Robert_Charlton - 8:51 pm on Mar 9, 2012 (gmt 0)
My only concern is that what a human considers significantly different and what an alogrithim considers significantly different are often two separate animals...
Search algorithms attempt to align themselves with human expectations and behavior. Google may not have nailed it exactly for each of the c25,000,000,000 ever-changing pages it's got in the index, and it still can't understand language, but it is trying to understand human behavior, not to disregard it.
To use your example of Iron Widgets... are people really searching for 15 Inch Tall Iron Widgets, vs say 14 Inch Tall Iron Widgets? Or are they looking for other distinctions?
My guess is that if you were selling hard drives, customers would be looking at the difference between 250-Gb hard drives vs 500-Gb drives, or with tires they may be looking at physical dimensions and properties and brands. Chances are with some kinds of widgets, perhaps yours, they may be looking at distinctions other than just size.
Are you offering any kind of verbal descriptions of your widgets and how they might be used... or are your widgets so specific that there's no point saying anything about them except how tall they are and what they're made of?
If the distinctions are purely visual, are you offering different views of your products on your site, perhaps with jquery viewers? Though that's not text, there is an engagement factor that Google might well consider. You may have to think outside the box, though, to figure out what's distinct about each of your products.
...The product pages are where the greatest differentiation needs to take place.
Hmm... To me that seems ALMOST like a contradiction, but that might be because I am misinterpreting your use of the word "differentiation" here.
When I see that, I think that means the individual product pages should have MORE TEXT than the category level page (which is hierarchically directly above it). Maybe I am not interpreting that correctly?
Yes, you seem to be misinterpreting at least what I'm intending to say.
Product pages should have more descriptive text about the products, but... without being too sparse... they're specific to specific products. The category pages are basically site maps with some introductory text and then text fleshing them out so they're not just lists. They are your tables of contents. They distribute visitors and search engines to your product pages. Some category pages are liable to rank, but because they're more general than your product pages, their likely target terms are more competitive.
Different sites are structured differently... so don't just copy this scheme... but if you look at WebmasterWorld, and the various pages leading to the Google pages, you'll see that....
- on WebmasterWorld, the front page is the default index page. Note that the distribution for search engines and for visitors is directly parallel. The page is essentially fairly even-handed about how it distributes link juice and directs the visitor, but, because there's a time dimension to the discussions here, it emphasizes things that are currently important... again for both search engines and visitors.
- Home (http://www.webmasterworld.com/home.htm) is a site map to smooth out the flow...
- Google ( http://www.webmasterworld.com/category30.htm ) is a main category page, basically a site map with a bit of descriptive text under each menu item...
- Google SEO News and Discussion ( http://www.webmasterworld.com/google/ ) is a sub-category page, listing all the threads...
- and each of the threads has, relatively speaking, a lot of text. These are the equivalent of your product pages.
You get inbound links to all of the above, either linked directly, or redistributed from direct links into the threads.
Note that ecommerce product pages are different from forum threads. Ecommerce is going to be less longtail than forums are, but ecommerce product pages are still longer tail than ecommerce category pages are.
You should have a rough idea in ecommerce what your product searches are likely to be. Because the searches are likely to be more specific in ecommerce than in forums, to compete you need to research what people search for and what they don't search for, and you should try to focus your vocabulary and content around product descriptive text (likely to be searched) and naturally co-occurring vocabulary.
Product pages should not be nearly so chatty as forum discussions, nor as expansively informative as Wikipedia pages... but they're still a lot less sparse than any of your category pages. This isn't to say that category pages should just be lists. It's a mistake, though, to think they should get into individual product details. They should not.
But if all of your product page details are identical, and there's nothing more, then either you're classifying things wrong, or you're missing some opportunities.