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How to Use SEO to Optimise eCommerce Business Growth

Sam Hurley from NovosSam Hurley in SEO

20th September, 2020

SEO Strategy for eCommerce Businesses

It still blows my mind how many small and medium-sized eCommerce businesses don’t have an SEO strategy. Yes, social media and other paid channels will get you customers quickly, but what about sustainability? The revenue being generated by relying exclusively on paid channels will vanish the moment you stop spending. A solid SEO strategy, on the other hand, will lead to a consistent growth in revenue for years to come.

So why don’t people invest in SEO during the early stages of growth? From my experience I’ve come to realise it’s for the following reasons:

👀 Awareness: Lack of experience or awareness that optimising SEO can help them grow

🤔 Short term thinking: eCom brands are naturally short term thinking and report daily on performance and targets – SEO is a long term game.

📈 ROI: Harder to measure a direct ROI vs paid channels. When in truth, if done right, SEO is the best channel for ROI over a 6-12 month period.

SEO is an investment — the sooner you invest the bigger benefits you will see 6-12 months down the road.

An Analogy Of SEO Consultancy vs Personal Training

My first agency owner compared it to getting a personal trainer (PT):

PT: You go to the gym and you will get fitter, however, a PT can help to accelerate that and make sure you are getting a full work out and not neglecting activities you dislike.

SEO: In a similar way, if you are investing in marketing and brand building your SEO traffic will grow naturally (which is why it’s called organic), however, just like a PT an SEO consultant can help accelerate that growth.

PT: An overlooked part of personal training is how the trainer will also help you to limit injuries which can cause long term negative restraints on your body.

SEO: Again in a similar way, SEOs are there to make sure you do not make changes to your site that will lose your existing traffic (Made.com did this before I joined and lost over £100k a month – more on this later).

The aim of this post is to raise awareness of some practices you can be implementing now to help scale your SEO over the long run.

This post will focus on WHAT the processes are and WHY they are important for SEO and your business’ growth. The processes I will be focusing on are:

  • Site architecture
  • Product naming conventions
  • Out of stock management
  • New product launches
  • Landing page management
  • A/B testing
  • International set up & opportunity

Site architecture

What needs to be considered?

At the bare basics of an eCommerce site set up you need to make sure that the pages on your site are:

  1. Targeting the highest volume and/or the most relevant terms.
  2. Ensuring internal linking is set up in a way to push value and attention to the most commercially valuable pages.
  3. No unnecessary pages are being indexed by Google.

Why does this impact SEO?

The site architecture is the fundamentals of an SEO strategy, you can’t grow or scale SEO traffic if the architecture is wrong.

  1. Site architecture: If targeting is off your site won’t be appearing in Google’s results for the terms your potential customers are searching for.
  2. Internal linking: If your internal linking is over linking to your ‘about us’ page or ‘terms and conditions’ then you are passing any external SEO value to these pages which is wasted, as they will not rank for any important, competitive non-brand terms.
  3. Unnecessary pages: Typically with platforms like Magento you will get tons of parameters that get indexed by Google, this creates mass duplication. In addition to this, Google only has a finite amount of time on your site, therefore, you do not want them to be wasting this time on parameter pages that have 0 business value.

Here are 2 examples from client sites I’ve worked with. 

For Patch plants, the targeting of their PDPs (Product Detail Pages) allows them to scale their targeting and ensures they are ranking for the most relevant brand and non-brand terms:

“Susie” = the brand name for repeat searchers.

“Snake Plant” = the main non-brand term that is the core targeting of this page for Google (the H1 in the code).

“Sansevieria Kirkii” = the main Latin term for plant enthusiasts and is in the PDP SEO title tags as a secondary keyword to target (as it’s not as important as Snake Plant).

I also targeted all other related Latin terms in the page copy to ensure the page can rank for as many related terms as possible.

Speaking of site architecture and internal linking improvements you can make to your site for scale, I must also mention the importance of breadcrumbs. One of the biggest wins I had at Made.com was implementing product page breadcrumbs like below:

Made naturally get a ton of backlinks to their PDPs (as they get featured A LOT by publishers and bloggers). These breadcrumbs essentially pass this backlink value up to the Subcategory (dining chair) and (chairs) which are attempting to rank for considerably more competitive keywords than this PDP, so need as much SEO value as possible.These also help Google to understand that this product lives in Dining Chairs, and Dining Chairs lives within Chairs, so Google will get a better understanding of the hierarchy and architecture of the site.

