I've been in the SEO industry for over 10 years, and in that time, I've encountered hundreds of clients with large ecommerce sites, many hosting millions of pages, and nearly all have had countless SEO issues.

Thankfully, a few core fixes can have a big impact on your search traffic without needing to earn new links or invest in paid ads.

Before you start investing too much of your budget in content, link building, and paid search, focus on putting a process in place that will keep your site optimized for search.

While there are literally hundreds of technical ways to optimize your site's SEO (at a minimum), here are seven of the most common SEO issues ecommerce sites face, and how to solve them.

(P.S. Econsultancy subscribers can download the SEO Best Practice Guide for more info)

1. Optimizing for long tail keywords

One opportunity ecommerce sites frequently miss is long tail keyword optimization for category, subcategory, and product pages.

For those who don't know, long tail keywords are relatively rare keywords that don't earn much traffic in isolation, but make up the bulk of search engine traffic in aggregate.

For example, the keyword “t-shirt” might be searched for a million times each month, far more than “spiderman t-shirt” which sees about 10,000 searches a month. Here, “spiderman t-shirt” is the long tail keyword, and “t-shirt” is the fat head keyword. But ranking for “t-shirt” is nearly impossible, while ranking for “spiderman t-shirt” is far more plausible.

More importantly, in aggregate, all possible long tail phrases related to t-shirts absolutely dwarf the amount of searches simply for the phrase “t-shirt.” You will very easily pick up more traffic targeting these long tail phrases with a large number of pages than if you simply chase the phrase “t-shirt,” even if you eventually do rank for it.

To illustrate the value of long tail, let's take a look at the page that currently ranks in the top position for “spiderman t-shirt,” a page on Hot Topic's site:

hot topic spiderman t-shirt page 

According to SEMrush, this page brings in an estimated 5.7k from organic search traffic:

sem rush hot topic

That might not seem like much in comparison to what TeePublic is pulling (40.4k) with their t-shirt page, which ranks #1 for “t-shirts.”

tee republic t-shirts set rush analysis

But what about the sites as a whole? TeePublic is pulling in an impressive 1.3 million in search traffic:

tee republic domain overview sem rush 

But, overall, Hot Topic has them beat in estimated search traffic (2.7 million):

domain overview hot topic set rush

I'm not claiming TeePublic is using a failed SEO strategy or anything like that; the numbers prove they are also leveraging the long tail. But this comparison should make it clear that vanity rankings for the fat head keywords aren't worth chasing as much as accumulating search traffic from the long tail.

When it comes to your ecommerce site, odds are you already have an enormous number of long tail variations to work with. If you sell clothes, for example, odds are you have different colors and sizes for each item, and each of those will have a different long tail keyword associated with it.

Using dynamic rules, you can create titles and meta descriptions that capture these opportunities.

The page that ranks #1 for “blue t-shirts,” for example, is a page with a dynamically generated title tag and meta description at Target:

target blue t-short SERP

While I would actually recommend some alterations to this dynamic title, specifically some capitalization and more natural language, it's clearly working for them.

In aggregate, dynamically generated pages such as these can generate a lot of traffic, so long as the content on each page is unique enough to be a good fit for somebody searching for that phrase. More on this last point later.

2. Out-of-stock product pages redirection

A large site with thousands of product pages is almost certain to have products going out of stock, and many site owners simply take these pages down. The problem with this is it creates a 404 page that can damage your performance in the search results. This is because any PageRank that was previously sent to the page by backlinks, both external and internal to your domain, instead vanishes.

Use a crawler such as ScreamingFrog to identify any internal links on your site that point to 404 pages. You can and should also use the Crawl Errors Report in the Google Search Console to identify 404 pages based on links from other sites.

Do not simply implement a rule in .htaccess that automatically redirects these pages to the homepage. This is considered a “soft 404” by Google, where Google would actually prefer that a missing page render appropriately as a “real” 404.

Instead, redirect the URL to the next most relevant page, such as one containing most of the same keywords, or the category or subcategory page one step up the folder hierarchy.

If the product is only temporarily out of stock, do not use a permanent (301) redirect. Use a 302 redirect instead, to tell Google that the out of stock page should remain in the index.

If the product page will never return, use a 301 redirect.

Additionally, if at all possible, if the page will never return, any links on your own site to the redirected page should be updated so that they link to the new page, or the links should be removed. The reason for this is that every time a link passes through a redirect, it passes through Google's damping factor, reducing the PageRank carried by the link.

3. Optimize new product pages

Big ecommerce sites add new products as often as old ones go out of stock. When a new page is added, it needs to be properly optimized.

