The Race for Ecommerce

An Ecommerce website is driven by traffic and conversions making both SEO and web design high priorities. The market competition for online stores is becoming particularly fierce as more people use the internet to do their shopping whether it’s for clothes, food, or digital technology. Around 40% of consumers now frequently buy products or services online, making the online market an unmissable opportunity. Implementing an effective SEO strategy may be the difference between just a few visits a month and thousands of visits a week; each visit bringing with it another possible conversion.

SEO Essentials for an Ecommerce Store

An Ecommerce store can present all kinds of problems for SEO from duplicate content issues, URL structural issues, and pages with low quality or thin content which Google tends to dislike. Fortunately there are numerous things we can do to optimise an Ecommerce website to make it Google-friendly and give it a much better chance of ranking well in order to let those potential customers find us.

Issue 1: Duplicate and Thin Content

Duplicate content is a common problem on an Ecommerce website; hundreds of products with only slight differences are hard to write about uniquely, and repetitive information such as returns and delivery on every product page can add to the volume of boring duplicate content. Fortunately numerous things can be done:

Technical Solutions:

  1. Robots meta tag: This can be used to block certain pages from being indexed by Google. These pages may be dull pages, pages with very little content, or duplicate pages with different URLs which have no value as separate landing pages.
  2. Iframes: Iframes are useful for blocking certain content on an individual page. This may be useful for blocking repetitive information such as returns and delivery information found on every product page.
  3. Canonical pages: Blocking content is one way to deal with low quality/duplicate content issues. However, the canonical tag may be a wiser option. This allows you to set a preferred URL for a given page, in effect redirecting Google to the preferred page and telling it to ignore the page with the duplicate content. This may be advantageous to blocking a page altogether as that page may possess link juice which the canonical tag carries over to the set preferred page.
  4. URL structure: Breadcrumbs are commonly used which result in the same page having numerous different URLs. This results in duplicate content as well as loss of link juice as it is spread across numerous URLs rather than just one. I’d suggest giving each product page only one URL or alternatively you can use the canonical tag to specify the preferred URL.

Rand Fishkin discusses several technical ways to keep your content hidden from search engines over at SEOmoz.

Content Solutions:

  1. Check Amazon: Make sure the product descriptions on Amazon are not the same as your product descriptions. If so, get one of them changed.
  2. Write Content: many of you may not have the time or resources to write hundreds or thousands of unique product descriptions for every product page. However, it’s something worth thinking about. Duplicate content is something Google is becoming increasingly strict on and something that is becoming increasingly necessary to avoid. Avoiding pages with very little content is also preferable. Although these pages can be blocked using technical solutions, why not write some interesting useful information for these pages instead? Search engines love content so if you can write content instead of blocking due to no content, then write it!
  3. Customer Reviews: Allow and actively encourage customer reviews on product pages. These are a great source of free, unique content with very little effort involved. You can encourage customer reviews by email shortly after purchase, and even offer some kind of incentive such as 10% off next purchase.
  4. Q and A: another big opportunity for Ecommerce websites is the integration of question and answer content focused on products. This gives great scope to get user generated content onto lots of product pages.
  5. Buying Guides: buying guides provide an opportunity to create additional unique content on pages which can be linked to as well as linked out from to relevant product collections and product pages.
  6. Content variation: It is all too easy to copy and paste content for similar products and use a generic description for everything. Even the same product in a difference size or colour shouldn’t have separate crawlable pages each containing the same product descriptions. This issue can be solved by writing separate content or using a careful URL structure accompanied by technical fixes like the canonical tag which control the level of duplicate pages.

Issue 2: Old products, New URLs

Solutions:

  1. URL redirects: URL redirects work in a similar way to canonical pages in terms of SEO and their ability to transfer link value. If a product page is now obsolete as it has been discontinued then rather than just deleting the page or ignoring it, using a redirect can save some link juice. If you have a similar product still being sold, then redirect the old page here. Whenever you restructure your URLs or change the location of a product, be sure not to waste any link juice and redirect old URLs to relevant new URLs.
  2. Channel customers: If you’d rather keep the old product page in play as it still contains valuable information or acts as a strong landing page then channel customers to other relevant products that may be of interest.
  3. Pagination: The same list of products may be spread across numerous pages with different URLs. You can tell Google to consolidate indexing properties from component pages of a series in order to channel link juice to just one URL rather than several. See more on pagination.

Issue 3: Interesting, Sharable Content

One common problem with Ecommerce website involves the lack of interesting content which is share-worthy on social networks. Integration with social media now plays a role in SEO, both directly and indirectly. This means creating something worth sharing and incentivising people to share.

