Create product categories for your online store

There are so many things to get excited about when you’re setting up an online store—your website design, your cool product videos, your social media marketing plans, your product categories. Yes, your product categories.

What may seem at first glance like boring labels are a tool that can help you get found in searches and guide your customers through your site to buy what they’re looking for.

Here’s how to make those labels work harder and smarter.

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1. Create Categories that Make Sense for Your Customers

Set up your categories based on how your customers shop. This seems obvious, but you’d be surprised.

For example, if your store sells clothing for everyone, customers will expect your main categories to be women’s, men’s, and children’s clothing, each with subcategories like tops, pants, skirts, dresses, shoes, and outerwear. But if you have certain subcategories that your store sells a lot of, you can not only have them as subcategories, you can also elevate them to top-level categories of their own to boost visibility and help customers find those popular items faster.

Here’s an example. Lands’ End sells clothing for women, men, and kids, along with home goods and bags, and all of those are top-level categories on its homepage navigation bar. Within the clothing categories, the brand has a solid reputation among its target market for swimwear and school uniforms. The site design could force customers to drill into the clothing categories to find those items, but it saves them time by including them as their own main categories in the nav bar.

product categories on lands end

What if you’re selling something that’s a little harder to sort through? If you sell parts or supplies of any kind, you may have a lot more main categories and subcategories than the average clothing retailer—and that’s okay. Again, the key is to think like a customer as you group your items. Here are a couple of ways to do that.

Online needlecraft supplier KnitPicks organizes its nav bar categories to match the way crafts shop. These customers go looking for yarn or needles or patterns or maybe a kit. All those main categories are above the fold.

top navigation with product categories on knitpicks

But sometimes yarn shoppers need yarn that’s a specific color, weight, or fiber content. Setting each of those variables up as subcategories would make the menus enormously long and not very useful. So, the site gives shoppers two options.

  1. Scroll down the homepage and click on the icon for the color, weight, or fiber they need.
  2. “See more” under the yarn tab and use the sidebar navigation tools. Dropdown filters for weight and fiber keep the other subcategory options visible above the fold.

product categories with clickable filtersproduct categories with see more option
Another retailer with a lot of products takes a different approach. AutoZone categorizes its inventory by parts, accessories, tools, and other top-level categories that make sense for the DIY auto maintenance customer. But “auto parts” is a huge category on its own and could quickly become unnavigable. AutoZone has done something like Lands’ End. When customers mouse over “auto parts” they get a pop up subcategory menu that features the most popular subcategories (with their most popular subgroups) on one side and an alphabetized list of all the subcategories on the other side.  

autozone top navigation with more product categories underneath

2. Use Keywords to Name Your Product Categories

Once you’ve got a handle on how to set up your categories, name them with care. Use keyword research to see which terms people search for the most before you commit to anything.

Why? You want your categories to appear higher in those searches. Knowing how many people each month search for, say, “handknit baby hats” versus “hand knit baby hats” can help you choose more popular category names. It almost goes without saying that category names are not the place to get wacky and creative. Naming your baby hat category “lids for tiny kids” is cute, but it won’t help customers or search engines find your store, and it won’t help you make sales.


3. Make Your Category Pages Pop

Shoppers who are truly browsing through your store—like someone who’s buying a gift—and people who aren’t sure exactly what they need will appreciate it if your category pages include useful or fun information.

Target, for example, creates an online browsing experience for its patio furniture category by segmenting its products into collections, followed by links to each subcategory—all enhanced with product photos.

product categories by product collection on targetindividual product categories on target

Meanwhile, REI includes “helpful advice and inspiration” on its camping and hiking product category page to help new outdoorspeople and gift shoppers decide what they need.

include blog content in product categories example from rei

If you include relevant keywords in your category page content, it can also help with your store’s SEO.


4. Be Consistent When You Categorize Your Products

Category filters (to refine category results by color, size, or something else) help customers find what they want quickly, if you’re consistent about tagging every product in your store with the proper categories and attributes like color and size.

Otherwise, when customers use category filters to search for a “women’s brown leather belt,” all your relevant products might not show up, and you might miss out on a sale. And if your store offers dozens or hundreds of women’s brown leather belts, add more filters (size, width, hardware color) to help shoppers narrow their results to a manageable list.  


Analyze Your Product Categories for Success

Featuring popular product subcategories is a great tactic if you know what they are. If your store is new, or if you regularly add new types of products, you may not know exactly what’s hot. You can (and should) regularly review your sales to see which categories are strong sellers.

It’s also a good idea to set up Google Analytics to get insights about how your visitors move around your site. Are they following your category trees from homepage to product, or do they bail out halfway through? Are they using your elevated navigation tabs for popular subcategories? Do their clicks lead to conversions, or do they leave without buying anything? You can use all this data to refine your subcategories, decide which ones to make into top-level categories, and make other improvements.

Ready to set up your store? Gator Website Builder helps you get started quickly and easily, with drag-and-drop site design tools, e-commerce functionality, analytics, and more than 200 mobile-friendly, customizable templates. Be sure to add an SSL certificate to protect your customers’ data, keep your site safe from attacks, and get better SEO.

Casey Kelly-Barton is an Austin-based freelance B2B content marketing writer. Her specialty areas include SMB marketing and growth, data security, IoT, and fraud prevention