8 E-Commerce SEO Tips Gathered From A Decade Of Consulting
Author: Search Engine Land
Like most SEO consultants, I am often contacted late in the Web development process, well after information architecture and URL structure have been determined. Generally, the site is almost ready for launch at this point — or, in some cases, already launched!
If so, it is an SEO nightmare. Content has been created. Product catalogs have been imported. Search engines have crawled and indexed the site. Prospective buyers are arriving. And, the internal structure — from an SEO standpoint — is a mess.
Without a proper URL structure, internal pages are competing against each other rather than strengthening the overall site. Duplicate content issues run rampant, thanks to URL parameters, session IDs and printer-friendly versions. Advanced filtering and search functions, intended to enhance user experience, actually end up compounding this problem.
Usually, the store owner hires a company to flesh out a design, implement and code special functions, and upload the finished site — all before the project itself has been finalized. Things then go in many different directions; and at some stage in the process, they decide to call in a consultant to slap on “SEO magic.” They’ve heard that SEO is very effective at driving more traffic and want to try “every little bit that may help.”
This is the most frustrating part of being an SEO consultant. We’re called in too late. A lot of adjustment and re-coding is required. Even then, some online stores won’t be able to meet the market’s needs without a complete make-over of the website. This is time consuming and expensive.
E-commerce SEO Tip #1: Get your Web designer, information architect and SEO consultant working together right from the beginning. The result will be a more effective, better-optimized website that is easy for prospective buyers to use.
My fellow columnist Tom Schmitz offers some great advice about Web structure and internal linking in his recent post. I delved deep into this in one of my previous columns, with practical suggestions on how to structure content for e-commerce sites.
2. Recognize Causes For Duplicate Content & Find Solutions
When I analyze sites for new SEO clients, they often have serious duplicate content issues. Fixing this can be complicated without modifying the entire design and code.
Duplicate content issues are usually the result of poor planning, careless information architecture and non-intuitive website structure.
The use of URL parameters, session IDs and printer-friendly content versions are common culprits in e-commerce store websites. The situation gets muddied even further when identical content is published under multiple categories such as [campaign] or [offers] in addition to their regular place in the content hierarchy. These unique scenarios must be recognized and prevented proactively in the planning phase itself.
E-commerce SEO Tip #2: Before they start coding, make sure that developers are aware of the potential for duplicate content and how to resolve these issues.
Both designers and developers must be familiar with the pitfalls of related issues such as advanced search and filtering, the robots.txt file, and the relative merits and risks of meta directives or robot exclusion (including when not to use them!). Pagination is another potential quagmire; and, it is especially important to ensure correct implementation of pagination attributes for Google.
3. Don’t Waste Link Authority On Ineffective Link Structure
Effective link structure for an e-commerce SEO project depends upon information architecture, URL structure, and the manner in which products are categorized and organized in your e-commerce store. If your structure is poor, with products arranged in a haphazard manner instead of being in logical categories or sub-topics, your link architecture will be ineffective from an SEO standpoint.
E-commerce SEO Tip #3: Organize products in an e-commerce store by category and sub-category, based on topics and sub-topics, in a way that is reflected in your URL hierarchy.
Doing this enhances your e-commerce website’s optimization and improves usability for human visitors. Whenever new products are added to a sub-category, your breadcrumb navigation trail ensures new links to each level in the URL hierarchy, all the way back up to the category page and home page. By employing sub-navigation menus within specific categories, you can link to other relevant categories higher up in the structure.
With good keyword analysis and by planning exact match anchor texts, you will practically set your internal link building on auto-pilot. Each time you add a new product page (e.g., for a new pair of running shoes) to your site, you’ll not only boost the [shoes/running-shoes] level of the URL, but simultaneously pass along link juice upward in the hierarchy to the [shoes] category, as well.
Section/category level menus that link to relevant categories ensure that Google’s crawlers can find their way to all sections of the site and see pages in context with other content to easily decide how to rank them.
It is best to avoid mega-menus and drop-down menus which cause a flat URL structure and sometimes link to less relevant parts of the site, thereby leaking authority, power and Page Rank.
4. SEO Automation Can Be A Good Thing (Sometimes)
The word “automation,” when associated with SEO, produces negative connotations. Typically, I would shun anything to do with “automation” of SEO; but, there are some exceptions where it is important to facilitate automation. One such exception is a situation in which you have programmers who can automate on-site elements (such as title tags) based on a format determined by the SEO consultant.
In e-commerce stores with thousands of products, this practice will come in handy. Elements like title tags can be automated to present extremely user-friendly information while including the right target keywords.
E-commerce SEO Tip #4: While working with large e-commerce sites, provide developers with information about how to automate the creation of SEO-friendly title tags and meta descriptions for new pages.
This will save everyone time in the long run — so getting it right is important, even if it takes longer than you would typically spend on title tags. Remember, this deployment will be site-wide. Your instructions must clearly tell the developer how the title tags and meta descriptions should be worded, based on the content displayed on a product page of the e-commerce site.
