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SEO for e-commerce sites: the time-saving guide

Doing marketing for e-commerce websites is associated with very specific challenges. First, e-commerce website promotion requires the marketer to balance between user experience, conversion optimization, and SEO. Second, online stores are typically large-scale and complicated — so trivial on-page optimization tasks can turn into a never-ending nightmare.

In this guide, you'll find a set of content and technical issues anyone doing e-commerce SEO will face, and actionable how-tos and time-saving tricks on tackling them.

Keyword research
Forget generic keywords, think smart word combinations

Keyword research for e-commerce websites goes far beyond search volume and competition analysis. The reason for that is the complexity of the buying cycle — each step in it calls for different keywords you'd need to target.

Typically, customers of an online store go through 5 stages before making a purchase; different keywords and keyword phrases are used at each stage.

1. Compile 3 separate keyword lists

As you can see, keywords that customers use at the Research, Comparison, and Purchase stages offer the most value in terms of conversion potential. To get a comprehensive list of those, you'll need to come up with 3 groups of keywords that you'll later combine into long tail queries.

But before you start, remember to research search patterns typical of your target audience: consider gender, age, and social status. For example, if you are a male and you are struggling to get the organic traffic for a skin care store, take care to talk to your female colleagues or friends to find out the jargon they use when they talk about this stuff. Spend some time on relevant social media resources to learn your audience's language.

When you're positive you understand how your customers talk and which words they use, get down to putting up your keyword list.

  • Prepare a list of action keywords that customers might use at the Comparison and Purchase stages as part of their query. Don't add the product or category names to these keywords yet.
    E.g. "buy", "purchase", "price", "compare", "review".
  • Get a full list of brands available at your store.
    E.g. "Sony", "Samsung", "Apple".
  • Compile a list of categories, product names, and their core properties, like size or color.
    E.g. "TV", "laptop", "smartphone"; "Iphone", "Galaxy Note", "34-inch display".

2. Mix the keywords up

Once you've got these three lists ready, it's time to move on to putting together search phrases. Combining generic keywords with product keywords and their properties should give you dozens of long tail keywords — like "buy 42-inch Samsung TV". It works like a slot machine: you turn the reels and get new keyword phrases.

You can do it manually if you need to mix up a dozen of keywords. However, given the size of the inventory in most online stores, you will likely need software tools to get things done quickly.

Try using Rank Tracker's Word Combination option to get a full list of possible long tail keywords instantly.

1. Create or open a project in Rank Tracker.
2. Click the Suggest Keywords button.
3. Select Word Combination from the available keyword research methods, and hit Next.
4. Select the number of parts to combine, enter your keywords in the columns, and click Next once more.

(By the way, it looks exactly like a slot machine!)

In an instant, you'll get plenty of long tail keyword phrases.

Select the keywords to add to your project and hit Update KEI to get their search volume, competition, and Keyword Efficiency Index.

Voila — you've just saved yourself a couple of hours!

Keyword matrix
Do smart keyword targeting to avoid cannibalization

Have you heard about keyword cannibalization? To put it short, if several pages of your website contain a response to the same search query, these pages will compete with each other in SERPs for rankings. The search engines may rank the page that is less suitable or important from your standpoint.

In order to avoid keyword cannibalization, create a keyword matrix. Fill the rows in a spreadsheet with the URLs of your site's most important pages (most likely product category pages), and create columns for your keywords. Put a mark at the intersection of row/column to assign a certain keyword to a certain page. This method will help you make sure that you don't use the important keyword across multiple pages.

URLs Keywords
Samsung tv Toshiba tv Sony tv x x x

If the CMS of your online store creates separate pages for such variations of a product as size and color, it will make sense to restrict such pages from indexing using robots.txt or <meta name="robots" content="noindex"> tag. Canonicalization is another solution (see Google's guidelines for detailed instructions).

On-page optimization
Save time on optimizing thousands of product pages

An e-commerce website typically has a limited set of category pages and thousands of product pages. Everything is more or less clear with category pages (they are usually subject to the traditional on-page SEO approach; if you are new to SEO, check out the A to Z SEO Guide for the steps).

Things get trickier when it comes to product pages. You'll hardly have the time and resources to create unique titles, H1 tags, and descriptions for each product page.

Luckily, the slot machine approach (see the Keyword research section) can be used for meta tags just as well.

Create title, meta description and H1 templates for your product pages. For example, you may use this template for the title tag: Buy [ProductName] online | Your store name

[ProductName] is a variable that changes for every page depending on the product. If your CMS does not support variables, ask your development team for help.

Do the same for your H1s and descriptions — and remember that titles and meta descriptions are displayed in your listing's snippet in SERPs, so make sure to use strong calls-to-action to entice clicks from search results.

Make sure every page on your site is unique

Duplicate content issues for e-commerce sites fall into two categories:

  • Off-site — the content appears on many websites across the web.
  • On-site — many pages of the website feature the same content.

1. Fix off-site duplication

Off-site duplication is natural for e-commerce. Online stores often use product descriptions, images, and specifications provided by the manufactures. This is logical, since you cannot invent new specs for the latest iPhone. However, there are a number of solutions for the problem.

