Every business owner wants search visibility in search. Visibility means traffic and traffic means revenue. The question is, how do you achieve this? How do you get your category pages, product pages, help pages and top-level pages visible in search?
Below you’ll find a collection of detailed, in-depth tactics to optimise your e-commerce store. This is by no means an exhaustive list, not by a long shot! There’s a huge volume of tactics, tools and strategies you can apply; the below will help you get off to a strong start.
I’ve started methodically from the top and worked down. The list aims to provide you with an informative and usable guide to optimising your online store.
Think of your website’s URLs as its addresses. They should help your users find products and pages, then return to them at a later date. Many website admin systems (called Content Management Systems [CMS]) unfortunately generate unfriendly URLs on your website out of the box. Some automatically create them, whereas others allow you to choose the URL of each new page.
There is an argument that having a domain name containing your ‘hero phrase’ will give you an advantage. This is only partially true. My recommendation is not to worry about it. If you operate within a niche industry, thinking about a domain name that contains a similarly niche phrase may give you an advantage. However, if you sell a more broad level of products, just having a domain name that reflects your brand will be fine. The advantage this gives you in either case is minimal and not worth investing time into deep consideration.
You should instead take the time to think about how your domain name comes across to users and potential customers in all markets you will target.
If you’re selling into the UK, we recommend going for a .co.uk or other UK-orientated domain. With a country-targeted domain you’ll have an advantage over more international sellers and you’ll be able to target that specific country. For international sellers, you need a more top level domain (TLD) such as .com, but international SEO is for another guide.
As mentioned previously, some CMS automatically generate poor URL formats such as the one below in red:
These URLs make it hard for your users to return to the page or figure out what’s actually on it. Therefore, it makes it hard for search engines too. For most things in SEO, if you think about how it will impact your users, it will likely have the same impact on search engines.
You want friendly URLs, like the green example above. When thinking about page URLs, consider the following:
- Can I tell what’s on the page just from the URL?
- Is it easy to remember?
- Does it follow the structure of the website, categories and related products?
- Is it short, descriptive and to the point?
You may have noticed in the above example URL that ‘colour’ and ‘type’ appear in there. We’ll come onto this in more detail later in the guide but for now, I recommend avoiding dynamic URLs where possible. In the example above, the ideal format would be: www.your-brand.co.uk/brand-shirt-red. I’m sure you would agree this meets all the criteria in the bulleted questions above, making it a far better choice of URL.
Another common mistake to both domain names and page URLs is including an underscore or providing no spacing at all. Google says the same thing in its webmaster guidelines for URLs:
Consider using punctuation in your URLs. The URL http://www.example.com/green-dress.html is much more useful to us than http://www.example.com/greendress.html. We recommend that you use hyphens (-) instead of underscores (_) in your URLs.
The same can be said for having some punctuation in the URL too. Avoid closed words (as per the quote from Google above) and include a space using hyphens rather than underscores or excluding the space altogether.
A common problem with domain name acquisition is finding the right one. Many ‘good’ URLs are either in use or being sat on by someone. The only choice you may have is the non-hyphenated version such as ‘www.yourbrand.co.uk’. If this is the case, go with the no space version or find an alternative altogether.
You can always redirect similar domain names to the ‘primary’ version to help users who misspell your name reach the right destination. Ultimately, there are far more important aspects of your site than the domain name. Providing its not misguiding users then you’ll be fine (so a website with a domain www.buy-blue-widgets.co.uk is selling just red buckets, for example).
An important facet of URLs across your site is consistency. This means everything from structure to format and everything in between. It will make things difficult for users if it’s not.
Additionally, once your website grows, having mismatching URLs throughout your structure will make things very difficult and messy from an internal linking perspective.
Internal linking is arguably one of the most undervalued and overlooked aspects of search engine optimisation. The navigation and links to your website are one thing you have total control over. It’s much better to get this right from the start than to fight it once it’s evolved into a monster!
Here are some things to keep in mind:
- Folders or categories – keep them the same format.
- ‘Index.html’ pages and ‘default.php’ pages – either use them everywhere or nowhere.
- Trailing slashes on URLs – either use them on every URL or use them on none.
Independent product URLs
An independent product URL is exactly that; one that is not tied to any category page. This means the product part of the URL is directly following the main domain name, like the image below:
Many e-commerce Content Management Systems include this as default. The ideal scenario is to have independent URLs. The reason for this is duplication.
When a product URL is tied in to a category folder, what happens if you want to include that product in another category? You have to create it in that category too, right? Perhaps you don’t, perhaps your system simply generates another URL and uses the same product page. Either way, you’re creating a roadblock in terms of SEO.
Duplicate content isn’t good for SEO or users. Duplicate content can (depending on volume) trigger a penalty from Google and devalue that product, so it’s important to make sure you have as little duplication across your site as possible.
Having an independent product URL frees that product up to be listed in other categories too, allowing it to be free without duplication and without having multiple products (which also makes managing them much easier).
