For online retailers, having a wide selection is important for meeting the needs of a diverse global marketplace. For consumers looking for a particular size, brand, style or color, the retailer with the widest selection (and reasonable prices) is where they are going to shop first. However, having a large selection of products can be problematic if people can't easily find what they are looking for on the site.

This is where proper filtering comes into play. A system that makes it easy for people to sort through thousands of items to find the ones they should consider can have a positive effect on a site's conversion rate. Recent research suggests that a poor filtering system could be costing retailers a lot of potential revenue.

The Baymard Inststitute benchmarked 50 major US e-commerce websites across these 93 guidelines to rank the websites and make observations about the implementation of their filtering and sorting features. Using the data collected from this research, the team created a benchmark database with more than 4,500 benchmark data points on e-commerce product list design and performance. About 1,750 are of the data points were specific to the filtering experience and they provide interesting insights into things retails sites should do to improve their ecommerce sites. .

According to the researchers, only 16 percent of the major e-commerce websites they examined provided users with a reasonably good filtering experience. Citing issues such as a lack of important filtering options, poor filtering logic and bad user interfaces, Baymard gave many examples of things that retailers can do to improve filtering and fix causal issues.

One takeaway from the research is that when there are more than 10 filtering options, there needs to be a way to truncate (shorten) the number of filtering options on screen at once. Nearly a third (32%) of the studied websites had insufficient truncation design. This led to issues where users missed important filtering options because they didn't know where they were. Or the inverse, where all filtering options were left as a long, tedious scrolling area. There are at least five different ways that scrolling can cause issues for people trying to use filters.

The study also noted other ways that online retailers could improve the experience for consumers by adding better filtering options. Such as:

  • Create specific filters for the most popular categories. Don't just rely on simple filters like color or size. Think of what people really want to differentiate between the various items.
  • Put the most important filters at the top. The list of filters doesn't have to be in alphabetical order.
  • Include compatibility features when things like device type or operating system matters.
  • Try to create theme filters when appropriate. For example, creating a filter for floral themed items can help people find products from different categories that could pair well together.

For those who are wondering, of the 50 retailers studied for the benchmark report, the ones with the highest ranking for usability were Nordstrom, L.L. Bean, Macy's, Amazon and Wayfair. Business owners who are looking for examples should take a look at how these sites handle filtering for inventories featuring thousands of products.

The importance of a good filtering system has been noted before this recent research from Baynard Institute. Back in 2013, eConsultancy noted that "kilt retailer saw a 26% increase in conversions and a whopping 76.1% boost in revenue after implementing a product filter which gave visitors an option to shop by kilt type and kilt pattern".

Improving the filtering system for a retail site can have a major effect on how many products consumers view and ultimately buy from the ecommerce site. To be fair, implementing a new filtering system is a bit more labor intensive than some of the other fixes mentioned in previous articles, but the larger a site becomes, the more it becomes a necessity.

For more tips on how business owners can improve online sales, read this article with 10 easy ways to improve website conversion.