Welcome to the fourth instalment of our “How to make your ecommerce site profitable” series! This part covers essential search engine optimisation basics and how to help more people find your ecommerce website.
If you missed the previous parts in the series, check them out below first:
- Part 1: Decision-making and implementation
- Part 2: Presenting your products
- Part 3: Accessibility and UX
Getting started with Search Engine Optimisation (SEO)
One of the biggest misconceptions of search engine optimisation is that it takes care of itself, and as such it’s not necessary. The truth is that it is only ever going to get more important: online competition increases every second, and anything you can do to get ahead will make a real, measurable difference to your business.
Many people create an ecommerce website under the mistaken belief that “if you build it they will come”. As of last summer there were approximately 968,882,453 websites on the internet (source), so this is more than a bit optimistic! You have to market and optimise well to beat off the competition, and you’re competing for people’s time as well as their money. The good news is that learning about and implementing basic SEO for your ecommerce website doesn’t have to be time-consuming or scary. In a nutshell, you’re making your website (even more) attractive to search engines so that you rank higher in their results and people are more likely to come across your website.
If you’re going to read anything about SEO, make it this: https://moz.com/beginners-guide-to-seo. It’s a long read, but as it’s split into sections, it’s very easy to dip in and out of, and it’s better to spend ten minutes reading the Moz guide and getting a good understanding one of thing than it is to have your time wasted by rumours and myths. Be very selective about what you choose to read and believe when it comes to SEO. Don’t be afraid to take it slowly either; it’s very easy to get overwhelmed by the amount of information in different areas, and there’s lots of scaremongering around penalties and Google updates. For now, let’s concentrate on the basics.
Assuming you’ve chosen a good platform for your website, a lot of the groundwork will already have been done for you. Make sure you have search engine friendly URLs (e.g. yoursite.com/bouquets/red-roses.php rather than yoursite.com/34/2312ssdsdd.php), as these will be a pain to change in the future and less effective than getting it right from the start.
We covered the importance of product descriptions and correct image labelling in Part 2: Presenting your products. The information there is good for creating a balanced approach that considers sales, your goals, customers and general SEO, but here are some search engine specific tips to add to that:
Page lengths – Ideally each of your pages should have at least 500 words of text. Websites deemed to have ‘thin’ content often incur penalties, particularly if they’re new.
Number of links – Google tends to ignore links on a page after a certain point (100 is a number that gets thrown around a lot), and they also only count the first instance of a link to a given URL. So, for example, if you link to a page with the anchor text ‘Children’s parties’ and then later on link to it again with the anchor text ‘Parties for children’, Google will only count ‘Children’s parties’ towards your optimisation attempts. So keep the number of links on a page reasonably low, and don’t try and manipulate the system by linking to the same URL repeatedly with different anchor text.
This is especially important for your index page: linking to your index page from a high number of inner pages using different anchor text each time will incur an automatic penalty. If you’re worried about this aspect of search engine optimisation, keep everything you do particularly clean and natural by only linking when it benefits the visitor, and you’ll be fine.
Internal linking – Most ecommerce platforms and plugins come with a good internal linking structure out of the box. For example, category pages will link to product pages, there will be breadcrumbs from product pages to categories, and so on. To maintain the standard, make sure you don’t create too many levels of categories and subcategories. As well as making users’ experience more tiring and inefficient, you’ll also be automatically creating a lot of unnecessary links.
Try to keep hardcoded links out of your product page body unless it’s absolutely essential so you have more control and reduce the chances of outdated information or irrelevant/distracting links. Many platforms offer ‘Recommended products’ and similar functionality to automate effective cross-linking which can be controlled easily.
Content – We’ve mentioned this before, but it’s so important that we’re stressing it again here: all your pages should be unique. Not only should they be unique compared to everything else on the internet, they should be unique to each other within your own website too. This is a bit more difficult when you’re writing about common products that a lot of people sell, and/or you have a lot of products that are very similar (e.g. computer monitors that only differ in screen size). It’s not the most fun job and requires some creativity, but focus on what you’d want to know if you were buying it, what you’d be using it for, and what kind of person you’re likely to be. Your content should be natural and read normally (i.e. not be ‘keyword stuffed’). If a sentence reads like a list of nouns, there are far too many keywords in there.
Note: If you’re working with seasonal products/ranges, never delete pages at the end of a season. Instead, redirect them to the closest most appropriate page. Or, if they will become relevant again at some point, leave them as-is but make it clear to the user that the product isn’t currently in stock.
Most importantly of all: remember that even when you’re working on actively improving your search engine optimisation, your first priority should always be the visitor – not the search engines.
Working out the best terms to target
One of the biggest mistakes people make when it comes to optimising their website is guessing what people are searching for, and then optimising for those terms. Sure, it’s reasonable to assume that people will google logical phrases such as ‘indian cook book’, ‘cheapest fencing’, ‘christmas presents for women’ etc., but you should only use your own guesses as a basic starting point. Always back them up with data to create your final list.
