Whether you’re a fledgling B2C shopify store or a behemoth B2B eCommerce wholesaler like Alibaba, establishing and maintaining a strong organic presence in search engines isn’t a luxury—it’s a necessity. From new client acquisition to revenue generation to profitability, there are a myriad of competitive reasons why organic search is key to the long-term success and viability of eCommerce websites and the companies they represent. Even Chief Executives for top companies including Land’s End, Overstock and Groupon are getting grilled by the street on their ecommerce SEO shortfalls and strategies.
Developing an effective SEO strategy in today’s competitive online marketspace is a challenging endeavor—especially for eCommerce websites. eCommerce websites are challenging to optimize. Due to their size and complexity they are prone to several unique technical and on-page optimization issues that can derail SEO efforts making it difficult to appear competitively in SERPs and reach new customers. The biggest SEO challenges eCommerce websites face include:
- Poor site architecture
- URL instability
- Poor internal link architecture
- Product page churn
- Content quality
- Keyword misalignment
- Slow load times
- Slow Response times
- Mobile incompatibility
- Offsite development
- Poor URL Structure
- Lack of relevance
- Technical errors
- Resource restraints
- Multiple URL routes/parameters
When tackling SEO for larger eCommerce websites, knowing where to begin is often just as challenging as knowing what to do. Even after a full website audit has been performed, many eCommerce websites are left with the daunting task of implementing a lengthy list of ‘SEO’ improvements on a limited budget without a clear understanding of which improvements will make the biggest impact on indexability, rankings, and organic traffic. Additionally, many standard technical audits do not account for the many intricacies of analyzing and optimizing an eCommerce website for search. This is particularly true for multifaceted enterprise-level eCommerce sites.
As SEO manager for sportsmans.com—an eCommerce website that supports over $1.4 billion in annual sales—I have found that taking a top-down (general to specific) approach to eCommerce SEO is beneficial. Optimizing Product Detail Pages (PDPs) by adding unique content is helpful, but not if Google is unable to effectively crawl a website and reach PDPs. Building out subcategory structure can greatly enhance SEO and drive organic traffic, but yields little benefit if site architecture is too deep. A top down approach to eCommerce SEO (1) ensures the main issues impeding indexing and ranking in SERPs are addressed first, (2) maximizes the effectiveness of subsequent (often dependent) optimization initiatives and (3) helps place investment dollars where they provide the biggest impact and return.
Traditionally, SEO strategy is divided into two general categories: on-page SEO and off-page SEO. On-page SEO focuses on optimizing the technical elements of a website—including meta tags, semantic markup, schema, code and site structure. Off-page SEO addresses more non-tangible elements that relate to the website but are not under the direct control of the webmaster—such as domain authority and backlinks. While both on-page and off-page SEO are essential to achieving positive SEO outcomes, when applying a top down approach to eCommerce SEO it’s beneficial to frame SEO initiatives within the context of three functional categories: Stability, Accessibility and Relevance.
Below, we’ll explore each of these categories in detail. For quick access to specific topics, you can select from the following table of contents.
- Internal Communication
- Development Support
- URL Structure, Stability and Usage
- Speed and Responsiveness
- Discontinued Product Pages
- Multi-faceted Search
- Internal Search Pages
Pillar 1 – Stability
Stability is the first pillar of eCommerce SEO.
There are several stability issues unique to eCommerce websites. If not addressed, they may make achieving and maintaining competitive rankings in SERPs difficult. Addressing each issue will help create a stable eCommerce website that can support long-term organic growth.
You may ask what does communication have to do with the SEO stability for an eCommerce website? Well… the answer is everything. When there are many hands in the pot, and the left does not know what the right is doing, SEO mishaps are around every corner.
The following are a few areas where regular and coordinated communication need to occur in order to maximize SEO outcomes for eCommerce sites.
- UX improvements
- ADA compliance implementation
- 3rd party script integration
- SKU development
- Taxonomy design
- Category buildout
- Website migration
- Hosting environment upgrade
- Faceted search
- Technology upgrades
- Ongoing code releases
Consider the following example that illustrates the importance of fostering a culture of open communication. One of my previous clients—a national retail chain—upgraded their web hosting to support CVV2 credit card authentication. The client had undergone a massive website migration to a new domain two years earlier. The internal IT team responsible for the CVV2 upgrade neglected to inform the SEO team about the upcoming change to web hosting. The moment CVV2 authentication went live, over 10,000 URL redirects from the client’s legacy website to the new website were deleted. Over 100,000 redirected backlinks were lost.
For smaller eCommerce websites, it’s important to maintain open lines of communication between SEO managers, developers and internal IT teams. For larger enterprise eCommerce websites, internal communication is vital to site stability and achieving positive SEO outcomes.
If you believe you can simply hire an SEO specialist to optimize your eCommerce website, you’re probably wrong. Whether you operate an enterprise-level eCommerce website or small online store, most eCommerce platforms require development to achieve site stability essential for effective SEO.
Let’s suppose you launch an online store using the popular out-of-the-box Magento eCommerce platform. You quickly learn it comes with some common technical problems that can have a negative impact on SEO. These include slow pageload speed, misconfigured product pages, search page indexing, and query string URLs, to name a few. While an SEO can resolve some of Magento’s technical issues, many require the expertise of a developer.
For enterprise-level organizations with multifaceted eCommerce websites, having dedicated developer support becomes more important to maintaining site stability for SEO. Suppose you need to make a change to the canonical tag logic on part of your site to address duplicate content issues, noindex faceted search features to thwart indexation bloat, or troubleshoot why your web pages are all of sudden generating 500 internal server errors. Without a dedicated development team it may takes weeks instead of hours to resolve critical stability issues that may negatively impact indexation, rankings, and organic traffic.
While it’s not realistic for all eCommerce companies to have dedicated in-house developers, it’s ideal. In-house development ensures open communication lines between SEO teams and developers, and leads to better SEO outcomes.
Think about. If it takes you 4 weeks every time you need to address a site stability issue that your competitor can fix in a couple hours, who has the competitive advantage? And… don’t forget, SEO is all about achieving a leg up on the competition.
URL Structure, Stability and Usage
Correctly designed URLs help Google locate, understand and index ecommerce web pages. Poorly designed URLs accomplish just the opposite. The following are common URL fopaux to avoid.
- Fragment identifiers used to show different content. Google does not use fragment identifiers in indexing. Avoid, using fragment identifiers to display content indented to be indexed separately. (E.g /product/car#black and /product/car/#silver are the same page to to Google.)
- Multiple URL routes and/or parameters used to show the same page. This most often occurs when product detail pages (PDPs) can be accessed through multiple URL formats (E.g /product/bmw-roadster and /product?sky=32320). Multiple URL routes and parameters should be correctly canonicalized to a preferred page URL to avoid large scale duplicate content issues that could negatively impact page relevancy, crawl efficiency, crawl budget and overall SEO performance.
