1. The consumer always comes first

All SEO activities must consider the consumer first before accommodating search engines.

The challenge to delivering front-end SEO activities is to deliver a balance of SEO to accommodate search engine algorithms and preserve consumer journeys.

This is the first tip because it is the most common mistake made. Many retailers would stand by their reasoning to sacrifice the customer journey but they don’t realise two things:

  1. By damaging the experience, they lose the consumers they initially attracted, and…
  2. Google is focused on and supports the delivery of great online experiences. This focus is seen through the eyes of its algorithms.

If retailers followed SEO best practice (in other words Google’s rules) they will, by default, enhance the consumer journey.

One example of this in action is page load speed. Case studies have proven fast loading websites rank higher in Google’s free listings than slow ones. Read my page load speed article addressing Google’s support of fast loading sites.

An example of SEO coming before the customer can be seen on one of the largest retailers in New Zealand, The Warehouse:

When you land on the Furniture category page you will notice six paragraphs of copy with the word ‘furniture’ used 11 times.

If a consumer has any buying intent, they are not going to read six paragraphs of copy at this stage of their journey. It’s too early (this is assuming the content is relevant).

The irony of this example is that there are many SEO fundamentals The Warehouse has not implemented on this key landing page.

I spend time fully articulating the issues and remedies to this page in a separate article written providing pragmatic examples of what can be done to make an impact.

2. Do not become absorbed in SEO analysis of your competitors

Some SEO experts are adamant the first rule/tip should be to analyse your competitors. The question needs to be asked, how is this information going to help you make decisions around your own SEO and business conduct?

Some will argue this analysis will bring to light the SEO activities your competitors are undertaking, however, who is to say they are gaining better value from these rankings?

You also may have a different product mix, different resource skill sets, and different budgets. Your brand may also be stronger or weaker than your competitor requiring different activities.

MOZ confirms Google changes its SEO algorithm on average between 500 to 600 times each year.

As a result, time spent attempting to keep up with your competitor’s rankings will be non-value add time with the risk of you becoming lost in the process.

It’s good to have a superficial high-level view of your competitors and their conduct, but more from an awareness perspective. Your time is better spent working on the other tips.

3. Develop a formula for your product titles

There are two elements to getting product titles right:

  1. Avoid internalised jargon, use names your consumers understand and are looking for.
  2. Use the proper structure of a product title.

In keeping with the furniture theme, have a look at this product name from a prominent furniture retailer in New Zealand, Freedom Furniture:

“Signature 3 Seat Sofa in Almeida Parchment” 

Though the colour sounds very fancy, there are 0 searches in Google New Zealand for “Sofa’s in Almeida Parchment” (one can argue keeping “Almeida Parchment” and infuse “beige” terms, but let’s stick to the basics here).

The other issue with this product title is the use of the term “Sofa”. The consumer demand in NZ for the term “Couch” is more than double “Sofa” terms.

By changing the product title to “Signature 3 Seat Couch in Beige” Freedom Furniture has opened its business to triple the demand and triple the opportunity.

Review your product naming convention and develop a formula to clearly explain the product and leverage brand (if possible).

A typical formula to follow is:

  • Product title beginning:  brand name
  • Product title middle:  description of product
  • Product title ending (optional):  material type, size and/or colour

Displaying the brand title in the front of the product title is a minimum requirement.  The saturation of brand titles in your product mix will deliver impact (assuming your product range is deep enough).

Successful online retailers follow this approach and formula religiously:

  • “Calphalon Simply Calphalon 10” Omelette Pan with Cover” (Zappos)
  • “Polo Ralph Lauren Custom Fit Long Sleeve Polo Shirt, Polo Black” (John Lewis)
  • “L’Oreal Paris Colour Riche Lip Balm, Pink Satin, 0.10 Ounces” (Amazon)

Not only does this provide consumers with a clear idea of what a product is, it greatly increases the opportunity of these products being visible in search engines.

4. Develop category titles to align to your target market

Think back to when you created the names for your main and sub category titles.

What was the process?  Did you think about what consumers are looking for online? What words they might use when searching? Or was this decided internally amongst key members of your team?

To truly find out if your category titles align to the demand of your target consumer, conduct an audit on every category title you have.

Implement the following methodology in your audit:

  1. Research search demand by using free tools provided by Google.*
  2. Research trending data on these terms (using Google Trends).
  3. Review existing data on category popularity.
  4. Research site search data to see what customers are searching for on your website.
  5. Balance the above research with the size of product offering.

*It’s important to understand, with Google’s global dominance comes many strategic advantages. Google provides the tools to assist in understanding what consumers are searching for and is literally the largest consumer panel in the world.

The combination of consumer demand research, existing consumer behaviour, and your product offering, will deliver alignment to your target consumers.

In doing so, this will your SEO efforts. This is SEO in its truest sense.

Whilst you do not need to rely on SEO specialists for this tip, they would add value to this process through their assistance in keyword research if this is new for you.

