pass on the lessons we learn from our daily work with clients. What would it do for your bottom line sales revenue if you could get just a five percent uptick in conversion rates? What if you were able to gain twenty percent?

We see those things happen on a regular basis.

Let us help you do the same. Get in touch with The Good.

We love this stuff!

About the author: Jon MacDonald is Founder and President of The Good, conversion rate experts who deliver more revenues, customers, and leads. Jon and the team at The Good have made a practice of advising brands on how to see online revenue double through their conversion rate optimization services. Connect with Jon on Twitter.

2 Comments

  1. Great post very informative! Espeially enjoyed it as it incorporated two of my passions Guitars and Marketing ! Seriously though some really great actionable information to into consideration

  2. Thanks for the post Jon. I will refer back to this one on a regular basis.

    Would be cool to show some real life before and after examples of your client category pages that you optimized. Then show what the conversion rate increase was. Hint, hint….😀

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