So in the case of independent product URLs, you may have a product listed in two categories, but when the user views that product, the page they visit is free of a category:
A tactic that closely relates to combating duplicate content is canonicalisation. If you haven’t heard of this before, it’s a method of showing two duplicate or similar pieces of content and adding a ‘tag’ to the page that effectively tells the search engines: “These are duplicate, please show this one as preference”.
What is a canonical tag?
A canonical tag is a small piece of code which sits behind the scenes on a page where users can’t see it. The format is:
<link rel=”canonical” href=”http://www.your-brand.co.uk/your-product/” />
These are pretty much always essential to e-commerce websites. More often than not most good e-commerce Content Management Systems will take care of these for you appropriately. However, many don’t and require them adding in.
There are several different places these will most likely need implementing if they’re not already: category pages, product pages and pagination.
Your category pages more than likely contain some sort of filtering. They probably also contain some sort of display options in terms of format and number of products on display.
All these types of URLs show basically the same content, just re-arranged. Therefore, it’s classed as similar or duplicate content. As already mentioned, removing duplicate content is important and the canonical tag achieves this.
Let’s look at an example using filtering. The below shows a category page filtered to show red shirts. It creates a new URL on completion of the filtering:
The original page still contains all the red shirts and the same on-page content, so you can understand why this is seen as duplicate or similar content. In order to fix this we need to identify the ‘canonical version’. This is simply the original or primary URL. Usually, it’s the URL that simply shows all the products without any filtering applied.
The canonical tag should be applied to all pages in the category and point to the ‘primary’ version of the page itself. This will ensure that all duplicate or variable URLs point back to the primary URL.
In turn, the page that should be returned in search results is the canonical version. Alongside this, Google will apply the authority that’s going to non-duplicate pages to the canonical version with this tag, to help that primary category page increase visibility and drive more traffic.
Because the world is full of different products, the way we present those varies considerably. Canonicals on product pages are good practice regardless (in fact it’s good practice to put them on all pages!) but specifically when you’re selling very similar products.
Products vary in many ways: colour, price, size and many others. This again presents a potential issue for duplication, especially if there are different individual URLs for each type of the same product, for example a t-shirt with separate URLs for colour. This is actually quite common in many e-commerce platforms and is worth checking.
In this instance you need to check that a canonical tag goes back to the original or primary product URL.
However, what if you have five colours and no ‘primary URL’? We recommend reviewing revenue, impressions in search, backlinks and traffic to those five pages, to determine which one should act as your canonical version of the URL. See the example below:
One other aspect of canonicalisation and duplicate content are the paginated sections of your e-commerce site. Paginated pages are those that have sequential pages, a good example being your category pages. Unless you’re showing ‘view all’ from the get go or have limited products, you’ll have pagination here.
The same applies as to the filters on your pages. Every time you ‘change page’ the content is very similar. The only thing on the page that changes is the list of products. With this in mind, Google provided a way of coding your pages to show that there is a relationship between them, and enabling users to access them. Finally, pagination canonicalisation allows links to your deeper pages of the paginated series to be linked back to the first page, enabling your parent page (or page one) to become more authoritative.
This is done by adding some code to your product pages. Google provides a guide on how to do this.
Finally, another important aspect you need to consider is the ‘view-all’ option. According to Google’s own studies, users prefer to see everything in one go rather than having to click through pages. To do this you apply a canonical tag onto all the sequential pages. Instructions on doing this are also in the link above.
E-commerce meta data
Meta data can often get overlooked, or sometimes (at the other end of the scale) overused, through keyword stuffing. This is often the first aspect of your page a user will see; when potential buyers do a search in an engine like Google. Maximising the opportunities that these tags offer will help get that click from search result page to product page and possibly purchase.
Your title tags need to be at or below 60 characters. This way they’ll be displayed properly in search results without being truncated. If they become truncated, you’ll be missing an opportunity to get the full impact this piece of text offers.
Think about words and phrases your prospects will use to find your product. Include the name of the product, brands which are relevant and a USP (unique selling point). This could be your price, delivery, an additional service you provide or something else altogether. Remember to look at what competitors are doing – what are they missing or not mentioning? What problems are searchers looking for when this product could appear? How can you use this information in the title tag to pull in that click?
Again, it’s important to maintain a specific length here, which this time is under 150 characters. If not you’ll suffer from truncation and won’t get your full message across to the potential buyer, missing that click through to your product page.
This is another opportunity to expand on the title tag. The meta description is your opportunity to provide more unique selling points and give the user more reasons to click.
Both the meta description and title tag should be editable via your admin system. The platform will determine on what these fields are called. The best idea is to take a product and test if you’re unsure.
Imagery is responsible for so many things in e-commerce it really should be near the top of any good digital marketing guide. Whilst images provide an immense (and often underused) selling tool on the product page itself, they’re one of the biggest contributors to slow page speeds – which also impacts usability and SEO. Below are three core, technical SEO areas you can take advantage of to get the most out of your product images.
“ALT” stands for “alternate” text. It’s basically what replaces an image if, for whatever reason, it cannot be rendered in a browser. There’s lots of reasons why this might be, but the important point to note is you need to fill the gap. It provides a key phrase inclusion opportunity and helps usability, which search engines like.
