There’s no question ecommerce has changed the landscape of traditional retail forever. To this day, it continues to evolve and is more competitive than ever thanks to the likes of Amazon; so much so that even global traditional retailers are struggling to find success online.
Ecommerce SEO is no different as optimisation and rankings are increasingly critical to performance. In search results, there are now up to four ads which push down organic results, meaning that it’s more important than ever to rank in the top three to garner any clicks. On mobile, as more and more consumers feel comfortable making purchases on their phones, paid search ads squeeze organic results to few results and almost never more than five results on the first page.
On top of that, there are also a number of search algorithm updates that sites now need to comply with, particularly relevant to ecommerce. These include newer signals such as the page speed ranking factor and penalties for intrusive interstitials (aka “popups”), and slightly older but highly relevant signals such as mobile-friendliness and HTTPS compliance ranking factors. Not being in compliance will result in poor rankings or even penalties.
So what should be on your SEO checklist?
While some tactics on this list have been around for a decade or more, all have found new importance due to evolving search behaviours and recent algorithmic changes. This checklist details the most effective and actionable SEO tactics for ecommerce in 2018: (Use the links to jump to each section)
- Understand search behaviour
- Optimise SEO tags
- Don’t underestimate images
- Improve category pages
- Review faceted navigation
- Start a blog
- Audit your site
1. Understand search behaviour
It’s critical to know not just what someone is searching for, but why someone is searching, i.e. search intent. Plug that intent into the right content on your site and you have the proper equation for conversion.
Getting better acquainted with how your customers are searching helps you to better understand your customers. Using search behaviours, patterns, and trends, you are able to match customer needs to your products or services.
There are two core types of search intent: Informational & Transactional.
- Informational keywords – searches to answer questions, get directions, or learn about something
- Transactional keywords – searches to make a purchase or get professional services
Transactional keywords are of course the most likely to drive sales, like “buy skateboard trainers” or “skate shoes sale”, and therefore should be our key focus. However, informational keywords can have value capturing users at the beginning of their buyer’s journey using terms like “how to lace skate shoes” or “what are the best skate shoes”, which can be used for informational blog posts (former keyword) or a comparison guide (latter keyword) to funnel users into your ecommerce environment.
How to apply search intent
First, we need to perform keyword research to identify all the terms people are using to search for your content.
Google’s keyword tool is still my preferred method for keyword research. Remember that strong relevance combined with significant search volume is always a winning combination for selecting keywords.
Next, we will perform a keyword mapping exercise, defined as the process of utilising keyword research to apply target keywords to each page. Keywords are selected by aligning a page’s subject matter with user search intent and sizeable search opportunities.
This process reveals how people are searching for your brand and product offering, while highlighting customer journeys through their search behaviour. It also reveals where your keywords overlap and identifies gaps in your content, which are great opportunities to create unique content to capture those searchers and convert them into customers.
2. Optimise SEO tags
Leveraging the above keyword mapping, we now know which keywords to optimise our pages for. Naturally, we’ll want to get these keywords into our SEO tags. In order to keep this post from becoming a novella, we’ll define SEO tags to consist of the page title and meta description. These prominently display in search results and are used by search engines to understand the content of a page. Let’s take a closer look at each tag:
Critical SEO element that not only has a direct influence on a page’s rankings for target keywords, but also helps encourage users to click your search result over the search results of your competition.
Best practices for page title optimisation:
- Summarise the page’s subject matter in a succinct phrase which includes the primary keyword.
- Only include highly relevant terms and avoid “stuffing” keywords in the title – this can have a negative effect.
- Needs to be unique to each page.
- Ideally not longer than 60 characters in length to avoid truncation in search results.
Valuable SEO element which has less influence on page rankings, but instead provides an opportunity to differentiate your brand from the other results and encourages users to click your result over the competition through the use of a clear call-to-action.