- Changing URL values such as a timestamp should be avoided. Continually changing URLs make crawling of a website time consuming and difficult to find content as this leads to an infinite number of web pages. (E.g. /display?now=12:00am and /display?now=12:10am)
Optimize ecommerce URLs to promote indexing and ranking by following these best practices for URL structure.
- Avoid using multiple URL structures to return the same content.
- Convert all text in a URL to the same case when upper and lower case text is treated the same by the web server.
- Ensure each page in a pagination series has a unique URL. (Note: This is particularly important for retail ecommerce websites with thousands of product pages that are only linked to via pagination.)
- Use descriptive words in URL paths to help Google understand the web page, but don’t overdo it. (E.g. /product/2001-bmw-roadster vs /product/42331)
- Use the correct URL parameters ?key=value as opposed to ?value where possible to help Google understand site structure and index web pages. (E.g. /bmw-roadster?page=3 instead of /bmw-roadster?3)
- Do not use the same parameter twice. Doing so may cause Google to ignore one of the parameters. (E.g. ?type=car,blue instead of ?type=car&type=blue)
- Do not link to URLs that contain temporary parameters such as tracking codes, session-IDs, user-relative values, time staps, etc. To maximize site stability for ecommerce SEO develop and link to long-term URLs that will not disappear or change over time. (E.g. /bmw-roadster?location=US instead of /bmw-roadster?location=nearby, /bmw-roadster?current-time=12:05, etc.)
- When dealing with parameters that lead to the same content, indicate with parameters to ignore using Google’s URL parameter settings in Google Search Console.
- Where possible, assign product variants their own URL. This will ensure each product page is eligible for Product rich results.
- Where product variants are provided a unique URL, set one variant as the canonical URL for Google to index and display in search results.
- Where product variants are provided a unique URL, use a path segment such as /bmw-roadster/silver or query parameter, such as /bmw-roadster?color=silver for the URL structure. Where query parameters for variant URLs are option, the URL without the query parameter (e.g /bmw-roadster) as the canonical URL.
Note: The default URL structure for the ‘base’ product for many eCommerce platforms does not have a query parameter, where the URL structure for ‘variant’ products is parameterized. Where this structure exists out of the box, it’s easier to programmatically implement a correct canonicalization logic.
Within the context of site architecture, having a stable URL structure—where URLs do not change—is to key to successful ecommerce SEO. Any change to URLs and URL paths can have significant impact on how visible a web page or website is on Google and cause losses in rankings and organic traffic. Ironically, many eCommerce engines employ technologies, protocols and processes that lead to consistently changing URLs.
Google search advocate and webmaster trends analyst, John Mueller, strongly encourages webmasters to avoid changing website URLs. He wrote:
The bigger effect will be from changing a lot of URLs (all pages in those folders) – that always takes time to be reprocessed. I’d avoid changing URLs unless you have a really good reason to do so, and you’re sure that they’ll remain like that in the long run.
What does this mean? It means every time a URL (or URL path) changes, Google must go through the process of re-indexing and re-evaluating the web page (or web pages). This process takes time and there is no guarantee when Google finishes reprocessing the new URL that it will regain its former ranking or indexation status.
Say for example you have a web page (/bmw-roadster) that appears in the 2nd position in Google SERPs for the keyword “bmw roadster” and the URL changes (to /best-bmw-roaster). Unless you have a 301 redirect setup from the previous URL to the new URL, the immediate result will be that the page simply disappears. For several days following the URL change, when a user goes to Google and performs a search for “bmw roadster”, they’ll receive a 404 error page when they arrive at the old URL (/bmw-roadster).
The following are the most common causes of URL changes on eCommerce websites.
- Changing category names. Category names are often tied directly to URL structure. When the category name changes, the URL structure changes. Changing a category name can have a ripple effect that impacts all URLs tied to the category path. For example, suppose you change a category name on mypets.com from ‘dogs’ to ‘canine’.
URL structure before category name change:
URL structure after category name change:
- Change product naming convention. Product names are often tied to both page headers and URL structure. When a product name changes, the URL structure for the respective web page is altered and Google is forced to reprocess the pages.
- Change to header tags. In some eCommerce platforms, page headers are tied to URL structure. This is typically the case with product pages, but may also occur with other page types.
Solutions to changing URL structure:
- Create URLs without paths. It’s been long believed and promulgated that including the hierarchical folder structure and relevant keywords in URLs is an important ranking factor. While that may have been true at one time, today URL structure has very little impact on a page’s ability to rank in Google. An effective way of mitigating the impact of category name changes to URL structure is to create URLs without paths.
Example product URL with paths.
Example product URL without paths.
- Decouple URL structure from header tags, category names and other identifiers. Programmatically decoupling changes to header tags, category name and other identifiers can be an effective method for controlling changes to URL structure. When implementing a decoupling strategy it’s important to create supporting style guides and process controls to ensure URL naming convention continues to accurately reflect page content.
- Perform URL rewriting to change URL structure within a site. When making significant changes to URL structure, John Mueller recommends maintaining the old URLs and rewriting the new URLs on the server-side. Maintaining URL structure by employing server-side rewrite technology is an effective method for maintaining SEO continuity for eCommerce websites.
- Implement a well thought out site architecture ahead of time. Probably to the best solution for mitigating changes to URL structure, is to develop an ecommerce site with a well thought our site architecture. Implementing an optimized site architecture and category structure from the beginning avoids the need to make major changes to URLs down the road.
Even in a best case scenario, sometimes URLs must change. Whenever a URL—or URL path—must change, make sure a 301 redirect is put in place to let Google know where the new web page(s) and content can be found. Even when a 301 redirect is put in place, Google still reprocesses the web page and content associated with the new URL.
- For a given web page, use the same URL format in all internal linking—including sitemap files, canonical tags and pagination using query parameters.
- Add a self-referencing canonical tag—where the URL in the tag points to the current page—for all indexable web pages.
- For product variants with unique URLs, the canonical tag should link to the ‘base’ product or ‘canonical’ product to be indexed.
- Where possible, include descriptive text between <a href> and </a>. Try to avoid general, non-descriptive phrase (e.g. “click here”.)
Speed and Responsiveness
While both important SEO performance metrics, ‘speed’ and ‘responsiveness’ measure two different elements. Page speed (aka ‘Load time’) measures the time required for a web page (or site) to retrieve and render page resources—including scripts, images and other linked or embedded content. Responsiveness (aka ‘Server Response Time’) on the other hand is the time between when a web client makes a request (e.g., clicking on a web link or entering a URL in an address bar) and the server responds to the request.
Why page load speed is important to eCommerce SEO
With the roll out of Core Web Vitals (CWV) in August 2021, page load speed is now a primary ranking factor Google uses to help determine positions in SERPs. In reality, CWV is a lesser relevance factor when it comes to rankings, but it’s still an important SEO and user metric. If a web page doesn’t load fast, it creates a poor experience for users. Google wants to index and rank websites that provide the very best user experience.
