Design an online store with hundreds of thousands of products

Recently we have been working with zencart stores that have thousands of products with over a hundred categories and sub categories. We have also seen other zencart stores with more than 100000 products, pretty amazing right? The dilemma is how to present these products and categories in a user friendly way yet still allow search engines to index them well (remember: search engines don’t necessarily index all your links especially if you have too many links and if they are too “deep” in the level. (By levels, I mean something like this:…. If you are using the default zencart you won’t have this type of link, but if you use some Zencart SEO URL such as Simple Seo Url(SSU) you do have the ability to create links with levels like that. By default SSU uses only 2 level which is really good).

  1. You can put products in multiple levels of categories, allowing users to drill down to the exact category that contain the products they want.
    Cons: too many levels will drive the users nuts and you will your your sales. Also, search engines will more than likely ignore many of your product links or update them very slowly.
  2. You can put reduce the category levels, but then you will end up having too many top level categories or putting too many products in one category.
    Cons: too confusing and inconvenient for users to easily locate their products (zencart’s search happens to be NOT the best search one can have).

Today I have come across a nice video on by Dr. Pete Meyers of UserEffect and Rand of with some incredibly valuable tactics for e-commerce site architecture. Below is a brief of the video if you are too lazy or just don’t have a good connection to watch (I still recommend watching it if you can though):


We’re hearing more and more about flat architecture these days and its SEO benefits. Essentially, “flattening” a site just means reducing the numbers of steps or layers in the hierarchy. It can be good for SEO and even (sometimes) usability, but what sounds good in theory is very hard to implement on a site with thousands or even hundreds of thousands of pages.

Crazy Website Architecture with deep levels


There’s a lot to be said for choosing a target layer of your site, and XML sitemaps are one way to tell the spiders where to focus (without changing your architecture for users). Experiment with focusing your XML sitemap on the layer (such as the product layer) that you want to target for SEO, especially long-tail, and leave out peripheral pages that have limited SERP value (hey, this reminds me that all Zencart’s current sitemap modules include too many links there. Maybe it’s about time we upgrade those modules and allow users to exclude link from sitemap or give each product link a different weight? Your thoughts please!)


You can also mimic flatness with direct links to the target layer, such as Top 10 lists or Featured/Popular Products. These effectively flatten the architecture (for spiders and users) for a handful of core products that you select (take a look at the clever use of “popular search” on our client’s dj equipment store. The design was not done by us btw).


Of course, building deep links will also help target your SEO efforts. Manual link building is nearly impossible when you’re talking about thousands of pages, but you can naturally attract links by making sure that your most valuable and viral content complements your target layer. (product review anyone? I always check Amazon’s review before buying a product even if I ended up buying the product somewhere else)


Similarly, you can build deep links by attracting return visitors to your target layer. Limit tools such as “Email this page”, social bookmarking, and social media links to critical pages, to naturally draw back visitors. This is good not only for long-tail link building, but also for return-visitor conversion.

If you have any experience in building website with many sub pages please share with us how you went about structuring your site.


  1. matt w says:

    Nice article! Thank you for posting so many useful articles and links here.

    We are working on adding another 5000 products to our website which already has about 3300 products. The way we are handling the fine line between too deep of hierarchy and too many products in one category is to use flyout category menus. Our site uses a horizontal flyout menu and it allows the user to drill down to the more specific category very quickly and with ease. The biggest challenge to this is ordering the subcategories in a logical progression, there are a lot of decisions to be made when structuring the category layout. We are about to re-organize most of our categories to be able to incorporate many new categories for the new products we are adding, we made the mistake of not thinking of future extensibility when we created the website.

    • admin says:

      Hi Matt. Thanks for stopping by. I checked out the site and it was nice, I was a bit confused by the text “For pics along the way use the menu below.” though.

      I think when one wants to construct meaningful and convenient menu, one ought to look at how Ebay and Amazon do it. These 2 giants sell almost everything in every category so it is extremely critical for them to present products in a way that is most convenient. I particularly how Amazon shows a very short 2 level category tree (flyout menu) then when you choose one category there you will be presented with many subcategories on the left hand side.



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