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.