Our strategy team recently embarked on a study of several non-client e-commerce Web sites, analyzing dozens of factors grouped into three main areas: technical infrastructure, content, and linking. Many experts consider these to be the three primary areas of focus for SEO. Of the three, it seems as though there are only two that Webmasters and marketing teams can have full control over: technical implementation and content creation.
Navigation choices and duplication of content onto different URLs often can have a diluting effect on the strength of inbound links, but the primary driver of many of those links is often the brand's strength and history. The creation of compelling, unique content to replace boilerplate product or brand descriptions can also effectively lure people to link to deeper pages of the site.
The typical assumption is that the majority of e-commerce domains are somewhat "top heavy," with most links pointed to the home page. However, that isn't always the case.
Let's look at some trends on the e-commerce platforms. The majority of these sites were from pretty large brands, so the sample should be considered enterprise level commerce platforms, using technologies such as IBM Websphere Commerce, Microsoft, ATG, and other leaders.
Technical Issues Often Included Redirects and Duplication of Content
Technical implementations are the key to consistent success within search results, particularly for non-branded search terms or for name brand terms of products being sold at the site.
A study of the redirects in place on the sites showed that many are still very inconsistent in the use of 302 and 301 redirects. Additionally, inconsistent chains of redirects and server-level redirects could be found, which can hamper issues with organic rankings.
SEM isn't all about creating sales-oriented content and physically driving people to URLs. This base strategy works very well in paid search efforts, and conversion-focused landing pages are also effectively used for e-mail and display advertising efforts.
If trying to create a system of landing pages that are independent of the primary site navigation for SEO purposes, marketers must consider how this will change the overall look and feel of the site. If a lot of money was invested in site design and cohesive user experience, the SEO should really be "baked in," versus creating separate pages and feeding them to the engines.
One primary SEO reason to create unique landing pages for an e-commerce site is to avoid dealing with the duplicate content that is generated on a number of different URLs as a result of tracking parameters. Not surprisingly, several of the sites studied would probably consider this tactic, due to a fundamental problem with the URLs.
In Yahoo, one version ranks well for a keyword, while Google and Bing bestow the ranking to a different page -- often the same version. There have been recent technical advances, including introduction of the canonical tag to help solve this issue, but it still leads to far too many pages being indexed and essentially competing with each other, which helps more refined sites incrementally in the rankings.
Content -- Investment in Creation of Unique Content will Drive Results
The majority of the sample of sites studied didn't use any additional organic feeds or SEO landing pages, it appeared. This is good, because with some tactics geared towards pages developed to rank at a category or subcategory level, a side effect becomes the loss of many of the product pages that could "interfere" with the desired landing page.
These pages are blocked via robots.txt exclusion, and many long tail rankings disappear with them. Although it may be considered better to rank for a term like "Brand + running shoe," the aggregate number of sales from terms like "Brand + product/style + running shoe" or "men's + product/style + running shoes" far outweigh the short-term position improvement for the broader search.
Most of the sites have numerous long tail rankings as a result of product pages that have gained solid positions. In addition, the brands perform well for searches for their specific brands.
However, they didn't perform well for category searches, often falling behind sites focusing on the category or sub-categories. A more holistic approach to content development, including investing copywriting hours to customize product pages in support of highly optimized category and sub-category pages, would yield greater results throughout the search/sales funnel.
The single largest area of "low hanging fruit" was the implementation of page titles and meta descriptions. Nearly all the sites had duplicate titles and tags, many of which simply regurgitated the domain name or home page tags. One area for quick improvements: clean up these elements and indicate to the search engines that the pages on the site are unique.
Links Come and Go, But What To Do with the Link Strength is Up To You
A deep link ratio is one thing e-commerce sites seem to have the biggest edge over other verticals, such as financial services or health care. A site with most inbound links pointed to the home page will typically rank well for a more limited number of phrases.
Sites with strong links pointed to pages deep within categories can perform well across more keyword "baskets." That's especially true if the content and internal linking is unique, and structured in such a manner to support the categories and sub-categories, as discussed.
One thing not mentioned in the technical section was a trend to use inconsistent directory structure. We saw this even from one primary category to another. This makes it more difficult to create "mini sites" within a domain, in order to focus on multiple categories.
Although some sites had as much as 80 percent of their total inbound links pointed to the home page, others had an exact reverse ratio. It's frustrating as an SEO to see that those sites with between 70 and 80 percent deep link ratios had rampant duplicate content and unclear hierarchy, so a lot of the strength of the links was being lost.
Links come and go. News links, blogs that shut down, and other temporary links still carry value. These links can essentially "replace" each other when new ones are discovered as others die.
However, if a site goes through redesign after redesign, the difference in the URLs can make it harder to reassign the strength for the particular subject, because there's no consistency and "past trust" from the URL. Thus, from a link perspective, the greatest help to these sites would probably be technically related: establishing clear hierarchies and remaining consistent across categories will allow deep links to consistently support both branded and non-branded searches.
Frank Watson Fires Back
Great insights, Chris. The ranking for product pages is always something I look for when doing e-commerce SEO. Making slight changes to those pages can help improve conversions in a very direct way -- not really an SEO step, but an essential page sculpting method.
Too often, we push for the categories and forget the value of the smaller pages. Just like long tail terms in PPC, these pages as an aggregate often garner more conversions than the category and subcategory pages.
They still have to get to the product pages -- sometimes the ability to choose from a category page will provide options that help close the sale. But you can always offer options of other things from the individual products like Amazon does.
We definitely should look beyond the obvious. Sometimes great conversions hide in the bushes.