I was recently asked for advice on the best course of action for discontinued products for an ecommerce site and whether you should follow Google’s previous advice to let the pages 404.

I decided to write this piece up because it’s something that’s talked about a lot, but rarely written about. I’m half suggesting people to question bits of it, as it’s an area that is, in my opinion, pretty subjective.

In this specific scenario, the website was a very large fashion retailer, meaning that products are frequently discontinued (with no intention of bringing them back) at the end of each season.

There are three key considerations for this equation, which are: 

  • What can we do that provides the best user experience?
  • What can we do to maintain the SEO value of that page?
  • How can we avoid generating a huge number of 404 errors?

I believe that a lot of this is circumstantial and subjective, as it depends on the number of products being discontinued, the nature of the website (some websites only stock products for short periods) and a number of other factors.

I believe that redirecting a product back to a parent category with a message (explaining why they’re being redirected to the user), serving a custom 404 page (with recommendations) and maintaining the page and adding recommendations based on similar products (as per the Wiggled example below) are all viable options that offer a similar level of SEO value.

My initial recommendation for this specific example was to create a rule to redirect the product back to the parent category, which also worked in-line with the development issue that was causing them to change their existing solution.

In order to validate what I was saying, I decided to ask a few other experienced SEOs what they thought the best option (in relation to the site in question) was. Bare in mind that this would impact a lot of products and it happens regularly, so it needed to be automated. 

I asked a number of people this question and here were some of the answers.

The first answer, from Rishi Lakhani, was a very good solution, but probably not suitable for a website as large as this one was.

Rishil suggested creating individual blog posts talking about each product, with the intention over upselling other products and spreading value via internal links within the blog posts. The original page would be redirected to the blog post.

This is a fairly good option for smaller retailers.

The second suggestion, was to 301 redirect each product to a closely related product whilst also displaying a message communicating why the user was being redirected. This is a good option as it means the value from the page will be passed on to the similar product, but it’s quite difficult to automate and, in this very specific scenario, similar products are also quite likely to be discontinued (because of the seasonality).

I do however think that adding the post-redirect messaging will help to aid user experience, as these kind of redirects can easily cause confusion.

Finally, Kristine suggested serving a custom 404 page that provided information on why the product is out of stock, along with guidance on finding similar products on the website.

This would provide a good user experience and would be fine from an SEO perspective, but it’s a fairly complex and time-consuming solution (both dev time and on-going maintenance). Again, I’d suggest that this would be a great solution for a smaller retailer.

So, to summarise, I’d say that the best solution (for this large website) would be a combination of the above,  with an automated redirect back to the parent category and messaging to communicate the reason behind the redirect to the user.

This would help to avoid a confusing user-experience and also help to maintain SEO value of the products.

Here are a few examples of how other retailers deal with this issue:

Wiggle:

Wiggle keeps the page live, maintain the copy, imagery etc and then add an out of stock message, along with suggested alternative products.

Zalando:

Zalando keep all of their discontinued pages live, with suggestions of similar products and a ‘request details’ button, just in case it’s coming back into stock. 

If you have any questions about this or any alternative solutions - please feel free to leave them in the comments below.

Paul Rogers

Published 9 October, 2014 by Paul Rogers

Paul is an experienced digital/ecommerce consultant, specialising in working with the Magento platform.

4 more posts from this author

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Stuart Kerr

I agree a re-direct with no information can be really confusing to the user. One solution we have been using for discontinued products that still receive traffic is to put up a 'vote to come back', where the page stays live with a message about the product being discontinued with the option that if enough people get behind a product we can get in touch with the suppliers and see what we can do, for example:

http://www.libertygames.co.uk/store/football_tables/family_football_tables/offside-football-coffee-table/

over 2 years ago

Paul Rogers

Paul Rogers, Digital Marketing Manager at Digital / eCommerce Consultant

Hi Stuart.

That's a really interesting product and it's a great concept - not something I've tried / considered but definitely something that could be useful for retailers and their buying teams.

Paul

over 2 years ago

Pete Austin

Pete Austin, CINO at Fresh Relevance

IMHO "discontinued" is pretty similar to "temporarily out of stock" and should be handled similarly.

If you display a modified product page for out-of-stock, then do the same for discontinued (yes, under the hood it may be a 404 page, but the shopper needn't know that). And likewise if you redirect back to the category page with a message. Suggesting alternatives is a great idea in both cases.