To do this, use the Google Keyword Planner. It’s free, but you’ll need to sign in with your Google account. Click ‘Get search volume for a list of keywords or group them into ad groups’, then enter some words and phrases instinctively to see how popular they are.
Don’t forget to change the location if you’re targeting customers outside the United Kingdom. Then hit the ‘Get search volume’ button and you see something like this:
In the above example, you can see that ‘cat bed’ gets an average of 4,400 searches per month in Google. The Competition column lists it as highly competitive, but as there are only three levels (High, Medium, Low), you can expect most keywords to have ‘High’ competition. Going on the screenshot above, you’d want to focus your cat basket landing page to talk more about a ‘cat bed’ and a ‘cat basket’ (totalling 5,700 average monthly searches) than ‘bedding for cats’ (30 searches). For example, you could have a sentence on your landing page that reads something like, ‘If you’re looking for a new cat bed, check out our range of comfortable options designed to make your feline feel safe and warm.’
There is a lot more data you can look at with your keyword planner searches to help you make more informed decisions. For example, you can use Google’s suggested ideas, take a look at what times of year interest peaks, or how the trend has changed over time.
Note: When looking at search volumes, it’s important to differentiate between informational searches and transactional searches. For example, there are 110,000 monthly searches for ‘cat’, but you’re highly unlikely to make many sales: people are more likely to be looking for information on the topic rather than buying something related to it. Conversely, ‘cat bowl’ gets a modest 590 searches, but it’s a lot more likely that a visitor will convert into a sale, so you’d want to prioritise that instead. If you’re unsure whether a phrase is informational or transactional, simply google it and take a look at the first page of results. More complex product searches may still return some informational pages (try a search for ‘SSDs’, for example), but the majority should be ecommerce-based sites. Informational searches are also far more likely to return a ‘Low’ competition result in the keyword planner.
As time goes on and you collect more analytics data specifically from your own website, you can refine your strategy further. For example, you might find that particular keywords lead to more sales (or higher value sales), whilst other keywords lead to a higher bounce rate, and you can take action and change your focus accordingly. If you run any paid advertising campaigns, such as PPC, you can also use your data from that in the same way to develop a more accurate picture faster. Over time, this means less work for more reward as you continue to build on the information you have and the patterns you identify. There are plenty of good free analytics tools available, including OWA, Piwik and Google Analytics, which we’ll cover in more depth in a later part of this series.
Getting your website indexed
Once you’re happy that you have your on-page basics sorted and you’re ready to launch your website to the world, you can submit your website to the search engines for indexing. If you’ve made any administration panel changes or robots.txt/.htaccess changes to block your website from search results up to this point, make sure to reverse them (and expect your website to take a little longer to index).
Firstly, you’ll want to submit a sitemap to Google and Bing. Your sitemap may well have been generated automatically depending on how you built your website; if so, it’s just a case of finding the URL. If you’re using WordPress, you can even use a sitemap plugin to do everything for you. If you can’t find a sitemap.xml file for your website, try googling the ecommerce platform you’re using with ‘sitemap’ or similar to see if it’s available and where you can find yours.
To submit your website, you’ll need to verify your website with Google Search Console (formerly Google Webmaster Tools) and Bing Webmaster Tools. This link also has some great information on making your website appealing to search engines.
Try speeding things up further by:
- Using the ‘Submit URL’ feature in Google Search Console
- Sharing your URL on an already indexed page on the web. For best results, pick a website that’s crawled extremely frequently, such as Twitter. (Don’t get too carried away with plastering your URL everywhere in a short space of time as you can potentially harm your link building efforts).
- Adding your website URL to RSS readers like Feedburner.
To check if your website has been indexed, simply paste the URL in the Google or Bing search bar. If it returns your URL in the listings, it’s been indexed. You can do the same for specific pages to check individual URLs if you like, or log in and check Webmaster Tools/Console Search information for your website to see how many/which pages have been picked up so far. Bing tends to take longer than Google to pick up new websites, so don’t worry even if it takes weeks longer.
Note: Many people confuse indexing with ranking well. Don’t expect to be able to type your chosen keywords into the search bar and have your website appear at the top from day one. Ranking well, especially for competitive terms, takes time, effort and patience.
There are many different ways to check how your website is performing in search results. A simple google search is best avoided as you will see personalised results even if you’re logged out of your Google account. Instead, consider using a proxy, browser plugin, or even Excel macros.
On-page SEO is only half the story. Having other good websites link to yours is essential for increasing your rankings and ensuring the search engines see you as a trusted destination. This is where it gets trickier, as trying to game the system can cause severe penalties and even stop your website appearing altogether. Link building should be slow, consistent, and carefully approached. Ideally you want to tie it in with your natural PR and marketing strategy in order to get the most return on your time and effort. For this reason, we suggest a predominantly PR-based approach which we’ll be looking at in more detail in the next part of this series.
Coming up: how to market and promote your ecommerce website on a minimal budget, so check back next week for more tricks and tips!