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Search engine optimisation for supermarkets is a tricky animal. Unlike many other online retailers, it isn’t really a case of identifying target terms and then optimising pages and building supporting content around those desired topics.
Not many people will search for 'apples' or 'bread' and then end up doing their shopping at the supermarket which comes out on top.
Lots of the more traditional methods of SEO tend to fall down, while other strategies which are only just starting to permeate the rest of the retail market have accelerated their way up the food chain to being fully embraced by some of the biggest supermarket brands.
With the help of Ruth Attwood, Advanced Search Consultant at 4Ps Marketing, I've been looking at supermarkets and SEO, with a particular focus on Morrisons.
Who's ranking for 'supermarket'?
Kevin Gibbons wrote on this site back in 2008 about the way that supermarkets were ignoring SEO for many major keywords and thus missing out on branding opportunities.
In this post he pointed out that none of the top UK supermarkets ranked above number nine in Google. Six years later, not much has changed.
The only supermarket ranking on page one is Sainsbury's, though local results ensure that local stores get some coverage. However, there are more local stores not mentioned here. Perhaps they haven't heard of Google's local results.
You might think that they aren't interested in search visibility for these terms, but the fact that ASDA and Sainsburys are using AdWords suggests otherwise.
The supermarkets rank well for terms such as 'online grocery shopping'. Sadly, that's not what most people are searching for:
More recently, the Guardian Media Network talked about content marketing being a critical driver with major supermarkets having “quite an affinity with food-based content, generating everything from recipes, diets and forums through to events” which seems to be a major truism in today’s post-Hummingbird world of rich content curation and outreach.
Does this mean onsite SEO is irrelevant for supermarkets? Of course not, content curation still requires intensive levels of optimisation, and even the best content in the world won’t magically outreach itself.
Plus there is still no harm at all in having category and product pages nicely optimised to ensure maximum potential traffic capture for brand purposes, something which a struggling supermarket would be well advised to examine.
The news is full of unfortunate stories regarding Morrisons at the moment, with the BBC referencing a 5.6% like for like sales decrease and a generally 'disappointing' sales performance at the end of last year.
Morrisons has been late to the online party, and only started offering online deliveries in January this year, in limited areas too. The company's slow adoption of a proper digital strategy is very telling in the sales figures.
The structure of the website is very strange, with the main homepage at entirely image based, and the design a little old-fashioned.
All the curated content which could be put to work pulling in visitors for the brand (and earning backlinks to boost authority) is pushed into the subdomain your.morrisons.com, while the online grocery shopping section is split again on groceries.morrisons.com, with wine over on morrisonscellar.com and the Kiddicare range over on its own domain as well.
Meanwhile, the user experience, though not absolutely disastrous, is less than optimal. I explored it here, with the help of some user tests, and it seems that customers were confused about where to start shopping.
All of the products and discounts promoted on the homepage lead to the your.morrisons.com sub-domain rather than product pages, while the actual link to start shopping is on the top nav, not in the prominent position it should be.
Groceries, wine and baby products are lucrative product ranges, but compare the Morrisons approach with rivals like Sainsbury’s and Tesco and we can see that the lack of subdomain unification isn’t a good way to go. (A mistake also made by Staples).
Aside from the technical SEO considerations such as splitting authority up, the unified shopping experience and purchase path offered on these two market leaders is an obvious improvement over Morrisons’ more piecemeal approach.
Even in terms of direct content curation Morrisons is behind the times, making some sadly elementary optimisation mistakes like wrapping the H1 around the top logo on all pages, using generic meta descriptions for recipe type listings (example from the Mains page – “Find hundreds of fantastic offers, easy recipes and entertainment products for the family at Morrisons online.”) and no ALT text on the (sometimes lacklustre) recipe images.
This is even more of a shame when looking at the search functionality for recipes, which is actually fairly solid (although some filters for refinement by ingredient would be nice), and the pages themselves which are actually nice and simple in their design with minimal scrolling.
There’s actually another missed opportunity here. Luke Knight, head of Lifestyle at 4Ps, raises the sometimes-thorny issue of supermarket-brand integration:
It amazes me how few grocers work closely with the brands they sell in order to improve all-round performance with supporting content as well as landing/product page merchandising. A brand like Lindt, for example, could sell a lot more through supermarket stockists if it worked with them to improve optimisation, merchandising and “added value” content like exclusive recipes.
It isn’t just the recipes, either. Morrisons has a mass of brilliant content available like its healthy eating tips section (everything from achieving your 5 a day on a budget to adding more egg into your diet) and their brilliant themed product ranges like NuMe, Just for Kids and Free From.
Charlie Kay, Senior Digital Executive on the 4Ps Food and Drink team, comments that Morrisons seem to be having trouble with its unique selling proposition:
The key to online success for a brand like Morrisons is identifying the USP, what can it offer that other online retailers don't already make available to their customers? The website seems to heavily focus on price but with supermarkets like Aldi and Lidl dominating the “value for money” niche perhaps Morrisons needs to take a different approach.
It already has a good start on family-orientated content on the site, and with so much power behind the idea of families at supermarkets perhaps making the distinguishing approach the idea of “feeding the family” healthily on a budget would get the brand further than competing purely on price.
There is so much editorial content here which could help Morrisons to cement its market share, but none of it seems to be integrated properly with a digital strategy that will grow visibility for the brand in order to attract more shoppers, long-term brand advocates and (the ultimate and obvious goal) boost that bottom line.
I’ll leave it to the head of the 4Ps Food and Drink team, Kia McSween, to wrap up:
Brands like Morrisons have a unique opportunity to change the way customers and businesses alike interact with grocers. By understanding their audience better, grocers can put the customer experience at the forefront of their objectives. This will allow them to create an innovative platform and strategy which includes content that is tailored to suit their customers’ needs and wants.
What do you think? Are supermarkets missing out when it comes to SEO? Or is search somehow less important for these businesses?