Here's a checklist of the main points to address with every new product page:

  • The title tag and meta description should include long tail keywords
  • Images should include an alt tag that describes the image, including keywords. Bear in mind that the alt tag isn't just intended for search engines, but also for visually impaired users and browsers that have trouble displaying the image, so make sure your alt tag is useful for humans.
  • Include an H1 heading tag to make the meaning of the page clear to them, including long tail keywords.
  • Include unique content if at all possible, meaning content that isn't just boilerplate from the manufacturer, or else it is unlikely to rank ahead of other sites using the same manufacturer copy.
  • The page should be easily reachable from the site navigation through links in an intuitive way, or Google may not be able to index it. Even if Google can index it from, say, your XML sitemap, it needs links from your site navigation in order to inherent any PageRank, which is generally necessary for it to turn up in search results. A logical navigational structure also gives the search engines semantic context so that they can display it for relevant search queries.

4. Optimizing product pages with user generated content

On ecommerce sites with thousands of pages, while you can and should put in the effort to customize content as much as possible, some boilerplate content is inevitable.

To combat this and give your site's product pages unique value to users and hence more appeal to the search engines, take advantage of user generated content wherever possible.

Amazon, for example, owes much of its success to the user reviews, which make up the bulk of the content about the product for many pages. Up to 90% of buyers admit reviews influence their purchase decision, so including them is also a big CRO boost.

To automate this process, use a tool like TrustPilot to collect the reviews and take advantage of their widgets to display them. Review platforms like this automatically ask customers for reviews after they make a purchase, and plugins are available for ecommerce platforms like Magento and Shopify. Make sure any review platform you use either has a plugin for your ecommerce platform or an API that your developers can integrate with your shopping cart system.

5. Keeping your technology updated

There isn't much to say about this one that isn't incredibly specific to the platform you're using, but it's important to stay updated and this is often neglected. Every cart, CMS platform, and plugin you use should be updated regularly to include the latest updates and security patches. Failure to do this can negatively affect Google indexing and rankings, in addition to the other obviously negative implications.

6. Avoiding duplicate product descriptions

We've mentioned above that boilerplate manufacturer content is both somewhat inevitable and problematic for SEO. We recommended keeping the content as unique as possible given your resources, but it's worth expanding on that point with a bit more detail.

When you're running a marketplace-style ecommerce site with a large number of pages, your best strategy is to focus on customizing your top-level category pages as well as your most important product pages first. Start with the pages on your site that are already earning a significant amount of traffic. You can identify these pages easily in the Content section of Google Analytics:

google analytics menu

As we mentioned in the fourth point above, it's also very useful to include user generated reviews on your product pages in order to keep the content unique.

While it would be unwise to remove any product pages that are already bringing in significant organic search traffic, it is smart to use the “noindex” tag on any product pages that aren't bringing in significant search traffic and that you have no plans of adding unique content to, especially if there is no user review capability. Too many such pages can lead to demotions in the search engines as a result of algorithms like Panda.

7. Avoiding duplicated on-site content (using rel=canonical appropriately)

Reusing manufacturer product descriptions isn't the only way you can end up with duplicate content.

Another issue is reproducing different versions of your own product pages as a result of situations such as:

  • product pages that are reachable from multiple categories,
  • URL query string versions of the page that merely filter or sort the content, such as versions of the page that sort the prices differently but otherwise display the same content,
  • URL tags for campaign tracking or similar uses,
  • pagination that splits the content across pages and leads to duplication (use lazy loading to address this particular issue).

These situations create multiple versions of the same page at different URLs. In extreme cases this can lead to an algorithmic penalty such as Panda. More likely but still problematic is the issue of keyword cannibalization. When you have multiple pages featuring the same content, you spread the authority across each of those pages so that none of them has enough authority to rank well.

If the issues above cannot be fixed directly, use the rel=canonical tag to tell the search engines which version of the page should be indexed. The proper code should be included on all versions of the page, including both the canonical and all the non-canonical versions. The search engines will assign all of the authority to the canonical page, and remove the others from the index.

Conclusion

While the seven issues we've discussed here certainly aren't an exhaustive list of things you can do to keep your ecommerce site optimized for the search engines, staying on top of these issues will give you an important edge over your competitors. These issues are so common that tackling them head on can make an important difference.

seo report banner

Manish Dudharejia

Published 26 June, 2018 by Manish Dudharejia

Manish Dudharejia is the President and Co-Founder of E2M Solutions Inc, a San Diego Based Digital Agency that specializes in Website Design & Development and eCommerce SEO. With over 10 years of experience in the Technology and Marketing industry, Manish is passionate about helping online businesses to increase their branding on the internet.

3 more posts from this author

You might be interested in

Comments (5)

James Riley

James Riley, Managing Director at Effect Digital LtdSmall Business

This is actually a really great post and it highlights the fact that some concerns we have as workers in the search industry (for example: clients becoming obsessed with specific vanity rankings, instead of granular search traffic intake and business KPIs) are still valid. They're concerns we had years and years ago (5-6 years back is when long-tail really began to become the most viable SEO strategy).

