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6 Actionable Tips for Doing SEO on E-commerce Websites

8 November 2012 BY

In the four years that I’ve been working in the SEO industry, the vast majority of the websites I’ve worked on have been ecommerce, so I wanted to share some of the things I’ve learnt over this time.

1. Keep an eye on duplicate content

There are a host of common duplicate content issues with ecommerce websites, most of which are caused by types of navigation. Here are some of the issues that I’ve seen a lot with clients and websites I’ve worked on.

Faceted navigation / dynamic filter pages:

Faceted navigation is widely known for being a bit of a nightmare for SEOs, as it results in lots of duplicate variations of category pages that need to be kept out of the index.

My preferred method of getting around this issue is to apply meta robots rules to pages with set parameters appended to the end of their URLs, so for example website.com/clothing?brand=clothingbrand. I would always recommend using noindex,follow meta robots tags, as this tells search engines not to index the page but also to follow the links and continue crawling the website.

The meta robots tag should be set in the <head> area and most developers should be able to write the rules.

Lots of people tend to miss filter pages that set the order of results for category pages, however these pages still feature duplicate content. I would include rules to add the meta robots tags to these pages as well.

Alternative options:

Some people tend to prefer using the canonical tag or parameter settings in GWT, but from previous experience I’ve had much better results using meta robots tags.

Alternatively, if you have a good development team, you could look to use AJAX to filter the results, this would allow you to use one static page rather than having filter queries appended to the given URL.

My favourite option (by far) is to turn dynamic filter pages into static pages – this gives you lots of new landing pages (that you can optimise for longer tail queries) to play with and eliminates the duplicate content issue. I would only recommend this to those with strong development resource behind them, as it’s really important to do it in a way that doesn’t compromise your site’s usability.

Trailing slash canonical issue:

Lots of big and small ecommerce platforms (and bespoke systems) have issues with trailing slash pages being, and SEO’s then have the issue of these pages being seen by Google (and other search engines) as duplicate content.

With Magento, the platform that we use most, it’s proved extremely difficult to eliminate this issue as rewrite rules have caused complications with the back-end of the website. So, if this is the case with the platform that you’re using, I would recommend using the rel canonical tag to point one version to the preferred one.

Pagination:

Last year Google announced the introduction of the rel next, prev and all tags, which are designed to prevent duplicate content issues with pagination. Find out more about implementing these tags here.

Catalog Search Pages:

Catalog search pages often get indexed by search engines due to them obtaining internal or external links. These pages don’t feature any unique content and shouldn’t be made accessible to search engines.

In order to prevent catalog pages from being indexed, simply disallow the directory (the majority of search pages are structured in this way) eg: /catalogsearch/ in the robots.txt file and then remove the directory in Google Webmaster Tools.

Removing duplicate pages:

Once you’ve used the robots.txt file or meta robots rules to tell search engines not to index the pages, you will have met the requirements to submit removal requests in Google Webmaster Tools. Submitting manual removal requests for dynamic pages can be very frustrating, however it’s by far the fastest way to get pages out of the Google (or other search engines) index.

2. Make your website faster!

Although I’m dubious about how much site speed affects your rankings it’s clearly a fundamental part of user experience. For ecommerce, having a fast website is vital as users who are forced to wait for results often leave prematurely.

Companies like Zappos and Amazon have spent huge amounts of money on optimising the performance of their websites and have seen dramatic improvements in their conversion rates as a result.

This article from Wordstream outlines the importance of speed for desktop and mobile website experiences.

There are hundreds of things that can be done to improve the performance of a website, but here are some that we’ve focused on recently for our clients.

  • Image compression: We used JPEG mini to reduce the load time for hi-res product images
  • Minifying javascript and CSS: One of the most obvious things to look for when trying to reduce load time
  • Mod_Pagespeed: An apache module that works on lots of different areas, (such as javascript compression) to reduce the server load time – find out more
  • Full page caching: We’ve been working on this for one of our Magento clients and have had help from Inviqa (a PHP agency) who are experts for doing this on a host of platforms
  • SPDY protocol: SPDY is a new practise that is an alternative to the http protocol – it’s target is to improve load time of sites by 50% – find out more

3. Use top-level product URLs

There are a number of arguments for using top-level products URLs, these are:

  • Less products to maintain – Because you would require different products to be created in different categories on most ecommerce platforms
  • Shorter product URLs
  • Single pages for each product – If you have URLs in multiple categories, there will be multiple versions of the given product and it’s content – top-level URLs eliminate this issue
  • GA Filters – Having all of your product URLs on the top-level makes it easier to look at product-specific data in Google Analytics, using regex (we also use different file extensions for products)

4. Sort out your sitemaps 

I always have both html and xml sitemaps on ecommerce websites as standard, but I’d also recommend having video sitemaps and category sitemap pages.

Category-specific sitemap pages:

I always recommend that larger ecommerce websites have category-specific html sitemaps for all content related to the category (blog content, products and sub categories). In addition to indexation benefits, this is also great for using navigating around the website.

I work with a lot of fashion companies, so we tend to have individual html sitemaps for the different brands featured on the website – these pages will then feature all products, collection pages and blog content for the given brand.

Video sitemaps

There are two main benefits of using video sitemaps, getting featured in video results and getting video markup for listings. For ecommerce websites with product video content I would always recommend having a video sitemap.

Having the video snippet on your listings helps to increase click-through on the given page as the page stands out a lot more than the other listings for the query.

5. Take advantage of rich snippets 

Rich snippets have been revolutionary for ecommerce ever since Google started reading and using structured data. By adding the schema markup to different pages on your website you will be able to display rich snippets that will help to install trust for users and improve click-through rate.

