Perhaps the biggest challenge for an e-commerce SEO is that all e-commerce sites are conceptually identical. Virtually any site consists of products organized into categories, a shopping cart, and a checkout page. Accordingly, search marketing success for e-commerce sites is predicated less on innovation than possessing an expert understanding of factors that impact search marketing efforts. Mastering these fundamentals can still offer a big competitive advantage, as sites that do a good job in all five of the SEO-related categories discussed here are few and far between.
Product detail pages are your bread and butter
On a number of levels, the product detail page is the most important piece of content on an e-commerce website. It is where potential customers go to find product specifications, look at pictures, read reviews, weigh pricing options and, ultimately, make the decision whether or not to click the “add to cart” button.
It is also a critically important page for search, both for on-site and external search engines. Relatively granular searches are the rule rather than the exception for branded consumer goods, where proper optimization for such things as brand names, model names and numbers, product SKUs, and brand-associated sizes and colors offer the best chance of a conversion. Somebody searching for “Weber q200” is almost certainly closer to making a purchase than someone searching for “barbecues” or even “Weber bbqs.” It is imperative that your page appears for granular product queries in organic, comparison, product, on-site and (feed-driven) affiliate search engines.
Accordingly, you should lavish optimization love on even the smallest elements of a product detail page. In the vast majority of cases, these pages are produced from a template, so the benefits derived from each improvement you make are carried over to every product page on your site.
What are some of the things you can do to improve the search performance of you product pages?
- Be manically obsessive about the <title> tag, the name of the product as it appears on the page, and the relationship between the two.
- Ensure every iota of useful text that appears on the page is spiderable.
- Work with developers to hone elegant, standards-compliant, fast-rendering code.
- Pay rapt attention to both the structure and wording of headings, emphasized text and tabular data (cheerfully ignoring those who claim that such page architecture is unimportant for SEO.)
- Develop protocols based on some sort of keyword research to guide content specialists as they craft product descriptions; avoid using, if at all possible – unaltered, out-of-the-box descriptions supplied by manufacturers or distributors.
Product pages also play a vital role in supporting upper-level brand and generic keywords by virtue of how they link to upper-level pages, and in which upper-page groupings they appear. That is to say – more succinctly – how items are classified.
Classification is crucial
Correct classification of pages can make or break the ability of an e-commerce website to rank well for generic searches and “short tail” brand queries, as well as providing a much better (and better converting) user browsing experience.
There are two tasks associated with search-friendly classification. The first is assigning pages (especially product detail pages) to a category or categories (taxonomy). The second is organizing these categories into hierarchies (ontology). The result can be summed up and visualized as a breadcrumb, where the individual elements are categories, and the order of those elements a hierarchy.
The end result is an internal linking architecture which if, executed correctly, will see lower-lever pages supporting the keywords of upper-level pages. With correct linking, “14 Inch Laptops” and “17 Inch Laptops” both support the keyword “Laptops,” just as “Laptops” and “Desktops” support the keyword “Computers”. Of course, each computer will also be classified by brand, so that each Dell model will support “Dell Computers” and each HP model “HP Computers.”
There is much to think about both when planning, or adding to, a categorized product hierarchy. At the category level, the keywords must be the most appropriate for search, but also concise enough to support menu-based navigation. Since you will never capture any given category’s keyword universe in a breadcrumb element, figuring out how to account for synonyms and keyword variations is important at any category level. And, any upper-level (i.e., generic keyword) category will perform a lot better in search if the target page contains more supporting content than simply the product links or links to sub-category pages that appear there.
Even correct classification can be perilous if it is used as method of creating product URLs. Both of necessity (and advantageously) most products will live under two or more categories. This is a real problem if these products also live at these URLs. Consider our Weber Q-200 grill:
The obvious and best solution is to have the product live under one URL, and simply link to it from those other locations. Otherwise, the choices are all bad: exclude all but one page from search, list the product under only one category, or do nothing and end up with duplicate content.
The duplicate content monster lurks everywhere
Category-based product URLs are just one of the means by which duplicate content can be propagated on an e-commerce website. At the core, duplicate content is caused by the fact that product detail pages are the site’s common currency; and these are used, reused, linked to and reproduced in all sorts of on-site and off-site locations. Duplicate content can exist at other levels too (for example, two different category pages which contain exactly the same product listings), but product pages are the main culprit.
Here are just two examples of ways content can be duplicated, and some of counter-strategies that can be employed to avoid content duplication.
1) Parameters in URLs
Adding a parameter to a URL is the easiest and most common way of assigning source attribution to products. An external link from an affiliate can contain a URL, and this creates duplicate content when the link is direct. Parameters are often added to track internal click paths from menus, on-site search results and promotional banners. And content management systems, when unchecked, can create a dazzling and baffling array of parametrized URLs – and mounds of duplicate content.