There are several reliable tools for measuring and monitoring page speed on both mobile and desktop devices. A few of these including Google PageSpeed Insights, GTMetrix and Pingdom. These tools, as well as many other more extensive trackers will monitor page load speed and provide analysis and recommendations on how to improve page speed.
When assessing and monitoring page load time, it’s important to look at page load time on a per page basis as well as the aggregate page speed for the website. This is particularly important for eCommerce websites since they often employ a variety of templates with varying scripts, images and embedded content. For eCommerce websites—especially large complex sites—page speed should be assessed and monitored across all site templates and web page formats.
So… what is fast?
In a Site Performance for Webmasters Google Search Central tutorial, developer programs tech lead, Maile Ohye, states “2 seconds is the threshold for ecommerce website acceptability. At Google we aim for under a half-second.” As general rule, an eCommerce web page should fully render in under 2 seconds.
How to improve page load speed
I’m not going to address each element of page load speed optimization here, but I will identify common methods for reducing page load speed for eCommerce websites. You’ll find a myriad of guides and tutorials online that go into more depth on each element below.
- Host on high-speed dedicated server
- Enable browser cashing
- Reduce image sizes
- Compress image files
- Lazyload images and videos
- Minify resources (HTML, CSS, JS)
- Remove query strings from static resources
- Combine files (Google fonts, CSS, JS)
- Optimize database structure
- Load non-critical CSS files asynchronously
- Load JS files deferred
- Enable Gzip compression
- Use a CDN (Content Delivery Network)
- Use external hosting for large files
- Configure server settings
Note: Each of the above optimizations should be evaluated and implemented with the assistance of an experienced web developer.
Why server response time is important to eCommerce SEO
Most SEOs focus entirely on improving page load speed (i.e. rendering of page resources.) As an SEO tool for improving rankings, server response time (SRT) is often overlooked. While not a direct ranking factor, SRT impacts page load speed and crawl rate—both direct ranking factors.
John Mueller: …if the server speed goes down significantly, so not the time to render a page, but the time to access the HTML files directly… we will scale that [crawling] back fairly quickly.
Audience: …So the response time is highly relevant. It is highly related to crawl requests, right?
John Mueller: Yes.
Source: SEO Office Hours: Oct 22, 2021
The following Google Search Console (GSC) crawl stats report shows crawl requests for HTML file types representing all the category, product and content pages for one of my previous clients—and one of the largest online retailers in United States. You’ll notice as ‘Average response time’ falls that ‘Total crawl requests’ from Google increase. Conversely, as ‘Average response time’ climbs ‘Total crawl requests’ decline.
Optimizing SRT is particularly important for eCommerce sites where there may be thousands of requests made to a server every second. STR is measured in milliseconds using the Time to First Byte (TTFB) metric. TTFB measures the time that transpires between the HTTP client request and receiving the first byte of data.
What is a good TTFB? Here are some general guidelines.
- An SRT under 100ms is ideal.
- An SRT between 100-200ms is good.
- An SRT between 200ms-1 second second is acceptable.
- An SRT over 1 second is problematic.
As SRT impacts page load speed and crawl rate, improving SRT can have a positive impact on SEO. As page load factor, SRT is also vital to providing a good user experience. According to a Forrester Research study, over 50% of users expect a web page to load in two seconds or less. If a page takes over three seconds to load, 40% of users will leave the page.
How to improve server response time
There are dozens of factors that may slow down the response time of your server. Even if you’re not able to address all of them, work with an experienced system admin or developer to address as many as possible. The following optimizations will help improve server response time.
- Optimize application logic. Identify which dependencies are being employed and how long each dependency takes to load. Optimize code to improve application load times.
- Rewrite database queries. When database queries are slow more CPU resources are required and server response time increases. Rewrite database queries with performance in mind so they only return what is required (e.g. use hash joins vs nested loops.)
- Improve CPU performance. CPU performance will go down when a site is running too many scripts or plugins. Work with a developer to remove unnecessary scripts and plugins that are resource intensive.
- Optimize routing. Place your most popular pages at the top of the routing queue to ensure they receive priority. Consider adding more routes if performance is slow.
- Use indexes. Where appropriate use indexes to improve the speed of database queries by ordering data so it’s easier to find or access.
- Change schema. Changing schema to group objects (e.g., tables, views, stored procedures) can improve database performance and reduce SRT.
An eCommerce website with a slow page load speed or SRT, will provide a poor user experience and have a negative impact on search engine rankings. Page load speed and Server Response Time are key stability elements for successful eCommerce SEO.
As products expire, product pages are removed from eCommerce sites. However, product pages often support valuable backlinks. Redirecting product pages to a relevant alternative product or category page is a preferred option for preserving link equity, but setting up the redirects can be difficult to configure, scale and maintain.
Once removed, product pages will return a 404 (Not Found) status code. Google will attempt to recrawl the pages multiple times before finally deindexing them. Once these pages are deindexed, they lose any backlink authority gained, Google’s ability to access certain sections of the website may be decreased, and the site as a whole could be negatively impacted.
How to identify discontinued products pages
There are several ways to identify expired or discontinued products pages. The best way is to crawl old product URLs, or URLs with backlinks, using a site crawler like DeepCrawl or OnCrawl. Expired product pages can also be identified running a search using a long date range in Google Search Console.
How to fix the issue
The best approach to preserving link equity for discontinued product pages is to redirect the pages to the most relevant alternative product or category pages. As a last resort discontinued product pages can be redirected to the home page. When setting up redirects, prioritize those product pages that generate the most traffic and have the highest number of backlinks. Ideally, your development team should be able to engineer a solution that ensures discontinued product pages are redirected immediately upon product expiration.
Multi-faceted search, also know as faceted navigation, is a technology employed by many eCommerce brands to help users organize and filter large sets of inventory based on product attributes such as size, color, price, and brand.
While useful for improving user experience and conversion, multi-faceted search has the potential to generate a large number of selection options yielding a disproportionately large number low quality pages that do not target any relevant search queries and are poorly optimized for organic search.
Even when managed using noindex and nofollow tags, faceted pages may use up valuable crawl budget.
How to identify multi-faceted search pages
Faceted pages typically exhibit a common URL structure. Identify the URL structure and you can identify the faceted search pages. The URL for most faceted search pages will include parameter handling characters such as # or ? and query strings. However, these pages may also reside at the folder level following a slash.
Once identified, you can then use a crawling tool or search impressions report from Google Search Console to find indexable faceted pages with follow links.
How to address multi-faceted search
The first step to addressing SEO issues resulting from multi-faceted search is ensure canonical tags are used to signal preferred page version. Additionally, faceted pages should be nofollowed and nonindexed. This process will help Google understand the correct canonical URL to index and prevent undesirable faceted pages from appearing in Google’s index.
To entirely block Google from accessing, crawling and ultimately indexing faceted pages, URLs can also be disallowed in the robots.txt file. This is sometimes the best solution for larger enterprise eCommerce sites that need to conserve crawl budget.
