Ecommerce websites offer users a unique way to answer their own search queries with a feature called faceted navigation. It allows people to customize product results by filtering for different subcategories and product attributes.

While this search experience helps the user, it can make the content less indexable in search engine results. To ensure that product pages don’t hurt your SEO, you need to set up parameters for Googlebot. This can save you from issues like content duplication and weak link equity down the road.

What is faceted navigation? A definition

Faceted navigation is a search feature that lets users filter products for certain criteria on an ecommerce site. For example, this could be color, material, and size. This tool is almost always a sidebar on the side of a product page.

It has two main parts:

  1. Facets: Individually indexed pages that represent the primary topics on a larger website.
  2. Filters: User-friendly tools that help narrow down the content on a category landing page.
    1. To the user, both of these components filter out content. Behind the scenes, however, they act differently. While a facet pulls up a new web page for the user, a filter only changes the content on the page.

      Faceted navigation examples

      What makes faceted navigation so great is how many possibilities it creates. Each search is tailored to the individual which makes for a more meaningful user experience.

      From the webmaster’s perspective, however, this can be difficult to implement.

      1. Patagonia

      This is the main shopping page for women’s clothing found at the URL:

      https://www.patagonia.com/shop/womens

      You can clearly see different facets to choose from. Let’s say that we want to look at “Women’s Fleece.”

      This screenshot shows faceted navigation on the Patagonia website.

      When we select that facet, the website takes us to a completely different URL:

      https://www.patagonia.com/shop/womens-fleece

      From there, we have many filters to choose from, including: color, size materials, features, and fit. If we only want to see the brown fleece products, we’d choose that filter and pull up a variation on the “womens-fleece” URL:

      https://www.patagonia.com/shop/womens-fleece?prefn1=refinementColor&prefv1=Brown

      This image shows what faceted navigation filters look like.

      2. ThredUp

      The actual interface for faceted navigation can vary across brands. In this example from Thredup, results are highly customizable. Searchers can type in specific brands that they’re interested in finding, and the menu will offer suggestions based on what information they type.

      Users can also set a certain price range. This creates a web page of only products that are within the user’s budget.

      This image shows the Patagonia search section.

      3. Amazon

      Amazon is one of the best examples of how faceted navigation creates a valuable user interface. A search within the puzzles category will give users the option to cross-reference interests. The initial product offering is completely overwhelming with 30,000 possible results:

      This image shows Amazon's product search results.

      Simply by adding the filters “Harry Potter” and “TV and Movies,” however, the selection is narrowed down to less than 100 results.

      This image shows Amazon product results with a filter.

      Imagine if Amazon’s site structure was based on a menu of internal links to all of those individual product pages. Users would have an extremely difficult time finding what they’d need. This demonstrates how faceted navigation helps users find products and retailers increase their potential conversions.

      SEO problems caused by faceted navigation

      For all the ways that faceted navigation helps users, it can be tricky for SEO. Here are a few of the most common problems caused by faceted navigation.

      Creates duplicate content

      Each faceted search result creates a new URL for the website. Because these combinations may be very similar, individual URLs can lead to duplicate content issues. While indexing the duplicate pages, crawlers may have a hard time distinguishing them. URLs may end up competing against each other for the same keywords. This prevents either page from ranking highly.

      The image shows what duplicate content looks like.

      Depletes crawl budget

      Google also has a limit for how many pages it will crawl (per site) in a day. This is known as the “crawl budget.” The number of unique URLs generated by faceted navigation can max out your crawl budget and block more important pages from being promptly indexed.

      Diminishes link equity

      Another SEO problem from faceted navigation is that pages accumulate weaker link equity. Because external sources can be linking to any of the various near-identical URLs, this ultimately makes the entire page perform worse. A search engine won’t give these links as much weight because they don’t feature unique content.

      This image shows how link equity distribution works.

      The solutions to these issues primarily stem from technical SEO practices. Since facets and filtering options improve site usability, you don’t want to alter them. Instead, you can control how search engine bots crawl and index the content.

