SEO for E-Commerce Websites

When dealing with an e-commerce website, there are several things that you’ll want to pay particularly close attention to in terms of SEO.

Your WordPress website is not going to have the same challenges as your IBM Websphere website. With e-commerce, you are dealing with a litany of areas where things can go wrong. Hopefully this column will help you avoid some of the pitfalls that often come from trying to optimize for e-commerce.

Keep in mind that this is not an exhaustive list of everything to watch for in the SEO of an e-commerce website, but these elements just happen to represent some of the more common things that I’ve come across.

Thin or Duplicate Content

For many retailers, if a manufacturer provides standard copy for product descriptions, they’re likely to use it. The more deadly sin occurs when the retailer makes no effort to work on copy across other areas of the website – namely category pages, shareable blog content, video content, and so forth.

We are currently in the midst of a Panda update that we hear is “slowly” rolling out. This is the first update since last September. Imagine how it must feel to find yourself not doing as well as you could because of thin or duplicate content, then rewriting your content, only to have to potentially wait a year to regain some Google-love for your content pages. If you’re not sure if you have an issue here it’s probably prudent to address it.

The duplicate content piece gets a little more interesting. Are you duplicating content across multiple categories and pages on your own website? Are you using other domains to merchandise the product under a separate brand and with the same content? Are affiliates scraping your content? These are all things that you will need to consider.

There are many tools available for checking duplicate content. Since SEM Rush is one of my favorite tools, I typically just end up using its Audit feature to review for concerns.

mark-jackson-september-audit-chart

If you feel there may be an issue with external duplicate copy, it doesn’t hurt to utilize a tool like Copyscape to see how many other retailers or manufacturers may be using the same product descriptions.

Schema

Sometimes it feels as if Google and Bing are dragging us to our wits end with hundreds of algorithmic “best practices” to adhere to. They actually reward us for some of these demands with a richer search result display, which is nice. This is seen in the use of Schema markup format in your page source code. While the page display will not change for your users, search engines will enjoy digesting content in a code markup that is easy for them to understand. Your reward is the addition of product price and availability information in search results.

One word of caution: make sure that your product prices are better than the competition ranking alongside of you that feature the same markup display. Schema.org provides more info for creating this markup. There are even tools to assist in checking if your schema markup is throwing errors. If you feel you may need some help in coding these formats, you can also enjoy assistance in schema coding from Google.

Use of Canonical Tags

Canonical tag usage is important for e-commerce in particular when products have attributes such as various sizes, colors, quantities, and so on, and you want to keep the “SEO goodness” applied to one version of that page. It’s also important that you don’t accidently create a script which automatically associates a canonical tag “back to every individual page.” This is often used to prevent issues related to scraping, so that the “content love” always resides towards the original author’s work.

I say this because I have seen instances of pagination on e-commerce websites where each page of results has a canonical to itself. Hence, you will end up with many versions of the same page indexed in Google. Rather than have these pages “battle it out” for a ranking, have them work more cooperatively to keep the SEO love associated with one version of the category or page.

Google highlights a preference for the “view all” option of your category pages to be used as the canonical for these, should they be available. This is also beneficial when pagination is used for easier shopability.

Pagination

Something that I honestly hadn’t paid much mind to, until very recently, was the use of “previous” and “next” (prev/next) in pagination. When you have five pages of “results” for a given category of a product within your website, and you are not utilizing the prev/next snippets, you are essentially not showing Google the depth of your product offerings.

For example, with 10 results on a given page and five pages of results, you actually have 50 products under a given category. Without properly coding the prev/next, you are showing Google that your category depth is only 10 products deep. When Google is trying to determine who to rank for a given query and everyone else seems to have so much more product available under a given category, you can bet who the loser is going to be.

Code Samples:

  • Base Category Page: Just shows the rel=”next” tag and canonical tag
    • < link rel=”canonical” href=”http://www.your-domain.com/category/all” />
    • < link rel=”next” href=”http://www.your-domain.com/category/?page=2″ />
  • 2nd Page of Category Results: Shows rel=”prev”, rel=”next and the canonical tag
    • < link rel=”canonical” href=”http://www.your-domain.com/category/all” />
    • < link rel=”prev” href=”http://www.your-domain.com/category/” />
      • Notice this does not include the ‘?page=1′ URL as that is equivalent to the base category URL which typically does not natively include a ‘page=’ value
    • < link rel=”next” href=”http://www.your-domain.com/category/?page=3″ />
  • 3rd Page of Category Results: Also include the complete set of all 3 of these ‘rel=’ tags
    • < link rel=”canonical” href=”http://www.your-domain.com/category/all” />
    • < link rel=”prev” href=”http://www.your-domain.com/category/?page=2″ />
    • < link rel=”next” href=”http://www.your-domain.com/category/?page=4″ />

This pattern management is then continued for all subsequent pages.

