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Understanding Faceted Navigation and SEO Best Practices

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What is faceted navigation?

Faceted navigation is a technique that allows users to narrow down the internal search results with the help of multiple filters. It is used to help users find what they’re looking for more easily.

Faceted navigation is most commonly found on the category pages of ecommerce sites but other types of large sites with many listings can benefit as well such as websites with stock images, business listings, and job vacancies as well as travel and booking sites. 

How does faceted navigation work?

If you have ever shopped on an ecommerce site that multiple product categories, vendors, price points, etc, you have no doubt experienced using faceted navigation.  Faceted navigation works by filtering listings (or products) based on one or more attributes. Common examples are price, color, brand, or weight.  Typically they are displayed like this:

How the site reacts once a filter or filters is applied is determined by how the developer has set up the navigation.  Typically this is figured by the likelihood that a user will apply more than one filter.  It is most often the case that once the filters are applied, the URL will change to reflect the narrowed down selection..

How faceted navigation can affect SEo.

Faceted navigation can often lead to the same content being accessible via multiple URLs. It can look something like this:

Same product, two URLs.

Faceted navigation potentially creates a near-infinite number of facet combinations and indexable URLs. If you have issues with one of these, the SEO impact tends to be high.

Here are some examples of the types of issues that can occur and how they can impact your SEO.

Duplicate content
Duplicate content is when the same or similar content is accessible at multiple URLs. Filters are well known for creating URLs with duplicate content. The problem is that they are treated as separate, indexable URLs.

You can check for duplicate content on your site using tools like Website Auditor or Screaming Frog.

Waste of Crawl Budget

Google can only dedicate a finite amount of resources to crawling the pages on your site. This is known as your crawl budget. Faceted navigation produces a huge number of new URLs. When those URLs are indexed, the crawler may waste all your crawl budget on those unnecessary faceted pages instead of really important ones.

Dilution of Page Rank

PageRank is divided by the total number of links on the page. Faceted navigation which has generated many internal links can cause your PageRank to be split between a number of unnecessary faceted pages. Rather than PageRank passing to important product or category pages, it’ll pass to the links found within your filters, which in most cases won’t help improve search traffic.

How to remedy faceted navigation issues.

Use canonical tags.
If you’re facing indexing issues but no alarming crawl budget issues (and don’t have a huge site), you can tag the main categories as canonical URLs and make all the faceted pages point to their parent pages. This way, you can avoid indexing issues and consolidate link equity. However, its important to remember that canonical tags are treated by Google as a hint, not a directive.

Fix crawling with robots.txt

If you’re having crawl budget issues and you don’t need signals to consolidate, you can use robots.txt to block Google from crawling any faceted URLs.

To block crawling of a URL with the robots.txt, add a disallow rule like the below:

User-agent: *

Disallow: *size=*

In the example above, two wildcards (*) have bee added around the parameter.

If your faceted navigation works by appending directories, your rule will look like this:

User-agent: *

Disallow: */size/*

This solution will not work well in all instances. If you have no discernible patterns within the URL for disallowing, robots.txt will not work. This could be because each page is given unique parameters or directories for facets.

Nofollow and/or remove internal links to faceted URLs.
There is no point in blocking certain pages from crawling if they are still linked to from other pages. They will be crawled anyway, and you’ll end up with a “bloated index” and wasted crawl budget. No follow or remove internal links to those URLs.

Use the noindex tag.
If the steps above are not working to fix your faceted navigation issues, then your last resort is the noindex tag.

The no index tag is a surefire way to prevent the indexing of facet pages. The downside is you don’t consolidate ranking signals, and over time, Google may stop crawling internal links on a no indexed page, meaning no passage of ranking signals. But, if all else is failing, this is a good way of getting faceted URLs out of Google’s index.

Key Takeaway

Faceted navigation is great for helping users discover what they’re looking for in less time. The downside is that it comes with many potential SEO complications that you’ll need to alleviate. Taking the time to audit your site and determine which strategy will work best can save you a lot in terms of crawling and indexing issues that can wreak havoc on your site performance.