Google provided some guidelines on just how important it is. Like many things, if it’s important to Google than it’s important to SEO and it’s highly recommended. As Google suggests, make sure they’re descriptive, don’t just have your keywords in mind.
This is probably the single most missed SEO opportunity. Although it’s just a very small piece of what is a much bigger pie, optimising your filenames will help the page’s search visibility. Rather than having an image with a standard or default filename, be descriptive with them. This also presents another opportunity to include important words and phrases:
Whether you can edit these (and how easy the process is) will depend on your e-commerce platform. It’s worth investigating and finding out, though. Remember to edit each image on the website. This doesn’t just include product images (although for the purposes of this guide they’re being considered the most important), but all images used on your site.
The file size of your image is important for two reasons: they impact page load times and usability. Optimising the size of your product images before uploading them will greatly help page speed. Pages that load quickly will keep users happy, and therefore keep search engines happy too. Furthermore, page speed is a ranking factor for Google, so it’s another advantage to be gained through SEO for your e-commerce site.
Many CMS platforms automatically optimise imagery, but it’s prudent to check whether yours is the same. There are many tools available online to help with this process and you may even be able to add a plugin into your current platform to handle this for you. However, here are some guidelines:
- Optimise the image (and filename) before uploading to the site.
- Make sure the image is dimensions are appropriate for the place in which it will go. Don’t upload an image with dimensions of over 2000 pixels when the ‘hole’ it’s filling is just 800 pixels.
- Many image optimisation programs let you adjust the quality settings to optimise images. 80% is plenty in terms of quality for web use and will dramatically reduce image file size.
As previously mentioned, how quickly the pages of your e-commerce site load will not only improve your visibility in search but can impact your revenue too.
If your pages take too long to load, users will simply bounce away and find somewhere else to buy the product. It’s in your revenue interests to make sure page load times are down and well-optimised.
Tools to check
There are lots of tools available to test page speed load times, but these three are recommended:
Google PageSpeed Insights – this is a great, straightforward tool which tells you in terms of a score how fast your page is for desktop and mobile. It’s important to asses both. You simply add in your URL and Google does the work for you. It also provides a list of issues and how to address them.
GTMetrix – Here is an independent tool that, again, breaks down page speed load times. Simply add in the URL and it will run a test. On completion, GTMetrix will provide a breakdown of what it found in terms of loads times for each component and provide solutions on how to fix the issues. It also provides a YSlow score, which is a contributing factor for how Google calculates page speeds.
Pingdom – This tool is more technical than the previous two. It provides a more structured and granular breakdown of the different elements on each page and how fast they load. This enables you to isolate more specific problem areas that may be more to do with your server than the website or elements on it. It doesn’t provide solutions but, as mentioned, it does provide a larger breakdown in more granular detail.
Do you want more SEO tools?
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Structured data is code that can be placed onto your website to help search engines identify the purpose and type of content on the page. There are lots of types of schema (of which more details can be found here) but for e-commerce websites and product pages there are two things you should try to include: product mark-up and review mark-up. The review mark-up will potentially add more information to the ranking result on Google search results pages, which in turn may help increase your click-through to earn more traffic.
Both the product schema and review schema for products can be rolled into one set. The instructions for implementation can be found on Google’s website. Once implemented, they can look something like this in search results:
Compare this to how your competitors are showing their results. It could give you a good advantage in terms of search visibility for product pages.
Navigation and internal links are a core part of your website. Without them, users and search engines are going to have a hard time navigating, crawling and finding pages on your site. It’s also something that, with time, can become incredibly messy and complicated. Getting a hold on your internal linking and taking control of it will really help progress your e-commerce site in the future and make other tasks like upgrading your site much easier.
- Your internal navigation should be visible and consistent on every page. Don’t change the navigation depending on where the user is. Keep things simple and easy to find. You need to be able to get users from the home page to products in as few clicks as possible.
- If you have a blog that you use regularly (good stuff!) then remember to link relevant phrases back to products. Not only does this have obvious commercial value, it helps from a search perspective too, adding weight and context to those product pages. However, it’s important not to go linking the same keyword or phrase to that page from every available opportunity. This is a spamming tactic that will get you penalised. Use logic and think: ‘will this link help the user?’ If the answer is ‘yes’, then it should be included. If you’re linking for the sake of it, or purely because it’s a relevant keyword, I would advise you to stop.
- Be clever and strategic with regards to your internal linking. Take into account seasonality; is there a particular time of the year or event where business increases for a particular product or line? Promote offers, discounts and suchlike by using internal linking from the top of category pages, checkout pages and other key landing pages, to help drive page authority and sales.
All of these tips make life easier for search engines and users to trying to find your products. But not everything is as simple. The more technical parts of e-commerce SEO require advanced knowledge, experience and time to implement. At Vertical Leap, we use a bespoke prescriptive marketing platform that automates the repetitive and time consuming SEO tasks, allowing our experts to do the work that gets you the results you need.