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Whenever Google’s John Mueller speaks, the community listens to what he has to say. Recently, he answered a question about how to rank a category page over a product page. As part of the discussion, he covered how Google views links and the negative ranking effect of keyword stuffing.
How Do You Rank a Category Page?
The publisher who asked the question saw their product page was ranking for a keyword phrase. However, they thought the appropriate page for that keyword would be the category page. The publisher was able to confirm the category page was indexed.
Mueller answered with:
“Some of the things I think you should look at here, one thing is to make sure that the category page is well-linked within your website.
So if you have multiple products that are all in the same category or related to that category then link to that category page so that when we crawl the website we can really understand this category page is actually really important.”
This is something I’ve come across in many client website audits. Often, they have a less-than-optimal site architecture and this prevents users and bots from reaching the pages you want them to find. It can add an unnecessary few extra clicks toward reaching a category page. A clear site hierarchy is crucial for user experience and for the crawlers.
Category pages are useful for users and for ranking, particularly when it comes to more general two word phrases.
User Intent and Ranking Product Pages
Something Mueller didn’t discuss, may be because he was taking the publisher’s word is that the Google algorithm sometimes understands that a percentage of users are looking for a specific product even when they use a general phrase.
In that situation, a product-specific page maybe the right page to show, better than the category page. Of course, the optimal outcome would be to show both pages – the category page and the product page. It’s worth pointing out that the reason a specific page is shown may be a reflection of what the user wants.
Keyword Stuffing May Prevent Ranking
Mueller suggests that a reason category page may not rank is because of using too many keywords. This practice, known as keyword stuffing or term spamming, is something Google frowns upon. Though it used to be a popular and easy way to rank for nearly anything you wanted to in the past, Google has grown smarter and more effective at preventing pages that keyword stuff from ranking.
Keyword stuffing and keyword best practices deserve an article of its own. However the point is that using too many keywords, or using keywords too much, can cause the page to be less trustworthy thereby affecting its ability to rank.
“Another thing that I sometimes see, especially with e-commerce sites that kind of struggle with this kind of a problem is that they go to an extreme on the category page in that they include those keywords over and over and over again.
And what happens in our systems then is we look at this page and we see these keywords repeated so often on that page that we think well, something is kind of fishy with this page, with regards to these keywords, well maybe we should be more careful when we show it.”
“So it might be that you’re… kind of overdoing it with the category page in that it would perhaps make sense to kind of move back a little bit and say, I will focus my category page on these keywords and make sure that it’s a good page for that but not go too far overboard.
So that when we look at this page we’ll see… this is a reasonable page, there’s good content here, we can show it for these terms. We don’t have to worry about whether or not someone is trying to unnaturally overdo it with those keywords. “
Linking Building and Ranking a Category Page
The publisher went on to ask if building external links to the category page as well as to the website homepage would be helpful. Once the discussion turned to building links, he said:
“Yeahhh… I… I mean… that’s that’s something doesn’t… doesn’t cause any problems and from our point of view, uhm…in general backlinks from other websites are something that we would see as something that would evolve naturally over time.”
In other words, links are fine, but getting too many too fast is the red flag. don’t engage in black hat SEO techniques of buying links or participating in link schemes. Focus on slowly and steadily building links to all parts of your website where they are a natural fit.
Perhaps more importantly, focus on creating high-quality content that people want to link to on their own. This will help position you as more of an authority.
“So I don’t think you’d need to go out and kind of artificially go out and artificially build backlinks to a category page like that.”
There’s a Webmaster help page about link schemes that is worth reading if you have any questions about what constitutes an artificial link.
“I think, what I would also do in a case like this is kind of go with the assumption that you won’t be able to fix this very quickly. Not, not that it’s impossible but kind of assume that it’s… it’s going to stick around a little bit because sometimes our algorithms do take a bit of time to adjust.
And… find a way to make it so that when users land on that product page that they realize there’s actually a category page that might be more useful to them.
So, something like a small banner or some other visual element on the page so that when users go to that product page they can find their way to the category page fairly easily… so that you don’t have to worry about the short term problem that maybe the wrong page is ranking.
And in the meantime, you can kind of work on creating a reasonable solution for the category page itself.”
The most important takeaway from this question is that fixing a category page ranking issue needs to be thought of as a long-term project. Changes to a page may lead to ranking changes within days, but that doesn’t mean you should expect that to be the case. Internal linking patterns and the lack of links from outside the site also play a role.