12 Best Practices For Optimizing Your Website For Search Engines
Organic search engine traffic is, by far, some of the most profitable traffic you can drive to your eCommerce website, but also one of the hardest to start generating.
There are quite a few myths roaming around the SEO industry, as far as eCommerce websites are concerned, which tends to muddy the waters even more, and make things overly complicated when properly optimizing an eCommerce website or search for the search engines is actually pretty simple, when you stick to proven principles.
When you get your site optimized, you can count on Google and other major search engines to deliver highly targeted traffic to your website on autopilot.
Search engine traffic is coveted because the visitors are looking specifically for the products that you’re selling, by typing in keywords related to those products or the problems that they’re having that your products can solve.
Before you can convince the search engine algorithms that your site is worthy of ranking at the top of the search results, though, there are a few strategies that you’re going to need to implement.
Don’t just rush forward, making a bunch of changes to your site, though. Take each one, one step at a time, and give the algorithms time to catch up to the changes.
Taking your time allows you to make sure you haven’t done something wrong, since the algorithms tend to take their time picking up changes that you’ve made, and if you make too many changes at the same time, and something goes wrong, you’ll have a harder time figuring out what it was to revert your site back to the previous version.
Create content rich product descriptions.
One of the biggest mistakes that eCommerce website and store owners, along with the designers who build those sites for them make, is creating product descriptions that are simply full of basic specifications and boilerplate content that’s probably duplicated across every other website that sells the same products.
This is the wrong approach to take if you want the search engine algorithms to bless your website with organic traffic. Instead of copying and pasting the same product descriptions that other websites are using, or trying to get away with minimal text, you’ll need to ensure your descriptions are rich and full of content.
There are two ways you can do this.
You can either create the content yourself, by addressing problems that the products solve, why your company is better than the competition, your customer service expertise, and other content, as long as it’s not also duplicated somewhere else on your website.
The second way is to outsource the process to a professional copywriter, and allow them to create content rich product descriptions that are 100% unique to your products, aren’t duplicated anywhere else on your website, and are not borrowed from the manufacturer’s website.
Hiring a copywriter may be the more expensive strategy to use, but it will pay off in the long run.
Have a look at this example from Hartville Tool. They go above and beyond, and can give you a good feel for what you want to achieve.
Add user generated content (reviews & Schema)
User generated content (aka: product reviews and testimonials) are another great way to get fresh content onto your product pages, while also giving you a chance to stand out in the search results pages.
When you implement Schema.org code into your product descriptions, Google will give your listing a star rating, which helps you stand out from other websites on the page, and increases your clickthrough rate.
Getting customer reviews onto your page isn’t just good for looking great in the search results, though.
Customers are going to type out all of their thoughts on the products that you’re selling, which can help you rank for keywords that you may not have thought about when you performed your initial keyword research.
These keywords that the customers are using will help new customers find you, because your past customers will spell out problems they had that your products solved. When new customers have those same problems, Google will display your site at the top of the results for those keywords.
In other words, you can allow your customers to leave reviews, and get them to help you rank higher in search results that you’ve never intended to rank for.
If you’re uncomfortable implementing Schema.org code onto your website, you can ask your web designer or developer to handle it for you. Implementing the code only takes a few minutes, in most cases, and has a dramatic impact on your clickthrough rate from the search results pages.
Here is a great example from another company that has successfully implemented customer reviews into their product description pages, and have been blessed by Google for accomplishing it.
Leave out of stock pages up, and offer alternatives.
Some web designers, and even some eCommerce-based content management systems can cause your website to tank in the search results without you realizing what’s going on.
Some content management systems will remove your product pages from the search results if they’re labeled as out of stock, until you bring in new inventory. This constant flux sends the search engine algorithms the wrong signal, and can cause your pages to rank lower as a result.
Instead of deleting pages for out of stock products, or unpublishing them, you should leave them up. Label the products as out of stock so your customers know, while giving them an estimated date that they’ll be back in stock, if possible.
You will also want to make sure that you have a section of similar products that other customers have also purchased. Doing this has two distinct benefits for your website, and both help you in the search results, and your overall revenue.
First, having links from your out of stock product pages to other, similar product pages will help your internal link juice flow through the site, which helps those other similar product pages rank higher in their own intended search results.
It also gives your potential customer something to do since the product they intended to buy is now out of stock. If they’re able to continue clicking around through your website without having to search too hard for the next thing to do, you’ll capture more of those potentially lost sales, and increase your revenue.
