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:
According to SEMrush, this page brings in an estimated 5.7k from organic search traffic:
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.”
But what about the sites as a whole? TeePublic is pulling in an impressive 1.3 million in search traffic:
But, overall, Hot Topic has them beat in estimated search traffic (2.7 million):
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:
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:
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.
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.