Google’s John Mueller answered a question about how to rank a category page over a product page. Along the way he discussed how links are viewed by Google and the negative ranking effect of keyword stuffing.
How to Rank a Category Page?
The publisher’s product page was ranking for a keyword phrase. But they felt that the appropriate page should be the category page. The publisher confirmed that the category page was indexed.
Internal Linking for Ranking a Category Page
John Mueller answered:
“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.”
Less than optimal site architecture is something I have seen in client website audits. A poor navigational structure can keep users and bots from reaching the pages you want them to find. This can add an unnecessary one or two clicks toward reaching a category page.
Category pages are useful pages for users and for ranking, particularly for the more general two word phrases.
User Intent and Product Pages that Rank
Something John Mueller didn’t discuss, perhaps because he was taking the publisher at their word, is that Google’s algorithm may sometimes understand that a certain percentage of users are looking for a specific product when they use a general phrase.
In that case, the publisher’s specific page may be the right page to show, better than the category page.
Of course, the best outcome would be to show both pages, the category page and the product page. The point I want to make is that the reason a specific page is shown may be a reflection of what users want.
Keyword Stuffing can Cause Inability to Rank
Mueller then goes on to suggest that a reason a category page might not rank is because of too many keywords. This is called keyword stuffing (or term spamming).
There is a lot of nuance to this topic and maybe it’s best for it’s own article about keyword best practices. The key point is that excessive keyword use, according to John Mueller, can cause the page to be less trusted and affect it’s ability to rank.
John Mueller said:
“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.”
What do you think Mueller mean by a page being fishy? I believe it mostly means that a page has the appearance of being untrustworthy.
Mueller then goes on to recommend moderation in the use of keywords.
“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. “
Link Building to Help Rank a Category Page
The publisher then asked if building external links into the category page, as well as to the website home page, would be helpful.
At this point, when the discussion turned to building links, Mueller appeared to become somewhat measured in his response. He affirmed that yes, links can help a category page rank in Google. But his voice contained what I felt was a guarded affirmation. His full response included his advice against building artificial links.
“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.”
Interesting answer, right? Links, from Google’s point of view, are something that evolve (naturally) over time.
There is so much that can be inferred from that statement with regards to the speed and pace of link building.
However, it’s just one sentence with no further discussion to give it more context. Best to not read too much into that sentence. Yet it is still worth taking note of it.
John Mueller Advises Against Artificial Links
Mueller goes on to advise against building artificial links. Google has published a Webmaster Help Page about link schemes that is worth reading if there’s a question about what constitutes “artificial links.”
This what Mueller advised:
“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.”
Fixing a Category Page Ranking is a Long Term Project
John Mueller advises that fixing the category page ranking issue should be considered as a long term project. I believe many in the search community would find that statement debatable. Changes to a page can lead to ranking change within days. I know this for a fact as I have experienced this as recently as the past month.
Nevertheless, I tend to agree with Mueller that it’s best to see ranking a category page as a long term project. Internal linking patterns and (lack of) links from outside the site can play a role.
Here’s what Mueller said:
“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.”
Takeaways for Ranking Category Pages
Here are the key points:
1. Optimize internal linking.
Make sure category page is well linked to within site
2. Don’t keyword spam
Repeating keywords can cause Google to regard the page with caution
3. Links are Good. But…
Mueller agreed that links are good but cautioned against artificially creating inbound links.
4. Make it easy for users to find the category page
When the product page is ranking where the category page should rank, Mueller suggests adjusting the product page to make it easier for users to find the category page.
I have reservations on that last point. I’m not saying that John Mueller is wrong. I’m simply adding additional observations based on my experience.
Google tends to show specific product pages for specific search queries (like sizes, colors and models). Google tends to show more category or informational pages for vague queries.
It’s odd for Google to show a product page for a general term. To me it makes sense to rank a product page for a general search term if there’s evidence that a percentage of users seek a specific product when searching with a general phrase. In that case,
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