If you’ve been paying attention to the business news in the past few years, you’re probably aware that ecommerce has seen consistently sharp growth for the past decade or so. At the end of 2016, global ecommerce sales soared to $1.9 trillion and this trend is expected to keep its pace in the foreseeable future. By 2020, ecommerce is projected to hit the $4 trillion global mark as more retail businesses turn to the web for sales.
You don’t have to be in a major market like the US to feel the transformative effects of ecommerce in today’s business climate. The ASEAN region is expected to grow into an $88-billion ecommerce marketplace by the year 2025 and the rush is on to secure a piece of that pie. In the Philippines, more and more businesses are realizing that it’s getting increasingly hard to market a business without incorporating digital facets to it.
Of all the sub-disciplines under digital marketing, search engine optimization is the most vital to an ecommerce business. Ecommerce SEO helps you get found first by potential customers, allowing you to edge the competition and rapidly grow your market share. Ecommerce business owners know this, and that’s why a lot of them run some form of SEO campaign.
Unfortunately, not all SEO campaigns are built equal. With the typically large scales and complex structures of ecommerce websites, it’s easy for some SEOs to neglect key aspects that can give their websites advantages over their rivals. Here are some of the most common mistakes we see here at GDI and how we address them en route to good results:
Let’s make one thing very clear: an ecommerce site’s categories are its most important pages when it comes to SEO. These pages represent the terms that potential buyers search for when they’re not sure exactly what product to buy and where to buy it from. In most cases, category pages drive the bulk of the organic traffic that an ecommerce site receives. Having said that, it’s only appropriate that these pages receive the bulk of your optimization efforts and focus.
Far too often, ecommerce site owners and their SEOs make the following mistakes when it comes to category page handling:
Fused Category Pages
In the same way that zookeepers would never want to put lions and tigers in the same cages despite both being big, carnivorous cats, you should never let two distinct product categories share the same page. As much as possible, you’ll want a single page to target just one keyword and its permutations. Attempting to have one page ranking for two very distinct search terms often fails because of the unnecessary complexity it’ll bring to the content, link building and technical aspects of optimization.
Here’s an example: a gadget store that has one category page for both tablet computers and smartphones. While both are mobile devices, their form factors, functions and audiences are quite distinct. More often than not, people will not enter queries that contain both “smartphone” and “tablet” keywords. This is because most people know pretty early on in their buying processes if they want a smartphone or a tablet – it’s rarely ever both.
To fix this, simply make separate category pages for smartphones and tablets. That way, you can make keyword-specific optimizations for both product segments. Things like copy and backlinks can be made very specific to each of the pages. That often proves more effective when trying to rank for these two separate keywords.
One of our clients used to make this very same mistake. They initially combined smartphones and tablets in one category. We were able to persuade them to separate the two and we’ve had some promising results as of late:
Last time I checked, they got on the first page of Google for keywords like “buy smartphones Philippines” and “buy tablets Philippines.” This was only a couple of weeks after splitting the category page in two. We’re pretty confident we can get the site’s pages in the top 5 range as Google’s algorithms settle down and we’re able to build a few links to both the tablet and smartphone pages.
2. Not Having Brand, Price and Demographic Category Pages
While categorizing pages according to product type is an effective way to target broader keywords, it’s not the only way to draw search traffic to your pages. You see, users search in a lot of different ways. Queries will include other variables such as:
- Brand Names – When people already know which manufacturer they want to buy from but aren’t sure which product model they prefer or which retailer they want to get it from. Examples would be queries such as buy Fisher-Price toys, buy Guess jeans or buy ASUS tablet It will be much easier to target these keywords if you have brand-specific categories that can act as direct landing pages for them. Below is the top-ranked page on Google for the keyword “Buy GoPro Philippines.” As you can see, a specific category page was created for the popular action camera brand.
- Demographic – Sometimes, it’s not all about the brand. Users also search based on the demographic that they’re buying for. For instance, Toys R Us allows shoppers to choose toys based not on type, but by age group. The toy retail giant understands that the stuff that babies play with are very different from the ones that toddlers like. Therefore, parents can have an easier time choosing an item that their kids will like if they had categories based on age. This categorization principle can also be applied based on jobs, language, etc. This allows your ecommerce site to have landing pages for queries that include demographic variables. Examples would be dolls for toddlers or clothes for seniors.
- Price – Some searchers use queries that are oriented more towards the pricing than anything else. If you’re operating in an industry that has products of the same type with vastly different price points, you may want to do some keyword research and check if your market searches based on price. If they do, that’s a sign that you might want to categorize by price like what this online store is doing:
3. Unoptimized Category Pages
Far too often, ecommerce webmasters view categories as merely a way to organize products. While that’s certainly true, we can’t lose sight of the fact that categories are still webpages and these webpages are still subject to the same quality standards that Google has for every other page on the web.