  • Write unique descriptions for each item. If you have a team of copywriters to get the entire inventory covered — go for it. Just keep in mind that as the inventory scales up, you'll need to keep up with the copy as well.
  • Leverage user-generated content. Create incentives for visitors to write reviews of the items they purchased. Send follow-up emails and ask for a review nicely, or offer discounts or bonuses to customers who leave a review. On the downside, there's no guarantee that you will have a steady flow of reviews for all the items being sold. Additionally, reviews should be moderated to avoid spam or obscene language, which requires additional resources.
  • Add a Q&A section for each product. You can make your product descriptions unique by adding a FAQ section with questions customers often have about the product. Again, doing this will require additional human resources.
  • Optimize product category pages only. If you don't have the time and resources to work on product pages, you can choose to create unique content for category pages only. In this case, it's necessary to prevent the indexation of the product pages (using robots.txt or meta tags) — this means that the product pages will not appear in the SERPs.

2. Fix on-site duplication

On-site duplication is a frequent problem across the pages of online stores. It can be caused by the e-commerce content management system or an illogical website structure.

There are two typical scenarios. First, a product may belong to several categories, e.g. one Samsung TV set could be found in "Home", "TVs", and "Samsung". The CMS may generate different URLs for the very same product depending on the path a user takes in the product catalog. For example:

Second, the CMS could generate a separate URL and page for variations of one product (e.g. size, color or other specifications). This approach wasn't a problem before Google's Panda algorithm update; currently, Google can penalize websites for duplicated product pages across different URLs. For example:

There are several ways to get around on-site duplication:

  • 1. Master URLs. No matter what path a user takes in the catalogue, the CMS must always return only one URL for a particular product. All product variations should be represented on one page reachable via one URL, so that the user is not redirected to other pages. This approach eliminates content duplication and ensures that your site's Crawl Budget is used wisely.
  • Canonicalization. This technique does solve the duplicate content problem, but it can have drawbacks in terms of user experience and crawl budget. See Google's Canonicalization guide for detailed info.

Out of stock and discontinued items
Create search-engine-friendly pages for unavailable products

Clearly, there are times when you store would run out of a certain product — or even discontinue an item completely. These two cases should be handled differently.

1. Create smart pages for temporarily unavailable products

If an item is temporarily unavailable, removing the page is not an option. The page should clearly state that the product is out of stock, and provide all the relevant information the visitor may need to make sure they either wait until the item arrives or order an alternative from you.

  • Include the item's planned arrival date. This will help the visitors decide whether they're ready to wait until the item is available, or if they should look for alternatives.
  • Offer an opportunity to get a notification when the item arrives. Even if you don't know when the item is going to be available, it's a good idea to give your visitors an option to get notified via email when it's back in stock.
  • Give visitors a preorder option. If you're positive the item is going to be available soon, let users preorder it. This will assure your customers that when the product is in stock, they will be the first to receive it.
  • Add a list of similar products. When you can, offer visitors alternative options to make sure they purchase from you and don't go to competitors instead.

2. Choose how you'll handle permanently discontinued products

If the item is permanently removed from sale, you have several options to deal with its product page.

  • Return a 404 page. 404 is a natural way to remove pages from the search engine index; the overall rankings of the website will not be affected. Make sure to remove 404 pages from your site's XML sitemap — this will send a strong signal to the search engines that the page should be removed from the index. This approach is suitable for pages that don't have a lot of backlinks and don't serve as an entrance point to the website. If the page ranks well for some queries though, consider other options.
  • Create a 301 redirect to a similar item or relevant product category. The redirect will help you save link juice; on the downside, 301 redirects can increase load time and confuse the visitor.
  • Keep the product page, but state that the item is discontinued and offer an alternative. In this way, you will preserve the link juice and the page's rankings. However, this option is not recommended if the online store's inventory changes often — you don't want to end up with thousands of ghost products wasting your Crawl Budget.
Use pagination properly to avoid duplication and indexing problems

Pagination is the practice of segmenting a piece of content into multiple pages. On an e-commerce website, pagination can create a series of very similar pages with overlapping content. If the pagination bar on your site only includes a few pages, and each number representing a subsequent page is visible and clickable, this will not usually pose a problem. Here's an example:

But if the number of pages exceeds a certain amount, the pagination bar will display only a couple of initial pages and a few final pages. The in-between pages won't be linked to from the main page — as a result, they will be crawled by search engines less often.

This issue may be addressed in two ways:

  • Add a View All option. Consider adding a page that contains the products from all pages. In this scenario, each split page should contain the rel="canonical" link pointing to the view all page. See Google's blog post for a detailed how-to.
  • Add rel="next" and rel="prev" tags. These tags can be used inside the <head> tag of a page to indicate next and previous pages in a series. The first page will only have a rel="next" tag, and the last one — just a rel="prev" tag, while the pages in-between will contain both. These tags give Google a hint to treat the split pages as one. This approach will help you consolidate backlinks, and Google will likely display only the most relevant page (the first one) in SERPs. For more information on rel="next" and rel="prev" , see this post on Google Webmaster blog.

