In this article I’ll cover many key ecommerce search engine optimization issues that we come across regularly, which can kill an ecommerce site’s traffic. I’ll run through some practical ecommerce SEO changes you can make to improve your site’s search engine rankings and boost traffic. This is not a comprehensive list of everything you could possibly do to get all your SEO ducks in a row. But these basic changes and modest fixes can definitely help to get a derailed site back on track. I start with some more basic things and get to a few common technical SEO fixes near the end of the article.
Set Up Analytics
It’s a good idea to start by setting up these free Google tools to help you track and analyze your website’s traffic, and to diagnose a wide range of problems that your site may be having.
Google Analytics will help you identify which pages are driving traffic, where traffic is coming from, what keywords drive traffic, and identify errors on your site that make it difficult for search engine robots to crawl.
Google Search Console (formerly Google Webmaster Tools) will help you identify indexing and crawl errors, duplicate content issues, what sites are linking to what pages, what key terms drive impressions and clicks to what pages, and a lot more.
Basic ecommerce SEO generally starts with a lot of keyword research to identify what the best key terms are that your website can reasonably rank for. Then prioritize your pages based on what terms you can rank for and what products or services you can sell the most. Then go through and optimize the home page, category pages, subcategory pages, product pages, manufacturer pages, and so on based on your priority order. Use Google Keyword Planner for this.
Find Your Niche
We see many site owners try to rank for hugely popular search terms that are way the hell out of their league; terms that only the biggest players can rank for. Just because a term has the most search popularity doesn’t mean that your site can drive its best traffic from that term. If you are just starting out, it can be wise to pick key terms with minimal to medium popularity. So if you sell women’s clothing and you have a new ecommerce website, it’s far too ambitious to target “clothing” or “womens clothing”. There is a lot of website traffic going to “long-tail” keywords for new content. What specific types of women’s clothing does your site sell – what’s the niche? Review your stock and relate your pages to modest search volume terms that you can reasonably target. Gauge what level of search popularity your site can realistically be competitive for. In general, older sites tend to have much more power to compete.
A website should be well organized in a logical hierarchy to navigate. Most website owners don’t do this strategically at all. So if you do structure your site’s internal linking wisely, pointing to key pages and matching your main niche search terms, that will give your site one clear advantage. Take this to a higher level by setting up your site’s menu hierarchy based on extensive keyword research first. Target the most popular search terms prominently in the navigation while still maintaining a logical navigation hierarchy that is useful for people to easily find their way around your site.
Basic On-Page Optimizations
Optimizing your individual website pages for ecommerce search engine optimization can include a variety of important ranking factors. This helps the keywords on the page to line up with the search queries that people tend to use to find products or services like yours. The main areas to optimize on the pages are:
- Thoughtfully consider how attractive and user friendly every page on your site is – these will impact how long users stay on the page or how quickly they leave the page. Some believe that these metrics may be measured by search engines and factor into rankings.
- Key terms in the text that line up with your niche key terms that are unique to that page.
- Internal sidebar linking should link to related pages which target similar keywords.
- The page title (some call this the meta title) <title>Ecommerce Search Engine Optimization</title>. This shows up as the headline in search engine results, and on the top of your page and in the browser tab.
- Make sure the URLs are user friendly and key terms are targeted. Use all lowercase letters and separate all words with hyphens.
- Meta description (meta name=”description”) – with no direct ranking value, but this is what shows up in search results to entice users to click through to your site, so it is important that it be thoughtful.
- The heading on the top of your page (called an h1 header tag).
- Image filenames (http://yoursite.com/seo-services-button.jpg).
- Image alt attributes (alt=”key term” within an image tag).
- Other bonus elements are:
- Customer reviews
- Rich snippets
- Integrate social media buttons if your site uses those.
Content, Content, Content
Set up a comprehensive content strategy. Set up a plan to write high-quality unique text by a professional copywriter. Weave great photos and possibly videos into the content. Outline a plan to create quality content like this for on actual ecommerce SEO pages. But also frequently post content to a blog, and repurpose and refer to it on your social media sites. Also develop a plan to promote your website externally, again, using quality content that will excite users and draw them in. Consider topics and information that people would love to share with others.