That means a category can’t just be a page where you slap on product images and links. They have to have their own inherent content value so Google doesn’t view them as mere go-betweens between your home page and product pages. It also helps search engines better understand what the page is about, making the page more relevant to the keyword it represents.
To address this, we at GDI love to add additional content that’s descriptive of the page’s context. We do this by adding a block of text at the above-the-fold area of the page just between the headline text and the product selection.
When we’re being more aggressive, we also add text at the bottom of the page’s body where we can add richer copy to help search engines understand that this is a category page in an ecommerce website that represents a very certain product category.
From experience, this tactic alone allowed many of our clients to rank well for long tail keywords.
Due to the large number of pages that a typical ecommerce site has, you have to be judicious about which pages you want Google to index and which ones to leave out. You see, a website’s overall search visibility is strongly affected by its crawl budget and internal link equity distribution. The more pages you open up to indexing, the thinner you stretch these resources.
To make sure your crawl budget and link equity are focused on the right landing pages that properly target your desired keywords, make sure that non-essential pages are blocked off and essential pages receive lots of internal link love. These are the four most common mistakes that webmasters make when optimizing their ecommerce sites’ indexing schemes:
4. Indexed Cart and Checkout Pages
Your customers’ carts and checkout pages are dynamic pages. That means their content is generated depending on a set of actions that users take when they use the website. It also means that whatever information is in a respective user’s cart and checkout page, it’s of value only to him. The rest of the internet do not – and should not – care what’s in there. As a rule of thumb, all URLs with characters like “?” or “=” should be barred from getting indexed unless there’s a burning reason to allow it.
5. Mishandling Site Search and Filter Pages
Having an in-site search box or a filtering tool is very good for an ecommerce site’s usability. However, each use of these tools produces dynamic pages that display results based on the variables that were entered by the user. If your site isn’t configured properly to keep these pages from being indexed, you could have a massive indexing problem down the line.
While these pages remain live, they add to the total number of indexed pages for your domain. That means they’ll be included in the list of pages to crawl, which uses up your crawl budget, and they’ll take some of your site’s link equity away from key organic landing pages. After some time, these dynamic pages will expire, and when search crawlers visit them again, the URLs will yield 404 Not Found errors. While a few crawl errors here and there aren’t awful, having hundreds or thousands of them can negatively impact your rankings.
To prevent the indexing of your dynamic pages, simply add a disallow parameter in your robots.txt file which prohibits the crawling of specific URLs. The image above shows what you need to write to prevent this common ecommerce SEO mistake. This fix also applies to the indexed cart and checkout page issue in the previous section.
6. Not Using Canonical Links
Content duplication is sometimes unavoidable in ecommerce sites. One product can have several different versions with very small differences (SKUs). One shirt, one shoe or one phone can come in a variety of colors and each color will be a different SKU just because of the color difference.
When each SKU has its product page, duplication becomes an issue since the content between closely related products will be almost identical. Search engines will then filter out most of the very similar pages from their listings and only choose one to represent them all.
Unfortunately, allowing this to happen and leaving search engines to choose the page they’ll list in the SERPs is a tricky proposition. It can very well happen that an unpopular version of the product ends up being the one indexed, lowering your site’s click-through rates and increasing its bounce rates. Also, similar pages that are not in the index could be siphoning link equity and crawl budget, limiting your site’s overall ability to rank.
This issue can be addressed using the rel=canonical link element. This is basically a tag in your page’s HTML that tells search engines that a page is similar to another one and that other page should be considered as the preferred version. Using this HTML element, duplicating pages can be managed and organic traffic can be funneled to the ideal money pages.
Content is “food” for search engines. It’s what they consider to determine a webpage’s context and its level of relevance to certain terms. In this regard, the content of your ecommerce site’s webpages must be unique, useful and informative so they can help all your public-facing pages get indexed and rank for the keywords they represent. While most SEOs are aware of this, a lot of them lack that next-level sensibility on what’s considered good content that helps your pages stay competitive in the organic search results.
Here are a few things that a lot of ecommerce sites get wrong:
7. Not Adding Commercial Intent Elements in Title Tags
One of the rookie mistakes that even veteran SEOs make is the failure to match user intent with their choices of keywords to target. This usually happens when they perform keyword research: some SEOs assume that going after the shorter keywords with higher search volumes is the way to go because they’re hoping to tap into the traffic that comes with ranking for those search terms. However, the lack of explicit intent behind those keywords is often overlooked because SEOs get tunnel vision when they fixate on the search volumes.
