What Is Faceted Navigation? The Main Factors to Consider for SEO
If you’ve ever shopped online, you’ve definitely come across faceted navigation — you may just not have realized it!
Ordering by price, filtering by size, and sorting by color are all great examples of faceted navigation (also called faceted search or, sometimes, guided navigation).
Simply put, faceted navigation is a way to help visitors navigate and personalize a page to find the exact product they’re looking for. The pages faceted navigations create can also help people searching specific, long-tail queries find the exact products they’re looking for in the search results.
As useful as faceted search can be for users, it can cause some serious problems for SEO if you’re not careful. Let’s take a look at some faceted navigation examples and see what kinds of issues can arise.
What types of websites have faceted navigation?
Faceted navigation has become a hallmark of e-commerce sites, but retailers aren’t the only ones who use it.
- Publishers often use faceted navigation to help visitors filter by content type (Date, Topic, etc.)
- Classifieds sites such as job listing sites use faceted navigation to help visitors filter by things like location.
- Large websites of all types often use faceted navigation. Generally, the larger the site, the more likely there’s some sort of faceted navigation to improve user experience.
All of these sites are prone to the SEO pitfalls that faceted navigation often causes, so let’s explore what those common issues are.
What SEO problems can faceted navigation cause?
According to Google, faceted navigation is often not search-friendly.
Why? Because facets create multiple versions of the same URL. (We’ll return to how this works in a bit.)
This causes four main SEO problems:
- Duplicate content, because multiple versions of the same page exist on your site. Many facets don’t change the page content much, if at all. For example, an option to sort products by price could create multiple pages with the same products on it, just in a different order.
- Diluted link equity, because internal linking will be spread across multiple URLs. Instead of one variation of a page to link to, there may be hundreds. This is bad because, instead of one page getting the benefit of all the links to it, some of those links go to duplicates.
- Crawl waste, because Google will spend time on duplicate pages and may miss / not have time to crawl your valuable pages.
- Crawl traps, because in many cases, faceted navigation can create an almost endless combination of your core URLs. This is called a crawl trap, because bots literally get trapped crawling these URLs.
Some SEOs might argue that faceted navigation is a way to easily create pages targeted for long-tail search queries with small but specific search intent. However, you should always first validate whether search intent for that topic actually exists.
Remember, just because you can create a page doesn’t mean you should!
Examples of SEO issues created by faceted navigation
Let’s look at an example of an e-commerce website with fewer than 200,000 product pages.
When Botify conducted a crawl following the same rules as the ones this site had set for Google in robots.txt, we found that there were more than 500 million pages accessible.
Remember, this e-commerce site had fewer than 200,000 products, and yet its page count accessible to search engine bots was more than 500 million!
The cause? This site’s faceted navigation was creating an infinite number of combinations for the same URL, and unfortunately, that’s not an uncommon occurrence.
But what do we mean by “multiple versions of the same URL?”
Say, for example, we’re on an e-commerce site that sells computers, and we’re looking at the “monitors” category page.
The main URL for that page would likely be:
Now let’s say there are filters for screen size, resolution, and connectivity, and I select that I want to see 19-inch monitors with 1600×900 resolution that have HDMI connectivity.
After making those selections, I’d end up with a faceted URL that looks something like this:
This is a narrowed-down version of the same monitors page I’ve been on the whole time. This page doesn’t have different content, just less of it.
That page will also be incredibly similar to other narrowed-down versions of the page that are possible for visitors to create, like this:
And, depending on your Content Management System (CMS) and your developers, there could even be different combinations of the same URL — essentially, two pages that both exist and are exactly the same, like:
The only difference between the two pages above is that the facets are listed in different orders, depending on which order the visitor clicked on the filters.
Knowing this, it’s probably no longer surprising that a site with 200,000 product pages could end up with more than 500 million pages.
As good as it is for users to be able to customize their search and find the best product depending on their needs, search engines will certainly have trouble figuring out which pages you want them to index.
Knowing that Google isn’t crawling half the pages on your average enterprise website, you might be wondering, which half are they missing?
Are they missing your low-value, duplicate pages? Or are they missing your critical, revenue-driving product pages?
We also know that, with a low ratio of crawled pages, sites have fewer pages generating traffic from organic search, and those numbers only get worse as sites increase in size.
Case in point — we can’t leave it up to bots to guess.
How do I know if Google is finding my important pages?
To see if search engine bots like Google are finding your important pages, or wasting time on duplicate facet pages, you can look at your server log files.