Best practices for meta description optimisation:
- Further summarises the page, including the value proposition, written similar to ad copy.
- Include secondary target keyword if available, and if not, include the primary target keyword; matched search words are bolded in search results, which can help click-through-rate by making your result stand out.
- Include a clear call-to-action, preferably at the end of the element.
- Needs to be unique to each page.
- Google recently expanded allocated length from around 150 characters to roughly 320 characters.
Despite how valuable and highly visible these SEO tags are, many sites do not optimise them effectively, which hinders their ranking ability and SEO performance.
So what happens when you don’t optimise your SEO tags? Basically it’s like letting a robot write ad copy for you. Many sites fall victim to this, especially for deeper category and product pages, exactly where your customers are closest to purchase.
Let’s use, as an example, the world-famous Harris Tweed. In the below search snippet, the Harris Tweed site has left the meta description field blank, which then is populated by Google. This results in a meta description that’s “written” by Googlebot, who scrapes content off the page to display something in that missing field.
Additionally, the existing page title reads poorly and could use some help, so we’ve fictitiously revised Harris Tweed’s search result below. We’ve updated the page title to include “official” and “shop” to entice users to click, but they also serve as keyword combinations to help outrank other Harris Tweed resellers. We’ve updated the meta description to include a value proposition and a clear call-to-action. The value proposition consists of what you can expect to find on their website and the types of products they offer. The call-to-action includes a free shipping offer that will hopefully entice users to click their result over other retailers.
3. Don’t underestimate images
Image search is massive. According to Moz, 1 in 3 searches in Google are now image searches. By not optimising your images, you may be missing out on a huge opportunity.
Users searching for “gold velvet sofas” get this image pack as the #1 organic result, meaning images are out-ranking all other content:
Users are increasing using image search to shop for products. But users finding your products through image search isn’t the only benefit. Images also help search engines better understand a page’s content, so the benefit is two-fold.
So how do we optimise product images so they add value to our product pages and rank highly in image search? Utilising alt text attributes and an optimal file-naming convention are essential to image search performance.
Image alt text attributes & file-naming convention
Image alt text attributes are used by search engines to “read” an image, but also provide an opportunity for keyword usage. Since search engines still can’t properly see images (yet), they rely on the alt text to understand what an image is. Also note, because the alt text attribute is used by screen readers for accessibility, EU web standards for accessibility require this field to be populated and sites can face fines for non-compliance.
In the below example, Sterling Furniture is missing the alt text attribute and has an unreadable filename:
Best practices for image optimisation:
- Alt text should be considered a requirement, both for accessibility and SEO.
- Alt text should succinctly describe the image using natural language, roughly 3-5 words in length.
- Keywords in alt text should be used in cases where appropriate and avoid spamming images with keywords, which can have a negative impact.
- File-naming convention should include descriptive terms and not just nonsense alphanumeric values.
4. Improve category pages
Category pages on ecommerce sites are often the most neglected pages, however typically carry the greatest amount of search volume.
In most cases, specific products naturally have less search volume than their broader parent category. For instance, the product “5 yard kilt” only has 50 monthly searches in the UK according to Google, whereas the category for this kilt, “tweed kilt,” has 210 monthly UK searches, and one more level up, “kilts,” has 14,800 monthly UK searches.
So how do we get our category pages to rank for these high-volume keywords? Enlist these best practices for category pages:
To build on the prior example, this category page by Kilt Society is very nice to look at with all its beautiful kilts, and uses a clean static URL, but unfortunately the page has absolutely no content. All the text on the page is pointing at other pages, meaning that content belongs to those destination pages and not to this page. It’s no surprise that this page is not ranking well for target keywords.
5. Review faceted navigation
To follow or nofollow? That is a key question when it comes to faceted navigation. While this may get a bit technical, the strategic approach is quite simple. But first, let’s define faceted navigation.
