When it comes to B2B online buying, product categories are more than just stacking up products in the right place. Especially for industrial distributors that want to attract and engage casual web searchers (and hopefully retain them as new customers), product categories have a profound impact on how customers find your site, how easily they can browse for products once on your site, and their overall perception of your brand.

Product Categories Drive Organic Traffic

There are plenty of strategies to increase traffic to your website. There’s an entire industry centered around this, in fact. If you’re not ready to engage a third-party to help improve organic traffic, optimizing your product categories with keywords can be a simple place to start.

For B2B buyers who aren’t sure of the exact product they need, many begin their research with an Internet search. Clearly organized and named product categories are a great way to attract these researchers (and potential new customers) to your website. By naming product categories with words Internet searchers actually use, you can improve your site’s ranking in search results.

For example, if you name a product category on your website waste receptacles, but most people call these products trash cans, your website won’t appear in a search for trash can because it doesn’t match the term being searched. Also, if your product categories have vague names, such as miscellaneous or other, you won’t appear in search results for specific products that may live in those vague categories.

Simple keyword research and distinct category grouping are both great places to start when optimizing your website for SEO.

Categories Facilitate Product Discovery

Once those researchers have clicked on a search result, they can quickly understand what your site sells and narrow down to the product they want using your product categories.

How do they do this? In two words: find and compare.

How well your customers find and compare products depend heavily on how you group products together. If you sell consumer goods like T-shirts and travel mugs, this seems like a relatively simple task. Not so when you sell 500,000 industrial products across a broad range of categories like cutting tools, pneumatics, and welding supplies.

At its best, top-notch categories should mimic a conversation with a real person. If your website were a human salesperson, it might say:

“Here are all the fasteners we’ve got. Are you interested in bolts, nuts, screws… Ok! You want screws. Now, do you want machine screws, self-drilling screws, or deck screws?”

Well-organized and clearly named product categories are the only way this kind of natural conversation can happen. Users will keep clicking, keep learning, and if they like what they see on your site, many of them will start buying. Rather than force them to find a needle in the haystack from the home page, effective product categories break down their search into a series of simpler, incremental choices.

In addition to finding products, product categories create a single place where customers can compare similar products. Let’s say a customer is researching different types of jobber length drill bits on your site. If you organize drill bits by brand or application, the customer is forced to click into six or seven different webpages to compare products—one page for Cleveland-branded drill bits, another for Widia-Rubig-branded drill bits, a third for stainless steel drill bits, and so on.

Clearly this is a terrible way for customers to compare drill bit features, accessories, and prices to narrow down to just the right one. In this scenario, users see just a small fraction of your actual product selection. They assume that’s all you carry and bounce to your competitor’s site where they think they can find a more complete selection.

Product Categories Drive Site Search

In addition to organic search, product categories have a huge impact on the search results served up to customers who search your website internally.

Let’s say a customer is browsing for tape on your website. Since he doesn’t know exactly what kind of tape he wants, he enters the word “tape” in your site’s search box. He just wants to see the different types of tape you carry.

If you’re a big industrial supply website, showing 1,200 tape products after a search like this is not uncommon. That might be 50 or more pages of products to click through! Packing tape, surgical tape, HVAC tape, and cloth tape are all mixed in together in this scenario. This counts as a pretty unusable result. Your customer can’t possibly narrow down this selection easily.

You might think to blame the person searching for such a broad, common term. They should just try again and be more specific with their search term, right?

Not so.

B2B companies should not expect too much of their users when it comes to search. Most people are surprisingly bad at fixing their own search queries when they get poor results the first time around. In fact, around 50 percent of test subjects give up and immediately leave a site if their first search results failed.

Clear product categories that communicate with your site’s search functionality can help guide customers to the right product after an overly broad search. The first step is designing the right type and number of categories for the different types of tapes you carry. You should have one category for packaging tape, one for pipe sealing tape, and so on.

When you have distinct tape categories like this, they communicate to your search engine to show the customer relevant product categories, not search results pages after a broad search is performed.

In this example, product categories are served up instead of thousands of different products jumbled together. This is due to good product categorization and an excellent example of how categories can help broad searches.

Again, it’s as if the website is having a human reaction to the web user:

“I see you’d like some tape. We carry many different kinds. Let me know which kind of tape you’d like.”

Product Categories Affect the Perception of Your Brand

When new B2B customers choose to try your commerce site, there’s not a lot of time to impress them. They will make a split-second decision about what your site offers and whether the products they want are there or not.

What they see on the homepage plays a huge factor in this.

Having the right set of top-level product categories on the homepage is a very good way to show customers what you do and who you are in under five seconds. The right selection and presentation of top-level categories shows the strengths of your product inventory. Your category names should be short and easy to understand, you should have well-chosen images for each category, and you should make sure the product groupings are clear and distinct.

Making the right impression on the homepage immediately establishes trust with your customer. When a customer sees fasteners in the abrasives category or coolants in the hand tools category, their trust in your website and company takes a big hit.

They’re probably going to think, if they can’t get this simple thing right, what else are they going to do wrong? Will they even send me the right product?

This effect is even more profound for industrial suppliers. Customers who are experts with 20+ years in procurement might start to see you as a commodity seller instead of a trusted advisor.

Product Categories are Foundational to E-Commerce

While there are plenty of strategies you can employ to attract, convert, and retain B2B users online, starting with the backbone of your website—your product categories—can have an immediate impact on traffic, site search, and product discovery. When designed correctly, product categories drive your customers to the exact product they need, converting browsers to buyers and buyers into loyal customers. Thoughtful categorization of products is a first step to improved results online for both experienced sellers and companies just getting started.