How to apply what we know about SEO to supermarket and grocery store search
Posted by Luci Wood on July 21, 2020
The grocery trade is booming. With the closure of smaller stores and restaurants leading consumers to rely on supermarkets and grocery stores for their essentials, March 2020 grocery sales figures in the UK were the highest ever recorded. A study by Kantar revealed that online grocery spend alone was 13% higher than the same period in 2019.
Latest figures also suggest the supermarkets that offer home delivery now account for 13% of the market, up from 7.4% in March at the start of lockdown. Online grocery sales show no signs of slowing down just yet.
But for the fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) companies who rely on online trading, they may not be enjoying the sales and visibility they had hoped for. It’s possible their products are hidden beyond page 2 of supermarket search pages without them even realising or understanding why.
And they’re not alone.
Many FMCG marketers are unaware that it’s possible to influence how and where their products appear using basic SEO principles.
In this article, we’ll explore how supermarket and grocery store internal search works before sharing how to optimise products for it. The tips we share are the same ones that helped one brand achieve a 50.9% increase in the number of products appearing in the top 50 for their target keywords. Finally, we’ll cover what this could mean for your business and the SEO industry as a whole.
What we know about supermarket and grocery store internal search
From experimenting with how and when various products appear when different search terms are entered into internal search boxes, we understand there to be 4 key factors that influence visibility and rankings. These factors bear striking resemblance to Google’s ranking factors and include:
- ‘Sponsored’ products or products on offer – Just as paid Google ads are prioritised above organic listings, sponsored products in supermarket feeds appear before standard products with ‘organic’ listings. There is also evidence to suggest that products on promotion (for example, 2 for 1 offers) are more likely to appear higher than those that are not.
- Product titles – Like meta titles in traditional SEO, product titles are the most important ranking factor in supermarket internal search. Products are much more likely to appear highest in results if the search term used is within the product title.
- Product categories – Most retailer websites display products that feature in a specific category if the terms appear in that category title. For example, if the word ‘cake’ wasn’t included in the product title, but the product was within the ‘cake’ category, it would still appear for ‘cake’ searches.
- Stock levels – When a product is ‘out of stock’, most retailer sites will drop the position of the product to be below all ‘in stock’ products. Just as Google would eventually de-index pages that are no longer available, retailer sites want to facilitate purchases by helping ‘in stock’ products appear in higher positions.
Supermarket products ranking in organic search
You might be surprised to see product descriptions not included in the list of ranking factors. The truth is, product descriptions work just like meta descriptions in that they are not a ranking factor at all.
However, they are still important to optimise for conversions and their potential use in traditional organic search.
If supermarkets allow their product pages to be indexed in organic search, optimising product descriptions for target keywords can improve their rankings in traditional SERPs. Search engines may select an extract from content on the product page as the meta description for the listing.
How to optimise products for supermarket and grocery store search
The process to optimise products for supermarket and grocery store search can be summarised in 5 key stages:
- Understand the brand’s goals and what they want to be known for
- Conduct keyword research to identify keywords to target
- Take a benchmark to judge results against those target keywords
- Optimise product and titles using keyword insights and retailer requirements
- Report on changes following implementation
Understand the brand’s goals
Understanding the brand’s goals and products is a really key first step to working out what product listings should be optimised for.
Just as there is limited value in optimising for infrequently searched for terms, it’s also important to only target keywords that are relevant to the business and the product.
For example, you wouldn’t expect to find an indulgent chocolate cake in a search for ‘healthy snacks’; nor should a business expect to sell one by targeting this term. Think of it like your bounce rate in traditional search. Even if you get clicks for unrelated searches, those clicks are unlikely to lead to conversions, so it’s much better to target more relevant terms.
Therefore, you should first find out which searches and keywords the brand wants their products to appear for, and then use keyword research to validate whether those keywords are worth targeting.
The next step is to explore all keyword opportunities for your products using keyword research tools.
It’s very important to note that this is never going to be an exact science. Keyword tools can only give us traditional search engine data, and we’re yet to find a supermarket willing to share their own search data. However, the search volumes given in keyword tools give a good indication of the popularity of specific terms and products, and can therefore be used as a basis.
By using keyword tools, you will find further suggestions based on the key terms given to you by the brand. Augment this data by analysing relevant supermarket category pages and competitor products to identify more opportunities.
Categorise those keywords into product types and then sort them by search volume, competitiveness and relevance. You’ll end up with a prioritised set of keywords for each product to include in your recommendations.