Note: It’s important to make sure that all other pages (e.g. PDPs) linked to from faceted pages are accessible from other crawlable pages so they can be crawled and indexed by Google.
Internal Search Pages
Internal search is sometimes used in eCommerce to generate indexable pages that can appear in SERPs for keywords not covered within a site’s primary taxonomy. While this strategy can work, more often than not it results in Google crawling a very large number of pages leading to indexation bloat that eats up valuable crawl budget. Additionally, internal search results pages may not provide high quality results that Google, Bing and other search engines find relevant.
The benefit of allowing internal search pages to be crawled and indexed by Google, usually does not outway the downside.
How to address indexable internal search pages
If internal search is to be used to support search engine rankings, results pages must be carefully curated. A logic must be developed programmatically to dictate which internal search pages should be indexed by search engines and which should not. Unless you have the development resources to pull this off, it’s better to simply block internal search pages from being crawled and indexed by search engines.
Before blocking internal search pages, check Google Search Console (GSC) to find out if any current search results pages are indexed and ranked by Google for internal search queries. If you find there is search demand for a query, you can create a separate page for that query to prevent the need to index the internal search page.
There are a few ways to prevent internal search pages from being indexed by search engines. The most common is adding a ‘noindex, nofollow’ tag in the page header to tell search engines the page should be excluded from their index. Alternatively, you can prevent search engine crawlers from accessing these pages entirely by disallowing the pages within the robots.txt file. Using the robots.txt disallow directive will also help address any crawl budget issues.
Pillar 2 – Accessibility
Accessibility is the second pillar of eCommerce SEO.
Accessibility is a primary ranking factor for Google. Relative page importance is based in part by how accessible a page is from the home page and other site pages. Accessibility is foundational to SEO. When a site has accessibility issues, it has a negative impact on SEO at every level—especially for eCommerce websites with complex site architecture and category structures. A website may have the most relevant content on the Internet, but if Google is unable to find the content, or the content is not easily accessible, it very likely will be not be indexed—and if it is, it won’t appear prominently in SERPs.
Below I’ll discuss some of the most important accessibility issues eCommerce websites need to address as they related to SEO.
Website architecture is a core element of accessibility and important element of effective ecommerce SEO strategy. It provides Google the map for discovering, crawling and indexing site content. It communicates hierarchy and relationship between web pages. If your map is broken, unclear, or provides constantly changing directions, it will be difficult for your website to achieve and maintain competitive rankings in SERPs.
With respect to site accessibility—as it relates to SEO—there are four elements of site architecture that eCommerce retailers should address.
Having an organized site structure is critical to achieving competitive search engine rankings. Before investing hundreds of hours optimizing category pages, developing content, and building backlinks, focus on clearly defining and building out site hierarchy.
Many SEOs suggest a flat site structure is ideal for maximizing ranking potential. This type of structure enables users to find product pages quickly and in theory ensures the flow of page rank throughout the site. Conversely, well known Google search advocate and webmaster trends analyst, John Mueller, recommends moving away from a flat structure to a ‘deeper’ pyramid style site structure that is more meaningful in terms of relevance and topic.
So which site structure is best for eCommerce SEO? It depends. There is no single right answer. Flat hierarchies work well for eCommerce retailers that have distinct categories, because users and search engine bots don’t have to click through multiple levels to get to product pages. However, sometimes there are simply too many categories to present in one level. In other cases, introducing topical categories (subcategories) too soon will just confuse site visitors. In such cases, a deeper content hierarchy may make sense.
At the end of the day, an eCommerce website should employ a top down pyramid structure that helps users and Google understand the context of individual content and product pages within the site.
Navigation is another critical element of accessibility as it relates to eCommerce SEO. It is one the primary ways Google and other algorithm driven search engines find and crawl site content. Website navigation should be intuitive, follow the conceptual flow of content hiearchy, and help search engines understand which pages on a site are most important. Navigation that does not support content hiearchy, is incomplete, or overcrowded can make it difficult for crawlers to find, index, and rank important pages.
While site navigation is a critical to SEO, always design site navigation with the user in mind. First develop site navigation around user experience. Then, optimize navigation for search. When developing site navigation, start with your broadest categories (e.g. “Home Decor,” “Furniture,” “Kitchen”) and work down to more specific categories (e.g. “Indoor plants,” “Table sets,” “Cutlery”.) An effective site navigation will simplify the process of locating relevant content.
When developing site navigation to support ecommerce SEO, consider the following:
- Non-standard style. Site navigation should run along the top or vertical down the left hand side. Using a non-standard navigation style increases bounce rate and decrease conversion.
- Drop down menus. Drop downs can be problematic if they employ technology that is difficult for searchbots to crawl. However, when properly implemented, drop down menus (or mega menus) can help to create a flat architecture that enhances SEO efforts by providing Google and search crawlers direct access to important web pages.
- Sequencing. Items that appear first or last in a list are most frequently clicked on. This is also true of navigation. This phenomena is known as “serial position effect”. Make sure to position your most important categories at the beginning of your navigation and the least important items in the middle.
Maximize use of main navigation structure for linking. This is key! The main navigation on an eCommerce website is the gateway for Googlebot and other search engine crawlers to reach relevant site pages. Optimization of main navigation to support linking to important category pages is one of the most effective means to foster crawling, pass relevance signals to category pages and ensure Google can find and index product pages.
Consider the screenshot below of the Dickssportinggoods.com main navigation section for “Exercise & Wellness”. Note that Dicks Sporting Goods employs a relatively flat architecture by linking to important exercise and wellness categories within the main navigation structure as opposed to forcing Google through a deep site architecture to find relevant pages.
The following chart represents an eCommerce site where the majority of primary page are 3 to 5 clicks from the home page.
The chart below illustrates improvements to web crawl depth when the same eCommerce site implements a flat architecture by migrating important subcategory links to main navigation menus. Primary pages are now 2 to 4 clicks from the home page—with a majority of primary pages less than 3 clicks from the home page.
Adopting a flatter site architecture by linking to subcategory pages from within main navigation menus may make sense for high domain authority eCommerce sites that can transfer page rank across many web pages without diluting link equity. When implementing a navigation structure that supports a deeper content hierarchy, you still need to make sure important web pages are located no more than 1 or 2 clicks away from the homepage. Deep site archictectures also require strong internal link pathways that enable search bots to find and crawl all indexable web pages.
An optimized navigation structure is key to long-term SEO stability and success.
Google typically does not rely on URLs structure to understand a website. Rather, Google analyzes internal linking to understand the relationship between web pages and determine the relative importance of different content sets. Internal linking signals, including the number of links pointing to a page and the number of links that must be crawled to reach a page, help Google infer the relative importance of one page over another within a site.
Optimizing internal site linking, including navigation and cross page links, is critical to help Google access all indexable pages and understand site structure. Follow these tips and best practices for internal linking to maximize indexing and achieve competitive rankings in SERPs.