Video Schema:

The video markup is a less obvious addition to an ecommerce listing, however it’s great for increasing click-through rate. I would recommend combining the video markup with the price and availability schema as this makes it clearer that it’s a product listing.

Rating schema

The rating schema is probably the most commonly used schema and it has been proven to help improve click-through rate for sites in lots of different verticals. If you don’t have the development resource to help you build this into your review system, I’d recommend using Feefo or TrustPilot to generate these rich snippets.

At SearchLove, Guy Levine also talked about a new schema that is soon to be recognised by Google, a green tick that will be displayed next to trusted websites. You can find out more about implementing schema /microdata on your website here.

6. Spruce up your meta content! 

For ecommerce websites, meta content is about much more than just keyword targeting, it’s about providing an enticing and accurate proposition for your products / offering.

It’s vital that your off-site proposition is compelling and enticing as otherwise searchers will click on a competitor’s listing, so utilising schema markup (as I mentioned earlier in the article)

Good meta description:

Bad meta description:

With product and brand-specific terms, you’re likely to be competing against other retailers who are selling the same product – so outlining USPs and having obvious call to actions is key.

If you have any questions about any of the points I’ve discussed, please feel free to ask them in the comments field below.

AUTHORED BY:
h

Paul Rogers currently works as the Organic Performance Manager for Buyagift PLC. Before joining Buyagift in June 2013, Paul spent three years working for GPMD (a London-based ecommerce agency) as Head of Digital Marketing.
  • http://twitter.com/hybridoriental Steve Hutton

    Fantastic post Paul! One of the best I’ve read in a while. I think you’ve outlined some of the biggest problems that ecom clients can face when sorting out their site. I think getting a grip on duplicate content and canibilisation is the first think I’d get sorted.

  • Ed Baxter

    Speed is the big one for me in ecommerce – it affects sales and results and yet so few take it seriously! I wrote a post a little while ago on seomoz that covers a few common areas where you can get good speed improvements for little effort: http://www.seomoz.org/blog/optimizing-page-speed-actionable-tips-for-seos-and-web-developers – I hope it’s helpful!

    For anyone using Magento: – I’d suggest
    1) Combine CSS/JS files and minify
    2) Get a decent host – shared hosting won’t help you
    3) Look into Varnish and APC – these will make a massive difference if you can set them up properly.
    4) optimise your images and make sure your theme doesn’t do anything daft.

    • Paul Rogers

      Hi Ed,

      Thanks for your comment – your speed post looks like a great read too.

      We do a lot with Magento websites and I agree with using varnish for non-enterprise Magento sites. We’re also big advocates of mod_pagespeed, it has given us some really strong performance improvements and I’d definitely recommend it.

      Paul

  • http://www.barryadams.co.uk/ Barry Adams

    Great post Paul. With regards to faceted nav & duplicate content, we’ve seen that configuring the URL parameters in Google Webmaster Tools is becoming a more attractive solution as Google keeps improving the hints it takes from these settings. I do agree through that the noindex,follow meta robots tag is the preferred approach, though we also use rel=canonical to redirect value of peripheral facets (such as price or size) to the main category page.

    Also, the Index Status report in GWT is a godsent. We also use XML sitemaps to verify Google has indexed all the right pages (we put all product pages in a separate XML sitemap and let Google Webmaster Tools tell us how many of those it has indexed).

    On the site speed front, aside from best coding practices we’ve found that often the most cost-effective way of improving site performance is simply to upgrade the hosting environment. Brute force approach, but it sure does work. :)

    • Paul Rogers

      Hi Barry,

      Thanks for your comment. I agree that GWT has improved on a lot of fronts recently and I need to give parameter handling another go. I’ve never thought to have product-specific sitemaps for that reason, that’s a really good idea!

      We use rel=canonical for these pages too, we also use it for trailing slash canonical issues on platforms (such as Magento) that make it different to apply rewrite rules.

      For hosting, we recommend using EC2 servers, we’ve seen some performance improvements when we’ve moved Magento sites onto the cloud in the past. One of our devs wrote this blog post on hosting and scaling Magento in the cloud which is quite useful too – http://www.gpmd.co.uk/blog/getting-and-scaling-magento-in-the-cloud/. This is the best approach we’ve had with hosting ecommerce sites.

  • http://www.facebook.com/taradeewest Tara Dee West

    Nice post Paul. I’ve used parameter handling in GWT a few times and it seems to have done the job, very handy if your CMS doesn’t like the other options.

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  • http://bajabybus.com/ Baja By Bus

    Thanks for the heads up about JPEGmini – our blog in particular is understandably image heavy, but up to now pages have been slow to load for this reason.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/charmis.pala Charmis Pala

    Awesome post dear, there are many things that can be added more,
    the information and the point about the video sitemap was helpful

  • http://www.transpacific.in/ Transpacific Software Pvt. Ltd

    Embedding Google*** Rich snippet*** data in ecommerce website helps a lot in better CTR
    All leading shopping carts including Magento OpenCart WP have ready plug-ins for embedding Rich snippets
    We have developed Free extensions for OpenCart for automatically inserting rich data including product info, breadcrumb trails, reviews and ratings . Currently installed on over 1000 OpenCart shops and giving good results with SEO

    http://www.transpacific.in/opencart-ecommerce-extension.php

  • http://www.jonnyross.com/ Jonny Ross

    Paul,

    Really great tips! And your so right with dupe urls with things like trailing slashes and products in dupe categories etc etc

    You have reminded me I need to speed up load time on my own site!

    Thanks for the great blog!

    Jonny

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  • Spook SEO

    Great tips, especially for those planning to start up a business. All these 6 tips are very much helpful and will surely help e-commerce succeed. As well as for the meta content, we should always remember that content should be unique amongst the other yet relevant.

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