For the first of my guest posts for Econsultancy I wanted to take a step beyond the generic, oft-rehashed ‘SEO tips’ (you know, things like “include keywords in your page titles” and “create great content”) and contribute something based on my experience of working across a number of e-commerce sites. 

Sales-based sites are where SEO really comes into its own in terms of return on investment, and it literally is the case that even the smallest tweaks can result in real increases in revenue.

So here are seven ways to help transactional e-commerce sites boost their search rankings…

1. Multiple categorisation

    A common instinct for e-commerce site architecture still seems to be the ‘filing cabinet‘ approach: each product is assigned one category and one category only. But of course in reality any one product may fit into many different ‘buckets’. A pair of trainers might fit into ‘mens trainers’ as well as ‘Reebok trainers’, ‘white trainers’, ‘tennis shoes’ and ‘cheap trainers’. 

    Now you may say to me “get with it mate, usability people have been recommending this for years!” True, and you may already be using a number of ‘sort by’ options to categorise your products. But do those categories form their own landing pages from which to target all those keyphrases, or are they simply ways of filtering results? The key is to make sure each of those categories is linked to using a clean, HTML anchor text link.

    You need to be careful, however. The arch nemesis of multiple categories on a site is duplicate content. A warning sign to look for is if your product URLs looks something like this:

    All very organised, you might think. But if your CMS produces URLs like these imagine what happens when you put the same product in two different categories… you end up with two completely unique URLs for the same product. That is a no-no for SEO. The best solution is to get your developer to do some URL rewrite jiggery pokery so you end up with URLs like this:

    By having the product pages only one folder deep, you can have them listed in as many categories as you like and there’ll only be one version of that product URL. Your doors are now open to the fun filled world of multiple categorisation. Happy days.

    2. Only the First Link Counts

      There have been numerous tests by SEOs to show that if you link to the same page twice from any one page, only the first link ‘counts’ for Google. This has an important impact on many e-commerce sites which – including Amazon! – tend to have images linking to products or subcategories BEFORE the actual descriptive text link. 

      Here’s a classic example from Argos:

      Argos ipods image link before text
      What this means is that the keyword-rich anchor text link isn’t counted by Google because the first link is the image. You can use the brilliant First Link Checker tool to find out quickly and easily if this is a problem for your site. 

      So what to do about it? An easy fix to this would be to place the text link above the image, or not have the image link to the product page at all. But this is a bit of a usability fail: we expect to see the text below the image like a caption, and we also very much expect to be able to click on the image. 

      Here is a more elegant solution used by Biome Lifestyle:

      SEO solution to first link counts CSS positioning

      The image link still appears above the text link, but if you look at the HTML code it is the text link that appears first and therefore what Google ‘counts’. This is achieved using CSS absolute positioning and pushing the text link below the image. A nice workaround.

      3. Dealing with pagination and duplicate content

        Another extremely common scenario in e-commerce sites is that many categories contain more than one page worth of content. Rather than listing all of the items on a single page, the standard behaviour is to paginate products. Usually this takes the form of URL parameters – for example the URL of each paginated page becomes:

        This is often the cause of an almost identical duplicate of the original category page – yes there are different products on page 2, 3, 4 or 10 – but usually each of these has the same page title, headings and copy, and is almost certainly targeting the same keyword as the main category page. This duplicate content tends to dilute the effectiveness of the original page. 

        There are a few ways you could go about resolving this:

        • Add the Robots Noindex Metatag to the duplicated pages to exclude them from being indexed.
        • Use the Parameter Handling Tool in Google Webmaster Tools to exclude paginated pages from the index.  This is essentially simpler (and lazier) way of achieving the same result as the Noindex tag – but just for Google.
        • Use the Canonical link tag from paginated pages to ‘point to’ the original page and pass SEO value across to it.
        • You might want to consider an advanced solution of using JavaScript # anchors for pagination – so all pages are loaded into one and the paginated URLs become – since Google ignores everything after the ‘#’ what you end up with is one page with all the content in it.

        A quick disclaimer! Each of these techniques could potentially create other crawling and indexation issues if not applied carefully. I would test them out on one section of a site and measure the impact before rolling anything out sitewide. However the beauty of finding a solution to this on a site with potentially hundreds of pages is the cumulative ranking benefit it can bring – well worth the initial headache if you ask me.

        4. Segmented site maps

          Aaah, the humble site map. That ubiquitous link in the footer of almost every site known to man, the one we’ve all clicked on once, thought “what’s the point of that” and never clicked on again. OK, I know some people do actually like using them – personally if I can’t find what I want using the site navigation itself I’d sooner leave the site than trawl through a giant table of contents.