      Best practices for faceted navigation

      Even if you use an ecommerce platform like Magento for SEO, you will run into technical problems from the pagination, filtering, and sorting that happens on product pages. These best practices help you build a user-friendly navigation menu that doesn’t interrupt the pages’ ability to rank.

      Create an AJAX website

      AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML) is a development technique that creates user-friendly, interactive web pages. In the AJAX setup, a faceted page does not become a new URL. Instead, when users select subcategories and product characteristics, the resulting webpage is simply a “numbered page” on the existing URL.

      This approach allows you to create user-oriented content without creating a large number of pages. Overall, this stops the indexing process on dynamic pages and ensures that only the most relevant pieces of content make it to Google’s index.

      Add canonical tags

      Adding a rel=canonical tag helps crawlers narrow down their focus. When they go to crawl a page, the canonical tag sends them to a “master copy” instead. This ensures that only the main URL gets indexed and ranked for a certain keyword.

      This image shows how canonical tags work for faceted navigation.

      Doing this will help you focus link equity on one page rather than spreading it among several. Plus, it prevents near-identical product pages from cannibalizing each other in the SERPs.

      Use Google Search Console to block crawling efforts

      You can block crawling on pages with certain parameters through your Google Search Console dashboard. This only works for sites that have more than 1000 pages and whose duplicate pages are only separated by parameters.An example of this would be:

      amazon.com?product=yellow_pants vs. amazon.com?type=pants&color=yellow

      You can find the step-by-step instructions for how to block content crawling with the URL Parameters Tool here. This information is located under the “Usage” section.

      Note: This approach should only be used for sites whose faceted navigation loads content by using parameters. Retailers that don’t display content with parameters should use canonical tags instead.

      Audit your sitemap

      Submitting an XML sitemap is an SEO staple, but auditing your sitemap every now and then can improve your site’s overall performance. When you have so many unique URLs from faceted page views, it can clutter the sitemap.

      When checking your sitemap, check for any duplicate pages that don’t have a canonical tag. If you’re using canonical tags on your content, you want to make sure that those are the only pages that end up in the sitemap.

      Use noindex and nofollow tags

      You can add “noindex” tags to your content so that it won’t factor into your rankings. Just remember that this tactic only prevents indexation, not crawling. If you have a lot of category pages for the search engine to crawl, noindex pages still use up your crawl budget.

      To save crawl time, add a “nofollow” HTML tag, as well. Nofollow tags direct crawlers not to follow and crawl a link. They keep those pages from having any impact on your rankings.

      This screenshot explains what no follow link tags are.

      Together, noindex and nofollow tags direct crawlers’ attention away from pages that don’t need to be indexed or factored into your site’s overall SERP performance.

      Disallow content with a robots.txt file

      Noindex and nofollow tags work for individual pages, but what if you have thousands of URLs to manage? Using a robots.txt file to block certain URL parameters can save you a lot of time.

      Say that you have a price filter on your navigation pane. This helps users but doesn’t really add value to the content for crawlers. You can use a robots.txt file to disallow any URL with a price filter from being indexed. Remember, a disallow directive only recommends that crawlers ignore a parameter – it doesn’t guarantee it.

      While this approach may prevent link equity from passing through to the page, it can ultimately improve the quality and relevance of your indexed content.

      Research specific product filters

      There are certain situations where user facet and filter combinations may help your SEO. This is often the case with classic clothing items. For example, the number of Google results for “men’s white t-shirt” are more than double the results for “men’s pink t-shirt:”

      This screenshot shows the number of search engine results for a product filter.

      If you have an extensive product offering for one set of parameters, consider letting the search engine index that specific page. This may help you rank for a high-volume search term that you otherwise wouldn’t have.

      Get a complimentary SEO audit

      Ecommerce sites have the unique challenge of creating an exceptional shopping experience without damaging SEO performance. The hundreds and thousands of URLs that get created through faceted navigation only hurt the site’s rankings if they are left unmanaged. By setting up crawling and indexing instructions for the search engine, you can reduce the impact that faceted search has on your rankings without sacrificing a user-friendly interface.

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