Surviving and Thriving as an Ecommerce SEO

seo-nowHaving done SEO for many different types of websites, from enterprise-level content networks, to geotargeted personal injury law websites, to my own affiliate websites and blogs – I feel as though I’ve earned the right to say this: eCommerce Websites Are The Most Difficult to Optimize. Sure, I’ll catch some flack for that, but what the hey… maybe it’ll earn a few disagreement links.

I’ve been doing SEO for eCommerce websites for the last three years, and would like to share a few things I’ve learned in that time. Eventually I’ll expand on each topic in its own blog post.

Keep Categories Out of Product URLs

2010 SEMMY WinnerI know some SEOs will tell you that you need to stuff URLs with keywords, but it is such an insignificant factor that it doesn’t warrant the messy duplicate content problem it creates. What happens to that URL when you move a product to another category? Do you have more than one URL for a product that lives in multiple categories? What happens when you change a category name, or remove a category? ALL if these issues are resolved if you don’t use this (…product/category1/subcategory/productname.html) and instead just use this (/product/productname.html). You can put that product in any category, move it around, add it to more categories… the URL will never change.

Make It Scalable

While you should endeavor to manually optimize every single product page (see below), sometimes that doesn’t happen right away; and sometimes you miss a few. So make sure you have some defaults in place, which come standard with most eCommerce systems these days: 1. Title tag is inherited from the product title. 2. Meta description is inherited from the first 150-155 characters of the product description with ellipses after the last complete word if it isn’t the end of a sentence. 3. Meta keywords, while not very important (if at all) these days,  you can often latch on to things like categories, and product title to auto-generate the default list. 4. Product image alt tag is the product title. Etc… you get the point. Your goal is to have a product page semi-optimized automatically the moment a new product is added.

Optimize New Products ASAP

Get a daily/monthly/weekly (it depends on how often it’s done) list of all of the products that were added to the site in that time period so you can go in and optimize the pages on an ongoing basis. Alternatively, do the new product uploading yourself so you can optimize as they get uploaded. Don’t rely on your scalable automation (see above) for anything more than just a fail-safe.

Never, Ever, Use Manufacturer’s Product Description

You know that default product description that came from the distributor or manufacturer? Guess who else is using that exact same copy on their product pages? If you guessed “everyone else” pat yourself on the back.

Set Product Names in Stone

If your URLs are based on product names, what happens when someone in merchandising decides to change “Pink Widgets” to “Pink Fluffy Widgets”? Does your URL change? Instead of doing redirects every time a product name changes, it is more scalable and optimal to just lock-down the URL so that it stays “pink-widgets.html” instead of changing to “pink-fluffy-widgets.html” when the product name changes.

No Matter How Similar The Products, Always Write Unique Descriptions

Let’s say you have a line of similar widgets. Don’t just name them Red Widget, Blue Widget, Big Widget, Small Widget… and expect that to get you decent search results when the rest of the product description is the same. I know there are only so many ways to describe a widget, but do your best to describe each one separately. Changing one or two words here and there isn’t going to do the trick.

Redirect Removed Products Right Away

Get notifications in real-time as products are removed from your site so you can 301 redirect the URLs in case other sites were linking into those product pages. NOTE: Products can come and go at any time, while categories tend to stick around longer, if not indefinitely. What happens when you redirect the product that you redirected the first one to? Keep it simple. Redirect to categories and avoid multiple 301 hops. If you can’t get notified (or even if you can) check for broken links and 404 errors on a regular basis. Google Webmaster Tools will tell you which URLs gave them a 404 error, and where they were linked from when they hit that URL.
Note: I’m not talking about products that are temporarily out of stock. Those pages stay up. But always redirect products you no longer carry.

Teach Them How to Fish

Schedule a training session with anyone who touches the website, from the designer who might upload an offer image, to the copywriter who uploads product copy, to the merchandising team that moves around products, categories, fill slots, etc… Keep it simple and high level, but get across the importance of original content, keyword appropriate copy, using only canonical URLs, image alt tags, etc… If nothing else, make sure they know WHEN to notify you about something – such as a category change.

Be In The Know

The higher-ups and the merchandisers aren’t thinking about you or SEO when they decide to change the name of a category from “Widgets” to “Best Widgets”. They don’t think about how that change is going to affect the URL, and if you’re not paying attention all of your links into that category page will go down the drain…. at least until a week later when you’re looking at the 404 logs and spit coffee out of your nose. It takes time, but do whatever you can to make sure you are consulted on ALL THINGS WEB. Even if it’s just an email CC, make sure you’re in the loop.

Don’t Trust Vendors

Keep everything in-house that you possibly can. In three years of doing in-house SEO for an eCommerce business, I have only once been happy with a vendor (out of dozens). They will promise the world and deliver Somalia.

Use the Canonical URL Link in Your Header

Even if you follow all of the guidelines above, an ecommerce site is bound to end up with some non-canonical URLs out there. For instance, tracking URLs, or internal search result URLs. While it should not be used to “fix” poor site architecture, such as the examples above, the canonical URL link tag is yet another tool in your arsenal for ensuring that all of your traffic, listings and links go into the right pages/URLs.

Put Content on Directory Pages

Directory pages are just big lists of products that show up when a user has drilled down as far as they can go into the category navigation. The vast majority of eCommerce websites out there just list products and don’t have any textual content, other than product names. Search engines love these pages IF you put some content on them. All you need are two or three sentences introducing the products: “Our selection of large, blue plastic widgets are perfect solutions to your widget problem. Larger and bluer than average widgets, they’ll be a hit at your next party.

