E-commerce is big business. From established high street brands trying to play catch up with the digital revolution to homegrown cottage industries and startups hoping to make it big online, eCommerce has empowered both consumers and the myriad of online shops trying to gain their business.
And make no mistake it is a very crowded marketplace. Whether you’re opting for the dropshipping model to sell popular products, prefer a more traditional wholesale supply chain or are attempting to bring your family-run bricks and mortar business into the 21st century, eCommerce has allowed literally anyone to set up shop and sell their wares to the world.
In this guide, I’m going to take a deep dive into the often misunderstood world of Ecommerce SEO and offer up some practical advice to retail businesses both large and small looking to improve their online sales.
Why e-Commerce SEO Is So Important
The first thing to say about e-commerce SEO is that it’s probably the most important investment you’ll make as an online retailer. Let’s take the fact that 38% of all eCommerce traffic comes from search engines and 24% comes from organic search. For startup businesses with little to no brand presence, this is likely to be a lot higher in the early days.
The evidence is clear; ranking in the organic search engine results pages (SERPs) between positions 1 to 3 will deliver a massive click-through rate (CTR) of between 30% for position 1 to 10% for position 3. Further down the SERPs in position 9 CTR has dropped off to around 2%.
Unfortunately, the temptation for too many businesses is to adopt a crude short term ROI model, which naturally lends itself to investing heavily in pay per click search marketing (PPC). Whilst Google AdWords and Google Shopping will certainly bring in revenue, you’ll also pay for each click and, depending on how competitive your industry is, this can seriously eat into your bottom line. Organic will garner a lot more CTR than paid as well, with recent research from Smart Insights suggesting as much as 94% of clicks going to organic listings.
What’s more, investment in PPC is directly proportionate to click budget. So, remove or reduce it and your traffic will drop off a cliff if you’re reliant on PPC alone. Organic SEO doesn’t work like that because you’re not paying Google for clicks but telling it your site is the most relevant out there, for a given search term and that’s something that doesn’t go away overnight, even if you stop doing it.
A word of warning though; although organic SEO can often deliver fast results it should always be treated as a long term strategy that requires ongoing investment. Take your foot off the gas and you’ll eventually start dropping off these top positions for your key ‘money pages’, which can really hit your income if you’re reliant on organic search traffic.
Now we’ve established the importance of organic SEO in eCommerce, let’s take a look at how it’s done. There are a lot of similarities with any other SEO strategy here, but also some key differences.
e-Commerce Site Architecture
Site architecture is perhaps more important for e-commerce sites than it is for other sites and that’s because most online stores tend to sell a lot of products and therefore have a lot of pages. Intelligently structuring these pages from both a sitemap and a UX point of view is essential.
There are three important rules of thumb when thinking about site architecture:
- Always plan with scalability in mind.
- No page should be more than 3 clicks from your homepage.
- Your site should be easily navigable for humans as well as search engine.
Above is an example of efficient site architecture. It satisfies point one because it is easy to scale up, by simply adding more products, subcategories or categories. This is so important I cannot stress it enough. Complex architectures often involve moving things around and can be very time consuming with unpredictable results on rankings.
This architecture also satisfies point 2 in that all products are only 3 clicks away from the homepage, via the category and subcategory pages. Point 3 is satisfied as a result, simply because it’s a nice flat simple structure that is easy to browse through a simple navbar.
Keyword research is a vital element of any SEO strategy but in e-commerce it is of huge significance, as you are dealing with so many potential pages, it will give you a lot of insight into your industry as well as your online marketing strategy.
In eCommerce SEO, a lot of your keyword research will focus on very specific products, which may have low search volume but high CTR and conversion rates. This is because buyer intent on specific product searches like this is usually very high. The downside is that these pages may have very high competition, often from established players like Amazon, Etsy or eBay.
You’ll also need to identify the categories and possibly subcategories your products fall into (this will tie into your site architecture, such as arcade machines, here). These will often rank for more general terms which may carry much higher search volume and also a variety of long-tail search terms.
There are a number of free and paid tools out there to SE Ranking, SEMRush, Ubersuggest, Keyword IO and of course the ever-reliable Google Keyword Planner. Pretty much all of them will spit out tons of suggestions but whatever you use, you will need to take into account the following factors on each keyword:
- Search volume: This is the biggest indicator of a keyword’s potential to deliver traffic, but bear in mind it doesn’t guarantee how much of that search volume you will be able to tap into.
- Competition: This, combined with search volume will give you a picture of the potential of any given keyword, ranging from high competition with low search volume through to low competition and high search volume.
- Relevancy: Often overlooked entirely, relevancy is a key factor in selecting keywords. It’s all too easy to go down the rabbit hole and get lost in the data, so remember to bring it back to relevancy and ask yourself, is this something that my potential customers might type into the search bar of Google?
- Intent: Like relevancy, this isn’t something keyword tools will pick up on and requires common sense and an appreciation of your target consumer. Doing e-commerce SEO well means optimising for those words and phrases with high user intent to buy.
Go through your keywords and look for those that are relevant and sit within that perfect ‘goldilocks zone’ of good search volume and realistic competition. Despite the abundance of data, this is as much an art as it is a science. The more of an understanding of your consumers you have, the easier it will be to get it right.
All too often, we find people obsessing about link building and online shop owners are no different. It shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the incredible importance Google places on onsite content. Getting your on-page optimisation right can see your site quickly climb the SERPs before you’ve even written a single blog article or build a single backlink.