Product & Category Content – It’s Gotta be Unique
Generally, most ecommerce websites tend to snag product copy from the manufacturers’ websites. Definitely steer clear of this practice. Use that content to inform your copywriter. But hire a copywriter who is an expert in your product selection, someone who can reinterpret the generic marketing copy and uniquely explain the best selling points. What is the value of your site if all you do is sell by holding up products. Where’s your knowledge of these products?
I think it’s best to keep the tone of your text or video content professional but with character, written in the voice of your company. I mean, make it very approachable, fun if possible, and probably informal unless you’re selling fine china to the Queen of England or such.
After writing the content for the users and to capture the voice, then it’s good to go over and revise it a bit to target the key terms relevant to the page. Again, target the search terms that your niche can reasonably target for that page.
Product Reviews & Ratings
Hosting user product reviews and user ratings right on the product pages can be beneficial for your site’s ecommerce search engine optimization. Reviews and ratings more content but these reviews also help users to make a purchase. The reviews and ratings can also be pulled with visual star-ratings into search engine results using rich snippets, to catch the eye of more searchers.
Earn Natural Backlinks
When other valuable websites link to your site, those “backlinks” are among the most important search engine ranking factors. This is especially true if the linking site is relevant to your page and is from an authoritative website. All of the quality content that I’ve been harping on may earn quality backlinks, but you also have to actively promote your content. Your blog can help to promote content to those who visit your site, or it can gain rankings and draw new readers. But off-site content that is topically sexy and likely to get shared a lot can do great wonders for earning natural backlinks.
There are countless articles on how to earn the best backlinks. Here’s one article alone with 90 SEO experts giving their favorite link-earning tactics.
Some historically popular ways to earn backlinks include writing guest posts on blogs in your industry, creating and promoting great infographics, writing product reviews, getting mentioned in the press by helping reporters with story ideas, or recapturing broken links from the Web. Citation Labs has some tools to help you find broken links and outreach opportunities. And for keyword discovery, you can get keyword ideas from Mergewords and UberSuggest. Also, Buzzstream cann pull a list of prospects and their contact info, tracks responses, and organize backlink management data in a database.
Find 404 pages and redirect them to the actual content. Find any 302 temporary redirects and change them (usually) to 301 permanent redirects, identify duplicate page titles or meta descriptions, or missing ones. Review your site’s 301 redirects to make sure that each dead page is getting redirected to the closest-matching live page, rather than to the website’s home page – which doesn’t often match what the user is looking for. You can crawl your website using the Screaming Frog SEO Spider Tool, an awesome tool to help identify errors like these and many others.
A significant ranking factor affecting your site’s ecommerce search engine optimization is the site’s speed in loading pages. How fast content loads “above the fold” is especially critical and this can greatly impact search engine rankings for a very slow-loading site. There are many tools for testing your website’s page speeds, including Google Developers’ PageSpeed Insights or Pingdom.
The ecommerce platform that your site is built upon should be as customizable as possible. The design elements should be highly adjustable. It must be possible to edit every single page title, every page heading, the copy on every page, and the hidden meta tags in the page code that tell search engines what the page is about. If your website’s platform is not fully customizable, then your site may need a new website platform.
When a Replatform is Necessary
Sometimes it is best to rebuild the site on a new platform. Before launching a new re-platform project, it is crucial to work with a detail-oriented SEO, designer, and developer in choosing your new website platform, and setting it up right. Closely integrate the SEO into the planning process with the development team to make sure that the platform gets customized and set up technically correctly before it is too late.
It can be very helpful to research your competitors. Identify what terms your competitors are targeting on their sites. This can help you target your key terms more appropriately or come up with new keyword ideas. Also identify where they are getting backlinks from with a tool like moz Open Site Explorer or Majestic. This can help you to build a more robust backlink strategy.
Out of Stock Products
One challenge for ecommerce search engine optimization is that products go out of stock. Many sites then redirect visitors to the home page, which is a bad user experience if you think about it – that isn’t what they want and gives them no information about why they are landing on the wrong page. When a product goes out of stock, I think it’s better to leave the page up like it is with a notice that the product is “out of stock” or put up a list of alternative items that your site offers.
Duplicate Content Nightmares
When you have several pages that would likely rank for the same main key terms, those pages will compete against each other. This is a common problem we come across in ecommerce search engine optimization, and a major problem.
