Ecommerce SEO Tips for Unavailable Products From Google's Matt Cutts

Matt Cutts

What should an ecommerce site do when a product is no longer in stock or has been discontinued? Should it:

  • Keep serving a product page for something that's no longer available?
  • Show a 404?
  • Redirect users to a similar product instead?

Webmasters for ecommerce sites struggle with this question, especially when product pages may rank well in the search results. Fortunately, Google's Matt Cutts dealt with this topic in his latest webmaster help video:

How would Google recommend handling ecommerce products that are no longer available? (Does this change as the number of discontinued products outnumbers the number of active products?)

Site size matters here, so Cutts' offered three scenarios for sites ranging from small sites that might sell one-of-a-kind items all the way to massive sites such as Craigslist which has a constant turnover of active "product pages". Each of these scenarios is a little bit different.

1. Small Ecommerce Site

For a site with just a few number of pages and products, Cutts advises against using a 404. Rather, he recommends showing related products (e.g., "sort of saying 'if you are interested in this cherry wood shelf, well maybe you'll be interested in this mahogany wood shelf that I have instead.'")

"That's a perfectly viable strategy," Cutts said. "It's a great idea whenever something is sort of a lot of work, whenever you're putting a lot of effort into those individual product pages."

2. Average Ecommerce Site

What about your average ecommerce site (with hundreds or thousands of pages)? Here, Cutts recommends doing a 404.

"Because those products have gone away. That product is not available anymore," Cutts said. "And you don't want to be known as the product site that whenever you visit, it's like "oh yeah, you can't buy this anymore," because users get just as angry getting an out of stock as they do no results found when they think they are going to find reviews."

That said, you don't want to 404 those pages if you have products that are only temporarily out of stock. If those pages are ranking, you don't want to lose those rankings, especially when the product might only be out of stock for a couple weeks.

"If it's going to come back in stock, then you can make clear that it's temporarily out of stock," Cutts said. "But if you really don't have that product anymore, it's kind of frustrating to just land on that page and see, 'yep, you can't get it here'."

If you are going the 404 route, you definitely want to ensure you're creating a custom 404 page. A custom 404 page will have links to your important pages such as a homepage and a search bar. Adding features such as automatically generated similar products or popular products can also be helpful. You do not want to just simply return an error 404 page that won't direct people back to your homepage.

3. Large Ecommerce Site

Sites that are of the scale of a Craigslist, with a large turnover of pages that are constantly being added, there's a special meta tag that sites can use that essentially tells Google when the page should no longer be indexed or available.

"We do have a meta-tag that you can use called 'unavailable_after', which basically says after such and such a date, this page is no longer relevant, so I'd like Google to not show it in the search results," Cutts said. "So that's something where you can put a deadline on it, and you can say after this date, it's not useful to show therefore just let it sort of automatically expire on its own.

Google detailed this tag in a 2007 blog post, and it looks like this:

<META NAME="GOOGLEBOT" CONTENT="unavailable_after: 25-Aug-2007 15:00:00 EST">

It should be used on content that expires, such as a classified listing or other time sensitive content, and gives permission to Googlebot to remove the page after the date in question. Of course, you'll want to adjust the date in the event of a listing being renewed or a date of something being changed.

Bottom line: determine where your site falls in the spectrum of those three sites, and make the changes accordingly.

About the author

Jennifer Slegg began as a freelance writer, and turned to search engine optimization and writing content for the web in 1998. She has created numerous content-rich sites in niche markets and works with many clients on content creation, strategy, and monetization. She writes about many search industry and social media topics on her blog, JenniferSlegg.com and is a frequent speaker at search industry conferences on SEO, content marketing and content monetization. Acknowledged as the leading expert on the Google AdSense contextual advertising program, she runs JenSense, a blog dealing exclusively with contextual advertising. She is also the founder and editor of The SEM Post. She is known by many as her handle Jenstar on various webmaster forums.