Permanently 301 expired items.
When you do have items that go out of stock, and you have no intentions of ordering new stock, you don’t want to go into your content management system and simply delete those pages.
Deleting the pages will cause a 404 error in the search engines which, if you’re not familiar, means that the search engines are going to be serving up a page to visitors that doesn’t exist anymore. That’s bad mojo, as far as the search engine algorithms are concerned.
Instead of upsetting the algorithms by creating 404 — or missing — pages on your website, you’ll want to implement a 301 redirect that lets the search engines know that the page has been deleted, but related pages or content can be found at the 301 destination URL.
Depending on the content management system you’re using, you may be able to install a plugin that allows you to 301 redirect deleted or unused pages to their parent category.
If you aren’t able to install a plugin, you will have to edit your .htaccess file to include the 301 redirects, or ask your web designer to handle the work for you.
Redirecting the unused pages to their parent category is the best practice, so that customers that happen to land on the deleted page (for whatever reason) will be able to find similar products to what they were originally looking for.
Search engines will see similar products in the parent category, and may choose to rank that category page in place of the product page that you’ve deleted.
Treat category pages as individual homepages.
The homepage of your website is one of the strongest pages, because most of the links that you generate (and build yourself) are going to be pointing to the homepage itself.
That means a majority of your strength is going to be coming from it, and determines how you link to other pages in your site.
Another great strategy to use is to treat your product category pages as if they’re a direct replica of your homepage.
Then, when you’re building links, you can start sending some of the links that you’re building (and generating) to your category pages, and the strength that they build will pass through to your product pages themselves.
You will also want to make sure that you perform proper keyword research, and work enough content into your product pages to display those keywords and get the search engine algorithms to rank your category pages at the top of the search results.
You can help the search engines by linking directly to your category pages from your homepage. This will help transfer the strength of the homepage into the categories, which will then help pass strength through to your product pages.
This basic funnel style of design is perfect for getting all of the pages on your site ranking highly in the results, and as long as you’re using keyword rich anchor texts in your internal links, along with keywords on each of the category pages themselves, you should see an increase in your organic search traffic.
Use breadcrumbs to aid navigation.
If you haven’t noticed by now, one of the big themes for getting the search engine algorithms to figure out what your site is about, and rank you for the keywords that you’ve chosen is passing link juice, or strength, throughout your website and using keyword rich anchor texts as part of your internal linking strategy.
One of the best ways to increase your internal linking, and keep this silo (or funnel) style of site architecture is to use something called breadcrumb navigation.
If you’re not familiar with breadcrumbs, here’s a simple example to help you understand what I’m talking about.
Let’s assume that you’re selling widgets on your website. You have a category for blue widgets, and then a product page for small blue widgets.
Building the breadcrumb navigation on your website would create links at the top of your pages that looked something like this, when the visitor landed on your small blue widgets page.
Widgets > Blue Widgets > Small Blue Widgets
Widgets would be a link to your homepage that lists all of the different widget categories you have. Blue Widgets would link to the Blue Widgets category, and Small Blue Widgets would link to the Small Blue Widgets product page.
You can see that each of these links are keyword rich, so that search engine algorithms know exactly what each specific page is about, but they also help funnel that link equity (or juice, or strength) throughout your website, while keeping each of the links topically relevant.
Plan SEO into your initial design.
The best way to ensure that you’re going to rank highly in the search results pages, and keep from having to do the same work twice is to make sure that SEO is built into the initial design of your site.
This requires a bit of planning before you actually launch your business, along with a bit of forethought into the types of products you’re going to be selling and any expansion that you intend to do, as far as other product lines go, to ensure that you’re able to grow into the website.
Even if your business is already launched, though, the strategies that I’m giving you can be implemented by most people that have built the website themselves, or by the designer that initially built the site for you.
A lot of companies find themselves in the awkward position of implementing search engine optimization as an afterthought, which isn’t necessarily bad, but if you’re able to lay your SEO foundation before the site is actually built, you’ll be ahead of the game.
Enable internal site searching.
Optimizing your website for the major search engines isn’t the only type of optimization you should be doing. You should also set the website up so that your visitors can easily search for what they’re looking for.
Doing this properly requires you to use the tagging feature in your content management system, while also making sure that the major search engine spiders are not able to pick those pages up.
If search engine spiders see a bunch of different tags for the same page, they’re going to label the content as duplicate. When this happens, they’ll usually show a tag page instead of your actual product page, which creates even more problems that you have to clean up down the road.