Most ecommerce websites have a huge number of pages that are not unique from other pages. For example, two pages with the same text on it, the same photo, and same headings are complete duplicates of each other except for the different URL address. These pages basically compete against each other to rank for the same key terms. In essence, they split the ranking potential for those key terms, causing both pages to rank lower than either page would rank alone.
Go through pages like these, pick which is the official (or canonical) page. If the other pages that duplicate the official page don’t need to exist, then 301 redirect them to that official page. But if the other page does serve a purpose like it shows the product in a different color, then add a canonical tag to the non-official page, pointing it towards the official page. This canonical tag tells search engines to only include the official page in the search engine rankings, while both pages will still exist on the website so that users can navigate to see both colors of the item.
I have seen developers try to cure the issue of massive duplicate content by applying canonicals… overzealously. For example: There are a lot of different popular searches for types of motorcycle helmets – sportbike helmets, half-helmets, dirt-bike helmets, modular helmets and many more; or you can slice that by women’s motorcycle helmets, men’s motorcycle helmets; or maybe colors: black motorcycle helmets, pink motorcycle helmets, yellow motorcycle helmets. In trying to clean up duplicate page issues, we don’t want to reduce all of the potential traffic for different types of motorcycle helmets to one page for all motorcycle helmets. We don’t want to apply a canonical onto a page for women’s dirt-bike helmets indicating that the canonical page is the motorcycle helmets page. But yes, I’ve seen this sort of thing happen. Look at the source code for the word “canonical” to find and review these tags.
Canonicals Applied Backwards
I have seen canonicals applied on top-level category pages directing search engines to instead index some obscure low-level sub-category page. The top category pages should, ideally, be the large traffic-driving pages, so this killed a lot of traffic.
Product Filters That Blackout Valuable Pages
Like the canonical overkill issue above, most ecommerce websites kill an enormous amount of traffic potential by how they set up the way users can filter products on the page. Shopping for hiking boots, if I get a 1,000 results on a page on an ecommerce site, it is very handy to be able to narrow that down by choosing how to filter that result. If I choose a certain brand and narrow it to 100 results, see if the URL changes. If those URLs are changing after a hash character (#), then search engines will fail to see this changed URL as a new page. You see, the hash character in the URL is currently where most search engines like Google stop reading the URL. So changing anything after that does not change the page in the algorithm of a search engine.
So where am I going with this? I see a lot of ecommerce sites that show valuable search terms in this filter options… but those valuable search terms don’t line up with their own unique pages, so you can’t rank for those terms. For example, on a women’s jackets page, I can filter by goose down, but there is no unique page for the term “women’s down jackets”, just “women’s jackets”. On some pages, I see many, many valuable search terms that the website cannot rank for because the hash characters sort of blackout the unique URLs.
Make Sure It’s Mobile-Friendly
Since nearly half of all searches happen on mobile devices now, it is also critical to check out how well the mobile version of your website works. Are touch elements too small for human fingers? Is the text too puny to read? Are the high-def images causing the pages to load very slowly? Does the site even fit in the mobile window without scrolling back and forth? You can use Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test to review how well your website rates on mobile.
When your website has a mobile version of the website that is separate from the desktop version, then it is also important to add a canonical tag to the mobile version letting search engines know that the desktop version is the one to list in the search index. Also, a rel=”alternate” tag needs to be added to the desktop page to help Googlebot know that there is an alternate mobile version of the page to show when the user’s screen is mobile-sized.
Additional Ecommerce SEO Enhancements:
- Social share buttons on product pages.
- Create seasonal pages. When the season passes, don’t kill the pages. Keep them alive, but simply remove them from the menu.
- Definitely have pix and videos for all products. The more high-definition, zoomable, 360-degree rotatable the pictures are, the better. Post pictures of all angles and all features.
- Have a secure site with https encryption to make users feel more secure, and this is supposedly a very tiny search engine ranking factor also.
- Mention free shipping and returns in meta descriptions.
- Have a great internal site search box. Really test and play with the current site search. If it doesn’t provide the quality of results you want, get a different internal site search plugin.
I covered a lot of info that may overwhelm many website owners. Still, there is so much more to cover, hah, since it’s pretty much limitless what can be done to clean up your site’s ecommerce search engine optimization. Anyway, I hope this is helpful!