The lack of onsite copy, whether it’s on category pages or product pages, will seriously harm your chances of ranking those pages, however lovely the product pictures you put on them and however many backlinks you throw at them. Copy really is king when it comes to eCommerce SEO.
Here are some important things to remember when creating your onsite copy:
- Long-form copy: Probably the single biggest failing of e-commerce sites is thin content. Google likes substance, so even if you have copy on your category and product pages, bulking it out can work wonders.
- Inform as well as sell: Creating long-form copy can be difficult if you’re approaching your category pages from a purely sales point of view. Whilst you should champion your brand and its product offering, these are also the places to also inform your audience about what these products do and how they work.
- Quality copy: Google’s algorithm can understand your copy better than you think it can so if your copy is fluffed up, keyword-stuffed gibberish then don’t expect to rank. Make sure you’re writing relevant copy that is readable to humans.
- Don’t keyword stuff: Mentioned in the above point but worth reiterating in its own point. Do not stuff keywords on every line. Whilst you should use your keyword research to guide you, you should be able to weave your keywords naturally into the copy. If you’re forcing it, then you’re probably doing it wrong.
- Don’t duplicate: Another all too common mistake to make and when I say duplication here, I mean spun content as well. Google can see through this so cutting corners by duplicating copy won’t work. Keep it original. It might take a lot longer but it’ll be worth it.
It’s worth reiterating that onsite optimisation, whether it’s for an online store or any other website, is an ongoing process that requires constant adjustment, tweaking and measuring.
The first reason for this is that Google is constantly adjusting its algorithm, leading to your rankings going up but also down. It’s therefore important to realise that SEO can be a reactive process as well as a proactive one.
The second reason is that SEO does not exist in a vacuum so it’s highly likely that your competitors are also investing in SEO. Unless you are in a very uncompetitive industry, then reducing investment in it is ultimately giving them time to catch up and start pipping you to the top spots on key search terms.
Once you have got your homepage, category and product pages populated with amazing content, then you need to turn your attention to the blog. Blogs are traditionally optimised for long-tail keywords; that is search terms that tend to be more specific to a given problem, topic or theme.
Blog content, therefore, needs to target potential customers far higher up the purchasing funnel, at the awareness phase. These are people who might have a problem but do not yet know what products are out there to address it (or even if such a product exists). Conversely, blog articles might be aimed at existing customers, who might have engaged with your brand but want more information about your industry or niche.
There are two purposes to creating exemplary blog content…
The first is that you want it to rank for a number of related long-tail searches on that subject. Search volume might be low for these individual long-tail phrases but when taken together they can equate to a lot of really relevant traffic.
The second reason for creating regular blog content is that it will create pages on your site that are inherently easier to link to (more on that in a bit), allowing you to drive up overall site authority and with it the rankings of your product pages. It’s important then that you create internal links on your blog content back to your category pages (which in turn will pass this authority through to your product pages).
Blogs are important relevancy signals for Google then, but they are also vehicles for passing authority through your site.
Again, quality is absolutely paramount here. There is far more worth in creating a single well researched 1500 word blog article, replete with pictures, graphs, infographics and video than four or five poorly written 600-word blogs. The former is far more likely to rank in search, bring in genuine traffic and increase brand exposure; the latter is simply a false economy.
I’ve already mentioned that your onsite work may be enough to rank your web pages across a range of keywords but that doesn’t negate the need to build links to your content. Links from authoritative sites will boost the authority of the page being linked to but if that page is internally linking to related pages on your website backlinks to it will also boost the overall authority of your website. In other words, linking to deep pages (blog content, evergreen guides, etc) will help your overall authority and this is essential in order to start gaining real traction in the search results.
I could dedicate a whole article to link building and in fact, we already have done, so for now, here is a quick summary of some well-trodden whitehat link building methods:
- Guest blogging: Despite getting rinsed by spammers for years, guest blogging, when done well is still one of the best ways to build authority links to your own onsite blog content. Site authority is key here and I’m not just talking Moz’s domain and page authority here; genuine traffic is important too.
- Broken link building: This is the process of identifying links in other people’s content to pages that are now down and getting them to link to your content instead. It’s a slightly convoluted way of link building but if done well, can be very effective.
- Link placement: This is the practice of seeking out really good content and then asking the author/blog owner to link to your content. This can be a hard sale so your content needs to be inherently linkable and complementary to the content it’s being linked to from. One way of making this easier is to create some media like a video or infographic that the blog owner could use to enhance their own content.
- Link earning: Simply put this is letting your content do the talking so people just link to it naturally, without your approaching them first. There are two things that must be in place for this to happen. The first is that your content needs to be really really good and thus really really linkable. The second is that you need to have the brand presence, whether through the SERPs or social media, for your content to get enough exposure that it will start attracting links of its own accord.
E-commerce SEO is like any other SEO strategy in principle, but the nature of online shops predicates a very particular approach; one that can involve writing a lot of copy for a lot of category and product pages. This initial workload can seem laborious, which is why many businesses seem to think that link building will see them through. The truth is link building is only one part of a fully-fledged eCommerce SEO strategy and a method that is completely dependent on having solid website architecture, decent content on your category and product pages and really high-quality blog articles.
The large volume of copy required and the extent and depth of the keyword analysis involved, not to mention any structural changes to site architecture and technical SEO, means that optimising an eCommerce site isn’t a small investment, especially if you’re going to outsource it to an SEO agency. It is an essential investment though, as, without any existing brand presence, website traffic is likely to be your main source of income.
To use a bricks and mortar analogy, if your website is your shopfront, then think of SEO as how many people will wander past it every day. And, as they say, it’s all about location, location, location.
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