The anatomy of a well optimised ecommerce site
When your website is your business, making your site ‘findable’ is a big deal. And yet, many ecommerce sites just don’t do organic optimisation very well. What stops ecommerce businesses taking full advantage of billions of daily searches, and where do they go wrong with SEO?
With ecomm giants like Amazon and eBay dominating the search engine results pages (SERPs) it can be understandably off putting. Up against that sort of competition it may seem pointless to invest effort in SEO. But, whilst it’s true competition in the ecomm space is incredibly tough for head (high competition) keyword terms, that doesn’t mean there aren’t opportunities. With a data driven, targeted approach almost any business can carve out space for themselves in the SERPs.
The continually shifting SERP landscape can be another blocker for organisations. If it seems like the goalposts are always moving, how can you know if you’re doing the right thing, and will the effort you put in today be wasted tomorrow? The key, is to stay user focused. Changes that benefit users are always a safe bet and will often have a positive impact on SEO efforts. Avoid changes that impair user experience, particularly if they are only being made ‘for search engines’. Stick to these guidelines and you won’t go far wrong, and getting input from an SEO expert is always an option if you want more detailed support.
So, accepting you’re probably not Amazon, what makes for a well optimised ecommerce site? Here’s our top 10 tips to shape up your site.
1. Build a data informed category tree
Keyword research is the foundation of a strong category tree. Combine target market knowledge and consumer research with data on search volume and intent to cluster keywords into topics. These topics will become your category and subcategory pages. The aim is to help users (and search engines) discover and navigate the products on your site. You want enough categories to make products easy to find, but not so many that you end up with low value pages listing just a handful of products.
For example, a clothing retailer might have a category for Shirts – with a large inventory this categorisation is likely to be too broad on its own. Adding sub-categories such as casual shirts, long sleeved shirts, formal shirts etc. will make it easier for customers to hone in on items they’re interested in.
2. Use facets and filters to target long tail keywords
Where category pages target broad keywords, facets and filters give you the opportunity to go after longer tail phrases. There is huge potential here to rank well in the SERPs, both because you’re connecting with specific consumer needs and because large ecommerce players tend to do this less well, meaning competition is lower.
To decide what facets and filters you need, and which will be open to indexing, refer again to your keyword research and your knowledge of your target market. Focus on what will be most useful for users and avoid letting options get so granular that you end up with pages that show just 1 or 2 products. For example, allowing customers to filter by a colour, like red, is often helpful, but providing filters for different shades of red (burgundy, scarlet, maroon) might be overkill.
3. Boost navigation and crawlability with internal and horizontal links
Reinforce the structure of your site with internal links that help customers and search engines navigate between pages. If a search engine can’t reach a page, it can’t crawl it or index it, so make sure all relevant pages are accessible, such as pages generated by facets and filters. Including breadcrumbs is a good starting point. Adding ‘horizontal links’ i.e connections between related products or categories is a great way to cross sell, and it helps search engines discover and make connections between pages. One simple way to do this is adding a section titled, ‘You may also like’. Make sure links are never random, but are always relevant and add value for the user.
4. Manage how many pages are crawlable
The larger your site the more important crawl management becomes. Ecommerce sites by their nature tend to generate a lot of pages, many of which have the potential to be low value. If all these pages are open to crawling you can rapidly arrive at a situation where you have millions of relatively unimportant pages being crawled and potentially indexed, distracting search engines from more important pages.
To allow search engines to focus on your most important pages and stop them ‘wasting time’, disallow access to low value pages, for example those created by sorting products by price. Some CMS systems will do this for you, but always check just exactly what parts of your site are accessible to search engines and which are not.
5. Control internal search
A mistake I see all the time and a major source of page bloat is an internal search function that is completely open to crawling. Each time a customer makes a search a new page is created, and this can rapidly lead to a ridiculous number of low value, often duplicate, pages being crawled. Whilst there are outliers in ecommerce that leave their search pages open to crawling, in general my advice is to block search engines from these pages and save yourself an enormous headache.
Whilst you don’t want search engines perusing your internal search pages, knowing what users are searching your site for can be really helpful. Review internal search data for frequent searches, and consider if you can better target consumer demand by adding a new category, facet or filter.
6. Maintain seasonal pages
Make the most of seasonal pages such as those created for Black Friday or Christmas by retaining them year on year and keeping them indexable. This allows the authority built by these pages to grow over time, rather than starting from scratch each year. To make this work, use a URL that isn’t date specific e.g /black-friday, not /black-friday-2023 and when the page is not in use, remove it from your main navigation. Whilst the page is removed from your navigation menu make sure it still remains accessible (crawlable) and indexable, or the benefits will be lost.
7. Have a page strategy for ‘Out of stock’ products
Much like seasonal pages, if you no-index or delete product pages each time an item goes temporarily out of stock you are wasting valuable page equity and losing search traffic. To maximise the optimisation potential of each product page, don’t make pages inaccessible to users or search engines if the product is expected to be available at a future date. For products that go out of stock permanently, create a strategy to deal with these pages consistently, which might involve removing or redirecting once the page’s value has diminished.
8. Boost speed with image optimisation
There are lots of things that can influence speed, but on image heavy ecommerce sites, too large graphics are a major source of sluggishness. Not only is page speed a ranking factor, but page load times affect customer conversion rates. Research from Google/SOATA states that, “For every second delay in mobile page load, conversions can fall by up to 20%”. That’s a compelling argument to get serious about site speed and optimising your images is a great place to start.
9. Review product pages
Your product description pages (PDPs) are where sales are made, so invest some time to get the basics of optimisation in place. Here’s a quick checklist:
- Descriptive title tag. Include as much information as you can whilst keeping title tags under 60 characters. For example, ‘Ralph Lauren Polo’ isn’t very descriptive, improve it by adding details such colour and other characteristics.
- Unique product description. Set your site apart from the competition with helpful, unique product information. Don’t use the manufacturer’s standard description.
- Out of stock strategy. Have a consistent plan, display in or out of stock status clearly and don’t remove or noindex pages where the lack of stock is temporary.
- Optimise images. Make sure images load fast by scaling appropriately and compress to reduce their size.
10. Focus resources on priority pages
The scale and complexity of ecommerce sites can make resourcing optimisation efforts a particular pinch point. To make the most of the resources you do have, identify the areas of the site where optimisation can have the biggest impact. This might be your best converting pages, categories where you have strong inventory or that are currently trending. Focusing on small sections of your site will enable you to make changes big enough to drive measurable results, even when you can’t ‘fix’ everything. Don’t try and ‘boil the ocean’.
Bonus tip 11! Scale with AI
Ecommerce sites tend to be large and complex, which presents its own challenge. Dealing with huge data sets and vast numbers of pages is enormously time consuming. This is where AI can be incredibly helpful. It allows you to deal with data speedily and at scale, so you can make data informed decisions, and never need to fall back on your ‘best guess’. Changes can be made to large numbers of pages in a fraction of the usual time, whilst the likelihood of human error is also reduced. For any large site AI should be an essential part of your toolkit.
Every website has idiosyncrasies, but get things right in the areas above and you’ll be well on your way to optimising your ecommerce site. Making data based, user focused choices will help you boost ranking positions and site traffic, whilst having a positive knock on effect on UX and conversions. Making just a few thoughtful changes to your site will put you in a great position to take advantage of the vast search opportunities available to ecommerce businesses.