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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.

Interlink

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!

34 Responses to “Surviving and Thriving as an Ecommerce SEO”

  1. Mary Bowling says:

    Everett, Reading this is like taking an advanced seminar in SEO for ecommerce websites. I’m book marking this post because I’m certain I’ll be referring to it over and over again. Thanks for all the great information and insight. Mary

  2. Great article Everett!

    And I’m really glad that we were the ‘one’ vendor that you were happy with!

  3. chris hickey says:

    great post everett! I’m surprised there were no references or comparisons to chickens, bees or tomatoes :)

  4. Killer article. This is pure quality and years of hard-won experience condensed down into one clear post. If there was stuff like this being published everyday, I would read a lot more SEO blogs!

  5. Mark Simon says:

    I love it! Coming from a fellow SEO for e-commerce sites.

  6. I concur with the above, excellent post, its like the ultimate to do list when you don’t know where to start your day. Well done!

  7. euan says:

    I love doing SEO on eCommerce sites; far more so than lead generation sites. When you get to leverage traffic from Google Base, Comparison Search Engines and Voucher Codes sites, sales rocket. Its a bit harder to keep that momentum though…

  8. Bill Cook says:

    Great post, really comprehensive. Its like a 12-month to-do list for an ecommerce site. While many of your thoughts here confirm many of my own strategies, you’ve also managed to provide me with a few new tricks. Thanks.

  9. Good stuff mate. I would like to pipe in with running contests is a great way to get some buzz and links. I’ve been doing a lot of Ecommerce link building lately and I’ll agree it’s the hardest because it’s so commercial.

    If you can pull it off you’re at the top of your game though because it isn’t easy.

  10. [...] last thing: As an eCommerce SEO, you’ll want to make sure merchandising and product development (or whoever is in charge of [...]

  11. Dave says:

    I would like to expand upon the thought of Teach Them How to Fish” and apply that to customers.

    If you give a man a fish – You feed him for a day. If you teach him how to fish – You can profit by selling him fishing equipment for the rest of his life.

    Make your product presentations and sales pages easy to understand the benefits of your products and how to get the most use out of them.

  12. [...] Tips for eCommerce websites: From site architecture to product interlinking, Everett Sizemore’s post is a shopping cart of tips and tricks that eCommerce marketers shouldn’t abandon. [...]

  13. [...] Tips for eCommerce websites: From site architecture to product interlinking, Everett Sizemore’s post is a shopping cart of tips and tricks that eCommerce marketers shouldn’t abandon.         [...]

  14. Bravo, great advices and insights, wish i had this when I was selling paintball!

  15. [...] Last but not least, check out this super-awesome post (that Sam also linked to in his round-up but it’s just so relevant here that I’m linking to it again): Surviving and Thriving as an Ecommerce SEO [...]

  16. Luke says:

    Awesome tips. The same granular approach applies when you’re doing PPC for e-commerce products.

  17. [...] Last but not least, check out this super-awesome post (that Sam also linked to in his round-up but it’s just so relevant here that I’m linking to it again): Surviving and Thriving as an Ecommerce SEO [...]

  18. john chen says:

    Wow, I am impressed by this post. I;ve owned my on ecommerce business, and what you have posted would have saved me hours of research if I had know about it beforehand.

    The power of the internet is great, if only this existed 3 – 4 years ago :)

  19. Chris Missal says:

    Can you explain what you mean by this tip:

    Automate Alt Tags on directory-level pages ({INSERT PRODUCT NAME}

    I’m aware of the alt attribute, and if that’s what you mean, great. But an tag doesn’t exist.

  20. farmerebert says:

    CHris,

    I mean exactly what you think I mean. Automatically propogate the alt tag attribute inside the img tag with the product title. I know there’s not such thing as . The thing above is just so WordPress doesn’t actually turn the example into code. I’m sorry for the confusion.

