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The eCommerce Technical SEO Framework: Making the Ambiguous Approachable

Published on: 
January 26, 2022
Updated on: 
April 25, 2022
by
Tory Gray
Tory Gray

eCommerce sites come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from small boutiques to enterprise product libraries. At either end of the spectrum, there are particular SEO problems that arise. 

Wrangling things like inventory stockouts, sales promos, navigation, categorization, and UX can all feel like a technical SEO nightmare. Tack on normal SEO problems like duplicate content, accessibility, and schema markup, and it’s easy to over-escalate eCommerce SEO as this complex labyrinth.  

The eCommerce SEO Maze
Does your eCommerce SEO learning curve feel like a labyrinth?

Don’t get too overwhelmed by these challenges just yet. 

Many problems that may feel outside your comfort zone are not all that difficult with the right set of tools and the right approach. This post aims to highlight some of the most common technical SEO challenges that eCommerce sites face (including some of the basic ones), and provides guidance and resources to properly address those challenges.

Do some eCommerce stores have more complex SEO challenges? 💯 - but those sites typically have other compounding complications, too: think UGC, marketplaces, and enterprise SEO (eg eCommerce SEO issues at scale).

So first things, first: understand the fundamental eCommerce SEO problems (outlined below), and then dig into the complicating factors as needed.

Without further ado: 

Table of Contents:

SEO Problems that are (Fairly) Unique to eCommerce

  • Faceted Navigation Challenges
  • Stock Challenges: Handling for Rotating/Out-of-Stock Products
  • Categorization Challenges
  • Seasonality, Sales & Promotions Challenges (or rather, opportunities!)

SEO Problems that Happen (Somewhat) More Frequently with eCommerce Sites

  • Information Architecture Challenges
  • Internal Linking, Pagination Challenges
  • Thin/Duplicate Content Challenges
  • Crawling/Indexing Challenges

SEO Problems that Most Sites Have, Including eCommerce Sites

  • Valuable Content Creation
  • Scalable Backlink Building
  • Strategic, Effective On-page Optimization
  • Fast Rendering & Site Performance
  • E-A-T Opportunities
  • UGC Opportunities
  • Schema Opportunities
  • Great UX
  • Great Accessibility

Takeaways

Tremendous thanks and gratitude to Renee Girard, Associate Director, SEO at Crate & Barrel and CB2 Brands for her feedback and contribution to this piece.  

SEO Problems (Fairly) Unique to eCommerce

There are particular SEO challenges that are fairly more unique to eCommerce sites. That’s not to say such challenges don’t occur on other sites (e.g. manufacturers, archives, libraries, publishers, etc.) But these ever-common eCommerce SEO barriers - like categorization, navigation, and seasonality - emphasize the complexities of organizing deep websites. 

When tackling eComm SEO, these are the 4 problems to understand first and foremost. 

Unique eCommerce Issue #1

Faceted Navigation Challenges

Typically in the form of facet categories and product filtering options, faceted navigation helps simplify UX by making it easier to find what you’re looking for. While helpful for users, from a technical SEO standpoint, facets and filters can introduce a variety of problems, like unwelcome URLs, duplicate content, consumed crawl budget, and index bloat issues.

From a big picture perspective, you’ll need to:

(1) Do your (keyword) research to understand which URL variations you want to index, and which you don’t. Also, take into consideration: 

  • How many products will fit in a particular filter? (a category page for 1-4 products is unnecessary.) 
  • Does that URL filter get a lot of clicks already?
  • Do you already have a page targeting that filter? (Don’t introduce duplicate pages!)
  • Are there brand considerations? (e.g. does a particular filter align with your brand’s UVPs?)

(2) Then you’ll need to understand and leverage the appropriate toolset for the job - tools like disallow, noindex, and canonicalization. 

  • Use the right tools, at the right time; if facets aren’t in your HTML or pre-load JS, Google might not find them. 

Fortunately, by identifying unwanted URL paths and getting a handle on your facet navigation problems, you can provide search engine spiders with greater clarity and focus on what to rank.