Product naming conventions

What needs to be considered?

Similar to the example above, the product naming process would involve ensuring that your products are named correctly so they rank for the most relevant terms.

Typically product names are based on internal preference, however, you can use SEO keyword research to generate a data-driven product naming convention taking into account which attribute has the highest search volume and interest.

Why does this impact SEO?

This has a 2 fold impact:

  1. Your PDPs will have a higher likelihood of acquiring more traffic if they are targeting better terms.
  2. These product names are then brought onto your PLP listing page feed, meaning the PLP is able to rank for additional terms too.

Examples…

I’ve already shown the example of the Patch plants PDP targeting based on their product names.

For Made.com I worked closely with the buyers to understand each product’s attributes, then used this to create product naming conventions based on search demand and conversion rate. A very basic example is the names for ‘rugs’ used to be very specific e.g. 200x300cm but didn’t mention the term ‘large’ or ‘small’ which is how people search e.g.

The successful naming convention was:

Colour – Product – Fabric – Type – Pattern – Size (if large) – Collection name

This is also in priority order in terms of the highest search volume to the lowest.

Out-of-stock management

What needs to be considered?

Products will always go out of stock, the rate of which will vary considerably by the business. More often than not eCom brands I work with neglect a process for out of stock management.

Why does this impact SEO?

Again this varies considerably by business, over a period of a few months not having a process may have very little impact, however, when this builds up over months and years you end up with tons of junk / non-valuable pages in the index.

The usual process involves out-of-stock pages just leaving the website and not being linked to anywhere for users. However, if Google has crawled these before they will just stay in the index for a long period of time – if they are not removed from the site map they will continue to be crawled again wasting valuable Google time. If these pages leave the site with no internal links they become ‘orphan pages’ which are often identified and cleaned up by SEOs.

This again has a 2 fold impact:

  1. If these PDPs have backlinks to them (often the case for eCom brands) this SEO value is lost as the pages are ‘orphaned’ so no value is being passed to the main pages on the site.
  2. As mentioned above, this also creates a lot of junk in Google’s index. If the developers are simply removing them from the site then the likelihood is they are still in the site map.

Out-of-stock Management Template

This process really does vary for each business’ unique offering and supply chain. A simple template to use would be:

  • Define a product as “out of stock” meaning it will come back in stock in the future.
  • Define products as “redundant” these are products you will never sell again and should therefore clean up from the site.
  • Out-of-stock products should just be a typical process where you add an email capture to the PDP instead of a checkout button e.g. “we’ll notify you when it’s back in stock”.
  • For redundant products, we’d usually implement a redirect to the subcategory or category defined in the breadcrumbs. This redirect should kick in +5 days after your return period e.g. if it’s 30 days then redirect works after 35 days of this being marked as redundant.

Note: If you have a tiny product catalogue you can just do this manually to the most relevant product but if you have thousands of products you will need an automated solution like above.

Example:The most “extreme” example I’ve implemented of this is for Beyond Retro. As they are a vintage brand each PDP is only in stock once and therefore every PDP URL will be “redundant” once sold.Pretty mad right?!Working with their devs I created a script to automate the above process for every product page that was sold.

Safe to say I maxed out the Shopify redirect limit so had to update the script!

New product launches 

What needs to be considered?

When launching a new product range the first few months are very much a proof of concept and the new range will be judged heavily on performance. To make sure the new range gets as much benefit as possible you will want to ensure all marketing channels are involved pre, during and post-launch. This includes SEO.

Why does this impact SEO?

When the new range is released you will want to make sure you are doing the following to ensure you get as much SEO benefit as soon as possible:

  1. Ensure the products are named correctly so you are capitalising on the right keywords.
  2. Writing the best how-to and help guides around the new release to show Google you are helping potential customers, this content also helps you to rank for longer tail keywords.
  3. Press releases are in place ahead of launch as it can be a quick win to getting good quality backlinks to the site that can benefit the overall domain too, not just the new products.

Landing page management

What needs to be considered?

One of the big benefits of CMS platforms like Magento and Shopify is the fact that marketing can create pages ad hoc when they need them without the need of developers and minimal design input.

However, this siloed ownership always creates a big SEO headache…

Why does this impact SEO?

I’ve worked with over 100 eCommerce brands and have yet to work with a client that has a process in place for closing down these marketing CMS pages.