Solutions:

  1. Email: Use email to contact customers shortly after they make a purchase. Ask to them to share and comment on the products they bought.
  2. Newsletter: produce a newsletter and include a sign-up option on product purchase.
  3. Discount: on purchase offer customers a discount if they share the product on their social network.
  4. Blog: Create a blog where you publish interesting stories relating to your business, your products, as well as wider topics within your industry. Make sure to keep updating the blog; Google are particularly keen on fresh content which shows current activity and relevance.
  5. Content Creation: creating content can be hard if your products are not particularly content-worthy. However, there is always some way to look for a story: where did the product start? And where does the product end up? Perhaps the product indirectly affects things e.g. double glazing – reduces heating requirements and helps save the environment. Find out and use statistics and figures – people love to share figures and you might have all kinds of statistics from your own databases.
  6. Social Share Buttons: Include social share buttons wherever possible (although don’t overdo it). This could be just after product purchase, as well as on product pages, and on your blog. You can also use open graph tags to optimise how your content is shared on Facebook; somewhere that might end up providing a lot of your website traffic.

Issue 4: Footers and Exact Match Anchors

Footers are a popular way to promote certain collections or product pages on Ecommerce websites. However, using exact match anchor text in footers can lead to problems if your website has thousands of pages. Repeating a keyphrase thousands of times begins to look spammy and perhaps not so helpful for the user, but rather as an attempt to rank a page for a certain keyphrase. This may have worked in the past but nowadays it could even be harming your rankings.

Solutions:

  1. Dynamic footers: don’t give every single page exactly the same footer. Think about how the footer could be useful to the customer rather than how it could be useful for anchor text and SEO. If someone is on your travel website and looking for hotels in Venice then why include links for hotels in New York in the footer? Include links to other Venice hotels instead. Creating dynamic footers not only reduces the risk of looking spammy to Google, but it also creates a better user experience which ultimately leads to an increase in rankings; user metrics are becoming increasingly important in Google’s algorithms.
  2. Dynamic sidebars: similarly, sidebars throughout your website can also be varied. Perhaps trending products or services could be displayed here, as well as news updates from the blog. Simply repeating every link and anchor that is in the footer is probably not useful for user experience or very Google-friendly.

John Doherty goes through best practices for internal linking in more detail here and here.

Issue 5: Improving CTR

Improving CTR to your website not only brings more traffic in the short term but is likely to lead to an increase in rankings in the longer term.

Solutions: 

  1. Rich Snippets: these are enhanced search results which include price, availability, and customer ratings along with your title and meta description. Rich snippets are relatively simple to set up and can increase the CTR to your website. See the Google Webmaster blog on rich snippets for more detail.
  2. Product videos: product pages with videos properly embedded can produce search results that stand out from competitors. They not only increase CTR but they also help conversions once the customer has reached your website.
  3. Meta description: the meta description has little effect on rankings so don’t waste this by filling it with keywords in hope that it may be good for SEO. Use this description to help improve CTR. You may have thousands of pages meaning writing a custom description for each one is not viable. If so, then use a template which could include call to action, product name, price, and perhaps a message about free or next day delivery.
  4. Meta title: this does influence rankings although it also influences CTR which ultimately influences rankings. Therefore a good balance between SEO and user experience is necessary. You might want to custom-write some of your high level pages such as your home page and category pages based on keyword research. However, using a template for your product pages works fine; just include the product name and perhaps your brand or some USP.

Issue 6: Onsite Essentials

There are numerous ways to improve conversion rates through Ecommerce website design. Here’s a few essentials to remember:

  1. Search box: having a working search box on an Ecommerce site is essential. Search boxes are a popular way of searching for products on an Ecommerce store so make sure you have one and make sure it’s working. You can check for searches that have generated no results; this could indicate a broken search box but also shows whether everyone is looking for a product that you don’t have, and that you probably should have!
  2. Images: product images are very important for customer satisfaction, as they want to see exactly what they’re buying, even if it’s something as boring as a HDMI lead. These images should be marked up properly for SEO, including ALT text, preferably a descriptive filename, and perhaps accompanied by an image sitemap.
  3. Trust Signals: it is important that customers trust your website as they will be entering personal and payment details which requires trust. Make sure to include secure certificates on your website in order to reassure the customer that you can be trusted.

Additional Notes

  1. Google Shopping: upload your product data to Google using Merchant Centre. This provides traffic with high conversion rates bringing good usage statistics, reviews, and ratings and so inevitably improving your rankings.
  2. Sentiment: Google may begin using review sentiment in the future meaning acquiring positive product reviews may become very worthwhile not just for other users but for SEO as well. If you don’t take action to encourage reviews then you might end up with a high proportion of negative ones as angry customers are more likely to review than happy customers.

Summary

There are numerous on-site things you can do for your Ecommerce website and its ability to rank. However, gaining traffic is just one part of the conversion process. Remember that creating a website that is going to produce conversions is just as important, particularly since user metrics are used by Google in order to determine website quality, its ability to satisfy customers, and so its search engine ranking. See some great additional tips on Ecommerce SEO, and more generic on-page optimisation over at SEOmoz.