Site Speed
Optimize your pages' load time for better rankings and user experience

Site speed is a factor that has a double effect on e-commerce websites. A slow website is poor user experience; poor user experience often translates into lower sales. Site speed is a ranking factor, too; fast loading pages get an advantage over slower ones in search results.

First, you'll need to test your main landing pages to make sure there are no speed issues. You can do that quickly with WebSite Auditor.

1. Create or open a WebSite Auditor project for your site.
2. Go to the Content Analysis module.
3. Select a page you want to test, enter your keywords, and proceed with the next steps as necessary.

Along with other content and technical info, the software will run a detailed page speed test. See the Page speed (Desktop) section and make sure your page is free from any issues that may be slowing it down.

Here are the 5 top things that affect page speed and are often ignored by e-commerce sites.

  • Eliminate unnecessary redirects. Very often websites redirect visitors from the non-www version to the www version, and then to the mobile version or a user-friendly URL. Eliminate such intermediate redirects whenever you can safely do that.
  • Optimize product images. Ecommerce websites usually have a lot of product images, which make up for the largest share of the traffic payload. Make sure that the all the images are optimized and compressed in size. Consider using smaller images with an option to open a large version.

  • Enable browser caching. E-commerce website visitors will typically view many pages per session. You do not want them to load the unchanged content again and again, do you?
  • Prioritize the load of visible content for pages that have a scroll bar.
  • Avoid JavaScript that blocks page rendering. It will cause the user's browser to wait for the script to load before loading the page itself.

Deliver a great user experience across devices

50% of Google search traffic is mobile. About 60% of consumers use mobile devices to make purchase decisions. If you are promoting an e-commerce website, you can't neglect this huge audience.

Just like site speed, a poor user experience on mobile devices may result in lower sales and negatively influence your rankings.

1. Go mobile if you haven't already

If you haven't taken your site mobile yet, you'll need to start with choosing the right technology. There are three major options: dynamic serving, separate mobile pages, or responsive design.

For e-commerce sites, responsive design is perhaps the best way to go. Here are some benefits of this option:

  • Same URL for mobile and desktop versions of pages. Using a single URL for a piece of content makes it easier for users to interact with, share, and link to that content. Such pages are also easier for search engines to discover and index.
  • Content presentation is customizable depending on the type of device it is viewed from.
  • No redirects. Unlike with a separate mobile version of the site, responsive design requires no additional redirects. This makes for a better load time and user experience.

2. Double-check pages of a mobile site

If you aren't sure if your page is totally mobile friendly, here's a quick way to check that:

1. Open your WebSite Auditor project.
2. Go to Content Analysis.
3. Select the page to analyze against mobile-friendliness, and proceed with the next steps.

Once the analysis is complete, check the Page usability (Mobile) section to see if your page is fully optimized for mobile devices. Go through the factors under this section to see if you can make any improvements for your mobile visitors.

Create a secure site to win customers' (and Google's) trust

Search engines favor websites that securely encrypt the traffic between the site and a user. Going HTTPS is critical for e-commerce websites to protect the customers' credit card details and other personal information.

You'll need 2 things to go HTTPS: a dedicated IP and an SSL certificate. To get a dedicated IP, contact you hosting provider. Getting a certificate is no big deal either — there are a lot of SSL certificate providers like Comodo or Geotrust to name a few. Once you've installed the certificate, remember to test whether it's configured correctly with this tool by SSL labs.

There are some common pitfalls to avoid when transferring to HTTPS.

  • If your website uses a content distribution network, third party scripts and APIs, make sure they support HTTPS. Otherwise, visitors will get errors on page load or notifications that only part of the content is encrypted.
  • Make sure all internal links point to the HTTPS version of the website. If your web developers use absolute links, you'll definitely have to fix those.
  • Configure redirects from the HTTP to the HTTPS version properly. Poor redirects are a common issue with HTTPS — especially if only some parts of your website are encrypted.

Crawl Budget
Make sure search engines can crawl pages that matter for SEO

Crawl budget is the number of pages of a website that search engines can crawl per day. The value is different for every site, as crawl budget is closely related to the authority of the website. This metric is especially important for e-commerce websites with large inventories. While you cannot make search engines crawl more pages, you may facilitate their work by removing clutter on their way.

  • Get rid of duplicate pages. Sure thing you may deal with duplicate content with rel="canonical", but crawling duplicate content wastes your crawl budget and slows down the discovery of fresh content.
  • Prevent indexation of useless (in terms of SEO) content. Privacy policy, terms and conditions, and expired promotions are good candidates for a Disallow rule in robots.txt.
  • Fix broken links. Hitting broken links wastes your crawl budget — and doesn't take search engine bots anywhere useful.
  • Keep your XML sitemap up to date, and make sure to register XML sitemaps in Google Search Console.

These are the major things to remember when you are optimizing an e-commerce website. If you've got other tips to share, jump in to the discussion in the comments!

By: Yauhen Khutarniuk
Head of SEO at SEO PowerSuite