- To ensure Google can reach relevant site content, all indexable pages should be accessible by following links with the site’s navigation. Every indexable web page should be linked by at least one HTML link.
- Generally, the more links pointing to a web page, the more importance Google will attribute to the page relative to other pages on the site. Link to the most important category and product pages from the home page, main navigation and within other site content.
- Position important web pages within one to three clicks from the home page. Generally, the more links Googlebot must crawl to reach a page the lower the importance attributed to the page relative to web pages with more direct linkage.
For large eCommerce sites, pages located more than 4 to 5 clicks from the homepage may never be found or crawled by Google. Ensure key pages that are beyond 4 clicks from the homepage are linked to from other prominent pages to promote crawling and indexing. Link from interior web pages with high authority backlinks to important web pages to promote crawling and ranking. (Note: This is an effective internal linking strategy largely ignored by most SEOs.)
- Avoid linking to pages without content. If a web page is empty, or has little content of value, add a noindex tag to the page header. Empty pages should also be removed from a website’s internal search.
For eCommerce websites it is common for category pages to become empty as product levels fluctuate. The best approach for addressing empty category pages is to remove the category page from on-site search and return a 404 (not found) HTTP status code. Alternatively, empty category pages can return a 302 (temporary) redirect to the parent category page until the page is repopulated with product.
- Use product descriptions to link to other products on the site. Horizontal linkage between product pages—instead of linking to a parent or subpage—helps Google find relevant content and increases the relative importance of linked pages.
- eCommerce platforms often offer a ‘related products’, ‘you may also like’ or ‘customers also bought’ tool that is dynamically inserted into category and/or product pages. Use ‘related products’ tools to link to important product pages.
- Link from blog posts to product and category pages using contextual links. Contextual linking to category and product pages from blog posts helps Google find and ranking important content.
- Link horizontally between category pages. Add content to category pages then link internally between related categories.
- Add subcategory links to category pages. Adding subcategory pages to parent category pages provides Google more accessibility to product pages while providing additional context to support indexing and ranking.
Breadcrumbs serve several purposes. They help users identify their location within an eCommerce website. They’re also a secondary navigation that enable customers to find their way back to a parent category page. Finally, breadcrumbs provide search engines—such as Google—with a deeper understanding of site’s hierarchy and improve crawlability.
Breadcrumbs are now even more important for ranking in Google because they impact SEO directly. Breadcrumbs are now displayed in search results alongside listings and are used to categorize information in search results.
There are three types of breadcrumbs.
- Hierarchy-Based Breadcrumbs (a.k.a., Location-Based Breadcrumbs)
- History-Based Breadcrumbs
- Attribute-Based Breadcrumbs
Attribute-based breadcrumbs show what attributes the user has clicked, and are the most commonly used breadcrumbs on eCommerce sites. For example: Home > Apparel > Boots > Winter > Mens. Attribute-based breadcrumbs improve UX, but they also help Google find, crawl and correctly index category and product pages.
Sitemaps are an important SEO tool for eCommerce retailers. Sitemaps help Google correctly understand an eCommerce website’s site structure, page hierarchy and content. They tell Google which web pages or files are most important. For smaller eCommerce websites, with simple site navigation, sitemaps are useful but not essential. For larger, more complex eCommerce websites, sitemaps become much more important. The larger the eCommerce website, the more critical sitemaps to accessibility and to SEO.
So… what exactly is a sitemap? A sitemap is “a file where you provide information about pages, videos, and other files on your site, and the relationships between them.” (Source: Google Search Central: Learn about sitemaps). There are two types of sitemaps eCommerce retailers should be aware of: HTML and XML.
An HTML sitemap is a customer-facing list of links within a site that helps users navigate to any page within the site. The HTML sitemap is usually accessible via a link in the page footer. Smaller websites may experience an improved user experience and boost to SEO by employing an HTML sitemap. For larger eCommerce websites, an HTML sitemap is rather superfluous. Larger eCommerce sites should focus on providing streamlined navigation and filter options to enhance UX and employ an XML sitemap to boost SEO.
XML sitemaps are used by search engines, not users. Hence, they are not accessible to site visitors. XML sitemaps are a list of links used to help search engines identify web pages to crawl and content to index. Some SEO specialists believe creating an XML sitemap for an eCommerce website is unnecessary. For smaller eCommerce sites, that may be true. However, my experience has been that generating and submitting an XML sitemap to Google, boosts SEO by adding a needed level of site stability—especially for larger complex eCommerce websites.
How does an XML site map provide site stability? It compensates for instability that occurs as a result of the poorly optimized internal site architecture and navigation of larger retail eCommerce websites. As new categories are created, PDPs are added, products are assigned and reassigned to new categories, web pages are ‘noindexed’ as a byproduct of merchandizing and SEO initiatives, and internal link pathways evolve, the XML sitemap ensures that Google can always find important web pages and content. A good XML sitemap also helps Google update content that has previously been indexed.
For large retail eCommerce sites, with several hundred thousand to several million indexable pages, XML sitemap provide needed site stability for effective SEO.
The following are basic XML sitemap guidelines to follow.
- An XML sitemap must be UTF-8 encoded and only employ ASCII characters.
- Post the sitemap in the site root.
- Include the path to the XML sitemap in the robots.txt file.
- A sitemap should not contain more than 50,000 URLs or be larger than 50MB uncompressed.
- Break up large sitemap files into smaller sitemaps using a sitemap index file to list individual sitemaps. Only submit the ‘sitemap index file’ to Google.
- Use sitemap extensions to point to other media types.
- Include only URLs that can be crawled and indexed.
- Include only canonical URLs.
- Do not include redirected or broken URLs (404s)
- Do not include noindex pages.
- Do not include session IDs from URLs
- Use hreflang annotations to tell Google about alternate language versions.
- Only populate the required XML sitemap tags using the sitemap protocal standard.
Find more information on XML sitemaps for Google.
The following are a few tips for optimizing and using XML sitemaps for eCommerce.
- Use Last Modified dates in Sitemaps. Ping Googlebot when a sitemap has been updated. (e.g. http://www.google.com/ping?sitemap=https://example.com/sitemap.xml) Only update the ‘Last Mod’ date when content changes.
- Use the Last Modified Date to provide a clear hierarch of content updates.
- Use one time zone format (e.g. UTC vs GMT) consistently across site to avoid confusion.
- Create a separate sitemap with recently changed pages to submit to Google more frequently.
- Make sure to review all sitemap reporting via your Google Search Console (GSC) account.
- Use GSC sitemap reporting to discover site improvement opportunities. (For example, “Discovered Not Indexed” pages may indicate when submitted pages aren’t linked to within the site.)
- Separate XML sitemaps should contain URLs on the same path.
- Do not use dynamically generated sitemap URLs. Sitemap URLs should be static to ensure Google can always find current sitemaps via cached URLs.
Product pages are the bread and butter of an eCommerce website. Optimized product pages not only convert browsers into buyers, they have the ability to get in front of consumers searching SERPs for product—whereby driving valuable website traffic. Having an optimized site architecture, that includes search engine friendly pagination, allows Google to easily access and index product pages.