In the short term, this makes zero impact on your SEO however over time these build up. When I joined Made.com these pages had been neglected for over 5 years and as a result, there were 1.4k pages in Magento that were still live, still in the sitemap and guess what? Still crawled by Google regularly.

The problem is some of these actually do work well for SEO but 80% of them will be junk and a waste of valuable Google time. As a result, I’d recommend doing monthly reviews with all of the relevant teams involved to ensure these pages are closed down and redirected correctly.

I typically recommend this process:

  • Gather a list of all live pages that month for a one-off email or other marketing campaigns.
  • Check the performance of these pages in GA and GSC for SEO potential.
  • If these pages have 0 value then 301 redirect them to a relevant page (worst case scenario the homepage).
  • If these pages have value then start to look at different tactics to boost them and gain SEO value e.g. additional internal linking or blog creation around the page to satisfy the overall topic.

A/B Testing 

What needs to be considered?

A/B testing is so important to grow eCommerce performance and we’re big fans. Even Google is, they actually encourage you to be testing your site as it shows you are looking to continuously improve the experience for customers. However, you need to make sure you are doing it in the right way…

Why does this impact SEO?

A/B testing on its own using a tool like VWO, Google optimise etc work perfectly fine for SEO. However, what you should never do is use forced redirects between 2 different URLs which is a scenario often proposed by a product manager e.g. creating /home and /home-2 and sending 50% of traffic to one and 50% to the other.

The SEO challenge, however, is Google has deemed URL-1 to be your best page to rank for a certain non-brand keyword. If you start forcing 50% of these visitors to URL-2 that Google hasn’t deemed to be as ‘worthy to rank’ then the likelihood is you’ll end up with a page penalty, which is exactly what happened just before I joined Made.com…

Around 2-3 months before I joined Made.com the product owners were implementing redirect a/b testing between the 2 URLs:

URL 1 was the main ranking URL for the term “sofas”, at the time Made was ranking 3rd for this term and was a massive money driver for SEO. It’s by far one of the biggest and most relevant terms for Made.com’s SEO (as it would be for any furniture brand).

The forcing of users from URL 1 to URL 2 caused Google to give a ‘page penalty’ and drop both URLs from the index resulting in huge loss to revenue.

This is probably the part of SEO that doesn’t get highlighted enough, a big part of the job is ‘fire battling’ to ensure changes made to the website will not annoy Google and cause massive impacts to the business.

International set up & opportunity 

What needs to be considered?

There are 2 parts you need to consider here:

  1. If you are looking to expand into new markets and are not sure where to start, you can use SEO data to understand which market has the highest demand for your products, which is the least competitive and then assuming a similar AOV and CVR to your existing market you’d be able to forecast an ROI or opportunity analysis for expanding to that market. This is something I do for clients regularly.
  2. The second point is on the set up of your store and how to tell Google which page is best for which market.

Why does this impact SEO?

The set up of your store is essential for targeting in different Google search engines. For example, if you are launching into France you will want your pages to rank in Google.fr.

While it’s perfectly normal for a .co.uk or .com domain to rank in Google.fr – it is highly unlikely you will see a .co.uk rank for French terms. Why? Because the page isn’t in French.

Product managers may try to argue that you can use Shopify or Magento plugins to translate your content for French readers. However, Google will not be able to read this and if it can you better be concerned as to how Google is reading the translated language vs your actual store language.

As a solution, you will want to set up localised folders like /fr/ or /de/ for the local markets.

Now there is so much more to deciding the best setup for SEO and non SEO reasons when it comes to international SEO. To fully understand it you should read our International SEO Best Practice Guide

Example

This is also the case for English markets, ere Farfetch are able to target localised USA terms as they have a dedicated USA store.

Final Thoughts

As mentioned at the start, the aim of this post was to raise awareness of the different tactics that really need to be implemented to scale the SEO traffic of eCommerce brands.

It’s a channel that is often neglected at smaller startups for the various reasons I’ve mentioned above. Also, the main reason we set up NOVOS was to ensure that smaller, fast-growing businesses were getting the support they needed as they were scaling.

Ultimately, it is about sustainability — creating a business that isn’t solely reliant on advertising to compete as we all know that just gets more and more expensive every year!

Sam Hurley from Novos
Article by Sam Hurley
Sam is the co-founder of NOVOS. With nearly a decade-long experience in organic search, Sam has helped many eCom brands grow. His area of expertise includes SEO strategy, Magento, international SEO, and headless CMS with Javascript.

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