Similarly, you may encounter situations when a category URL outranks the specific facet for a target query (which the facet URL should be ranking for). Even when you've done everything right, sometimes it's best to surrender control and just… go with the flow. Facets serve purposes beyond just SEO (think paid search, which can be auto-pilot based on SEO elements.) Oftentimes it's better to rank something than not at all.

For more details on how to do this & counteract faceted navigation challenges, read our post on the topic Best Practices for Faceted Navigation & SEO: eCommerce Facets, Filters, and Sort Order.

Unique eCommerce Issue #2

Stock Challenges: Handling for Rotating/Out-of-Stock Products

Inventory stockouts and rotating products are common eCommerce challenges that can have major consequences (e.g. lost sales, frustrated users, hindered reputation, etc.) Stock challenges typically arise in two primary forms: temporarily out-of-stock and permanently out-of-stock products. Depending on the scenario, there are different actions you can take to mitigate any losses. 

Scenarios are often conditional/situation and may vary on the product or supplier, such as whether an alternative substitute exists or when a restock is to be expected. 

For instance, discontinued products simply means they're permanently out-of-stock, and the course of action is easy. However, with products on backorder (which are increasingly common with COVID-ridden supply chain issues), it can be difficult to predict restock times. Determining the best strategy to handle ambiguous backorder stockouts can be extra complicated.

For further insight, see best practices and use cases when handling rotating and out-of-stock products in this aptly-named post: How to Handle Permanently and Temporarily Out-of-Stock Products for eCommerce SEO & UX 

Unique eCommerce Issue #3

Categorization Challenges

The SEO challenges involving categorization come in many forms, from managing too many categories, too few categories, and redundant categories. Factor in faceted navigations and intuitive/helpful category page design, and things can get messy pretty quickly. 

Categorization is striking a balance between intuition, logic, and a search spider mindset. Naturally, it can be a major crux that shapes both UX and SEO, especially for involving large eCommerce sites and big-box retailers with total SKUs in the 6-figures.

To help bring clarity and resolution to complicated categorization challenges, we’ve assembled this post that offers loads of insight, particularly for eCommerce. Read UX and SEO: How UX Design Can Help With SEO Concerns.

Unique eCommerce Issue #4

Seasonality, Sales & Promotions Challenges (or Rather, Opportunities!)

Challenges involving seasonality, sales, and promotions (which are all mostly in the same boat) should be viewed not just as problems but also as SEO opportunities. When a substantial portion of annual sales comes from short periods, paid channels come naturally whereas SEO may feel null and obsolete. Like, "how can I leverage a long-term channel like SEO for short-term seasonality wins?" 

The short answer is "there are many ways!" such as:

  • Use timeless, evergreen URLs that don't include the year (so you can re-use the same URL year after year and benefit from cumulative authority built over time).
  • Leverage content optimization tools that are powered by AI/ML to gather useful recommendations. Clearscope is particularly helpful in pinpointing contextually-useful, related keywords (versus just repeating the same target keyword over and over).
  • Explore UX/design ideas to continuously improve the page over time. You can learn a great deal over the course of a few seasons/promotions. Good design and branding go a LONG way to evolving your sales pages.
  • Utilize auto-optimization tools and dynamic fields to update title tags and meta descriptions for sales pages by creating templates that auto-pull the year, season, holiday, and/or specific words like “exclusive, sale, deal,” etc. (especially helpful for large eComm sites).

For the full thread on this topic, check out my LinkedIn post on how to improve your rankings for a seasonal term/page

SEO Problems that Happen (Somewhat) More Frequently with eCommerce Sites

Certain SEO challenges are fundamental to eCommerce but are also common across many types of websites (particularly those involving a lot of data, SKUs, and functionality, or sites that are simply larger than average - eg 5k+ page websites). 

From one angle, the O in “SEO” could mean “Organization” given the amount of data, structure, and logic that eCommerce sites involve. With that, here are some of the more frequent tech SEO hurdles to overcome.

Somewhat more common seo ecommerce challenges #1

Information Architecture Challenges

Building great information architecture (IA) means making products, categories, and content easy to access and navigate. But for large eComm websites, creating a good IA is easier said than done. It involves a high level of classifying, labeling, organizing, and linking to content in ways that are both user-friendly and search engine friendly. 