Pagination is a common method employed by websites to list related content or items that do not fit on one page. For example, an eCommerce website might sell 200 products within the same category. However, all 200 products cannot neatly be displayed on the customer’s screen. Pagination breaks the collection of 200 products down into 10 viewable pages with 20 products displayed on each page. The larger the eCommerce website, the more common it is to employ pagination to list products. Pagination on eCommerce websites allows users to move from one page of products to the next via clicking on sequential page numbers (e.g. 1,2,3…)
When pagination is extensive, it becomes increasingly important to have clear pathways for search engines to access, crawl and index all product pages. This is were search engine friendly pagination comes into play.
The following are best practices for search engine friendly pagination to maximize accessibility, crawling and indexing of product pages on eCommerce websites.
- Create a unique URL for each paginated page in the series. Whether via permanent URL or a parameterized URL, each paginated page must have a unique URL that is indexable. The URLs of paginated pages should change as the user moves from page to page within the pagination series. (E.g. /category-page?page=2 or /category-page/page2, /category-page?page=3, /category-page?page=4, etc.)
- Avoid using fragment identifiers (#) to generate pagination. Again, each page within a paginated series should have a unique URL and be linked to via clean hrefs free of fragment identifiers.
- DO NOT block pagination from being crawled or indexed. It’s imperative that Google can access and crawl all pagination linking to indexable product pages. Avoid using robots.txt, noindex or canonicalization to block Google from accessing pagination.
- Optimize the 1rst page in the pagination series (i.e. main category page) by adding unique page content and meta tags. This will help Google index only the first page of the paginated series in SERPs while allowing all products that exist within the paginated series to be crawled and indexed.
- De-optimize all other pages in the pagination series (by removing content and meta tags). Often ‘out-of-the-box’ eCommerce pagination logic replicates the content found on the 1rst page in the pagination series (i.e. main category page) across all other paginated pages within the series. It is advisable to remove content from paginated pages within a series so Google will focus indexing and ranking within SERPs on the main category page.
- Canonicalize paginated pages to self. Having each paginated page within the series self canonicalize will ensure Google can crawl and index each page. This does not mean all paginated pages within a series will be ranked. (Note: The common practice of canonicalizing pagination to the main category page to ensure only the main category page ranks in SERPs limits Google’s ability to access and index product pages linked to from other paginated pages within the series.)
- Make sure pagination is accessible to users and search engines via a clean href. After pagination logic is optimized on the backend, it’s important to optimize internal link structure—via proper UX design—to maximize accessibility to paginated pages.
- Provide a dynamic solution for empty paginated pages that are indexed. For dynamic eCommerce sites where product is added and removed on a regular basis, the last page in a paginated series will often run out of product resulting in an empty page. Empty category pages have both a user and search engine aspect. Consider providing a dynamic solution that helps users and search engines understand the page no longer exists. (e.g. Programmatically add a 302 redirect from any empty category page to the main category page.)
Implementing a best practices approach to search engine friendly pagination improves accessibility, indexability and website architecture. It increases the percentage of product pages that Google and other search engines are able to index and rank. For more information on setting up pagination with canonicalization I recommend reading How To Properly Set Up Pagination With Sorting Parameters Using Rel Next/Prev And Rel Canonical. [SEO Tutorial]
Backlinks (also known as “external links”, “inbound links” or “incoming links”) support two core pillars of eCommerce SEO: Accessibility and Relevance. In this section I’ll discuss banklink profile as it relates to accessiblity.
What does a winning backlink profile look like? From an accessibility perspective, a winning backlink profile provides search bots multiple access points for entering and crawling a site. eCommerce websites often have a top heavy backlink profile where a majority incoming links point to the home page. Any interior web page(s) that lives more than a few clicks from the home page may not be found by Google. When a backlink profile includes incoming links to interior web pages, which in turn link out to other site pages, Google is more readily able to find, index and rank a site’s web pages.
Attributes of an effective backlink campaign aimed at improving accessibility include:
- Supports deep linking A large percentage of incoming links should direct to the site’s interior pages that are not directly linked to from the site’s home page. This would include pages beyond two clicks from the home page.
- Promotes linking to various page and content types
Ecommerce websites are composed of a variety of page templates and content types including category, product listing (PLPs) and product detail (PDPs) pages. An external link profile that supports eCommerce SEO from an accessibility perspective promotes linking all page and content types.
Additional attributes of a strong backlink profile, along with strategies for building backlinks, are covered in greater detail and depth in the relevance criteria section.
Robots.txt (also known as robots exclusion protocol) provides crawling directives that instruct Googlebot and other web crawlers which site pages or files to crawl and which to ignore. Having a correctly structured robots.txt file is an important accessibility element of search engine optimization for mid-size to enterprise-level eCommerce websites.
Why is it beneficial to tell web crawlers not to crawl all site pages?
Search engines—such as Google—have a crawl budget that limits the number of pages they will crawl. When crawlers get lost down a worm hole crawling low value pages that do not need to be indexed, they may not crawl high value pages that should be indexed and ranked. Using robots.txt strategically frees up crawl budget so crawlers spend more time crawling and indexing important pages (i.e. pages that generate sales).
So how can you tell if Googlebots are crawling the correct pages? One of the most effective ways is to access the “Crawl stats” report within Google Search Console (GSC). The crawl stats report provides various reports that indicate with pages and file types Googlebot is crawling.
Within GSC Crawl stats, the “By purpose” report is of particular importance to eCommerce websites. This reports shows whether pages being crawled are new pages (“Discovery”) or already existing pages (“Refresh”). While we want Google to ‘discover’ all relevant pages on the website, we don’t want Google spending valuable crawl budget crawling new pages that are of low value. Larger eCommerce websites are often plagued with low value, non-indexable pages that Google does not need to crawl.
The “By purpose” crawl stats report below shows the percentage of “Refresh” vs “Discovery” pages being crawled prior to optimizing the robots.txt file. What the report shows is that each time Google crawls the website 44% of files being crawled are new (discovered for the first time) while 56% of files being crawled are old (refreshed from previous crawls). Unless an eCommerce site has 44% growth in new pages for Google to crawl and index, Google is accessing a very large number of files (e.g. unstructured query/filter pages) every time it crawls the site.
The “By purpose” crawl stats report below shows the percentage of “Refresh” vs “Discovery” pages being crawled for the same website after I added the appropriate exclusion rules to the robots.txt file. Notice that now 96% of the files being crawled by Google are previously existing pages and only 4% are new pages. This ratio of “Refresh” vs “Discovery” percentages is more in line with how the indexable pages and files within an eCommerce website are typically structured. An eCommerce website may have 4% new indexable pages for Google to crawl—but very unlikely 44% new pages.