If you can, just say no. Adding a parameter is, on one hand, almost always the path of least resistance for a developer and, on the other, often executed for esoteric data collection purposes that have no real-life value. So your mantra should be: parameters if necessary, but not necessarily parameters. When parameters must be used in situations where they will be indexed, the only reliable way of avoiding duplicate content is a 301 redirect: I have had very little success with <link rel=”canonical”> or the parameter handling dashboards in Google and Yahoo.
2) Product pages on affiliate sites
It is common for small, mid-size and even large e-commerce sites to offer feeds of their products for use by affiliates. While this is a terrific marketing tactic, it can result in an exact copy of your product pages appearing on other sites. Not only does this result in duplicate content, but can result in sites with better authority or better organization outranking you for your own products!
If possible, provide an alternate version of your product information in your feeds, which will ensure that each product page on your site is unique. Creating two sets of titles, descriptions or other elements is costly and time-consuming, however, and may not be feasible for larger sites. Another tactic is to only include select fields in your feeds, and reserve the full product data set for use on your own site. Probably the most effective strategy is to build out user-generated content, such as reviews, on your site to ensure your own product pages are unique, while beefing up the keyword universe on any given page.
There are other ways the content of product pages can be duplicated and other categories of pages that can end up as copies. Always be cognizant of this danger, and regularly check the search engines’ indexes, their webmaster tools, and your own analytics to identify and (hopefully) destroy duplicate content.
Your on-site search engine is a search engine
I am often flabbergasted to the point of speechless wonder as to how poorly some internal search engines perform, including those of many big-brand e-commerce websites. Time and time again, I am forced to navigate menus to locate an item that exists on the site, but did not appear in my search results. Most users are not prepared to do this: the amount of money these sites are leaving on the table makes me weep.
Whether or not the in-house search marketing department is the “owner” of site search, it is absolutely essential that SEO take an active role in site search functionality, and has access to the valuable data an on-site search engine produces. Too often, site search is the exclusive domain of the IT department, where important marketing metrics and relevancy of results may be improperly understood or ignored altogether.
At a fundamental level, it is important to make sure that you have a well-functioning search engine to begin with. The internal search engines that come with a site’s e-commerce or CMS platforms are often woefully unsophisticated. Investing in a robust search engine that can be readily manipulated is worth the money, and usually simply using analytics to demonstrate how often site search is used can go a long way to convincing executives to open up the purse strings. You do not want to do site search on the cheap.
Whether good or bad, the endless maintenance task associated with site search is to conduct sample queries, observe the results, and tweak the search engine settings to produce better results. The sample set should be composed of keywords observed from external search engines, representative products, brands, models and SKUs that are on your site, and queries culled from site search analytics themselves.
In some cases, this procedure will show shortcomings in your site SEO, such as poor classification, which will lead to changes benefiting your performance in external engines as well. More often, this will require modifying settings in the back end of your search engine to produce better results. In some ways, this can be a very satisfying exercise, because it gives an SEO the opportunity to do what they can never do with an external engine: get under the hood and manipulate the algorithm for your site’s benefit.
Site search is also a gold mine of information that can be used to support broader SEO and other marketing efforts. Unlike external metrics, where you will only see keywords for which you rank reasonably well, internal search provides you a full spectrum of actual user queries. The nuggets you can uncover include:
- Which keywords customers are using to search for items, which allows you to target these keywords for SEO and PPC campaigns.
- Which keywords queries are high converting, providing further focus to natural and paid search efforts, as well as important insight for messaging on landing pages.
- Which queries resulted in exits, which (for a well-functioning engine) usually indicates you do not carry a particular product or product line; this is valuable information for merchandising.
Time you spend experimenting with your on-site search engine and trolling the data it produces will have direct benefits for your company’s bottom line. A good search engine is a terrible thing to waste.
E-commerce is going social
This is now such a widely-recognized sentiment that it almost seems commonplace, but simply jumping on the social media bandwagon will not necessarily result in substantial SEO benefits. As with other marketing activities, it is important to identify and exploit opportunities that will specifically benefit search marketing efforts.
For on-site content, user-generated comments and reviews offer a way of enriching the keyword universe of a page, and the continual addition of content provides the search engines with a reason to spider these pages more often (and rank them higher based on content freshness, if this is indeed a significant ranking factor.) Aside from your main e-commerce site, supporting social media locations such as corporate blogs can also broaden your content base and provide inbound links that will benefit your main site through interlinking.
Indeed, social media activities surrounding your brand, site and products on your site are now the primary way of creating inbound links. One of the historical challenges for e-commerce sites has been generating legitimate links to product-related pages without paying for them. Now that the social infrastructure exists by which people can talk about brands and products, it has also opened up the possibilities that they will link to products and services.
Support this by making products, reviews, and other elements of your site easy to share. Spend the development time and cost to create share mechanisms and widgets that result in direct links back to your site from locations such as blogs and forums. Do not, however, obsess over links throttled by the nofollow attribute or 302 redirects: the more people are talking about you, the better the chance this will result in spiderable links somewhere, and in any case your site will see the direct traffic benefit of any links. And, of course, if you have a person or team dedicated to social media, worth closely with them to maximize the SEO value of your social media and PR efforts.