All too often, information architects and dev teams define categories, taxonomies, or hierarchical structures, without the input of SEOs. Those involved in the initial stages of IA determine navigation labels for departments, categories, or sub-categories, mostly prioritizing how to best serve users. In many cases, information architects do not associate keyword research and search data with these processes.

The SEO challenges that can arise from "bad" IA often include:

  • Dealing with polyhierarchies where one product/page fits into multiple categories (resulting in duplicated/competing content; distributed topical authority).
  • Creating vertical taxonomies where important content is buried 4-5+ clicks deep (contributing to poor internal PageRank flow; increased/inefficient use of crawl budget).
  • Neglecting search user intent and not leveraging keywords and eComm SEO based on different buying stages (making for lower engagement and higher bounce rates).
  • Failing to create topical hubs and account for informational queries, which are 80% of all searches by nature (thereby missing big opportunities by not investing in a content strategy).
  • Having too many parent categories, which exacerbates and spills over into many of these problems (especially muddied PageRank flow, polyhierarchy problems, and diluted crawl budget).
Want more SEO knowledge on IA? Check out: Information Architecture Best Practices for Advanced SEO & UX
Somewhat more common seo ecommerce challenges #2

Internal Linking Challenges

While IA naturally influences internal linking and navigation, in this context we're focusing on sideways links, like handling pagination, related products, and contextual links. Some of the most pertinent internal linking challenges/opportunities involving eComm sites include: 

  • Pagination, like using “load more” buttons (or not using “load more” buttons), page sequencing, minimizing and handling orphaned pages, poor crawlability, and using JavaScript for such user experiences.
    This is hyper-critical on mobile sites, where pagination is more frequent/needed.
  • Related products, such as how to best leverage “customers also bought” or “customers also liked” links on associated product pages.
  • Related content, such as buying guides, related articles, related product categories, related searches, etc.
  • Sitemaps, especially involving huge sites with thousands of pages, or situations that benefit from segmented sitemaps and deep craw paths.
  • Identifying top products/categories and how to prioritize linking to those pages (via a sitewide menu, blog content, related product pages, featured homepage links, etc.)

That’s just the tip of the iceberg. With eCommerce sites, the strategic application for internal linking provides limitless creativity and possibilities. To explore more on this topic, see our post How to Level Up Internal Linking for SEO, UX, & Conversion.

Somewhat more common seo ecommerce challenges #3

Thin/Duplicate Content Challenges

Duplicate content and thin content are both frequently occurring plagues for eCommerce sites. Duplicate content is especially problematic with certain facet navigations where many different URLs contain the same content. Another common denominator involving duplicate/thin content involves problems specific to:

  • Category page copy challenges, like where to put it and how to make it useful.
    Here, we recommend focusing on the customer journey (with opportunistic SEO wins.) What’s fundamental to include up high, and what’s supplementary (to outline lower down, or elsewhere?)
  • Manufacturer product PDF manuals (duplicate and offering no SEO value).
  • Stock, manufacturer-derived product descriptions (used across many other websites, diluting your pages’ SEO if you use it).
  • The sheer scale of products and allocating resources to writing compelling, unique descriptions that aren't redundant in words or in strategy (e.g. using the same target keyword across numerous products - whoops!)

Avoiding thin/duplicate content requires being proactive (investing in a copywriter versus using stock product descriptions) and diligent (regularly running crawl reports to pinpoint and fix any issues that might crop up). 

Particularly for global brands, consider this post a two-fer on the topic of Duplicate Content & International SEO, Hreflang

Somewhat more common seo ecommerce challenges #1

Crawling/Indexing Challenges

With a lot of eCommerce sites being “deep” sites, problems involving crawling/indexing can run rampant and undetectable. They can manifest in the form of index bloat OR it can be a matter of certain pages not getting properly crawled/indexed as you'd like. These problems generally occur due to things like:

  • The sheer scale of eComm and enterprise-level sites
  • Facets and filters that generate excess, bloated URLs
  • Poor pagination and internal linking issues

Solutions to address crawling/indexing challenges can vary widely. For obvious signs of index bloat, swiftly deindexing pages is sound practice to stop the bleeding. For a more in-depth read, check out our post on Common Crawling & Indexing Issues: Using Robots.txt, Robots Meta, and Canonical Tags Correctly.