How to structure robots.txt files for eCommerce
Examples of low SEO value pages that generally should be excluded from crawling and disallowed via robots.txt include:
Any pages or folders within an eCommerce site that send Google down a rabbit hole of unstructured pages or pages with thin or duplicate content should also be excluded. For example, when a user browses product using a dynamic filter, this generates a query page that shows nearly identical information to content displayed on other filtered pages.
While filter pages and query pages are useful for helping shoppers find product, more often than not they eat up valuable crawl budget that should be allocated to pages we want to appear in SERPS, such as category pages, product pages and content pages.
By optimizing the robots.txt file to instruct crawlers not to crawl low value pages, Google and other search engines are able to focus indexing on more important pages that will have a better chance of ranking and driving organic traffic.
While robots.txt directives are usually followed by Google, they can still be ignored. To ensure that a page is not crawled by Google, place a noindex robot directive metatag on the page itself. For large groups of similar pages, this can be accomplished programmatically.
Note: Disallowing web pages and files using robots.txt should only be implemented with an experienced SEO or web developer who is familiar with the eCommerce website.
Pillar 3 – Relevance
The last pillar, but by no means least important is ‘relevance’. In fact, relevance is arguably the most important pillars of eCommerce SEO. So why is it third in the lineup behind stability and accessibility? Because, without a stable and accessible website, one that Google can crawl and index, relevance cannot fully come to bare.
How do search engines define relevance?
In broad terms, search relevance is the measure of accuracy of the relationship between a search query and search results. In layman’s terms, relevance is how well the content found on a website or web page matches what a users is looking for.
How do search engines determine relevance?
To determine relevance, Google first identifies ‘search intent’—or the purpose of a user’s search. With the Google Hummingbird, Google RankBrain, and BERT algorithm updates, Google is now able to identify and classify four main types of search intent.
- Navigational. Here a user wants to find a specific web page or website. An example of a navigational search would be “Amazon”. Here the user performs a branded search to find the Amazon website (Amazon.com).
- Informational. Users are seeking an answer to a specific question. These queries often include the 5 W’s and H questions—Who? What? Where? Why? and How?
- Transactional. With transactional search intent the user wants to complete an action. Transactional intent is often represented by a user searching with the end goal of making a purchase. However, with transactional intent the action may also include email signup, registration, lead generation, a phone call or store visit.
- Commercial. This is similar to transactional intent, but with a twist. Here the user is investigating a brand, service or product. Commercial intent may lead to a transaction, but not immediately, or necessarily.
Understanding search intent is key to developing content that Google—and algorithm driven search—deem relevant.
When aligning search intent with search results, Google evaluates a variety criteria which include on-page elements such as visible text, images, video, site links and meta information—as well as off-page elements including backlinks, citations, mentions and reviews, to name just a few.
Below I’ll review the most important relevance criteria, factors and elements where webmasters should focus optimization efforts to maximize indexation, rankings and organic traffic for eCommerce websites.
Keyword Research, Alignment and Content Selection
Keyword research is the crux of sound SEO strategy design for eCommerce websites. Keyword research should flow from overall site theme to support site architecture, category structure and product alignment.
- Ensure target keywords have substantial search volume. Appearing in SERPs for keywords that no one is searching for leads to diminished traffic and conversions. Target keywords that are relevant and have search volume.
- Identify keywords that are less competitive. This will allow you to achieve and maintain search engine rankings in a competitive market place.
- Keywords should closely align with product selection and content. Aligning keywords with page content improves relevancy, drives rankings and generates traffic. Misaligned keywords and content lowers relevance, rankings, traffic and conversion.
- Modified keyword selection based on competitive trends. A website’s keyword selection and optimization strategy should align with the site’s overall domain authority. A website with a higher domain authority should target more competitive keywords.
- Optimize for niche keywords. Niche keywords are often overlooked because they have lower initial search volume. As interest around niche keywords grows, monthly search volume (MSV) also grows and the traffic value of rankings increases.
- Align keyword selection with search intent. Each web page should be developed around navigational, informational, transactional or commercial search intent. Keyword selection should align with the intent of the web page. The majority of web pages on an eCommerce site will typically focus on transactional intent.
- Align keyword selection for product pages with ‘transactional’ intent. For example, someone searching for “best skis” is in the ‘informational’ phase. Someone searching for ‘Rossignol Men’s All Mountain Skis Experience 74’ or ‘Rossignol Skis for Sale’ is in the ‘transactional’ stage.
- Align content creation for product listing pages (PLPs) with ‘transactional’ intent. Google is pretty good at identifying that a PLP on an eCommerce site is transactional in nature. However, when content does not support ‘transactional’ intent it may be difficult for Google to determine whether a PLP is ‘transactional’ or ‘informational’. In order to ensure Google identifies PLPs as ‘transactional’ make sure that product selection is relevant to category theme and descriptive text is both relevant and concise. It may be tempting for an eager SEO to want to add a lot of descriptive (‘informational’) text to a PLP to generate rankings. However, when a PLP has too much ‘informational’ content Google may struggle to know if the page should be indexed as a ‘transactional’ or ‘informational’. Descriptive text on PLPs should be limited to 2 to 3 descriptive sentences that align with keyword selection.
Separate content pages can be developed around category themes (e.g. best cement mixers, etc.) to target relevant keyword searches that offer conversion value, but don’t attempt to develop PLPs that are both ‘transactional’ and ‘informational’.
- Identify ‘informational’ keywords that solve relevant problems or answer questions. Move beyond product terms to queries that address user need. Optimize content to support targeting of informational keywords. For example, instead of optimizing for “work boots for sale” optimize for “work boots for construction”.
- Identify ‘commercial’ keywords with conversion value. Align commercial keywords with content (faq, blogs, etc.) that support rankings, traffic and conversion value (transactions, email acquisition, etc.) Targeting commercial keywords on non-product pages can drive additional site traffic beyond what transactional pages can support.
- Identify keywords on a page-by-page basis. While time consuming, this process is essential to ensure proper alignment between keywords, content and search intent. The best approach is to start with the most important category and product pages on the site.
Site architecture is a core element of accessibility, but how does site architecture impact relevance? Optimized site architecture supports relevance in two important ways.
- It helps align search intent with page content.
- It establishes relative importance of content sets by communicating hierarchy and relationship between web pages.
Site architecture best practices for communicating relevance:
- Link to the most important pages within the site from the homepage. (Source: John Mueller, SEO Office Hours Feb. 26, 2021)
- Link from more important pages (e.g. main category pages) to less popular pages to improve their relevance.
- Create highly relevant PLP categories by closely aligning product selection with category theme.
- Closely align products with categories by aligning product titles and descriptions with category titles and descriptions. Product titles should mirror category titles, headers and descriptions as shown in the screenshot below.
- Create highly relevant pages URLs and subdirectories. Subdirectories should align topically with the main categories they flow from.
- Product listing pages (PLPs) should include a minimum of five to 10 products to maximize relevancy, indexing and ranking. Creating thin categories—with few products—may viewed as less relevant.
- Keep all important pages within three clicks from any other page.
- Perform in-depth keyword research to create highly relevant URLs and subdirectories.