          But aside from helping lost puppies find their way on your site, the humble HTML site map (not to be confused with its slightly more mysterious cousin the XML Sitemap) is also much loved by search engines. It’s like having a ‘get to the point’ button on your rather talkative spouse/mother/cousin/neighbour/colleague. They’re a way for search engine spiders to very quickly access and crawl every page of your site with a minimum number of links to follow along the way. They can help improve the number of indexed pages, as well as helping with rankings by increasing internal links pointing to deeper pages.

          However, once you go beyond the very smallest of e-commerce sites, the classic “here’s every single page on my site” one page sitemap becomes a bit useless. Once you start to go beyond a few hundred pages on your site, you either have to consider only listing categories in your site map, or you could try a segmented site map.

          Here’s an example from Air and Water Centre. The main site map links to all the categories, but also to a sub-sitemap for that category:

          Segmented site map example

           This sub-sitemap in turn links to every product within that category:

          Product sub site map example 

          What this has achieved is the ability for a search engine spider to reach every single page on the site within just two ‘clicks’ from the homepage. And that is good SEO juju.

          5. Singular keyword pwns Plurals

            The most logical title for a category page is usually the plural version, which makes sense: if you’re selling ‘digital SLR cameras’ you’ve hopefully got more than one of them! Chances are the page titles of your category pages look something like this:

            Category page title SERP example plurals only

            But the overwhelming trend as far as what people actually search for is
            concerned, is that singular keyphrases are far more popular than
            plurals. After all, people usually only want to buy one camera, not a
            boatload. A quick bit of keyword research shows that search traffic for
            ‘digital SLR camera’ is almost double that of ‘digital SLR cameras’. This applies to the majority of purchase intent category keywords that I have come across:

            Google trends digital slr cameras singular vs plural keyword research

            Now the fact is if you’re optimised only for the plural versions of your categories, you probably won’t automatically rank well for the singular as well. Here is a simple formula for page titles to get started on ranking for both singular and plural versions without coming up with spammy looking titles:

            [Plural keyphrase]: Buy a [Singular keyphrase] at [Site name]

            So using our cameras example you might end up with something like:

            Category page title SERP example plurals and singular

            Just this tweak alone has brought me some great rankings for those elusive singular versions of category keywords which were previously ranking pretty poorly.  Of course, using the singular version in anchor text of inbound links is the next step.

            6. Freshen up your pages regularly!

              Fresh updates to any particular webpage are a signal to search engines that the page is ‘alive’ as opposed to gathering cobwebs in the corner of your site.  This is becoming an increasingly important factor with Real Time Search becoming the latest trend all the cool kids are talking about (or slagging off), accompanied by the fact that ‘freshness’ has been gradually increasing in importance in Google’s algorithm for some time. This principle can be applied to e-commerce sites, but is rarely done.

              So, implementing some of the following could help you to get the competitive advantage:

              • Including user reviews and user generated content is by far the best way of introducing freshly updated, relevant copy into your page – just look at most of Amazon’s product pages. Just make sure the text from these is actually being pulled into the page itself rather than sitting ‘hidden’ away within an iframe where a search engine cannot see it. For example Tesco’s use of Revoo for product reviews doesn’t actually help their on-page SEO because all the content sits on Revoo’s domain.
              • If you have a blog on the site (and you should!), categorise your blog posts properly and have them feeding into category pages to include the first couple of lines from the latest posts. It takes a bit of implementation time but the result is constantly updated copy on your category pages every time you write a relevant blog post.
              • Make a habit out of regularly reviewing and changing the copy on your category and product pages, especially on key target pages. Not only is this going to keep things fresh for your users (who by the way do occasionally read your copy you know), it’s a great signal to search engines that a page is ‘alive’ and there is often a rankings boost caused by this. This could set you apart from your competitors who generally stick to the same copy for years.

              7. Build Links to Deeper Pages

                Long term SEO campaigns can very easily become never-ending battles to dominate those big ‘glamour’ terms at the head of the long tail which are the ones that individually bring the most traffic as well as feelings of superiority. But sometimes you can spend so much time throwing all your resources to these ultra-competitive keywords that you forget about those juicy long tail phrases such as product names.

                The fact is that although a number one ranking for ‘Sony Bravia KDL-40X4500 LCD TV’ won’t get you as much traffic as a Top 10 ranking for ‘Sony LCD TV’, these terms do have much higher conversion rates as they are later in the buying cycle. They are also easier to rank for with a few inbound links (see Eric Enge’s The Disproportionate Value of Deep Links for some science on the subject). So while your competitors are scrapping it out for those glamour terms, focus a good proportion of your linkbuilding efforts to some key deeper pages on your site.

                Hopefully these tips have been of some value to your SEO efforts. If you have any other gems, or questions about the above please drop a comment below. Also, if you find that they work, please let us know!