SEO Problems that Most Sites Have, Including eCommerce Sites

And then you have the many SEO challenges that impact all types of websites, including eCommerce sites. In a competitive search landscape, performing well in these areas (mindfully and properly) can help scale your SEO efforts considerably.

Valuable Content Creation 

Underline “valuable” and get creative within your means. While this absolutely includes strategic content, that’s not all! Product reviews are another boilerplate example (don’t forget the Product Reviews Update!) But be prepared for stock challenges and rethink your internal linking (e.g. category pages over products).

Scalable Backlink Building

Still sort of a big deal 😏, backlinks remain to be a strong ranking signal that can help move the needle, long and short-term. Think beyond paid media strategies and conventional outreach. Consider investing in creating content internally and producing assets that build momentum naturally.

Strategic On-page Optimization

The fundamentals - like methodical keyword mapping, engaging copywriting, descriptive anchor text, internal linking, and intuitive UX - make a huge difference when done right and done with intention. Don’t sleep on the basics and never stop improving your on-page SEO and UX. 

Fast Rendering & Site Performance 

Site speed is a basic requirement for all high-performing sites. Slow loading pages result in higher bounce rates, lower dwell time, and lost customers. Big picture? Less conversions, and therefore revenue. So take ownership of your site’s Core Web Vitals and optimize for site performance.

White male with light brown wavey hair sits on a couch in front of an open bookshelf shopping online.
The fellas' like to shop too, ya' know.

E-A-T Opportunities

Underutilized in the eComm space, incorporating layers of expertise, authority, and trust can help level up the SEO potential of key content. Leverage authority endorsements, case studies, testimonials, peer reviews, and other E-A-T opportunities to indicate your brand's expertise and credibility as it pertains to your core subject matter.  

UGC Opportunities

User-generated content is a powerful force that can improve UX, trust, transparency, freshness, and conversion. When properly integrated (e.g. Q&As, user photos, reviews/ratings, etc.) and quality controlled, UGC can support stronger engagement while continuously adding depth, natural-language keyword variation, and freshness to pages (whether they’re products, blog posts, YouTube videos, or social content.) 

More about how to leverage UGC.

Schema Opportunities

Convey your site’s content with structured data and make it easier for search engines to understand and display your pages. Use Schema types like Product, Review, Store, Organization, Events, BreadcrumbList, and Website to produce rich snippets and earn pronounced search visibility.

The “big” eComm schema opportunities include: 

  • Product schema
  • Collection schema, or ProductCollection Schema (with properly nested product schema) for category pages
  • Rating & review schema
  • Local Business schema (if you have brick & mortar locations)
  • HowTo schema (strategic content guides, or product-page step-by-step explanations)
  • FAQ schema (product-specific or store-wide)

Get more tips about eCommerce Schema implementations here.

Great UX

Providing a great user experience is an essential benchmark for today’s eCommerce stores. It’s the foundation to keeping users engaged and facilitating purchases rooted in trust and confidence. Hone your UX weaknesses and remain vigilant in improving and optimizing how users interact with your site. The SEO benefits will follow.

Great Accessibility

As part of offering great UX, it’s crucial to ensure your site is accessible. More than just mobile responsiveness, great accessibility means writing descriptive, SEO-friendly ALT text for photos, transcribing audio/visual content, ensuring text is large enough, crafting descriptive and intentional anchor text, and a myriad of other ADA website compliance matters to consider.

Takeaways

To recap, the real challenges that are unique to eCommerce SEO involve faceted navigation, rotating/out-of-stock products, categorization, and handling seasonality/sales/promotions. 

SEO for eCommerce might feel overwhelming, but it's largely just normal SEO procedures… plus these four things. Occasionally, you'll have to embrace standard SEO matters with an eCommerce angle, but seldomly are such problems too difficult to wrangle.

Once you have these problems down, start to explore the complicating factors that can make eCommerce SEO much more complex: like enterprise eCommerce SEO.

When entering the world of eCommerce SEO, fear not. Continue to put proven SEO best practices into place, learn to handle unique challenges over time, and you'll make big strides down the road. And if you need help with specialized matters, we are here!

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