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Ecommerce Guidelines: Category Page Hierarchy

Guidelines 107-109

Ecommerce Best Practices » Category Landing Page » Appearance » Category Hierarchy

What kind of content should you have on your site? How should you structure the menu? What should be the first-level menu items? One or two menus? What should the menu links be called?

Category hierarchy is the organization of categories, and is a part of your website’s information architecture.

Information architecture is no joke, yet the overwhelming majority of businesses have structured their site using the IMO method — “in my opinion”.

While common sense is a useful tool and a lot of sites are very simple (e.g. 5 pages total), there’s a better way to go about it.

It’s about organizing the content and flow of a website based on research and planning. The end goal of information architects is to come up with a structure/design that balances users’ desires with the business’ needs.

The next few guidelines provide information on the successful creation and organization of product categories.

I like the format and the ease of finding general categories. Things like furniture or home decor were easy enough to find before I started working through the subcategories.

3 guidelines for ecommerce category landing page hierarchy:

  1. Consider whether your categories should be a deep or shallow hierarchy.
  2. Users shouldn’t have to search more than 4 levels into the hierarchy.
  3. Shallow parent categories will confuse users, avoid them.

Guideline #107. Consider whether your categories should be a deep or shallow hierarchy.

Both approaches display the same amount of information, just in different ways.

A shallow category hierarchy has only a few levels of categories, sometimes just main categories and subcategories (e.g. Candles > Soy Candles).

A deep hierarchy has more category levels, for example main categories > categories > subcategories > sub-subcategories > further subcategories (e.g. Departments > Home > Decor > Candles> Soy Candles).

If you sell a wide variety of products (think Amazon), your site requires a deep hierarchy so people can accurately navigate to every product. Can you imagine if Amazon only had main categories and subcategories? No one would use the navigation tool anymore.

It takes a bit longer to find a product in deep hierarchies, as they involve more clicks and page loads.

Shallow (flat) categories enhance browsing behaviors, as users naturally see more subcategories/products while navigating.

I found it a little difficult to navigate to the section for table lamps under $100. I had to go through a lot of different categories and subcategories and a couple different specifications in order to get there. It seemed to take a lot of steps.

More streamlined with less categories per page

How to do it RIGHT


Has 3 category levels: Main categories (protein & fitness), categories (Protein), and subcategories (Whey Protein)


Also has 3 category levels


Has 4 category levels

Guideline #108. Users shouldn’t have to search more than 4 levels into the hierarchy.

Apply this general rule of thumb to the information architecture of your product categories.

If users have to go deeper than four levels when navigating to a product, you probably don’t have the best product organization.

Card sorting and reverse card sorting are efficient ways to build and validate a highly usable category hierarchy.

You don’t have to conduct card sorting in person. Doing it online is cheaper, doesn’t require logistics planning and can be done without geographical limitations. You can’t be “there” and moderate it (although you could be having a Skype chat at the same time), so proper pre-education of test participants is a must. Some pros and cons of online card sorting are pointed out in this article.

The categories and subcategories are done well and it only took me one or 2 clicks to get to the results of items that I am searching for.

How to do it RIGHT

West Elm

Although West Elm sells a wide variety of products, the deepest category is only 3 levels away.

What’s more, the deepest category is only one click away because of the way west elm displays categories in this dropdown menu.

Guideline #109. Shallow parent categories will confuse users, avoid them.

Intsead of creating a category for throw pillows with only 3 items in it, include those 3 throw pillow in the accessories category.

Users will see a shallow category and think something is missing, or perhaps that the page isn’t fully loaded. Instead, add the few products in a category to a different one.

The “Coolers” category on the Bass Pro menu confusingly has no subcategories and may be better as a subcategory in the Camp Stoves & Cooking or Camp Essentials categories. Also, the Sleeping Bags and Cots, Bed & Sleeping Pads categories should be grouped together under a sleeping type of parent category:

How to do it RIGHT


On Hayneedle, each parent category has a solid structure and number of subsequent categories

Continue to the next section:

Ecommerce Best Practices » Category Landing Page » Appearance » Subcategories