Facets on category pages are used to filter content, such as by price, colour, style, brand, and so on. Many facet combinations are valuable from a search perspective, while others can cause over-indexation and even present duplicate content risks. Limiting what search engines can crawl and index makes for a much more optimal environment for both bots and humans.
The key approach for knowing how to treat your facets is to align the facet combinations with search behaviour, i.e. ensure there’s search volume. For example, let’s use the footwear retailer schuh. They have a page for “Adidas Trainers” (135,000 UK searches/month) and a page for “Adidas Trainers Sale” (9,900 UK searches/month). However, they do not have a page for “Men’s Adidas Trainers” (40,500 UK searches/month) or “Men’s Adidas Trainers Sale” (4,400 UK searches/month). While the search volume is collectively lower, there’s very significant opportunity with these two search terms, and their current configuration prevents them from being able to rank above the fold for both terms.
If we look at their facets on the Adidas category page, we are able to select “Men’s Trainers” and “Sale Product Only,” however this combined facet page is not indexable. The canonical link element points at the root Adidas page.
Without getting too technical, there are a number of ways to allow indexation. One way is to have facets you want indexed make the canonical link element behave differently, and those facets you don’t want indexed can canonicalise and be tagged with “nofollow” link attributes to prevent indexation and wasted crawl budget. Alternately, you can design your site to generate static URLs for valuable facets or facet combinations. This is typically more challenging to do, but avoids usage of parameters which are more prone to indexation issues and are frankly ugly to users.
Another quick illustration would be to use our earlier example of Sterling Furniture. There are 1,600 searches for “red leather sofa” so in this case you may want to allow the combination of “red” and “leather” facets on your Sofa category page to be visible and indexable to search engines. However, you will likely want to limit indexation of combinations beyond one or two facets, especially if have many facets and products. “Three-seat red leather sofabed on sale under £500” combines six facets and of course has no search volume.
So to recap, while facet configuration varies greatly, facets can result in wasted crawl budget, rankings hindrance, internal competition, and visibility issues. Highly recommend taking a very close look at your facets, with your keyword map in hand.
6. Start a blog
Blogging is a great way to expand your site’s ability to target broader and non-transactional keywords to capture more traffic. We’ve written about this subject recently so I’ll keep this section fairly brief, but please don’t think that’s an indicator of the significance of this tactic. Blogging is a powerful way to attract new customers and increase the keyword reach of your site’s (often restricted) footprint.
If you’re already blogging, consider blogging more, but target your content around keywords. In other words, use keyword research to fuel your content marketing efforts. Often, optimisation begins after the content is already created, however it’s much more effective for SEO to start with a keyword and build your topic around that. For instance, if you’re a garden retailer like Dobbies, then you might want to write about “How to Build a Raised Garden Bed” or “How to Choose the Right Grass for your Yard,” both of which have search volume, and in this example, both are products that you sell. This method captures searchers when they are looking for information, but who are close to the purchase consideration phase, meaning that you already have them in your funnel when they are ready to buy.
Informational keywords often capture users at the beginning of their buyer’s journey and then funnel users into your ecommerce environment. For example, Schuh’s blog has posts that are targeted directly at informational keywords, like this rich post on “How to Clean Trainers,” which has 880 searches per month in the UK.
7. Audit your site
You can’t expect to do it all yourself. A technical SEO audit can uncover key issues that are preventing visibility or causing over-indexation leading to cannibalisation and wasted crawl budget. Often, the causes and solutions to these issues are simple fixes that can have a significant impact on your performance in natural search.
There are a number of free tools out there to audit your site, however the vast majority are automated and not customised to your site. Instead we recommend having an actual person, preferably an SEO specialist, review your site.
How about letting us take a look for you? Get a no-obligation free SEO audit here.
What’s on your list?
How many boxes did you tick on this SEO checklist? Which of these tactics do you plan to enlist in 2018? Leave a comment below to keep the conversation going or get in touch to learn more about our SEO services.