E-Commerce SEO: Challenges and Solutions

e-commerce

My first few years of professional SEO experience was purely automotive e-commerce. It wasn’t until years later where I’d begin taking on SEO projects for other types of sites (local businesses, startups, etc) that I’d begin to understand how different and unique e-commerce SEO was in relation to other sites. The sheer number of factors and potential mousetraps is is astounding. Fortunately there is an answer for every problem.

The sheer number of pages

Whereas a local business or SaaS website might be a few pages (occasionally, a single page), e-commerce sites generally have thousands, sometimes millions of pages. What this means is that one small change can have resounding effects. This makes it even more important to correctly silo your pages and still make them crawlable.

Technical SEO

Perhaps the main difference here is the added importance of technical SEO. While it should never be ignored for any site, e-commerce sites (especially larger ones) require more effort and constant vigilance. Aside from the numerous pages, you have frequent updates/code pushes, site migrations, imports/exports, etc. You also generally have several cooks in the kitchen. The SEO team wants this, the marketing team wants that, 2 C-level executives want major changes yesterday, and the developers, constantly under the gun, are tearing their hair out in frustration (alternatively, that SaaS platform that promised the stars ends up underdelivering on its ability to accommodate certain changes). Add to all of this, the added factor of handling secure transactions and everything that entails (SSL certificate, allowing users to shop with Pay Pal if they choose, etc).

So what this means in practice is that you have old robots.txt overwrites or changes to the entire site’s headers that may not have been planned. Before you know it, the entire site is being blocked through a faulty robots.txt update, or a sitewide implementation of nofollows. Or perhaps that bot-blocking SaaS is also blocking googlebot and/or actual users.

You’ll want to constantly monitor your site. Free tools like Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools will report Googlebot and Bingbot activity and find snags the crawlers run into. Other tools like ahrefs allow you to monitor your site’s health and will update you as well. Desktop crawlers like A1 Website Analyzer and Screaming Frog SEO allow you to crawl sites and reports key SEO indicators (404 errors, missing or short Title or H1 tags, uncrawlable pages). For sites with too many pages for a desktop crawler to handle you can always use DeepCrawl.

On-Site SEO

E-commerce sites also provide a unique challenge in terms of content. Writing copy for hundreds of thousands of pages is cost prohibitive, so product pages are usually standard text provided by a manufacturer–the same text being used by every other e-commerce site carrying the same product. This makes it difficult to stand out (especially for newer sites, and smaller companies with less domain authority).

In addition to this, large e-commerce sites generally come with filters (automotive sites generally have a large set of vehicle-specific data, whereas apparel sites have to select for things like size, color and gender), pagination and search queries that create extra URLs which may or may not be worth allot crawl budget. These pages can use up crawler bandwidth and prevent some of your more important pages from being effectively crawled.

You’ll want to take account of which pages are currently duplicating other sites out there and begin replacing the canned text with original content. Start with the top of the navigation full (ie. category pages) and work your way down. If your site has 300,000 products, you’ll probably never deduplicate them all but this is where prioritization goes a long way.

Linking/Content Marketing

By default, e-commerce sites generally provide little in the way of linkbait. Well-known sites do benefit from natural contextual links from forum discussions and social media, but that’s little comfort if you’re a lesser-known company competing with large established companies who are benefiting from these links.

You’ll want to provide helpful content related to your industry. This will help connect you to users higher in the sales funnel process who may later come back and buy from your site. It will also increase your earned links and social signals (a person is more likely to share a page that provided great advice as opposed to merely trying to sell them something).

Large site migrations

Updates mean potential for disaster. It’s not uncommon for an update to inadvertently remove your 301 redirects, overwrite your robots.txt with an old faulty version that blocks the entire site, or revert to the days when your style sheets were entirely inline.

You’ll want to run some QA testing after these changes and be sure to know what to look for. This is also a good time to run site crawls with whatever crawler you have, and make sure to monitor your web analytics software for sudden changes.

Convincing C-level executives

A large e-commerce site often means a large company with many moving parts. This means not everyone will understand why it’s important to allot already-scarce time/resources to implementing some abstract changes. What does it matter how our URLs looks? A canonical link what? What’s wrong with duplicate content? Can you prove that 301 redirecting these 404 errors will make a difference?

This is where SEO begins to take on a more internal public relations role. As an SEO, it’s your job to convince people of varying web-savviness that your suggestions are worth diverting resources to. Suggestions with benefits that don’t feel tangible nor intuitive to those not already versed in SEO. No one needs to be convinced a broken shopping cart requires attention, but convincing someone of the importance of asynchronously loading your Javascript functions requires the patience, persuasiveness and a certain level of technical knowledge.

Keyword Research

The sheer numbers of categories and products can make it difficult to select an area of focus. Often you have to weigh search volume against competitiveness against profit margins against your site’s selection on a particular term (especially when it comes to head terms). Properly planning your keyword focus will require you to weigh various factors and set the right expectations.

Careful analysis via tools like Google Keyword Planner and SEM Rush will provide meaningful insights. Assuming the site has some history and rankings, you can use Google Search Console to find currently-missed opportunities. You can also silo your keywords into groups, like:

  • Branded keywords
  • Longtail keywords
  • Broad keywords
  • Informational keywords

Or whatever bucket makes sense to your tracking purposes.

For sites with a history of search traffic, Google Search Console is an invaluable tool. By finding out your biggest missed opportunities, you can quickly find areas that require your focus.

The future of E-Commerce SEO

Google has consistently moved towards favoring large, big-brand e-commerce sites. Traditional big name brick-and-mortar stores have moved online. What this means is that if you’re selling apparel or electronics, you are competing with Amazon as well as Wal-Mart, Target, in addition to other e-commerce powerhouses. This makes proper SEO (especially a strong outreach) highly important. Fortunately, with the right planning and implementation, it remains possible to compete with these sites.

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