SEO strategy has come a long way since the Wild West days of the internet, when ranking on Google meant dodgy tactics like keyword stuffing, link directories, and exact-match domain names. These days, there are some serious dos and don’ts when creating a solid SEO strategy, and some particularly helpful guidelines for eCommerce sites in particular—even if we don’t always want to hear it. We spoke with two experts on the subject: Bryan Driscoll, founder of Think Big SEO Marketing, and digital marketing and SEO expert Megan McCullough, to find out the hard truths about SEO for eCommerce.
eCommerce companies can be resistant to creating content. They often want to feature their products exclusively, which is understandable, but the problem with this strategy is that search engines aren’t capable of reading images—they can only read text and code.
“If you have a category page that has practically nothing but images on it, it's hard for the search engine to determine what that page is about since there’s nothing for it to read,” Driscoll says. “eCommerce companies often don’t want to create content because writing is difficult, and they have so many pages to write, larger retailers often need to invest in hundreds of pages of content. But if they put in the effort, they get rewarded in the future.”
As the algorithm has gotten more sophisticated, SEO strategy has needed to pivot from playing a game of “fool a robot” to actually serving humans. “We used to try to trick the search engine, but now we try to work with them,” Driscoll says. “If someone lands on a page, it should actually answer a question or directly meet their needs. The best strategy is to create quality, unique content that’s relevant to the brand, and answers the query the visitor was searching in the search engine.”
This can be difficult because search results pages are so competitive and monetized these days, but paying for an ad can negate the value of having that organic placement—high rank is free advertising, after all. “You want Instagram followers and revenue from IG ads, right? Would you want to spend all of your budget on ads targeting your followers or customers? That money can be spent elsewhere,” McCullough says. “We were huge fans of streamlining our marketing efforts for optimal efficiency at ThirdLove, and I believe in reducing cannibalization at every stage of the buyer's journey.”
When a product is featured on more than one site or if it’s being sold by more than one seller, all of the product descriptions need to be unique. This applies to dropshippers, manufacturers, distributors, and resellers equally, according to Driscoll.
“Companies unknowingly create this problem for themselves,” Driscoll says. “Manufacturers will often provide resellers the descriptions to use, not knowing that when those other companies post the same product descriptions on Amazon, eBay, or their own websites, it puts them all in direct competition with each other.”
As an example, if the search engine is trying to determine who is going to rank #1 for the search term “men’s shoes,” and it encounters five different websites with the exact same descriptions of the exact same pair of shoes, there’s no way for the search engine to determine who gets the number one placement. And when the search engine is confused, you risk getting not ranked at all.
We know, it’s no fun to hear. But brands that think SEO is easy and can be turned on and off like other performance channels need to hear that SEO is different. “eCommerce search results are relatively dominated by large companies that have spent years building their retail authority. Unless you are truly very niche, expecting to compete without any investment is relatively impossible. No matter how many backlinks you build, you may never rank number one for your target term,” McCullough says. “Google's algorithm can't be gamed anymore, and it's difficult to achieve anything long-term without a holistic strategy that also includes on-page SEO and competitive analysis.”
A lot of people know they need link-building, but don’t know that there’s a major difference in link quality—and trust the SEO experts, it makes all the difference. Sometimes retailers can be attracted to blog commenting or forum posting—basically, straight spam. But this isn’t a great strategy.
“Spamming is simply ineffective. You want links that are relevant, with high-quality content, pointed to your website. With spam websites, you can potentially be penalized,” Driscoll says. “You can fairly easily determine what’s a good link and what’s a bad link based on what’s relevant. Leaving comments on blogs with a link to your site—that’s not relevant.”
Left to their own devices, developers are going to optimize for a beautiful website, but they’re not going to optimize for SEO. We all have our skills in this life, after all. “Developers don’t think in terms of SEO, so they’ll make choices like creating duplicate pages, which makes sense for them, but will be a major problem when it comes to SEO,” Driscoll says. “And when you bring in an SEO expert to correct this later, there can be issues. I’ve seen websites lose 50% of their traffic overnight if the redirects aren’t done properly. Launch it once, and you don’t have to change it.”