Merchandising and Category Pages

Category pages are where e-commerce websites live – or die. People are most likely not searching specifically for the name of your product. They are searching generic phrases like “school desks,” “women’s red dress,” or “birthday gifts for him.” Often the same products are merchandised across several category pages.
Using keyword research, determine how your audience is searching to build out the pages and merchandise your products, so you have content that relates to how people search.

Do you sell products that are popular for their manufacturer ID? If you are a B2C marketer, many Web users may search for a common product by the popular model version. For B2B marketers, a plant manager may look at a broken manufacture ID before heading to a keyboard. This can help to set you apart from the retailing competition.

URLs

Very commonly, the larger e-commerce platforms will bring along a clunky plan for how they generate URLs. Today search engines are much better at crawling and indexing, and platforms are much better at generating clean URL structures. While this is not nearly the issue that it once was years ago, it’s still something to be mindful of.

I’ve seen instances in which pagination ended up creating separate URLs that were each indexed. This resulted in duplicate content. Though not confirmed, it’s quite possible that the system also created the self-canonical tags, which I spoke of earlier.

Site-Search

Site-search is a big thing for anyone, but in particular for e-commerce. Understanding how people search for your products can not only help you with your paid search (PPC) efforts, it can also help you better understand the pages that you may want to build and how you may want to merchandise your products. Scalable Link Interface (SLI) uses learning search technology to take site-search behavior and help dynamically build pages for the long-tail of search. But whether or not you utilize a third party site-search product, you want to make sure that your site-search queries do not end up in the search engines’ indexes. A robot.txt exclusion should be all that is needed to facilitate this.

Move to HTTPS

Many e-tailers are moving their websites to HTTPS. While perhaps not a bad idea for the long-term, the jury is still out on the near-term benefits. If you do this, there are some things that you’ll need to be mindful of: do not forget to update your canonical tags from HTTP to HTTPS. You will also want to create a new Google Webmaster Tools profile under HTTPS and submit your new HTTPS sitemap(s).

Sitemaps

Update your sitemaps if you should elect to move to HTTPS. Aside from this, an e-commerce website will want to keep a fresh feed of pages or URLs for your XML sitemap.  Simplify maintaining your site by sectioning sitemaps based on the website’s categories. Doing so can help you to quickly identify issues within a particular area of the site. Also you should have separate sitemaps for video, images, and mobile, if you aren’t already doing so.

Affiliates and Content Scrapers

If you have an affiliate program, keep a close eye on what these folks are doing and make sure your affiliate platform and SEO vendor are doing the same. You give people enough incentive, and it’s amusing to see how aggressive they get in order to earn a commission check. I’ve witnessed affiliate links on porn sites, numerous instances of my clients’ content being scraped, and even an instance of an exact duplication of my client’s website being hosted on a near-match domain. A robust and well-managed affiliate program can drive sales and be a valuable asset in your overall marketing arsenal, but always remember that they don’t work for you – they work for themselves.

This is what drives some of them to devise interesting schemes through which they can increase attributable sales and ultimately their commissions. Just like a team of independent sales folks, they need to be trained in what they can and cannot do and say in regards to your brand. You also must be clear about what your brand considers as “out of bounds” when it comes to promoting you.

Some key things to remember when running your affiliate program:

  • Make sure you have detailed terms and conditions that outline what is and is not allowed. This provides you recourse not to fulfill commissions should a publisher be caught in violation.
  • Use trusted affiliate networks and be sure to inquire about their network quality standards – especially if managing in-house. Remember not every affiliate platform is created equal.
  • Affiliates can affect SEO. This depends on how they link to your site and how aggressively they go after intercepting traffic around your brand and trademark. While you cannot specify the positioning for organic listings, you can regulate how and where, as well as the text used, when a publisher promotes links to your website. You can also provide restrictions of active marketing like PPC, particularly when for trademark or brand assets.
  • Be sure to regularly provide updated promotional digital assets to your affiliate publishers and maintain a standard of communication. Failing to do be proactive in this can result in motivated affiliates doing it on your behalf.
  • Terminate relationships with affiliate publishers if they are caught violating your terms and conditions. Not doing so even after a minor infraction can signify to publishers that they can get away with anything, which can cause more issues in the future.

Lots of Time on Cross-Platform Compliance

Being able to watch a recording of an actual visit can sometimes uncover where elements of a page are breaking and provide insights on how to best enhance the user experience. One of my favorite usability tools is Lucky Orange: it can allow you to determine why conversion rates may have hit rock-bottom for a B2B client’s landing page in a particular browser or platform. Also its Form Field Analytics lets you assess the checkout process to see its flaws, which can help to increase conversion rates and decrease cart abandonment.

This article may not be a complete check-list of everything that goes into an SEO effort for e-commerce, but it highlights many of the things that happen to be top-of-mind for me at this very moment. I would love any feedback on the biggest issues that you’ve been faced with in e-commerce SEO – please share via the comments section below!

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