To see which of your pages Google has indexed, you can spotcheck URLs in Google Search Console (GSC) or use Botify to see all faceted pages that are indexed.
To see which of these pages are receiving clicks and traffic, you can use Google or Adobe Analytics, GSC for spot checks, or Botify (via our Analytics and GSC integrations).
Ideally, it’s only your primary, valuable pages that Googlebot is crawling, indexing, ranking, and driving traffic to your site. You’ll want Googlebot to stay away from your duplicate pages created by facets and filters so that you don’t risk harming the performance of your high-value pages.
How to audit your faceted navigation for SEO
It’s one thing to understand faceted navigation SEO issues in theory. The next hurdle is to understand how faceted navigation is impacting our own sites.
If you want to audit your site for faceted navigation SEO issues, we recommend the following steps:
1. Get familiar with how facets work on your site
In order to diagnose faceted search issues, you’ll need to have a good understanding of how your site uses faceted navigation.
To figure this out, ask questions such as:
- Do facets exist only on my category pages, or do we use facets on other sections of the site like the blog as well?
- Is there a hierarchical order how facets are appended to your URLs? (e.g. brand facets are always first and pricing facets are always second)
- Is there a limit to how many facets you can add, or are endless combinations possible? (e.g. user-generated facets where anything typed into the site search bar creates a new facet)
In Botify, you can use Advanced Segmentation or Custom Extracts to quantify and visualize your website’s faceted navigation. In the example below, we’re looking at a 20 million page website with more than 19 million faceted pages — more than 80% of those have 3+ facets added.
By getting to know your site’s faceted navigation, you’ll gain a better understanding of the scope of the SEO issues it might be causing.
2. Evaluate traffic to your faceted pages
Once you understand how many and what kind of facets are on your website, you can use your analytics to identify if any of those pages are valuable — in other words, which faceted pages are driving organic search traffic to your site?
You can easily see this by looking at active pages by facet in Botify. For example, on this site we can see that most of its pages (URLs with 3 facets) are not driving traffic. That’s a huge crawl budget risk, which leads us to the next step.
3. Identify crawl waste on faceted pages
As we just saw, some faceted pages can drive traffic from organic search. However, other faceted pages can waste your crawl budget. How can you know which is which?
A good place to start is comparing “Crawls by Google” (bots) to “Visits from Google” (users).
In the example below, URLs with 3+ facets take up a large portion of the crawl budget (they get more hits from Googlebot than any other URLs on the site). However, those pages generate very few visitors from Google Organic.
If Googlebot is crawling certain pages a ton, but those pages aren’t driving traffic, those pages may be wasting your crawl budget.
4. Identify search demand for your faceted pages
Once you understand what’s happening on your site, it’s time to look off-site at search demand. In other words, is there enough search demand for the pages we’re creating?
If a page created by your faceted navigation has low or no demand (e.g. very few people are searching for “leather jacket size medium”), you may want to consider keeping it out of the index. On the other hand, if a page created by your faceted navigation has high demand (e.g. lots of people search for “leather jacket under $100”), it’s a good idea to ensure these pages are indexable.
5. Check your inventory to understand where you could serve more results to users
Finally, use your inventory (product or content) to understand where you could serve more results to users.
In Botify, you can use custom extracts to identify how many products you have on each category page. Then, you could prioritize the URLs with optimal products to drive more traffic and conversions.
How should I treat my faceted navigation pages?
Knowing how to treat your faceted navigation pages is complex, so we’ve created our version of a decision chart based on Aleyda’s Crawling Monday episode on Indexing Faceted Pages to help you guide search bots using meta tags.
Following this chart, you’ll end up with three buckets of faceted pages:
- Index (should always have a self-referencing canonical tag, shouldn’t be blocked from robots.txt, and should have valuable internal links pointing to it)
- Don’t index (should contain a noindex tag)
Once you’ve sorted your faceted navigation pages into those groups, you’ll have a much clearer picture of what actions you need to take.
For insight into a real-world faceted search example, check out “SEO at Scale: What Large Ecommerce Sites do Differently.” In it, Barnes & Noble SEO and Personalization Manager Jessica Flareau explains how important faceted navigation is to her company’s SEO strategy and shares some execution tactics during the audience Q&A.
While there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for dealing with faceted navigation (this differs based on many factors like your CMS and the development resources you can get), we’ll walk you through some tips and best practices you can use to index, noindex, or block crawls of your faceted navigation pages in part two of this article, so stay tuned for that!