Building an ecommerce product database to satisfy your target consumer requires three disciplines in order to get it right: usability, the use of filters and naming convention.
In this context to 'satisfy' is to display navigation in an intuitive manner, to use navigation techniques to compliment the buying process, and to name category titles your consumers recognise and understand.
This topic normally falls into the 'too hard' category, and is driven by legacy product database systems with little or no flexibility. If you have the time, and the infrastructure to manage the database from the perspective of the consumer experience, then work to these disciplines.
Usability: layout out the navigation
This first discipline focuses on allowing consumers easily find their way to product detail level. The varying quality of super menus (the drop down menu appearing and disappearing when you hover over the main navigation bar) can be 'hit and miss'.
Add to this the inconsistent nature of how the super menu displays on mobile devices, and it becomes a less desirable tool (lets not argue here about responsive vs mobile specific design).
The power of the active window' is still as strong as ever. Eye tracking studies still show consistent 'F shape' patterns indicating consistent consumer behaviour scanning for content relevant to their needs in the body of main landing pages.
Accommodate this behaviour by displaying category tiles in the body of main landing pages i.e. home page, main category pages, main sub category pages.
Introducing products on the homepage and main category pages is too early. Major online players boast personalisation technology to display relevant products on the home page, but why would I want to see sunglasses on the home page when I purchased a pair the last time I was on the site?
Or better yet, if I did not purchase the sunglasses, why is there the assumption I am returning with the same buying intent or the same goals as before?
Do not try to be too clever, remember the purpose of the home page is to move consumers through to the next step of their buying process as soon as possible. Stick to categories.
When displaying categories in the body of pages, retailers do not need to repeat every single category or sub category in the navigation structure.
This is where pragmatic and strategic thinking comes into play and the use of the Pareto Principle (also known as the 80/20 rule). Feature those categories where the majority of the sales come from.
At the time of writing this article, The Iconic allocated the entire home page to displaying categories, no products featured.
Once you have consumers at sub category level, moving them to product detail page is made easier through the use of filters.
Filters: to use or not to use
Filters quickly refine products listed at sub category level via the selection of a product attribute (specific piece of information about a product).
The most common elements to filter by are price (range), size, colour, material, and sometimes brand. The list of filter types can be extensive and are influenced by the number of product attributes available.
If the product database is set up properly with the right information being captured in the right fields, a retailer has a lot of flexibility.
For example Styletread uses many filters including heel height for women's shoes, an important part of women's shoe selection (I wouldn't know). It takes a lot of planning and organisation of a database to get to this level of filtering, but if it supports and enhances the buying process, it is worth the effort.
Caution #1. Do not overuse filters.
It's important to understand the mechanics of filters to understand why this can pose a problem. When a filter is selected, the digital infrastructure sifts through the entire database to determine if a product has the attribute selected.
If it does, the site displays the product within that category. This can pose problems as seen on Styletread. Select a filter and see how long it takes to display your selection.
At the time of writing this article, it took at least three to four seconds for the first filter selection to display products. Why?, because it is working through a massive database.
This was tested at numerous times for five consecutive days in a row to avoid the possibility of Styletread having a bad day. The results were consistent.
If the infrastructure is not prepared, filters can slow your buying process down to the point where frustration will result. The slow response of sites in displaying products once a filter is selected is common.
An example of filter selection producing results very quickly would be Zappos.
Caution #2. Do not use filtered results as landing pages.
Filtered sub category pages do not comply with best practice landing page layouts and should not be used as destination URL’s for adword campaigns. The purpose of filters is to enhance the buying process.
If a retailer feels brand is an effective filter type, then use it, but don’t stop there. A brand (with demand) should have its own category.
Examples of retailers using brands as filters and categories can be seen by both Zappos and Surfstitch. When the focus turns to an acquisition strategy (through the use of adwords), retailers cannot control the filtered results pages.
Category pages can be manipulated to display content in whatever form necessary to achieve relevancy goals and deliver a high standard of copy, images, and video.
The same argument goes for high demand terms which incorporates style i.e. 'Women's High Heels'.
Do the titles of your categories and sub categories make sense? Not to you, to your target consumer?
Developing a naming convention for categories and sub categories to align to the demand of your target consumer is an SEO fundamental, but more importantly this discipline facilitates the creation of category names that makes sense to the people using it.
The biggest challenge comes from traditional bricks and mortar retailers who have category titles cemented in legacy systems.
Decision-making has always been an internal one, driven by the various teams: buying, merchandising, marketing, and senior management. This traditional discipline needs a shake up and an outward focus as opposed to an inward one.
If a young gentleman is looking for a long sleeve garment for winter what is the proper terminology for the sub category?: 'sweaters', 'hoodies', 'pullovers', 'jumpers', 'sweatshirts?
Step one is to select a title that makes sense (common sense always prevails).
If there is more than one option (there usually is) go where the demand is. To assist in the decision making the use of your own analytics (review site search data) and Google's keyword research tool is all the resource required (make sure you use phrase match when conducting your research).
This is not the sexiest or buzziest of topics, however, get this right and you will be rewarded with improvements in engagement, SEO, adwords ROI, and overall conversion rate.