The only reason that these concerns still exist, is that within our wider industry community - none of us are really doing enough to challenge myths and client misconceptions. We're not re-educating our client-bases as aggressively as we should be. Due to that, clients come to digital or marketing agencies with wrong expectations. They still feel that linear (non-personalised) rankings exist in a pure form (they don't) and they still feel that this is the best metric to evaluate organic-search performance (it's not)

It's interesting to see someone else writing about CRO, it obviously has huge overlap sitting between UX and SEO. In a way, much more of what we do should be CRO focus with most of the tech stuff now revolving around the 'uniquification' of canonical site addresses and URLs. Sometimes getting clients to commit enough budget for those changes can be a challenge, but you can take it a step at a time and really prioritise

Canonical tags are helpful in terms of bypassing content duplication concerns, but they do little to consolidate SEO authority across multiple pages. The real goal should always be unified, canonical site architecture enforced with 301 redirects. Like you say, sometimes that's not possible so it's great that canonical tags can help us in most instances.

Do you find they get 'over-suggested' and 'over-used' though? They're often easier to implement, but they don't keep authority flow nailed down so over-use of canonical can lead to a breakdown of canonical equity-cohesion and lost search traffic. I'm not saying they're bad, but there's a time and a place - you know?

about 1 month ago

Peter Leatherland

Peter Leatherland, Online Sales Manager at Ethical Superstore

One thing I’d say with the long tail keywords is that they convert better. If someone searches for “T shirt” arrive on your site and offer them 10 t shirts, they probably won’t find one they like and move on. If someone searched for “Spiderman t shirt” and you offered them 5 Spiderman T shirts, you’d have a decent chance of getting a sale.

The problem with running a large e-commerce site and going for lots of long tail keywords is that you can’t optimise the pages individually. If you had a site with 10 products you could do a great job of optimising for these 10 products, but with 1000s you have no chance. So the best way to do it is just to follow good guidelines like writing unique content, having descriptive alt tags heading etc (pretty much what Google tells you to do!) so that your pages should be in a decent 90% optimised state without anyone with any SEO knowledge having to look at them. Having a look at your analytics and seeing which products are bringing traffic (either through organic or Google shopping), there will also be a few key category pages brining traffic, these are the ones you can spend time looking at individually.

A big part of SEO for a large site is making sure you don’t get things wrong, if you are already writing good content then I’d say this is the next most important thing. Duplicate content can occur easily if you have lots of categories and filters like a large e-commerce site will have so very important to get the technical side right and ensure Google understands the pages on the site, read up on canonical pages and think about the structure of the site when adding or removing categories and pages. Redirects are also very important on large sites as products and categories will need to move around, brand names change etc so it’s hugely important Google understands what you are doing and knows where to look, it’s so easy to loose ranking when you chop and change without giving it some thought.

Content is still crucial, it takes time but write unique content for every product and set a blog up as a way of creating more content and linking to important areas of the site and indicating to Google which pages are the key pages.

about 1 month ago

Avatar-blank-50x50

Parth Desai, Director at BazarBit

The organic SEO process is a bit more complicated especially for e-commerce sites, due to a unique set of conditions they operate under and their distinct practices. Keeping aside the basic things of SEO such as publishing quality content, maintaining good social media campaign, etc. e-commerce sites need to implement some specific and unique strategies that maximize organic search traffic, sales, leads, and growth of the business.

So how do you know that what strategies and practices will help you in rising to the top? Don’t worry. We have some of the SEO strategies for your e-commerce site visit bazarbit.com

about 1 month ago

Manish Dudharejia

Manish Dudharejia, Founder & President at E2M Solutions Inc.

@James - IMO, if it is MUST for you to use duplicate content on multiple pages, then you're left with only option to use Canonical tags. If there is a way to do it in a different way, I would do that first before using Canonical tags.

about 1 month ago

Manish Dudharejia

Manish Dudharejia, Founder & President at E2M Solutions Inc.

@Peter, Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. For large eCommerce sites, I would recommend to look for your top performing products pages and make sure you highly optimised those pages with long-tail keywords. After that, you can keep optimising other products pages in small segment. Eventually it is must if you want to rank products pages higher in Google.

I agree with you that Content is crucial. Specifically if you can get maximum UGC.

about 1 month ago

Comment
No-profile-pic
Save or Cancel
Daily_pulse_signup_wide

Enjoying this article?

Get more just like this, delivered to your inbox.

Keep up to date with the latest analysis, inspiration and learning from the Econsultancy blog with our free Digital Pulse newsletter. You will receive a hand-picked digest of the latest and greatest articles, as well as snippets of new market data, best practice guides and trends research.