I'm not going to lie to you; an e-commerce website is one of the hardest areas of SEO there is. Even if you are lucky enough to get an uncommon niche, as soon as other people figure out the competition is low they are going to start vying for those top spots.
Add in those pesky affiliates (it really is a love/hate relationship, isn't it) and the fact that e-commerce is a bitch to build links for (don't let anyone lie to you and tell you different) and you are pretty much setting yourself up for an eye twitch when you sign on as an in-house or even freelance position with an e-commerce website.
My first position in search engine optimization was an e-commerce site. Since then I have done optimization for a number of different websites in a number of niches while maintaining my position with the first e-commerce company.
I'm still there and after all these years my eye still twitches on a daily basis. And whether it is a competitor or I am just searching around aimlessly looking at sites' code (yeah, I'm that big of a geek) I continue to see the same damn mistakes.
1. Using Manufacturer Descriptions
I get it. You want to showcase a bazillion products on your website and be the next Amazon. So you find every manufacturer on the planet in your niche that will do business with you and slap there inventory on your site. They provide you with a nice spreadsheet with product titles, descriptions and images so you can simply "set it and forget it".
Word for Word.
Exactly the same.
I mean, maybe I'm crazy, but this sounds like a duplicate content issue waiting to happen.
Remember, you are not the only website those vendors are doing business with and more than likely they are also copying and pasting those titles and descriptions on their website.
So, what do you do?
All e-commerce sites work the same (unless they are extremely lucky). Ninety percent of sales are going to come from only a few of your products. Your manufacturers know this. Instead of loading every product they offer, why not ask the manufacturers which items are their best sellers and only load those. This will allow you to create unique titles and descriptions, meaning less of a chance of duplicate content in the future.
2. Duplicate Content Issues Across Similar URLs
Another issue that plagues e-commerce websites is duplicate content caused by the same pages viewed in different ways. We want our customers to find our products. We also understand that different people search and navigate our websites differently and therefore want to allow them multiple ways to access the products.
For example, let's say we are selling MP3 players. We know that different customers search by brand, by size, by color, and of course, by price. In order to best serve our customer-base we offer a drop down that allows people to search by these options.
Unfortunately, when someone selects one of these options it adds dynamic qualifiers to the URL (i.e. awesomemp3website/mp3-players?ftg=323).
This creates a separate web page in the eyes of the search engines and in turn, duplicate content. The same concept applies to item-level pages where a single change, such as color, where the main content remains the same except for a single change.
So, what do you do?
Fortunately, search engines allow for the rel="canonical" tag, which lets site owners suggest (we don't "tell" search engines anything) which page is the native, or default page.
This is done by placing the rel="canonical" tag on pages pointing back to the default page in the <head> section of the web page.
Read more about implementing rel="canonical" on these two Search Engine People blogs:
**NOTE**The rel="canonical" tag can also be utilized across sites if your e-commerce company utilizes niche websites based on brands or product categories.
3. Poor Information Architecture
Let's say you sell blue widgets. If you managed a Wal-Mart supercenter you would probably place your blue widgets with all the other widget colors in the widget shelf of the thingamajig section. This would be in the what-zit aisle in the flingal-flaggin department.
Now, if I am going to Wal-Mart I probably wouldn't know this right off the bat so I would simply go find a customer service representative to point me in the right direction.
I'm going to let you in on a little secret.
Your e-commerce website is not Wal-Mart.
I know, right?
And potential customers – as well as search engines – don't act like customers at Wal-Mart. If you optimize an e-commerce website, you are looking at 5 clicks before they find that blue widget. Neither the customer nor the search engine is going to stick around that long.
So, what do you do?
If you know blue widgets are popular then you better be damn sure that they are easy to find from your home page (or any other popular page) on your website.
This is the basics of good information architecture. Figure out what the most important and popular pages on your e-commerce website are and make sure those pages are within two clicks of your home page, site map and other important pages on your website.
Your customers and your bottom line will thank you.
4. Heavy Web Pages From Legacy/unnecessary Code
This is one of the most overlooked areas of SEO, and also one of the most important to fix. If the most recent updates o Google have taught us anything it is that search engines care deeply about user experience (and so should you).
With this in mind, it is easy to understand why the SEs are taking page load times so seriously.
More often than not when I am looking at another e-commerce site's code it is littered with legacy code. Sometimes this code is commented out and sometimes it is just sitting there, looking all important when it is not.
Either way, this legacy or unnecessary code is on your website it is bogging down the page and making it fat and sluggish.
So, what do you do?
Simple. Get rid of it.
For some reason webmasters like to hold on to old code like my grandpa held on to his old TV Guides. It's not eccentric; it's just weird. Truth: Just like those TV Guides, old code is never going to be valuable, no matter how long you keep it around.
Put your website on a diet. If the code is not being used for anything, cut it.
5. Focusing On Traffic
Wait a minute? Did I just say that focusing on traffic is a mistake?
The days of SEOs (especially e-commerce SEOs) telling their bosses or clients that they increased their traffic by 60% are long gone (or they should be).
I don't care about traffic.
I care about "Qualified Traffic".
I want traffic that will convert and make my business money, and so should you. Who cares if I bring in a 100,000 visitors a month if only 100 of them actually take the action I want them to take (0.10% conversion rate)?
Give me 20,000 visitors and a 2% conversion rate instead (400 conversions).
So, what do you do?
Figure out which pages on your website are converting the best and which keywords are driving the most converting traffic, and FOCUS. I'm not saying completely forget about those high traffic pages, but if you have tested the crap out of them and they still aren't bringing you sales you are just throwing resources (and money) down the drain.
As I said at the beginning of the post (man that was a long time ago), e-commerce SEO can be a BIG headache. But it can also provide some of the best returns in the business. Unlike many service or not-for-profit websites, e-commerce allows us to attach actual value to our goals, meaning that we can know exactly what value our efforts are providing to the business.
Which is pretty awesome.
Jeff Loquist is the Search Marketing Manager at ShoppersChoice.com where he is in charge of all SEO and PPC efforts (really anything that brings traffic to their 29 websites). He is also the owner of Zen Search Marketing, a Baton Rouge SEO & Search Marketing company where he does these things for other, non-e-commerce websites. Outside of the marketing field he makes soap (yep…soap), and writes on his personal blog, Jeff Loquist dot com. Jeff also enjoys a good scotch, a fine cigar and great conversation…pretty much in that order.