5. Introduce social proof into your site (Customer reviews)

This rule is a good example of what can be done to lift both organic rankings and consumer experience. Here, Graham Charlton looks at how customer reviews can assist in conversions, and build product visibility in search engines.

The challenge in making this rule work for the business comes in the disciplines required to drive and influence consumers to deliver this content.

Many customers are too busy to take time out of their busy day to review a product.  If the customer is not a fan of the brand, you need to work hard at conditioning this behaviour.

Three tips to increase the likelihood customers will provide a review:

  1. Provide incentives. You don’t need to offer a much, keep it simple such as a chance of winning something, for example, “provide a review and be in the monthly draw to win….”.For those products that are seasonal in nature and/or have shorter life spans, be more aggressive in your incentives.
  2. Explain to them it will help others. There are many people who are motivated through the desire to help others.
  3. Be strategic in your timing to ask for a review.  For apparel, you can ask days after the purchase, for large electronic purchases it pays to wait longer.Think about what the customer is using your product for and how long it will take for them to know if they are truly happy with the purchase.

    If you send the review request too soon, it will be ignored, if you send it too late, the excitement of the purchase is gone and the review will be less impactful and heartfelt.  There is no definitive best practice time to send a review request, every product type is different, every brand is different, and customers respond to each brand in different ways.  If you are unsure as to when to send the request, test it.

There are too many benefits not to have customer reviews. Studies have proven when customers write how much they like/love the product they recently purchased, they like/love the product and the brand even more.

If your ecommerce site is set up properly, search engines will pull customer reviews into the search engine results page improving the odds of click through.

6. Ensure your ecommerce technology is built to comply to search engines

The ecommerce technology driving your online store must be built and structured in a manner to ensure all the changes mentioned above will make an impact.

You can do great SEO work and execute all the right things, but if the technology is not set up properly, it will negate your hard work.

Go to your ecommerce technology vendor and ensure they comply to all SEO best practice standards, some examples: page structure (headers are set up), page load speed, clean URL strings, and site maps as a minimum.

This rule is best executed with the assistance of an SEO specialist. They will know the questions to ask and what to look for. Some of the technology elements can be highly technical in nature.

7. Develop your SEO strategic plan

There are immense benefits to developing an SEO strategy, but many retailers are not ready.

If you fall within the “Not Ready” category, continue to think pragmatically and focus on the key activities mentioned above. You will not go wrong.

The above recommendations represent the beginnings of a long term plan. Only once you feel you have a grasp on the above, its time to think SEO strategy.

An SEO strategy achieves two primary things for the business:

1.  Defines content architecture.

This delivers focus on the use of digital assets and how it will leverage your content creation and content marketing plan.

The two primary digital assets where content will be applied in the short term (for most) will be the ecommerce site and a blog.

The use and placement of the blog opens many debates and opinions. Is it best to use a subdomain (blog.RetailerURL.co.nz) vs subdirectory (sitting within the www.RetailerURL.co.nz site) vs separate (SeparateURL.co.nz)?

The answer to this question is a strategic one and cannot be answered until more questions are addressed. What does the retailer want this content to do for the business?

  1. Do you need to improve reputation management; are you dealing with negative brand mentions in the search engine results pages (SERPs)?
  2. Are you attempting to build a thought-leadership position?
  3. Are you trying to build a channel to drive deep linking to specific pages of your website?
  4. Are you trying to build depth of content or develop a tool to target queries?  In other words, do you want to attract and acquire early stage buyers by being visible in search engines for non-branded terms?
  5. Do you want to broaden your organic visibility across many keyword terms?
  6. Do you want to enrich the consumer experience with content?

The improper use of a blog tool will dilute the content marketing plan and diminish the SEO opportunity for the business.

You need to clearly understand how you want to leverage the content to determine the proper treatment of the blog and develop a content marketing plan.

2. Defines the content creation plan.

An SEO strategy consists of developing and driving a content creation plan.

Content creation consists of content specifically for your products (images, video, reviews), and content which compliments your products, product ranges and your brand (examples:  buying guides, “how to” guides, fashion tips, and content aligning to your target market).

Content must be written first for the consumer, second for search engines.  Consumers will know immediately if content is made for them or search engines.

Reading copy with the same wording repeated and displaying paragraphs of content when it adds no value to the consumer damages the experience.

Strategy also enhances the little things such as something as simple as article titles.  They may not seem important, but when a title makes sense to consumers and entices them to read the content, it lifts its impact for both consumer relevance and SEO.

The key message here is stick to the fundamentals and do the basics very well. If you are able to build the above tips/disciplines into your business you will be ahead of the majority.

One quick tip when it comes to finding credible SEO specialists, find those who do more than just SEO services.

SEO intermingles with usability, user experience, and influences your new customer acquisition strategy.

Partnering with specialists who solely focus on SEO will lead to examples like The Warehouse and Freedom Furniture, where SEO activities operate in a silo.