You should also be considering using open-time formatting in your email marketing to reduce the importance of this issue. Because, with content that's formatted freshly at open time, it basically doesn't arise.

If people are opening emails, seeing and clicking products that have gone out-of-stock since the email was sent, and getting an out-of-stock page of whatever type, then this is suboptimal for them and you, except for brands where scarcity is a USP.
http://www.triggeredmessaging.com/blog/how-to-design-bulk-emails

over 2 years ago

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Patrick Hathaway

I'm not really a fan of keeping pages live if they have been discontinued for a long time. All this does is create more and more pages.

I think my preferred solution would be to create a 'Discontinued' message above the page content initially (with alternatives etc...) then after say 6 months this would get redirected to a category level page.

If you weren't going to automate it, then I'd look to review all the discontinued pages every few months, examine GA and log files to see if any of the pages are still getting traffic, then look to cull via redirects where appropriate.

Either way I don't think it's sensible to leave thousands and thousands of pages of discontinued pages live, which just inflates the site and wastes crawl budget. And let's face it, seeing a product is discontinued is hardly a positive user experience.

over 2 years ago

Paul Rogers

Paul Rogers, Digital Marketing Manager at Digital / eCommerce Consultant

Hi Patrick.

Yea, I agree - I think it's more of a UX move that requires mitigation of SEO risks really.

This particularly example was for a massive site so it needed to be automated, but I really like your solution of time-based redirects for a smaller retailer.

Paul

over 2 years ago

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Andrew Cock-Starkey, Product Marketing Manager at Cambridge English Language Assessment

Zalando might succeed on "What can we do to maintain the SEO value of that page?" but, for me, they fail on "What can we do that provides the best user experience?" - because the page suggests to users that the item may come back into stock. For discontinued lines, they won't.

Visual clues like "Let me know if my size becomes available." might be good for data capture but are lousy for the user that wants that specific thing not a "suggested alternative".

over 2 years ago

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Alan Ng

Google wants to rank sites/content that is useful for the user or potential customer.

These days in order to do the best SEO possible for a page a lot of consideration is placed into the content of the page, key information, reviews, social sharing etc. If there was a lot of good content on page, useful reviews, visits from social and referrers, good engagement, should we not consider these before deciding to 404 a page? Just something more to add into the conversation

over 2 years ago

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Anna Palmer, Marketing Assistant at Clothes2order (Part of Quayside Clothing Ltd)

This is a great idea - I love Wiggle's approach as it gives concrete information. I think an "out of stock" live product page could be confusing to customers - they don't have precise information as to whether this will be back in stock or whether it is discontinued. Great article - really interesting.

over 2 years ago

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Becky Hall

As a consumer of sites like Wiggle their option really winds me up. When I land there (from Google) I am looking for a specific product (brand, type AND model usually) at the lowest price.

When I get there and find it out of stock I get annoyed, I haven't bought from Wiggle (and others) for a while for exactly this reason. I don't trust the results to deliver the page I want to see.

So while their page might be a nice Google solution I'm not convinced it is a good shopper one.

over 2 years ago

Mark Slocock

Mark Slocock, Managing Director at GPMD

Paul,

As you say this is a subjective topic and there is no right answer.

This option might be shot down, but if we aiming to put the user's experience first should we not be serving a 410 status code so that Google removes the page from index?

Obviously you'd only do this if the product is never coming back.

If we drive people to a page for a product that is no longer available is this really a desirable outcome? Does it provide a good user experience, as Becky states above I think its pretty frustrating.

Thoughts?

Mark

over 2 years ago

Jack Stevens

Jack Stevens, SEO at Shine Search

I leave the pages up, but with 2 buttons saying "email me when back in stock" and another saying "view similar products" which I find works quite well

over 2 years ago

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Roque Lage de Llera, Online Marketing Manager at Externa Team S.L.

Hi and thanks for this wonderfull post.

I agree with you, the best option is a balance between SEO and UX needs, so the redirection thing showing a custom message in the redirected page will do the trick

Do you know any way to do this with prestashop 1.6? If i redirect through htaccess i cant show a message and in the prestashop options its not possible to show a message just add a redirect, leave it as a 404 or add a 302 redirect

Thanks and best regards!

about 1 year ago

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