E-commerce SEO is one of the most difficult things to do, because most e-commerce websites are focused on products rather than content — the primary driver for search engine optimization. So if you plan to start an online store, be ready to invest time and money to build a brand by creating valuable content built upon a great design, user experience and site structure.
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We’ve done SEO and web design for e-commerce websites at all stages of their development, and most sites face the challenges outlined below — causing them to have ranking and conversion issues.
You’re using a distribution or reseller model
A distribution or reseller model — which means a business owner sells-in their products to a third-party reseller who then sells those products to the consumer — works great in an offline environment.
But this model presents a challenge in the online world, where search engines value unique content, experiences and product sets. This issue is that companies simply take the same content and visual assets and spread them over the web. This distribution of content creates competition for those assets, and if you’re a small business or e-commerce website just starting out, it can drive users away from your site and to the reseller’s site.
Now you might think this is great. At least users are getting to your product, right? But you also have to take into account the following:
You have no control over the onsite experience the user is receiving, which impacts the perception of your product.
You have no control over the post-sale experience that a user is receiving.
You’re losing profit due to the sell-in price of those products being lower than if you were selling them directly.
SEO tips for using a reseller model
Here are a few things you can do to help drive traffic to your e-commerce site if you fall into the reseller model category:
- Create unique assets (content and visual) for all your resellers to use.
- Be selective with who you use as a reseller; more is not always better.
- Create something of high value that you only use on your website — such as a video or graphic.
- Create a governance policy for all resellers that includes: guidelines for asset use, paid search bidding rules, and brand guidelines for marketing or servicing customers who purchase your products through the reseller.
There are three primary areas where duplicate content runs rampant on e-commerce websites.
1. Product variations
This usually happens when there are multiple variations of a product, and when a user selects a different variation, the CMS appends a variable to the URL — thus making it a unique page. When this happens all the content is the same on all variations — except for the name of the variation.
Tips to overcome this problem:
- Unless the product is fundamentally different to the extent which new content can be written for the variation, the URL should stay the same when a user switches between variations.
- Another option would be to canonicalize all variations to the primary default product page.
2. Faceted navigation
“Faceted navigation is often not search-friendly since it creates many combinations of URLs with duplicative content.” ~ Google’s Maile Ohye and Mehmet Aktuna
Faceted navigation refers to filters placed upon sets of products. These are prevalent with large product sets, where the website allows users to narrow their result set by selecting additional defining product features. The challenge is that if your filters are crawlable by the search engines (which most are), it creates almost an unlimited number of pages and product variations that litter your website with duplicate content and spammy pages. This can cause the search engines to get caught in a web of infinite possibilities and waste crawl equity on low-value pages.
The good news is that there are ways to structure your filters/faceted navigation in a way that is beneficial to users and search engines. Here are some of the insights directly from Google — just know this can get complicated.
3. Putting a product in multiple categories
At face value this usually is not a concern with most content management systems. Where websites get in trouble is when putting a product in a new category adds the category to the URL, resulting in multiple URLs for the same product.
Tips to overcome this problem:
- At the product level, strip out the categories from the URL.
- Define a primary product category that will be used in the product page URL, and make sure all secondary categories canonicalize to that product page URL.
On another note, we recommend putting a product in no more than two categories, as most websites don’t have a large enough product set to justify adding a product to more than that number.
Lack of reviews
Having product reviews on your website offers many benefits for users and for SEO. Studies have shown consumer reviews are more trusted than manufacturer’s descriptions because they offer social proof. Here are more SEO and user benefits:
- Providing more content for the search engine spiders
- Creating a content differentiation between your website and other websites offering the same services or products
- Supporting the user journey by validating the product or service; increasing CTR, sales, and revenue. Check out this case study from Bazaarvoice.
- Giving the product page the opportunity to rank for related long-tail terms, including combinations of product name + review
- Giving the product page the opportunity to rank for words that people use to describe your products (not your marketing speak) when searching for them
Even with all these benefits, many e-commerce websites either don’t have reviews on their website at all, or they don’t have a strategy for gaining and managing reviews. That’s a problem.
Note: Make sure you don’t just keep the positive reviews. There is some data that shows too many positive reviews might actually hurt conversions due to the belief that they are fake.
Lack of valuable product details
Product details not only help differentiate your site from the competitive set who are targeting the same product types, but they also help users understand what benefit the product provides to them. In addition to the challenge with the reseller model mentioned above, product descriptions on most e-commerce websites offer little value to users when it comes to teaching more about the product.
A well-structured product page should include:
- 150 to 200+ word unique product description
- Video of the product in use or why it’s better than the competitive set of products
- Minimum of three images for the product (preferably large, taking up a large portion of the page’s real estate)
- User reviews (both good and bad)
- Product-specific details in a list format that can be easily scanned by users
Getting links to product pages can be extremely challenging, especially if your products are not something that fundamentally changes the market. When organizing your website and creating both the hierarchy and taxonomy for the site, it’s important to showcase your primary products in a way that makes it easy for users and the Googlebot Persona to find.
Lack of supporting content
Most brands or e-commerce websites fail miserably at creating supporting, long-form content that can be used to attract users at all stages of their buying journey. They focus on their product copy (which from what we learned lacks value), and miss attracting users at the information and consideration stages of their journey.
This is an area for opportunity where small and mid-market companies can beat large national brands online.
Here area few things to consider when creating that all-important supporting content:
- Quality beats quantity. Don’t think that you can pay some random writer $20 per article to pump out 500 words for you and expect to compete. The articles must have value to your target persona and focus on keyword topics that matter. What constitutes quality for search engines? Check out Google’s guidelines for content quality.
- Not all content types accomplish the same goal. We like to use the content guidelines below to help guide our content creation strategy for clients:
User stage: Familiarity
Type of asset: Article/video
Good for: Rankings, social shares, links, traffic, page views, time on site
User stage: Consideration
Type of asset: Tools
Good for: Rankings, social shares, links, process completions, time on site, purchases
User stage: Awareness
Type of asset: Infographics
Good for: Rankings, social shares, links, traffic, pageviews
User stage: Purchase
Type of asset: Guides
Good for: Rankings, social shares, links, purchases
User stage: Loyalty
Type of asset: Events
Good for: Rankings, social shares, signups, pageviews, building email lists, UGC offsite, UGC onsite
Have you seen or experienced any other challenges that would keep an e-commerce website from ranking well in the search results? Please share!