One of the biggest SEO challenges eCommerce sites face is lack of quality content. When an eCommerce website publishes substantial amounts of copied, duplicate, thin, or simply poor content the site may be viewed by Google as irrelevant—or at minimum, less relevant than other websites. eCommerce sites with content quality issues struggle to achieve and maintain competitive rankings and are often negatively impacted by core algorithm updates. Remember, in the battle for relevance, quality over quantity wins every time.
The following are specific content quality best practices and recommendations for increasing relevance.
- Create compelling product descriptions. Write unique product descriptions based on primary research. Effective product descriptions speak to a specific target audience, highlighting key features that incorporate keyword research. Don’t focus soley on the “what”, but also the “how” and the “why.” How will the product benefit the customer? Why should the customer buy it?
- Add descriptive text to catalog pages. When possible include descriptive text above product selections on PLP, main category and catalog pages. In the absence of relevant product titles, descriptive text above product selections becomes even more important. It helps Google to make the connection between meta data, page headers and product selection—whereby improving overall page relevancy. (Note: descriptive text need not extend beyond a few sentences.)
- Ensure base products have salient attributes. Base products should have noticeable or important attributes that differentiate them in design and functionality from other products. Often salient attributes can be identified by comparing product attributes with keyword search volume. Conversely, product variants are products that are nearly identical in design and functionality, and exhibit non-salient (unnoticeable or nonimportant) attributes such as color, size or fits.
- Canonicalize variants to base products. Google advises to canonicalize different pages with similar content. Variant products represent different pages with similar content. When variants are canonicalized to the base product, the base product is referred to as the canonical product, or canonical URL. The canonical URL is the page that “Google thinks is most representative from a set of duplicate pages” (source: Google Search Central: Consolidate duplicate URLs). Pages don’t need to be identical to be canonicalized. Pages with minor changes in sorting or filtering are not considered unique by Google and should be canonicalized to a representative base product (canonical URL.) With respect to canonicalization, Google states:
If you don’t explicitly tell Google which URL is canonical, Google will make the choice for you, or might consider them [similar pages] both of equal weight, which might lead to unwanted behavior…”
- Write for Buyers, Not Bots. A key to producing relevant content is to write for users first … not search engine web crawlers. When site content (product descriptions in particular) focuses on user experience, and aligns with search intent, Google will take note and rankings in SERPs will climb.
- Improve content quality site wide. In a Google SEO Office Hours, Google search advocate John Mueller explained that Google evaluates relevance at both the page and site level. When content quality is lacking across an entire site, Google may deem the entire website low quality—even when sections of a website have higher quality content. Content improvement should be a site wide initiative.
Developing a strong backlink profile is a key relevance criteria and one of the most important elements of a successful SEO strategy. It’s also one of the most challenging aspects of SEO—especially for eCommerce websites.
General attributes of an effective backlink profile include:
- It’s “white hat”
What do I mean when I say it’s “white hat”? Basically, that it’s not employing any type of “black hat” link building techniques or link schemes as defined by Google’s content quality guidelines.
- It’s natural
A natural backlink profile comes as a byproduct of quality UX focused web design, content development, content marketing and business operations. All incoming backlinks appear “natural” to Google as they are generated organically as result of providing a linkworthy offering.
- It’s viral
Powerfull backlink growth has a viral component that is supported by strong social media marketing, content publishing, PR and in a superior business offering.
- It’s self sustaining and self perpetuating
Backlink growth should not be fully—or in large part—dependent on ongoing outreach. Backlink growth should employ strategies that are self-sustaining and self-perpetuating. (I.e. they continue to support backlink growth after intial outreach efforts cease.)
In order to growth a strong backlink profile, it’s important to understand the challenges this effort can present. The biggest challenges eCommerce sites face to building backlinks and growing a natural link profile include:
- Commerciality/cynicism. eCommerce websites are by definition transactional. Their primary purpose is to generate transactions, sales and revenue. There is an underlying “for profit” stigma eCommerce websites must overcome to attract backlinks from destination websites and build a strong backlink profile.
- Lack of link worthy content. Most eCommerce websites struggle to produce unique, high quality content that will win backlinks from destination websites. Superior content generation is key to natural and sustainable backlink growth.
- Changing URL Structure. For backlink growth to occur an eCommerce site must have a stable architecture with URLs that do not change. eCommerce URLs often change when category conventions and product names are updated. When URLs change, backlinks are lost.
- Disappearing product pages. The majority of page on large ecommerce website consist of Product Detail Pages (PDPs). PDPs also tend to support a lot of backlinks. When products are discontinued, and PDPs are removed from the site, any links established to these pages disappear.
The following are some of the most effectives strategies for growing backlinks to eCommerce websites and establishing a strong backlink profile.
- Provide education resources. Authoritative education resources relevant to website theme help establish subject-matter expertise and provide content that other sites will link to. Always make sure that education resources outshine in breadth and depths similar resources found on the web.
- Publish sought after reference charts. Reference charts that educate and inform are highly link worthy. For example, a fishing eCommerce website might publish detailed bait charts, rig charts and fishing season charts that are useful for the website visitors of other destination websites.
- Target unlinked brand mentions. This can be an effective link building strategy for eCommerce sites that have a strong brand. Reach out to other websites that mention your brand and invite them to replace the mention with a contextual link. (Ahrefs is a great tool for identifying brand mentions across the web.)
- Provide a superior offering and experience. Notice that I linked to Ahrefs in the preceding bullet? Why did I do this? To provide my readers access to a unique SEO tool that will benefit their link building efforts. ECommerce sites that provide superior tools and offerings will generate improve their backlink profile.
- Issue research-backed coupon codes. Offering targeted coupon codes will (1) get an eCommerce websites linked to from a variety of coupon websites and (2) allow for targeted linking to product pages. Using coupon codes strategically, will drive backlinks and improve site accessibility to search engine crawlers. Note: do not overuse this strategy or use it as the basis for growing your link profile.
- Blogger outreach. Blogger outreach can be effective for generating backlinks and improving overall backlink profile. Popular tools like BuzzSumo can be used to identify potential blog partners. When generating links via bloggers, be very careful not to violate Google’s content quality guidelines. Paying for backlinks to support SEO is against Google webmaster guidelines.
- Publish compelling infographics and images. When you examine the link profile of many popular websites, it’s amazing to see how many backlinks are a result of infographics and images being linked to from other destination websites. Create infographics that are informative, compelling and helpful so they’ll be shared across the internet.
- Create a compelling blog. Blogs support both external and internal link structure. Effective blogs will provide compelling content that will attract backlinks from destination websites and serve as an on-page conduit to specific category and product pages.
- Build a community of independent brand ambassadors. A network of motivated brand ambassadors, who are engaged with building personalized content that includes links to products, can be very effective for generating deep backlinks to support site authority and accessibility for crawlers.
Quality backlink growth that supports accessibility is key to maximizing indexing and rankings for eCommerce sites.