Affiliates Rock

Any ecommerce business without an affiliate program is plum crazy. If your competitors have affiliate programs and you don’t, which brand do you think is going to get picked on in comparisons on affiliate websites? I’ll tell you one thing; it won’t be the people who are paying that affiliate 10% commission on every sale. If nothing else, it is a good brand reputation management strategy.

Affiliates Rock But Don’t Reconvert the Believers

Remind your affiliate manager that if someone is blogging about your products already there is no need to get them to join the program. Why pay for the cow when you get the milk for free? And why turn a perfectly good, page-rank passing link into an SEO-unfriendly affiliate link?

Go to SEO Conferences

You need to be with your own kind from time to time. As the only SEO in a company, it is even more important to network with others in your industry. You will learn things, make new friends, and come back reinvigorated.

Never Stop

It is easy to get stuck in a rut when you do in-house SEO for an ecommerce business. Bad vendor relationships, overwhelmed development staff, looking at the same old site every day… But your work as an SEO is never done. There is always content to write or tweak; competitive analysis to be done; more long-tail keywords to pick up;  new links to be had… There are always new conversations happening on various forums, social media websites, answer sites, and blogs, which can be monitored and, if appropriate, joined. I have a whiteboard on my wall with a list of tasks (redirect pages giving 404 errors, write an article for a blog, check analytics for new page-two performers) that I randomly pick from when I’m feeling bored, or so overwhelmed that I don’t know where to start my day. Check out this post for more ideas.

Put Your Blinders On

SEOs who work for huge ecommerce sites can often feel overwhelmed with the amount of tasks to perform and keywords on which to improve. One solution to this problem is to keep a small list of “Golden keywords” (50-75 keywords, tops) based on the ones that produce the most revenue from PPC campaigns, have the highest conversion rates, or even just because they’re industry vanity keywords that would make your boss happy. Focus on those for a week. Forget about all of the other keywords and all of your other tasks. Just pick a few at a time and do everything you can to improve upon just those keywords. Tweak the titles, copy, alts, internal links, external links… Every journey begins with the first step.


I can’t stress enough the importance of interlinking your pages, especially if – like most large eCommerce sites – you have several levels of navigation using “ify” navigation code. Featuring your top sellers/lowest-COGs/overstocked/most-searched items on category pages isn’t just good for driving more traffic from the pages, but will also help them rank. Every link from a home page or main category page is important. Are you linking to pages that you don’t care to rank?

Automate Product Interlinking

If you hard-code interlinks between products you’ll be in for a world of hurt 404 errors at some point when products start getting removed. Interlinking is hugely important, but try to automate it on the product level so the system knows to take a link down when the product being linked to is removed.

Separate Brand from Non-Brand Keywords

Most large eCommerce websites are associated with a well-known brand, at least within their industry. Brand-related keywords rank higher, bring in more traffic, convert at a higher rate, have higher AOV’s… and generally muck up the data in your analytics reports. If you seriously want to get some SEO metrics worth looking at and acting on, the only way to do that is to filter out brand-related searches.

Sweat The Small Stuff

It is easy to get hung up on huge site architecture issues and mega-website problems like some of the URL-related examples described above. Yet, often times such issues are out of your hands, at least for awhile. Instead of giving up and spending your day on Twitter because you’re waiting to hear how many months and tens-of-thousands of dollars it’s going to take to get that custom footer you asked for – go back to the small things, like alt tags, content on long-tail product pages, and even directory submissions and/or some article distribution. Always be making progress, even if it’s an inch at a time.

Have Your Own Websites

If websites were cars, I’d describe the one I drive at work as a bus. It takes forever to turn around, put on the brakes or speed up. The engine is huge, complicated, difficult to work on and greasy. On days when I get frustrated that a simple menu change can take months, I like to go home and work on my own websites. Like go-carts or sports cars, their engines are small, clean and fast. I’ve highly customized them and can make that menu change in five minutes. All I need in my toolbox is notepad, an FTP client and a cup of hot coffee. If you don’t enjoy doing SEO enough to consider it a hobby, perhaps you’re in the wrong profession to begin with.

Be Persistent

My nickname at work is “Tenacious E” because I don’t give up when something important needs to be done. There are projects that I’ve been shuffling through the red tape for over two years. While sometimes I feel like throwing up my hands and saying “To Hell With IT!” I realize that I’m in this for the long-run and, even if I can’t get rid of that crappy javascript navigation for another year, it will eventually pay off.

Other Tips

  • Read the Get Elastic Ecommerce Blog
  • Be Everywhere: Yahoo Answers, Twitter, Facebook, Forums, Blogs…
  • Build Relationships: With bloggers, industry talking heads, social media people…
  • Know Your Competitors: They are usually in two groups – those competing with you on the first page of Google, and those competing with you in the industry. But they aren’t mutually exclusive.
  • Regularly update or automate your sitemaps
  • Use the same URLs in product/affiliate/PPC/shopping feeds that you use in your navigation
  • Dynamically insert noindex,follow tags on “sort” and “pagination” URLs.
  • Have several product feeds (RSS/XML), such as “new products” and “best sellers”
  • Utilize “ignore parameter” tools in webmaster tool consoles from all search engines
  • Automate Alt Tags on directory-level pages (<ALT>{INSERT PRODUCT NAME}</ALT>
  • Get new products uploaded faster than your competitors. Be first to market!