Site navigation, which is also called faceted search or attribute navigation, is a tool that helps shoppers focus on the products they are interested in. By letting shoppers refine their searches by choosing the specific attributes of the products they are looking for, site navigation allows them to narrow down the search results to only the most relevant products.
When customers select attributes, they get back a result page showing the products relevant to these attributes. This page is unique, and created specifically for the selected attributes the customer selected, and therefore its URL contains these attributes. In terms of SEO, this is a gold mine, because that way you create plenty of unique pages with specific keywords in their URL, that are then indexed by Google, generating more traffic to your store.
However, if you are not careful in managing site navigation, it might cause major issues for SEO. The same unique pages, that we said were an SEO gold mine, might have the opposite effect.
SEO Problems Caused by Site Navigation
As mentioned above, site navigation creates plenty of unique pages. While this can be very helpful for SEO, the fact that many of these unique pages are in fact different versions of the same page can create some serious SEO problems.
There are two major SEO problems that are caused by site navigation:
These problems might create a situation in which an online store offering about 100,000 products, may have up to 200 million indexed pages, that would show up on searches.
How can this be? Every time a customer has selected an attribute or a set of attributes, the site navigation tool has created a unique page to show the results. This page’s URL, however, is a variation of one basic URL.
Let’s use an example: a customer is visiting the “T-shirts” category in your online store.
The page’s URL would probably be: https://yourstore.com/t-shirts/
Looking at the attributes, the customer narrows down the results to see only medium size, blue, cotton t-shirts.
Accordingly, the result page’s URL will be: https://yourstore.com/t-shirts/attributes?size=M&color=blue&material=cotton
Even though the URL is different, we are actually not on a different page. We are on the same page we began, only now we see less products. This page is also almost identical to other pages where the same attributes were selected.
For example: https://yourstore.com/t-shirts/attributes?size=M&color=blue,black&material=cotton,polyester
To make matters worse, mismanagement of the Content Management System might lead to one URL having many different variations, in effect making two unique pages that are completely identical. For example:
Both pages show exactly the same products, but they were created separately because customers selected the same attribute but in a different order.
Now that we know how site navigation easily creates pages, we can understand how an online store selling 100,000 products has 200 million indexed pages.
With all the benefits of site navigation – helping your customer conveniently find what they are looking for – the fact that so many pages are created may cause an indexing problem. Since not all the pages will be indexed, you want to make sure the top performing pages are indexed, rather than the poor value duplicates. In addition, the more unindexed pages you have in your online store, the less traffic your website generates from searches.
Checking Your Site Navigation for SEO Problems
Now that we understand the SEO problems site navigation might cause, let's look at how we can apply it to our online store. The following measures are highly recommended for making sure you avoid the SEO problems:
Study Your Site Navigation Tool
If you know the ins-and-outs of your store’s navigation tool, it would be much easier for you to detect SEO issues. Make sure of the following:
Familiarity with your site navigation can help you locate the sources of potential SEO issues.
Evaluate Result Pages Search Performance
After you familiarize yourself with your website’s navigation tool, you need to check how your store is doing in search engines. You need to figure out if people are actually searching for the pages your navigation tool creates.
If a certain page frequently comes up in searches (for instance, a white, cotton t-shirt is a very popular search), then you want to make sure you index this page. Conversely, if almost nobody searches for a certain page (for instance, nobody searches for a yellow, polyester, XXL t-shirt), even though you might still want to present it in your website, it may be worth not indexing it at all.
While some SEOs may suggest indexing according to your available store inventory, we would recommend that you index your products regardless of the current situation, since inventory is very dynamic, while indexing is not.
What You Should Do with the Site Navigation Pages
In order to simplify things, we came up with a chart that will help you make the correct decision about what to do with navigation pages – either to index them or not. From there, the next step is to focus on the indexed pages to see how you can optimize them further.
Site navigation might create SEO problems by creating hundreds of duplicate pages and URLs. While the severity of the problems may vary depending on several factors, we believe that understanding the issues and familiarizing yourself with your website’s navigation tool help solve many of these problems.