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Concise Question

How should I, from an SEO standpoint, handle categories on an e-commerce site that may, at any given point, become very thin, containing very few products, then later grow to be a full robust category? In fact it very probably will fluctuate over time from being nearly empty of products to having several pages and back again to nearly empty again.


Explanation of my situation

I work on an e-commerce website that deals in antiques so products cannot be restocked. This causes a unique problem with thin category pages.

I currently have three tiers of categories: e-commerce category structure

I am trying to make sure my category pages are consistently robust over time, SEO-wise. The question I have is about how to handle the tertiary categories. Some of them currently have plenty of products(several pages), while others have only a couple, or in some case may become completely empty of products, since these are antiques and cannot be restocked!

Naturally, in a normal situation, I would simply remove thin or empty categories. But, to me, that only makes sense if that category were not to be used anymore. In my case, each category does have the potential to grow in the future, but there is no telling when or how much. The category may have been around for a while with plenty of products, gaining SEO rank. Removing it would throw that progress out the window, which would probably be the right thing to do if it were never to be used again.


Thought #1

So far, my thought is to push as much SEO juice to Primary and Secondary categories vs. Tertiary categories.

One thought I had was to readjust the structure of the site to make Tertiary categories into "filters", much like Amazon's left sidebar, for example.

This would change my link structure from:

example.com/primary-cat-name
example.com/secondary-cat-name
example.com/tertiary-cat-name

to

example.com/primary-cat-name
example.com/secondary-cat-name
example.com/secondary-cat-name?subcat=tertiary-id

Then I would use rel=canonical pointing to example.com/secondary-cat-name from any page with the url structure example.com/secondary-cat-name?subcat=tertiary-id. In theory, that would keep all SEO juice in the Primary and Secondary categories, but would this be a correct scenario to use rel=canonical?


Thought #2

I have considered completely removing all tertiary categories, but have decided it would be much to detrimental to the user experience.

  • 1. Can a product be in more than one category? 2. If you don’t use the filters: will a product appear in all its parent categories, too? 3. Could you give an example category path? 4. Do your category pages use pagination? 5. Do you also buy antiques on this site? – unor Jun 3 '16 at 16:13
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    1 & 2. Each product is in only one category, but also appears in parent category pages. 3. Do you mean something like Furniture Hardware > Pulls & Handles > Victorian? 4. Yes, categories do have pagination. 5. Not explicitly, but do have a contact form which people have used to try to sell some old hardware they have. – Joshua Goossen Jun 6 '16 at 15:17
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It appears you've got a good grasp on how to lay out the breadcrumbs and get pages rated. So I'll skip commentary in those areas.

On-page SEO is something that doesn't just rely on experience or best practice - but testing. Set up two different structures and test them extensively. Create backlink profiles of roughly equal worth and figure out what works better for you. SEO isn't just about how Google rates your site but how your Users find it too. Accepting the occasional manual audit by a Google Search Quality Human Raters.

When in doubt, worry less about SEO and go with what your users would find best.

Edit: In reference to your second question on Canonical structure - a canonical URL denotes the same content. If your query string produces new content, Google will attempt to index it as a separate page. Link equity flows up via directory trees anyway - your main category page will rate higher when all the sub pages are rated well. This may not be as strong as rating just the main category page - if you want to prevent indexing I would recommend making the default a 'summary' and using Search Console -> Crawl -> URL Parameters to tell Google to disregard the query string.

  • What do you mean by creating backlink profiles of roughly equal worth and figure out what works better for you. Are you saying I should keep what I currently have, while at the same time implementing the filters strategy? How is that possible, specially if I expect to maintain a good user experience? – Joshua Goossen Jun 2 '16 at 13:31
  • I'm indicating that you could experiment by running two schemes and comparing results. A/B testing is how many digital marketers move forward with new designs. If there's no clear indication which is best then you'll probably want data to back it up. Controlling variables (I assume you're building backlinks to rank on Google) helps you maintain a stable experiment. – L Martin Jun 2 '16 at 13:34
  • Liam Martin@Digital Marketers don't often do A/B test by changing URL structure of website, Most of them, they do in same page. – Goyllo Jun 2 '16 at 13:50
  • You're right in that this wouldn't be an A/B test. But doing things like moving subdomains to directories is the type of experiment I'd encourage - the results on whether it is beneficial or not can vary depending on your site. – L Martin Jun 2 '16 at 13:53
  • @LiamMartin Although I appreciate your input, I'm not sure how relevant it is to my situation. The very nature of the question is geared toward "best practices." I'm not sure A/B tests for SEO (at least this scenario) is even wise on a live site. How do you handle duplicate content issues during the testing phase. It would, by nature, be a skewed test. I would be testing which solution ranks better, while at the same time, probably getting docked on both because of dup. content. – Joshua Goossen Jun 2 '16 at 14:55
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Probably I will use noindex tag on all thin content, no matter it is first, second or third category.

Your thought 1

No, you can't use canonical version like that. May be your product listed on multiple categories, but displaying same product with right categories option does not harmful for SEO, but if you try to optimize for all the categories, then may be some of your categories will consider as low quality.

Your thought 2

Always consider user experience first. Putting extra content will don't kept so much pagerank as you think. You can link back to other content as well.

One single page with higher PageRank not get too much traffic compare to Multiple quality webpages with lower pagerank.

More quality webpages always bring more users, you should not think about PR calculation per page.

  • Using noindex came to mind after posting the question. So far, this seems like the best solution. But, this may have a detrimental effect on long tail keywords that only the third level categories would have, correct? – Joshua Goossen Jun 2 '16 at 15:02
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    Again, this does not address the fluidity of the product count in the categories. Obviously I could, programmatically add noindex to a category whenever it's product count gets below a certain number. But somehow that doesn't seem like a good idea for a page to oscillate between noindex and index. – Joshua Goossen Jun 2 '16 at 15:06

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