E-Comm Fiddly Bits: Product Categorization

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Now, with product categorization, we’re going to start getting into some real nerdery and therefore stuff I’m very stoked on. It’s also the kind of thing where you really need to figure out what works best for your products and your CMS. I’m going to try to be briefer and give you some good resources to check out and use as works best for your brain and what you’re doing.

Simple illustration of person with three dishes in front of them, with different amounts of balls in them. Person is throwing a ball to farthest dish.

Just what is product categorization?

It’s the rare online shop or shopper’s mood that browses endless unfiltered pages looking for the thing they want. Mostly, folks navigate to the top-level category that describes the thing they’re looking for and go from there.

Let’s look at our pretend shop again. Aesoap Bath doesn’t have a whole lot of products but what they do have can be categorized into:

  • Bath
  • Body
  • Accessories

Once somebody navigates to a category (let’s say “Bath”) they then have the choice of going to a sub-category or filtering all the products in the Bath category right there. For a more text-adventure-y example, the person browsing either:

Chooses sub-category “Bath Bombs” and is presented with all the bath bombs available, in different scents.


Filters all products in “Bath” by clicking “Lavender” under the “Scents” filter on the sidebar and is presented with all bath products (bubble bath, bath oil, bath bombs) that have lavender in them.


That’s the ideal basic experience. You have categories and filters that help a potential customer find what they’re looking for. Why not have “Bath Bombs” as its own top-level category, if you know they’re a top seller? Honestly, you totally can! You know your customer behaviour best. Here are some reasons not to:

  • You limit the shopping experience early on, meaning a person has to navigate out of a category, losing any filters, to see other products they want.
  • If you follow that train of thought too often, you begin offering too many categories, which creates a paralysation of choice right at the start, not ideal when you’re trying to make sales.
  • The Big Corporate Company who has site organisation you admire has “Bath Bombs” as a sub-category under “Bath” and they have way more resources to research this stuff.

This is all very skimming the topic, so we’ll check out some more in-depth resources.

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Three good resources for figuring out e-commerce product categorizing

Like everything we’ve been going over, categorization really depends on your own personal variables. I think these three articles have some good things to keep in mind as you figure out or refine categories and filters.


The basics of categorization

This three-point post on WebsiteMuscle gives a really clear and quick definition of categories and filters. It also gives a basic outline of the process of categorizing, with this tip that I think is super valuable:

Speaking of which, be sure to categorize products for your e-commerce site based on the terms your customers use. This may not be the correct or technical term used in your industry, but who cares? If it’s not the term your target market uses, you’ll lose customers.


A more in-depth look at categorization

I really like the explanation and examples used in this post from Baymard warning about over-categorization. It also goes over “product types” and has some reports backing up their observations.

Even if you’re a very small business with very few products, the advice they give is a good thing to keep in mind. Having these terms and thoughts in mind will also help you find why certain sites work for you and why some don’t. Remember, knowing what you don’t like is just as valuable as knowing what you do!

It’s possible that the content management system you’re using doesn’t even have an option for filtering a category because some CMS are obstinate and weird. If you do have the option for filters, though, this is a paragraph I want to frame:

Because filters are combinable they afford the user much greater customization power over the product list, yet it is the user’s category scope that determines which filters are available to begin with. This interdependency between categories and filters can make them look all the more alike, yet actually just makes it even more important to correctly distinguish the two, as misimplementing one hurts automatically hurts the other.


The design of categorization

Beyond just what gets slotted into a category, how that category looks to the person browsing makes a big difference. This brief post at Shopify has some good visual examples and tips of what tends to work best.

They look at both the category page and the product page and offer advice on text and image balance, which is (like everything) so variable on the product. What’s nice is that they understand this, adding at the end:

It’s important to note that there are no magic numbers here. What works for one business may not work for another.

Haha, sorry, there are no shortcuts beyond paying someone else to do it for you (and then there are no shortcuts for them).


Real talk, I’m partially limiting what I’m saying about categorization because I have opinions and love talking about categories, but it’s something that is difficult to talk about theoretically. It can also be difficult if you’re trying to re-organise legacy categorization that was in place for a long time, or that you didn’t build yourself.

There are so many variables in categorizing products! But, if you’re doing your research and thinking about what experience you want to give a shopper and how best to talk about your products, then you’ve got the tools to categorize correctly.


This post was originally published on my Patreon. Patrons get early access to posts and their support keeps me going on a lot of levels. Thanks, y’all!

Also published on Medium.