Faceted Search Part II: Are Facets Really That Magical?

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As a preview to his upcoming article in the Summer issue of Search Marketing Standard Magazine, Jaimie Sirovich continues his discussion on faceted search …

In an earlier blog post, “Facets As A Navigational & SEO Powerhouse” we discussed some of the background and benefits of faceted navigation.  In fact, after reading that post, one might just conclude facets are all fairies and pixie dust.  If Tinkerbell herself summarized the five most important benefits, they’d be —

1.  Facets improve findability.
2.  Facets eliminate frustration.
3.  Facets provide a guided means to navigate, or drill, and in any order.
4.  Facets help to remove noise in results when combined with potentially noisy keyword searches.

And most relevant to search marketers:

5.  Facets provide relevant landing pages for long tail keywords, just as category-based navigation has done for search marketers for ages.

There is little that they don’t help with.  But are there hazards as well? The answer is easy: Yes.

So, what are some of the problems associated with facets?

Problem 1: Confusing Spiders

Exposing some facet-based pages can create effective landing pages for longer tail external-search queries that categories can address in only contrived ways.  However, we must pay attention to “some.” Without precautions, faceted navigation can also create spider traps with seemingly-infinite permutations of similar products. In fact, some implementations “address” this by excluding all of their facet-based pages from search engines.  This is clearly not ideal, as that dismisses many organic opportunities.

Eliminating most of this duplicate content is not complex in theory, but has apparently proved elusive for some major players such as B&H, and Home Depot.  Many, including the example cited in the previous article — B&H — simply exclude everything.  Others come out smelling like roses.  Those who pay attention to these concerns will be rewarded accordingly — yet another example of leveraging data in search marketing — with potentially magical ROI.  It’s all about the data.

Problem 2: Procuring Data

Exposing barebones price and brand facet dimensions is useful — but only scratches the surface of the power in faceted navigation  Unfortunately doing more than this may involve the use of structured data that may not be readily available — whether provided by manufacturers, purchased, or derived from prose via extraction tools.  Additional tools are required to combine the data from the various sources, and one must also take care to reconcile redundant values such as “Red” vs. “Ruby Red,” as this is a source of both duplicate content and user frustration.  Neither users nor bots are interested in the slightly different names or slightly different inflections of names.  For example, a classification query — for our facet data-extraction tools might look something like so:

color,bezel color:(‘maroon’ red$), which roughly means “exactly maroon or anything that ends in red” from either attributes color or bezel color.

While this may look like a bit like voodoo-magic, it is more manageable than rote work classifying thousands of SKUs into various facet attributes if the data are not available, but still involves some sweat.  In fact, in our implementation, some very complex edge-cases even require the use of a more complex script.

Problem 3: Avoiding Wait Times

Lastly, facets are an occupational hazard for any business employing a simple ecommerce platform, or relying on inexpensive shared web hosting.  The implementation is difficult — and currently few platforms have a competent faceted navigation feature.  For various reasons, the computational resources required by facets vastly outstrip what any web host is actually willing to provide for $9.95/mo. — regardless of those (magical) promises of infinite bandwidth, unlimited support, etc.  Some 3rd party components might help, but few commodity hosting services will support them for you.

It would not surprise this analyst if, as facets become accepted and expected as a form of site navigation, commodity hosting may not acceptably bear the load — either with respect to usage limits and terms of service.  And do not forget the costs of poor response times; a slow web site does not please anyone, and may be a search engine marketing consideration in and of itself.

So where does this leave you?

As faceted navigation becomes a more-and-more popular, users will acclimate to it, and it will become an expected form of navigation.  Users will not identify navigation as “faceted,” but they will certainly bounce away if they cannot find something as easily as the next site.  The barriers to entry and competitiveness in the ecommerce space are increasingly fierce.  Investing in a proper facets implementation will help users find what they want — and the SEO concerns therein will yield a marketing edge.  So stop dragging your feet — and consider implementing the magic.

(For more detail on faceted navigation, be sure to check out Jaimie’s article in the Summer issue of Search Marketing Standard magazine, arriving soon in your snail mailbox.)

About the Author

Jaimie Sirovich is a search marketing consultant. Officially he is a computer programmer, but he claims to enjoy marketing much more. At present, Jaimie is focused on helping clients sell everywhere, and achieve multi-channel integration with major websites such as eBay, Amazon, and even Craigslist. He is the author of Search Engine Optimization With PHP. Jaimie can also be reached directly at jaimie@seoegghead.com.

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