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The majority of websites out there, particularly ecommerce sites, use categories, filters, or both to help improve user experience and overall navigation. When you have a lot of content and information to offer, it makes sense to have them grouped together to help make things easier (in fact, it’s a necessity). However, what many first-time entrepreneurs or webmasters don’t always realize is that a category versus a filter makes a huge difference when it comes to SEO.

You shouldn’t just pick which one is easier or which one looks better, you should think about how each structure will affect your ranking in the SERPs. This will help ensure that you’re getting it right the first time for your future success.

How a Category and a Filter Differ

Sometimes categories and filters can look similar to users and the terms get mixed up, but Google and most SEOs can tell the difference by looking at the URL of a page. Below is how you might define a category and a filter with examples:

Category: A category means you are taking whatever it is you offer and breaking it up into smaller groups, each with its own webpage. For example, if you were selling clothing, you may want to have different categories for Men, Women, and Children. When looking at a URL, a category page will look like this:

Filter: A filter is something that you would have your visitors use when they are already looking at one of your categories. In other words, think of a filter as something within a category. For example, if your clothing website had a category for Men and then a subcategory for Shoes, a filter by Size might be something you want for your site. When looking at a URL for a filter, you will oftentimes see a “?” in the URL:

As you can probably tell from looking at the URLs above, category pages look much cleaner and simpler than filter page URLs do. This actually does factor into the way that Google sees these pages and makes decisions. In most situations, search engines are more likely to index category pages over filter pages.

Nonetheless, this little fact doesn’t mean that filter pages are useless and shouldn’t be a part of your site. Scott Langdon, Managing Partner where I work at HigherVisibility, says that “Having lots of category pages can get confusing for your visitors, so filters are necessary for many companies—you just have to keep the bots in mind and know when to use a category page and when to use a filter.”

The Right Time to Use Category Pages

You should always start with category pages, or focus on creating these pages first. Look at your search volume and let the numbers break up all of your information for you naturally. You want whatever topics have the most search volume to be your category pages. Use Google Keyword Planner (formerly Google Keyword Tool) to help you see these numbers and help you visualize what exactly your categories should be. Keep in mind, you’ll have to have an AdWords account for this.

Below is an example of someone who might be creating a website to sell Vintage Jewelry. As you can see, a lot of people are interested in Costume Jewelry, so it would make sense for you to have a category called Costume Jewelry. A good subcategory page based on this data, then, could be Handmade Jewelry.

As discussed above, you don’t want to have too many category pages, because that can get confusing (which is where filters become a nice option). Ideally, you don’t want to have category pages that are four pages deep, meaning it takes four clicks to get to a page from the homepage. Below would be an example of a four page deep site because you have four different categories:

Vintage Jewelry — Costume Jewelry — Handmade Jewelry — Handmade Rings

The above advice just talks about subcategories. When it comes to actual category pages, you will have to use your best judgment and break up your information naturally as discussed above. Try to stay on the lower side, about 7-8 categories, but you can go higher if needed.

The Right Time to Use Filters for Your Website

The most common types of filter pages are price, size, and color. If you think about it, people are not going to type “size 4 rings” into Google when they are searching; they are going to type in “vintage rings.” Again, an easy way to think about this is by looking at your search volume and using your common sense. You want to find elements of your product/service that is still important but doesn’t have a high search volume.

Do you have a lot of experience with category vs. filter pages? How do you determine when to use each page, and have you noticed any SEO issues? Let us know your story and your thoughts in the comments below.

Amanda DiSilvestro gives small business and entrepreneurs SEO advice ranging from keyword density to recovering from Panda and Penguin updates. She writes for the nationally recognized SEO Company that offers online marketing services to a wide range of companies across the country.