Improving the Sort Order on Category List Pages

Sorting

The sort order refers to the sequence in which items are placed on an e-commerce category or listing page. Usually, the items are shown either in a grid view or a list view.

What is a sort order?

On most websites, visitors can change the sort order in which the products for sale are displayed. The most common way to do so is by clicking on a drop-down select element and choosing their preferred new sort order.

Why bother with this?

If you’re running an e-commerce web shop, getting the right products in front of your prospective customers in crucial. Assuming you don’t know exactly which products are the right ones, getting them to browse as many ‘potentially right products’ is the next best thing.

The fold

Most visitors will only see a limited part of the products in a given category. In earlier days, this was often attributed to the fold, a magical line at the very bottom of common 1024x768 desktop screen which many visitors supposedly wouldn’t scroll past. While the notion of a specific fold has been shattered by the rise of mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets, studies still seem to point to the fact that content lower on the page gets viewed less by visitors.

Number of items

A research article on scroll depth by Chartbeat has shown that “[…] on home pages and section fronts 50% of readers make it to pixel 1000.”. When looking at a sample of product listing pages such as those collected by Baymard we’d estimate that on average only 4-8 items are visible in the critical first 1,000 pixels. When taking into account sites using a list view (as opposed to grid view) or mobile devices which often show fewer items on a horizontal row, the number of items that aren’t seen by over 50% of your visitors increases even further.

Measuring your scroll depth

If you want to learn how far visitors are scrolling on your website, there are several ways to do so. For instance, you might want to use a the scroll depth plugin for Google Analytics written in jQuery. Alternatively, you could also use SaaS tools like Hotjar to measure it for you and use a visual overlay to show the results on your site.

List of sort order options

Below you’ll find a list of potential sort order settings you can use on your product listing page.

Static sort orders

  • Default: This one doesn’t really make sense as it doesn’t explain what criteria were used to decide the sort order. Assuming a particular parameter was used to sort the results, try renaming the option to that parameter.
  • Alphabet: Though this might seem like an obvious A-Z or Z-A sort, it might require some deeper thought. Especially with items that have unclear or multi-part names, sorting results might seem counter-intuitive to visitors.
  • Featured: Usually this will either a hand-picked or algorithmically selected set of products on top. These items are selected for either their seasonality or otherwise expected high relevance to visitors. Also known as ‘Recommended’.
  • Top sellers: The items that have been sold the most, either when looking at all-time or based on sales that were made in a given time-period.
  • Rating: With this option the results would either be sorted by ‘Best rating’ or ‘Average rating’. Also, keep in mind to use weighted ratings rather than just look at what rating is highest.
  • Most viewed: This would put the items on top that have been viewed by visitors the most, either all-time or in a given time-period.
  • Price: Whenever visitors want either the cheapest or the most expensive items on top, this would be the option they use. When considering to use this option as the default setting, keep in mind the anchoring and adjustment heuristic that people often use when they see prices.
  • Relevance: Potentially an attempt of the web shop to show the most relevant items based on a purchasing history or click patterns on the website.
  • Popularity: Usually this would result in a sort order based on a mix of high ratings, views and the number of recent purchases.
  • Newest: The items that have most recently been added to the website, or fall within the new timeframe set by the particular web shop.
  • Sale: Here items would be promoted based on their status as currently being on sale.
  • Custom: This one includes a site-specific set of sort orders such as ‘Ending soon’, ‘Distance’ ‘Screen size’, etc.

Dynamic sort orders

The downside of the static sorting methods listed above is that they are commonly based on just one parameter. That means that if the products are sorted by ‘Newest’, no data about their stock levels or popularity is taken into account when deciding how to rank the items.

Weighted parameters

Rather than just looking at one static parameter, what if we looked at a range of relevant ones, and mixed them together? As Jan Willem Balvers from A2Concepts suggested, this would be similar to an attribution model used in Google Analytics.

Parameters that could be used in such as model would be the Click-Through Rate of an item, its conversion rate, stock levels, profit margins or even recent ratings, views and purchases. Taking it even one step further, personalized or segmentation data could be added to the mix, such as a purchase history, on-site behavioral data or information about the referral or device that was used.

What sort order options to display?

Look at close competitors

An easy way to determine what sorting options to include/exclude from your dropdown is to look at your competitors. Try to find competitors that are as close as possible to your target audience, collection, price range, etc. Also, watch closely if different options are being presented for particular categories on the website. Even though we can’t be sure that these options will work for your site (or even theirs, for that matter), it will offer a better starting place than the default options that your e-commerce platform offers you.

Track what options are used

A next step would be to track which options are being used, and measuring their success. For instance, how likely is a visitor to convert using the default sort order? Does their average conversion rate change when they select a different one? What sort order selection results in the highest revenue or average order value? Etc. Such data can easily be tracked using events in Google Analytics.

A/B testing

The final level of optimizing the sort order on your category listing page for conversions would be A/B testing. That process would involve running two or more default sort orders (whether static or dynamic) simultaneously, and comparing the results that they generate. While it might seem tempting to just run the sort orders back-to-back, this is explicitly advised against. The reason for this is that environmental variables (such as display campaigns, website improvements, etc.) would influence one sort order differently that the other, therefore skewing the results.

How to change the default sort order

Changing the default way in which products are sorted is a fairly easy process in the most popular e-commerce platforms.

Magento

In Magento, it involves changing the XML layout file, which is a part of the Magento theming system. By setting the ‘setDefaultDirection’ and ‘setDefaultOrder’ variables there, you can change the default sort order. More details on this process can be found in the Magento tutorials section of the Yireo website.

WooCommerce

If you want to set a different default sort order in WooCommerce, you can simply use one of the 6 options available in the ‘WooCommerce > Settings > Products’ tab. If you want to go even deeper, you can also use custom product sorting as well.

Shopify

Lastly, Shopify allows you to make the changes by adding some code to your Liquid collections template. The process is outlined in detail on this Shopify tutorial.

Conclusion

In this article, we’ve talked about the relevance and importance of thinking deeply about the sort order that is used on your category listing pages. Even though it might seem tempting to just leave the option on ‘Default’ or pick a default sort order that you think works best, it can have a significant impact on your bottom line to do further research into this.


Theo van der Zee

Author: Theo van der Zee

He is the founder of ConversionReview. He has been building and optimizing websites for 15+ years now, and doing so with great success.

On top of his digital skills, Theo is also a trained psychologist and frequent speaker at events around the world.

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