If you’re selling sports apparel online, the keyword “Nike shirts” may seem like a sweet target because of the search volume it carries. However, you should also consider the fact that “Nike shirts” doesn’t convey any real intent. It could be a transactional query where a searcher is looking to buy a shirt. However, it can also be an informational query made by someone who’s just looking for facts about this brand of clothing. The intent just isn’t there and even if you rank well for this keyword, there’s a fat chance that your conversion rate from organic traffic will be a little low.
Obviously, ecommerce sites are built to sell goods online. Therefore, the content of these pages should reflect that search intent that ecommerce pages are made to fulfill. Adding terms like buy or shop helps both humans and search engines better understand what your page means to do. By being explicit with the intent your pages cater to, you can attract a higher quality of visitors on average.
For instance, instead of writing a title like:
Nike Shirts | AthleticApparel.com
You’re better off writing:
Buy Nike Shirts Online | AthleticApparel.com
You can see that the title tag is written in a way that’s very precise and deterrent to people who have no intention to buy. This helps lower your bounce rates and increase your conversion rates. Don’t lose sleep over the fact that this might cause you to shoo away a few visitors – if they’re not planning on buying, you’re not really losing anything of value.
8. Using Manufacturer Product Descriptions
Most ecommerce site owners agree that there’s merit in writing your own product description. After all, who doesn’t want unique and creative copy on their pages? However, this is a subject that’s much easier to talk about than to actually put into practice. For an average ecommerce site, generating unique content for thousands of product pages just takes too much time, effort and resources.
The easiest way to go about this would be to lift product descriptions and specs from manufacturer websites and brochures, then slap them on to your own product pages. However, the easy path is rarely ever the correct one. Google has a strong tendency to filter out pages that look too similar to others, raising the propensity for your pages to not even be listed on the SERPs. Even when these pages aren’t visible in the SERPs, that doesn’t mean they’re not being crawled and indexed by Google. It only means they’re in the Big G’s supplemental index where they still consume your site’s crawl budget and internal link equity.
For ecommerce site owners, the choice can be tough: pour resources into content or do nothing and let duplicate content linger as a big SEO burden. There’s no real easy way to get out of this dilemma, but you can definitely manage the situation in a way that gets your site more SEO love from Google without having to spend a fortune on writer work. Here’s how:
- Create a list of priority products that you want to be represented in the SERPs for
- Write unique copy only for these products
- As for the rest of the product pages, use manufacturer descriptions and affix “noindex, follow” meta tags on them for now. This may sound counter-intuitive, but it’s the most practical thing to do. Since Google won’t show these pages on its SERPs anyway, it’s better to deindex them yourself and conserve link equity and focus it more on your category and priority product pages.
- You can gradually write unique descriptions for the non-priority products as manpower and resources become available. As you finish the new content, you can start removing the noindex tags from your once-restricted pages.
The idea is to draw search engine traffic mostly from your category and priority product keywords. With their unique content and more concentrated link equity, they’ll rank higher and scoop up more clicks than they would if Google sees that your site has major content uniqueness issues.
9. Not Blogging
Selling is the primary reason why any ecommerce site would exist, but that doesn’t mean that everything you do in marketing should revolve around making the next transaction happen. Humanizing your brand helps customers stay on longer and spend more on your online store. It can also be profoundly beneficial to your SEO.
A good way to do this is by opening a blog in your site and consistently putting up content that your customers will find useful. Posts that share news on the latest developments about brands, upcoming products, and tips on how to make the best use of the products you sell will resonate well with your audience. It gives them more reasons to keep coming back to your site, which in turn improves your site’s user engagement signals. As you may know, good engagement signals are widely believed to boost search engine visibility.
A good example would be what local cosmetics retailer BeautyMNL does with its Bloom online magazine. Its articles are written by some really fashion-savvy authors and influencers, allowing the site to gain precious natural links, social shares and brand mileage that all correlate heavily with good rankings.
In the mid 2000’s to around 2013, backlinks were far and away the most impactful ranking signals on Google. It wasn’t until Panda, Penguin and Hummingbird came along that people the influence of links were reined in a little bit and the effects of good technical SEO became more pronounced. These days, Google seems to be continuing on the path to rebalancing the weights of its ranking signals. More than ever, technical optimizations are essential to an ecommerce SEO’s success. These three are the main technical SEO mistakes that people make for ecommerce sites:
10. Not Being Mobile Friendly
At this point, there can be no denying how smartphones and tablets are reshaping the Internet right in front of our very eyes. With 6.1 billion smartphones expected to be in use globally by 2020 and 75% of those devices expected to be used for online purchases, there’s little doubt that ecommerce operators have to adapt with the times or die out.