By implementing a “nofollow, noindex” tag on your actual tag pages, you can keep the major search engines from picking these pages up, while also making sure that your site visitors can search for them using your internal search box.
Using the tagging feature on each of your product pages make them easy for your visitors to find exactly what they’re looking for, as long as you can keep the major search engine spiders away from those extra pages that the tagging feature creates.
Optimize your images and videos.
While optimizing images and videos isn’t necessarily considered a major factor as far as helping you rank in the search results pages, it does help you send more relevance signals to the search engine spiders, which will help them figure out what your pages are about.
If you’re using image heavy product descriptions, or even use videos to help sell your products, you are going to want to make sure that they’re optimized using keyword rich descriptions, narration, alt tags, and are surrounded by relevant content.
You will also want to make sure that the filenames of the videos and images you’re using match up with the keywords that you’re using on the pages you’re displaying them on.
Optimizing your images and videos will help you should up in Google’s video search, or image search, for instance, which will increase your organic traffic and give you more opportunities to capture visitors and convert them into a sale.
Ensure your design is mobile optimized.
Mobile devices like smartphones and tablets are taking over the internet. More than 60% of the traffic that major search engines see are mobile-based, which means that your website needs to keep up with the times and make it easy for mobile users to find what they’re looking for.
Mobile traffic is making such an impact on the SEO industry, that major search engines like Google and Bing are implementing specific algorithms that allow properly mobile optimized website to outrank desktop-only websites for high volume keywords.
If your website isn’t mobile optimized, and able to handle mobile traffic across a wide range of devices, you are costing yourself a large amount of traffic and revenue.
There are two different ways you can optimize your eCommerce website for the search engines and your mobile visitors.
You can either build a menu based version of your website, that acts as a menu between your different product categories, or you can build a fully responsive version of your website that acts just like the desktop version, but scales according to the screen resolution of the mobile device that your visitor is using.
Both versions work great, and will keep the search engine spiders happy, however, the fully responsive version of the website tends to make it easier on your visitors, and helps keep their experience congruent whether they’re on a mobile device, or browsing your website from their desktop computer.
Whichever you choose is determined by your technical abilities, or the web designer that you’ve chosen, and the method that they’re comfortable with implementing.
Keep your eCommerce store secure and backed up.
Before you start making any of the changes that I’ve just laid out for you, you are going to want to make sure that you have some sort of automated backup in place, and that you backup your website prior to implementing these strategies.
Some of the methods that I’ve given you require you to edit the code of your website which, if you’re not technically inclined, could lead to your website refusing to function properly.
If you make a change and happen to mess something up, you can easily revert back to the previous version by restoring the backup that you’ve created.
Then, if you’ve implemented an automated backup solution, you will have set points in time that you can restore to so, if you’re constantly adding new products or changing product descriptions, there is always a fairly recent version that you can restore.
Try to avoid confusing the search engine algorithms.
One of the worst things you can do when you’re optimizing your website to rank higher in the search results is to constantly change or delete pages.
Search engine spiders take a while to catch up to changes that have been made, so you’ll want to make small changes and then wait to see how it reflects in the search results.
If you make all of the changes that I’ve suggested at one time, and something goes wrong, the search engines may devalue your website and cause you to rank even lower in the search results than you were ranking when you first started.
Because of that, you want to take things slow. Implement one change at a time, and then monitor the search results and your analytics data to see how the search engines have reacted to those changes.
Whenever you see positive results, continue working on what deliver those results. If you see negative results, revert back to the previous version, take notes of what caused the drop in your rankings or traffic, and then avoid doing the same thing again in the future.
Hire a company if you can’t do it yourself.
If you’re not comfortable making these changes by yourself, there is no shame in hiring a proper design and marketing company to handle the workload for you.
In fact, hiring someone to make sure that your website is optimized for the latest search engine algorithms is often the best route to take, because it allows you to focus on growing your business, while the company you hire can focus on staying up to date with the major changes and technical requirements that implementing these strategies requires.
You can definitely save money by doing it yourself, but leaving the SEO side of your business up to the professionals can be an extremely profitable route to take.
Organic search traffic is some of the most targeted visitors you can bring into your website, so the cost of having a web design, SEO, or eCommerce marketing company handle the work for you will be offset when you think about the long term results that ranking higher in the search engines provides for your business.I live by “Do no harm, take no shit.” — Is that heart centered enough?