  21. Really great post here. Sweating the details makes all the difference.

  22. Andrew S. says:

    Excellent article. Thank you.

  23. SEO Man says:

    Fantastic article, which really hits a vibe with me having done SEO on a large eCommerce site for 3 years now. Its a bleedin nightmare!

  24. [...] recently came across a great blog post titled “Surviving and Thriving as an Ecommerce SEO“. It’s a great read for any ecommerce store owner that is interested in optimizing [...]

  25. This is a gold mine of a post. Very educational, even though I’ve been doing e-commerce SEO for years.

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  28. Good article Everett .
    Thanks for sharing inside outs of the SEO, specifically related to ecommerce site.

  29. Jon says:

    This is an excellent article. You obviously have been down and dirty in some serious ecommerce SEO. Great tips! Noted and will be linking this on my blog.

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  37. Ben Joven says:

    ooooh, that was such an awesome checklist, thank you, thank you!

  38. Peter says:

    Fantastic post Everett. Well deserved SEMMY winner.
    You mention using the canonical URL link tag in the header of each of the pages. Would you recommend using this on every product page on a site even if the page URL and the canonical tag URL are the same?

    e.g. On the product domain:

    http://www.example.com/product1

    Would you recommend placing the following canonical tag?

  39. Peter says:

    Sorry, the canonical tag in my last post got cut off –

  40. farmerebert says:

    Sorry your example got cut off Peter, but if I’m understanding you correctly then my answer would be YES. A canonical URL tag should be placed on product detail pages. You just have to make sure that it is the same URL being linked to in the header of all versions of the product page. If you don’t have any non-canonical product page URLs – Good for you! I RARELY see that though, so chances are you have some non-canonical URLs out there somewhere. I hope that helps.

  41. Peter says:

    Great Article! Found the German-Translation and really have to send some Kudos to you as the Author ;)

    Thanks again for sharing!

    kr

  42. rankpay says:

    Really I think that Google Buzz’s submission was a little premature, especially the privacy concerns. I also think that Google’s possibly going down the path that Windows experienced around the era of Windows 98. The latest products and releases appear to be less and less thought out and I also feel like rushed in an attempt to be 1st to market, and or compete with a competitors release. The breach of privacy was an issue that did not require a PHD in CS to figure out, a very basic review would have identified these issues. Do you think Google may have received too much credit last year?

  43. Very insightful, new to the e commerce business and will takes these words to heart

  44. Telugu Cinema says:

    Congrattulations…for best 2010 SEMMY Winner…Nice Article..for Ecommerce Web Masters….

  45. Discount Gifts says:

    Great post!! I will be bookmarking this and using your practices daily on sites we work on.
    Thanks again and congrats or the award, I can see why you won it!!

    (((PS: I’m a comment spammer who likes to put my Crappy website URL in the URL field, make my name something I want to show up as the link text, and leave a lame comment that is probably copied and pasted or put in by a robot.))))

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  47. Tommy says:

    Wow. A lot of great information in one spot! I, too, will be bookmarking this page for many future reads.

  48. SEO-LEX says:

    A lot of very usefull tips that I as SEO specialist, author of SEO books and owner of several Ecommerce sites can vouch for. All of them actually. Thanks for sharing!

  49. Great article.

    In addition to “Keep Categories Out of Product URLs” I would add “Keep brand names/product names out of product URLs”.

    We did the mistake to include the brand and model name in product URLs to distinguish between similar products. But that’s a pain when the product is being discontinued at the manufacturers side. The page may be well optimized for generic keywords, and then you have to redirect it to a new page.

    Many CMS systems just redirect to the front page when a product is deactivated, and in many cases there is no redirection at all.

    The problem may be easy so solve for a SEO person, but if you are a shop owner that doesn’t do your own SEO it will just add extra costs.

    If you use generic URLs and a product is discontinued you can then easily replace it with a new product text and images keeping the same URL and the same on-page and external optimizations as for the discontinued product.

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