Yet, a lot of ecommerce owners argue that their products and customers aren’t big on mobile. They use these assumptions to convince themselves to delay or avoid the inevitable changes that they need to make.
Here’s the thing though: while some niches do have the majority of their transactions completed via desktop devices, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the customer journey starts and ends with desktop computers. As a matter of fact, market research has shown that around 80% of people start their buying cycles by searching for information about their products of interest on mobile devices. They may close the deal with you on desktop, but more often than not, they start with mobile.
As such, it’s very important for you to have a plan and a timeline to make your ecommerce site mobile-friendly if you haven’t made the switch already. Not only will; your site get a boost on mobile search results, but rank-boosting engagement signals such as better bounce rates, better click-through rates and longer average times on pages will tend to favor you more.
11. Not Using HTTPS on All Pages
Prior to Google’s declaration of secure URLs as a ranking factor, most ecommerce site owners only used HTTPS on their checkout pages. Product and category pages remained non-secure and that’s what most people have gotten used to.
Now that HTTPS is officially a ranking factor, SEO-savvy webmasters have made the switch but there’s a handful of ecommerce operators who are resisting the change. More often than not, they cite reasons such as the following for refusing to go all-in on HTTPS:
- HTTPS is expensive. While securing an SSL license that will allow you to generate encrypted URLs did involve substantial costs in the past, that’s no longer the case today. SSL is cheaper than ever and if you’re running an ecommerce property, there’s no excuse for you to say you can’t afford it. Some hosting providers such as SiteGround and Z.com even provide this for free when you sign up to their hosting plans.
- HTTPS slows the site down. Contrary to the urban legend, using HTTPS does NOT slow your site down. This is a myth that’s been debunked time and again but it never seems to die. You just need to properly make the transition and make sure that you’re following all the best practices for site performance. Here’s a guide on how to do just that.
- Product and category pages don’t have sensitive information that needs to be secured. While public-facing page don’t contain private information, having secure URLs minimizes the chances of your website’s data integrity being compromised. Secure URLs make it hard for third parties to come between your servers and your users, reducing the risk of data that’s not yours from reaching visitors. Google rewards this level of security, which gives each page on your site a tiny ranking boost that can help you edge your competitors in very competitive SERPs.
Bottom line: go with SSL right away if you’re just starting your ecommerce site. This will save you a lot of trouble later on. If you already have a non-HTTP site up and running, you’ll want to make the adjustment sooner than later because data shows that it’s getting harder for non-HTTPS sites to dominate the search results.
12. Not Redirecting Discontinued Products
Products are phased out and replaced by new ones all the time. In most ecommerce sites, the common practice is to let the page stay online and just label it as “Out of Stock.” In other sites, product pages of SKUs that will permanently become unavailable are simply deleted. These practices also tend to be applied to entire product categories or subcategories that are being discontinued.
While both practices are fine from a content management standpoint, they may not be the best practices from an SEO perspective. Here’s why:
- The Out of Stock Option – In this scenario, visitors can still find your page in the SERPs but when they land on the page and see that the product is indefinitely out of stock, it’s likely that they’ll bounce and make your engagement signals look worse.
- The Deletion Option – This option will generate crawl errors. While crawl errors aren’t major issues in themselves, you have to consider that the page you’re deleting might have inbound links pointing to it. If the page goes dead, the link equity it receives is nullified.
To address both these issues, we recommend going to the deletion route and using 301 redirects to point both humans and bots to the most contextually relevant pages to those that you took down. This re-channels the flow of link equity to other pages while ensuring that Google will eventually take your old pages off the SERPs and just rank the other ones better.
Bonus: Link Building Strategy Tip
Ecommerce link building has a lot in common with link acquisition for other website types. The only difference would be in terms of where you’d want to point the links you secure. In other website types, it’s about accumulating links to your home page and other money pages. In ecommerce websites, we tend to follow this pattern:
- If the site is new, we point the first few dozen links to the home page to strengthen overall domain authority and allow the link equity to cascade to category and product pages.
- Next, we’ll identify priority categories and point some links to their pages.
- When we have unique content for priority product pages, we’ll point some links to the most important SKUs.
At the end of the day, ecommerce SEO is mostly about good information architecture, responsible content management and refined technical optimization practices. Links are still vital, but its impact is balanced out by the more pronounced effects of on-site SEO signals.