Using the individual product name or title in H1 tags, as well as in the title tag, is one simple way to achieve this, and your developer can program it quickly and easily. You can also dynamically create meta descriptions for each product page by gathering text from the page’s content itself.
This is a good beginning, but there’s more to do. Rich snippets help increase CTR on search results pages, and with your help, a developer can provide excellent titles and meta descriptions even without any SEO knowledge.
5. Smaller Iterative Processes Are Super Effective
Fail to plan, and you plan to fail. Your SEO strategy is all-important. But, when working on tactics and implementation, one factor matters more than anything else — and that is “starting small.”
Too often, e-commerce site owners want to change everything at once. Transform the site. Make all pages rank high on Google. That involves doing too much, and taking too big a risk without knowing if it will work at all.
E-commerce SEO Tip #5: It is infinitely more effective to run smaller processes that focus on a limited portion of the site.
Test the change. See if it works. When you know what to do and how to do it, roll out the change across the site. Start with the most important things first. Most developers and designers have limited time. If the work is outsourced to a third party, they most likely use scrum or similar systems and timing is important. Handing them one task at a time usually results in quicker progress.
6. Implement E-Commerce Tracking
Many website owners look at traffic growth as a good sign that they are moving in the right direction and that they are doing something smart and effective. But, what if the traffic doesn’t convert into sales?
E-commerce SEO Tip #6: Turn on e-commerce tracking with Google Analytics to show exactly how much money you are helping clients make.
Most of my clients are already using Google Analytics. As one of my first actions as a consultant, I ensure e-commerce tracking is configured and implemented. This will reveal the profit boosts generated with my SEO improvements. Showing results in dollars is much more effective than increasing pageviews, rankings or clicks. Cash is king.
Dealing with clients is much easier when you don’t have to keep on selling them on the value of your services — after all, your client is better served when your energy and attention are focused on higher priority activities. E-commerce tracking is also a great way to quickly identify areas where the client’s online (or offline) marketing is not effective or adding enough value to the business.
Armed with data, I can position myself as being more valuable to the e-commerce business’ bottom line, instead of being perceived as just a “Google-fixer.” I get more billable hours, and the client stops worrying about how many hours I spend — because each of them brings in a high ROI. It’s a win-win situation.
When you outline a plan to increase revenue by 100% over the next 12 months, and then implement it while sharing your progress in Google Analytics, you will get the support and buy-in necessary to execute your proposed plan and carry it through to completion. Your budget will be sanctioned without protest, because who doesn’t like the idea of earning $10 million for an investment of a mere $100,000.
7. Traditional SEO Is Still Relevant To E-Commerce SEO
Yes, old is gold. E-commerce sites often under-perform on product pages. This might be traced to problems with coding, text, and other content. There may be too little product information, or a lack of unique content, or duplicates of material found elsewhere on the site.
E-commerce SEO Tip #7: Without product text, it is almost impossible to rank and drive organic search traffic to e-commerce websites.
You need content. Without images, video and proper keyword targeting, it is next to impossible for your client to compete in a tough niche. There are many guides to help you and checklists to follow to ensure you’ll get it right.
For starters, avoid re-publishing content from elsewhere on your site or from other online resources (including competitor and vendor websites). Google frowns on duplicate content, and your e-commerce site will not rank well.
8. Create Dashboards — And Report In Cash
It is hard to convince clients with just flashy pictures and showy graphs or charts. You can talk about visits, clicks and views till you’re blue in the face and not make an impact on hard-nosed business owners. Many of them won’t even understand what you’re saying, and this means you’ll have to work hard to win credibility — and retain your budget.
E-commerce SEO Tip #8: Make a dashboard in Google Analytics, and show them how much money you have helped them earn through your SEO efforts.
Compare it against earnings from other elements of their marketing mix. Proving that your SEO efforts are bringing in the dollars is key to winning repeat business. Construct your dashboard to report the most important numbers.
Focus on cash. That will strengthen your position in the client’s eyes. They will see you as someone higher up on the food chain, one who deserves higher priority. No longer will they see you as “just that SEO guy (or gal).”
Good SEO consultants are decent Web analysts, as well. But, clients don’t know it. Using dashboards, I can reduce (or even eliminate) time wasted on creating slides or spreadsheet presentations to convince clients of my value. This frees up time to spend on more valuable activities that further increase the profit I can generate for clients.
More Big Lessons & Takeaways
SEO is not icing on the cake to be slapped on at the very end. It must be baked into the makings, because it’s an essential ingredient.
There are no out-of-the-box, ready-made SEO optimized e-commerce platforms. The “SEO-friendly” ones just allow tweaking and optimization by SEO experts after they are installed and configured.
SEO is not a quick fix. Clinging to this belief can cost you many lost sales.
Now that I’ve shared some e-commerce SEO tips gathered over my experience working with many large clients, I’d love to hear from you on this issue, as well.
What do you think about these tips?
What are your most effective e-commerce SEO tips?
What are your biggest challenges in working as an SEO consultant with e-commerce clients?
And finally, are there any other questions you’d like to have answered?
Please share your thoughts, suggestions and comments below, and let’s have a spirited discussion about effective e-commerce SEO.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.
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