One thing to keep in mind is the difference between how users search on Google vs. within a supermarket engine. For example, a supermarket search engine does not need to consider user intent, as it is clear when a user searches for something at a supermarket, they are attempting to purchase it. Therefore, a user is much more likely to use simple, short-tail queries that describe a product instead of more complex queries that would satisfy their intent on Google.
Take a benchmark
Perhaps the most important stage of all is to take a benchmark to work out whether your changes have an impact once made.
Sadly we can’t rely on a specialised version of Google Search Console or Data Studio to help, but it is possible to use Screaming Frog and Google Sheets to report on current positions.
To do this, fire up Screaming Frog and set up a custom extraction that returns the Xpath associated with product titles. Note the Xpath is likely to be different for each supermarket.
With the custom extraction in place, use List Mode to crawl the URLs that display the search results for your target keywords for each supermarket. For example, the URLs might look like this: https://www.supermarket.com/?searchTerm=your+keyword.
Export the crawl data and add it into a Google Sheet set up with formulas that check for your brand name in product titles. Useful metrics to work out may include:
- The number of your brand’s products that appear in search results for each keyword
- The ‘share of voice’ your brand holds, or the % of the first page of results that is taken up by your brand’s products
- The highest position your brand’s products hold
- The average position of your brand’s products
There are, however, limitations associated with reporting in this way. For example, not all supermarket sites will allow you to crawl them, no matter which user agent you select. You may have to do it manually in this case.
Another limitation is that Screaming Frog will only check the first page of results for each supermarket in List Mode. This is because the crawl depth limit is automatically set to 0 and will therefore only crawl the URLs uploaded, nothing else. However, just like with traditional search engines, very few shoppers will brave page 2 of results to find what they’re looking for. Because of this, limiting reporting to the first page of results works well.
Optimise product titles and descriptions
Once you know your starting point, the next step is to optimise your product titles and descriptions in the same way you would optimise meta data: by naturally incorporating your best value keywords.
At this stage, it’s important to identify any specific requirements from supermarkets as to how long titles should be or requirements of what needs to be included, such as packet size. For example, some supermarkets may say product titles need to match the front of the packet exactly, but will allow keywords to be appended.
Taking our chocolate cake as an example again, say keyword research told us the keywords ‘Belgian chocolate’ and ‘chocolate fudge cake’ were both high value keywords that made sense for our product. We could then adjust our product title from ‘MyBrand Chocolate Cake 395g’ to ‘MyBrand Belgian Chocolate Fudge Cake 395g’. This would open our product up to many more searches.
While it may be tempting to stuff as many keywords in as possible (and you wouldn’t be punished for doing so!), it’s important to try and fit the keywords in as naturally as possible to help the user understand what the product is.
Although we know product descriptions do not have any weighting on rankings, we should still optimise the first paragraph of a description in the same way we would a meta description.
For example, make sure the first paragraph of product descriptions falls within the standard pixel count, includes your target keywords, and is enticing to encourage clicks.
If product pages are indexable in traditional search, we are trying to encourage traditional search engines to select these opening lines as a custom segment for use in their own listings.
Report on changes following implementation
Once optimisations have been made, follow the same process you used to benchmark current positions to report on changes between the two.
Remember there will always be factors outside of your control, for example, the number of products on promotion or stock levels, as these may skew your results – for better or worse!
The best thing about reporting is that changes can be seen almost immediately. There are no algorithm updates or bot crawls to consider, so you can report on changes as soon as they are made.
Baby & toddler snack brand
This optimisation process was followed by a well-known baby & toddler snack brand late last year. They knew their products needed to stand out as much on online retailer sites as they did on supermarket shelves, and so set about optimising product titles and descriptions for their target keywords.
Following implementation, their product visibility drastically improved, with:
- The number of products in the top 50 for all target keywords increasing by 50.9%
- The average position of products improving by up to 83% for one keyword
- A significant number of ranking improvements across the product range, including one product moving from position #92 to #7 for one keyword.
With so many parallels to draw between how traditional search engines and internal search engines on retailer sites function, it’s no surprise that we can apply basic SEO principles to optimise products for both.
By combining an understanding of the factors that influence rankings and visibility with the act of applying keyword insights to product titles, we are able to help products appear for a much wider range of valuable search terms.
Not only will this knowledge help FMCG brands achieve much higher levels of brand awareness, but may ultimately lead to more sales too. And if you’re an SEO, consider offering this service to your clients.
With online delivery slots in such hot demand at the moment, this relatively untapped area of SEO may be the break we all need.