It’s clear that retail ecommerce sites provide one of the most measurable sources of SEO benefits available. If SEO projects lead to significant search volume increases to product detail pages, buying guides and product reviews on a retail site, there will be measurable increases in visitor conversion to sales. SEO improvements are usually pretty durable and evergreen – meaning once implemented properly, the incremental gains in traffic will lead to long term product sales increases.
There’s a short list of SEO elements that are critical to well-oiled ecommerce sites. Because I’ve had the pleasure of working on several large enterprise level and a few smaller niche retail ecommerce SEO projects over 16 years, I thought it might be useful to share a practical short list of critical SEO elements to help small online retailers that have the ability to implement without direct ongoing SEO guidance. First the list, then I’ll expand on each bullet point.
- Schema.org markup for Products
- Hierarchy – ALWAYS include breadcrumbs
- HTML Sitemap
- XML Sitemap
- NEW Products Page & Module
- Related Products Module
- Title Tags – Brand at the end of title
- Detailed descriptive Text Content
Schema.org markup for Products
The importance of fully implemented Rich Snippets on product detail pages is hard to overstress. Most platforms make it fairly routine to include Schema.org/Product microdata markup for product image, aggregate rating, description, price and URL. The above allows each of those elements to show up in enhanced search engine results display. The most significant among them is the product image thumbnail and rating – which shows rating stars in search results – leading to higher click-through and conversion rates. If nothing else were done, this item must be along with the next one directly below.
Hierarchy – ALWAYS include breadcrumbs
Often, Breadcrumbs are left off of product detail pages, particularly on fashion and jewelry retail sites. This is very often because designers find the breadcrumb trail a distraction from sites emphasizing large images and clean page design. This is a serious shortcoming of many high-end product sites as well. This element can be creatively placed on the page or stacked above a left-side faceted navigation module to keep a visually clean page, while maintaining proper web standards. Breadcrumbs are a must and should also use the Schema.org/BreadcrumbList rich-snippet or microdata markup to make search engines fully aware of product hierarchy, including category and sub-category landing pages.
A crawlable bot-focused, lightweight (fast, stripped-down, image and script-free) HTML page listing product hierarchy – all the way to product detail pages. When retail sites post these pages at all, they often start with a standard template with brand identity, heavy with images, ads, scripts and search boxes. None of that is required. HTML Sitemaps are not used by site visitors more than 1 or 2 percent of the time and should be built entirely for search bots. Brand can be included with small logo and color scheme – but all other site functionality should be stripped from these pages.
The page can also ignore convention when it comes to number of links per page. 500 Product detail URLs can included on a lightweight page like this. HTML sitemaps should be dynamic and update instantly as products are added to the live catalog. There should ALWAYS be a link in the footer to the top-level Sitemap page listing category and sub-category pages. Those in turn link to landing pages and to sub-category segmented product detail page lists.
Standard XML sitemaps should be included in every site and a pointer to the index XML URL included on the robots.txt file as is common practice. However there should also be some method of segmenting sitemap on large retail sites so that category and sub-category pages are listed separately from product detail pages, buying guides and other informational pages. This helps troubleshoot and limit sitemap errors when those errors show up in Google Search Console. These reports should be monitored by a staffer or an alarm set to alert engineering staff when errors inevitably crop up.
Many retail businesses set up their XML sitemaps and then go blissfully unaware when errors occur because they aren’t routinely monitored. Further, often when the errors are seen, they remain un-repaired because few ecommerce teams realize that entire XML sitemaps are rejected by Google when there are certain types of errors on that sitemap. The most common problem error is URLs included which 301 redirect to another URL. This error suggests there are no eyes on the error report. Effective XML sitemaps are reflected in the graph labeled “Indexed” in Google Search Console. The two bars should be close to equal on “Submitted” and “Indexed” bars. (see below example)
NEW Products Page & Module
New Products are added regularly on ecommerce sites as the selection grows, colors and sizes are added or new lines are introduced. The way to make certain all new products are quickly added to search engine indexed pages is to have a “New” page which is linked from standard site navigation. The prominent link to this page and site-wide placement means that it will be given high authority by search engines and will therefore be frequently crawled. This gets those new products included in search engines much more quickly. (XML inclusion helps as well – include the “New” page in one of the XML sitemaps.)
Related Products Module
Many sites make the mistake of emphasizing “Most Popular” products and category links on every page in a prominently displayed module. This practice should be banned from an SEO perspective and replaced with “Related” products and sub-category modules with that same prominent placement sitewide. The “Related” products module increases search relevance of products included because each page emphasizes, and links to, similar products. These modules are often simple to implement in ecommerce platforms via off-the-shelf settings. Some platforms make it possible to incorporate “Frequently Bought Together…” and many retail sites use third-party tools instead of using standard platform plug-ins which do a better job. These tools are available from Magento, Shopify, and WordPress-owned WooCommerce. They are highly valuable for SEO and should be used where possible.
Title Tags – Brand at End of Title
The title tags are often set up to pull attributes from products, including brand, color, material etc. and then assemble them programmatically into product title tags. Sometimes the retailer makes the error of putting their own brand ahead of the product brand and attributes above. This is the most common error seen on poorly ranked retail product detail pages. Store brand should NEVER come first in product HTML title tags. Retailers will nearly always rank first for their brand name, even if it isn’t included at all in title tags and it is fine if added to the END of the title tag – but dilutes SEO when put up front.
Anything that makes groups of product title tags repeat the first two or more words, sometimes dozens or even hundreds of times per site, causes decreases in visibility and it gets worse the more times it happens on that site. Title tags should be unique from others to rank better. Copying competitors title tags for matching products makes no sense and also dilutes visibility. Think Unique to improve ranking – as long as it incorporates product names in ways that customers are most likely to search for them.
Detailed descriptive Text Content
Here is the biggest failing of most retail web sites. Little to no descriptive text on products is one of the biggest downfalls of retail ecommerce. SEO’s all know that search engines rely on text to rank web pages. Now imagine a typical product detail page with a photo (probably missing alt text), a 3 to 4 word product name on-page, color swatches, bullet points showing materials, warranty period, sizes. You have about 20 to 30 disjointed, unrelated words so far. Not enough. You should strive to include rich descriptions which tell something about how a product is used and why it should be considered by your customer. How is this product like others and how is it better suited for some intended uses than other products? What distinguishes this product from others like it and why should the customer purchase it from you? What unique words make it desirable to your demographic?
Don’t hesitate to offer 3 or 5 paragraphs of text here – and don’t worry about how text-heavy pages are off-putting because you can accordion down to a single sentence with an expansion button reading “Learn More” or “Details” tab that unfolds the page to show the full text. And this also applies to category and sub-category pages! Lack of category content is a dramatic SEO shortfall of most retail ecommerce sites. Tests have proven that significant 3-5 paragraph descriptive text on both product and also category-level pages increases overall search traffic dramatically. Of course this can represent a fairly significant investment in copywriting – but it simply must be allowed for and budgeted on all new site builds and ongoing as products are added.
Keep in mind that retail ecommerce platforms may not allow for every element discussed here, but customization or paid plug-ins and extensions will answer most of the above. If not – build it and they will come – from search engines in droves.
Mike Valentine has extensive Ecommerce SEO background and works with retailers to improve search visibility for their product catalogs.