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Home Page Strategy: Category vs. Product

Do you link to categories or products from your home page?

On e-commerce stores with thousands of products the home page quickly gets cluttered. We’ve looked at this in the past: e-commerce home page focus (Walmart vs. Apple).

Today, let’s take a deeper look at the two different paths large e-commerce retailers often choose for their home page, using OfficeDepot.com and Staples.com as examples of a Category vs. Product approach. (Note: this tendency is by no means limited to the “office supply” market.)

The Category Approach: OfficeDepot

The “category approach” generally treats the home page as a gateway to help users find the right product category. Let’s have a look at an example of this:

Click for full-size screenshot. OfficeDepot direct you to category pages, not product pages.

(Click image for full-size screenshot.) The purpose of this home page is clear: point you towards a category page.

On OfficeDepot.com’s home page there isn’t a single link that will take you directly to a product page – all links go to category or promotional pages from where you’ll find specific product pages. Not even the “Epson Stylus® NX625” ad take you to a product page.

The reasoning behind this type of home page often go like this: people search for specific products in Google, and consequently, people looking for a specific product model will land on the relevant product page directly from Google anyways. Whereas those users going to the home page aren’t quite as sure which product model they want and instead need an overview of their options (which the category pages can provide).

The Product Approach: Staples

In the “product approach”, the home page generally points you directly to specific product pages. Let’s take a look at an example:

Click for full-size screenshot. Staples direct you to product pages, not category pages.

(Click image for full-size screenshot.) You’ll notice that the actual search field is much larger and of higher visual importance than on OfficeDepot.

Except for the main navigation, there’s almost no links to ‘category pages’. Most of the dominant elements take you to a specific product page. This force users who aren’t looking for a specific product to use either a) the search feature, or b) use the main navigation.

The product approach is especially powerful when combined with product suggestions based on the user’s interests. Amazon is a prime example of this, suggesting relevant products based on the user’s browsing behavior and the purchasing history of other users with similar interests.

Category vs. Product

The clear strength of the category approach is that if a user is in doubt of which product he wants, a category page is a great place to explore his options. The downside is, however, that most users won’t reach the category page using the main navigation, so they are less likely to get a clear understanding of how the site’s navigation work. This might not be a problem in the short run, but may prove problematic if the site is looking for returning customers.

The strength of the product approach is that the user is presented with real product offers immediately. Additionally, it forces the user to take advantage of the site navigation or search if she isn’t sure exactly which product model she is looking for. The obvious weakness of this approach is that people may not bother searching for generic terms and it puts more strain on delivering good search results for such generic search terms.

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[Anonymous] March 23, 2011 Reply to this comment

“most users won’t reach the category page using the main navigation” Can you let me know how you think they are most likely to reach the primary category pages?

Jamie, Baymard Institute March 23, 2011 Reply to this comment

I’m not 100% sure if I understand the question, but if all content links / ads on your home page take users to your category pages, these users are obviously likely to land on these category pages without using the main navigation, hence the statement: “most users won’t reach the category page using the main navigation”.

Hope that answers your question.

Edward Abbott March 24, 2011 Reply to this comment

I clearly understand how these two approaches work and the pros and cons of both, thanks for clearly demonstrating the two. What I would like to see is a follow up article showcasing companies (if any) who mesh the two concepts together and if that method is successful or more successful than either of the two individuals.

Etni Estrella March 25, 2011 Reply to this comment

From a usability standpoint, I would think category pages work best because they fit within a current and well-accepted mental model: shopping at brick and mortar stores. Generally those stores have aisles with signs displaying what lives down those aisles…

A drawback for product home page — for me, at least — is that I can’t be sure why that product is there. Is it the best selling (like amazon) is it the highest profit margin, are they colluding with mfrs for product placement?

Of course this all depends on the size and variety of inventory for that shop, a smaller online store with limited inventory would probably benefit from pointing the customer in the right direction…

Christian, Baymard Institute March 27, 2011 Reply to this comment

Great reflection, Etni.
Thanks for contributing.

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