In our previous two Back to Basics articles, we first covered the foundational elements necessary to improve digital presence and performance, and then dug into customer personas--why you need them and how to create them. Today, we’re focusing on another key extremely important piece of the digital puzzle--search engine optimization.
Let’s start with the basics:
What is SEO for ecommerce?
SEO is short for search engine optimization. It’s the methodology of making changes to your website’s structure and content to increase visibility on search engines, in an effort to bring in more traffic to your website. It’s referred to as “organic search” because you’re not paying Google directly to have your website display.
In theory, ecommerce SEO is no different than SEO for any type of website. In practice, it’s similar with some unique nuances that impact how Google rates your site and how customers use it. Some common ecommerce SEO distinctions are: lack of or duplicate content, product reviews, sheer volume of pages requiring unique meta data, URL structure and layered navigation, and 404 error pages for out of stock products. For more info and tips on these common ecommerce SEO issues, check out our blog, “8 Common SEO Issues on Ecommerce Sites.”
SEO is comprised of on-site and off-site elements. On-site is just as it sounds--changing elements on your website to increase to increase organic visibility. Offsite SEO is the process of gaining backlinks to your website from high-quality websites. In those post, our focus will be on-site SEO.
Note: Oftentimes we’ll refer to Google when discussing SEO, but that’s only because it’s the most used search engine--the reality is, what’s good for Google is good for all search engines.
What are the benefits of SEO?
SEO has loads of benefits that help to increase awareness, drive sales and grow business online.
Volume: Organic traffic is typically the largest portion of any ecommerce website’s traffic sources because consumers trust organic listings more than paid advertisements.
Versatility: It’s also a source that reaches customers at every stage of their journey--in their initials stages when they’re just researching a need or product (think “how to” and other question search queries), further along when they’re validating purchase decisions (“reviews” or comparison queries), and when they’re ready to make a purchase (“buy [product or brand] online”).
It’s especially important when customers are on-the-go, quickly searching for something on their mobile device. Google calls these “micro-moments”--the brief yet frequent times a consumer consults their phone to find something. These fall into four key categories:
Cost-effectiveness: SEO can level the playing field for smaller companies with shallower pockets that don’t allow them to spend thousands of dollars on paid search or display ads each month. As noted above, you don’t have to pay Google directly for organic visibility. But don’t be fooled--it does require an investment in time and resources.
User Experience: SEO is not just for search engines, it’s also for good for improving usability and user experience on your site. And when customers have a good experience, they’re more likely to purchase and come back again.
What are the foundational on-site SEO elements?
There are three key areas of on-site SEO:
- Technical/Structural SEO
How do you choose keywords?
Keywords (a.k.a., search queries) are the foundation of search engines, and are used as the building blocks of your ecommerce website. There are a few considerations when selecting the right keywords for your site:
Searcher Intent - What does the searcher want to find when using a particular keyword? Consider the different intentions when searching for “how to change a bike tire” versus “buy bike tire online.”
Relevancy - How closely does the keyword relate to the product or content found on each page? If someone searches for “women’s shoes” but sees a page for women’s clothing, do you think they’re likely to click through?
Competition - What other sites are already ranking when searching for a particular keyword? How authoritative are those sites compared to yours? Trying to outrank Amazon on a particular keyword will require a Herculean effort. Do you have the resources and is it worth it? Or might you be better off choosing a variation of the keyword with less competition?
Short-Tail vs. Long-Tail - Shorter keywords like “shop online,” “men’s clothing” or “beauty products” have higher search volume, but also come with higher competition and lower conversion rates. Long-tail keywords, such as “men’s black leather motorcycle jacket” or “shimming face lotion with SPF” are more specific and thus present a better opportunity for ranking and convert better.
How do you make content SEO friendly?
Once you’ve selected your keywords for each page, you need to include these keywords in important page elements and throughout content:
Page Title - Create a unique page title for every page on your site using your keywords. Page titles should be no more than 55 characters long.
Meta Description - Meta descriptions (a.k.a., “search snippet”) don’t impact organic ranking, but they can be seen as ad copy for your organic listing. Write a unique meta description for every page that describes the page, and motivates users to click through. Meta descriptions should be no more than 160 characters (however Google is testing up to 320 characters but has advised sites to stick with the 160 for now).
Image Alt Text - The alternative text for images displays if the image will not load. It’s meant to help users with screen readers or slow connections, but it’s also an opportunity to improve organic visibility on important keywords.
Content - Each page on your site should have at least 100 words of copy to help distinguish it from other pages. Including keywords in this copy can increase keyword relevancy and improve organic visibility. “Organic” is the operative word here though--include keywords naturally, don’t force into every sentence or the search engines may discredit it and your customers will be put off.
What other items are important for SEO?
The search engines are not only interested in the content and context of your site. They also want your site to be well-organized, clean and easy to navigate for customers. These attributes fall into a “technical SEO” bucket that deals with how your site is structured. A few key technical SEO elements for ecommerce sites include:
Site Architecture - The structure of your site impacts how the search engines categorize site content. A clear and consistent structure is important, meaning products should be organizing under the right categories with simple URL structure. For example,
301 Redirects - 301 redirects send users (and search engines) to a different URL than they originally requested. They’re important when migrating to a new platform (e.g., Shopify using /collections subdirectory for category pages and /pages subdirectory for non-product pages, so a www.examplesite.com/about-us would become www.examplesite.com/pages/about-us if migrating to Shopify from another ecommerce platform), for discontinued inventory or any page that has been moved to a different URL or no longer exists.
Sitemaps - Your site should have both an XML and an HTML sitemap. The XML site map is for the search engines, and should be submitted to Google via Search Console so that they can index all pages and images on your site.
The HTML sitemap is for both users and search engines. It should include a link to every important page on your site, creating a better linking structure for the search engines to crawl and providing a sort of “table of contents” for customers.
Whether you’re migrating to a new ecommerce platform or made a commitment to ensure you’ve got the foundational elements buttoned up in 2018, on-site SEO is a must to maintain and grow organic visibility.