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How to Handle Permanently and Temporarily Out-of-Stock Products for eCommerce SEO & UX

July 7, 2021
by
Tory Gray
Tory Gray

We’ve all experienced the unfortunate incident: you see a product you like, but when you check the price and availability, you notice that it’s Out-of-Stock on the website. Talk about a frustrating experience for everyone!

Out-of-Stock products are inevitable in all eCommerce businesses. They pose a real burden for interested users but are especially damaging to online retailers when entirely neglected and would-be customers are left hanging.  

While Out-of-Stock items, or inventory stockouts, are a common conundrum for all eCommerce websites, it’s how they’re addressed that makes all the difference, particularly in maintaining a site’s SEO health and overall usability.

What are Out-of-Stock Products and How Do They Occur?

In simple terms, inventory stockouts are defined as products that have either sold out or are simply not available for purchase.

An alternative definition that highlights the central pain point behind the problem: Out-of-Stock occurs every time a product is not available when a prospective customer is ready to buy it.

Before we get into how to best rectify Out-of-Stock products, let’s examine the most common causes behind inventory stockouts:

  • Inaccurate or miscalculated lead times resulting in product deliveries arriving later than planned.
  • Underestimating a product's demand, and therefore, under-ordering.
  • Late delivery by a supplier despite great inventory management.
  • Under-ordering as a result of poor decision-making or an inadequate ordering system.
  • Problems surrounding product quality resulting in a high level of returns to the supplier.
  • Product suppliers who refuse to deliver inventory due to a credit hold from non-payment.
  • A safety stock inventory level that becomes too low to cover the risk profile of an item.
  • A shortage of working capital that limits the volume of orders that can be placed.

Regardless of what causes products to go Out-of-Stock, there’s a lot that can be done to mitigate the damage. Conversely, when no action is taken, the consequences can be immeasurably costly.


Inventory Stockouts Have Major Consequences

Online retailers suffer huge sales losses every year due to inventory stockouts. Factor in frustrated users, damaged brand reputation, and wavering customer loyalty, and cost of neglecting Out-of-Stock products can multiply in more ways than one.

According to the Harvard Business Review research, 7% to 25% of prospective customers who encounter an Out-of-Stock product will continue shopping but won’t purchase an alternative item for their desired product at the store. Even more revealing: a whopping 21% to 43% will go to a different store to buy the item (the data ranges being contingent on the product category.)

Whether you have a product that is temporarily Out-of-Stock due to high demand or supply chain bottlenecks, or a product that is permanently Out-of-Stock from a discontinued line/one-time promotion - following best practices can make a significant impact on the shopping experience you deliver to customers, as well as your site’s SEO performance.

How to Handle Out-of-Stock Product Pages

There are two primary types of Out-of-Stock products: permanently Out-of-Stock (i.e., a retired product line) and temporarily Out-of-Stock products (i.e., supplier shortage). Depending on the nature of the product, each scenario is handled using a different set of best practices.

*NOTE: your functionality options may be limited (or expanded!) by your eCommerce platform, be it Shopify, Amazon, BigCommerce, or a custom solution.

Products Permanently Out-of-Stock

Permanently Out-of-Stock products are a fact of life for any eCommerce business. Maybe you stopped carrying a particular product, or your supplier has stopped selling it. Or perhaps a product has been discontinued by the manufacturer. Whatever the case may be, you need to communicate to users (and search engines) that a permanently Out-of-Stock product is no longer available on your website.

You have a couple of options to handle permanently Out-of-Stock product pages properly. You can delete the page with an accompanying 404 or 410 page, or the preferred method for SEO: you can set up a 301 redirect to point users from the Out-of-Stock product page to a comparable product or category page on the site.

301 Redirect

When it comes to retaining optimal user experience, SEO potential, and overall sales, it’s important to note that 404 and 410 pages are not ideal. Instead, 301 redirects are almost always the preferred method whenever a product, category page, blog post, etc. (any obsolete URL for that matter) is no longer relevant.

As the name implies, a 301 redirect is a vital mechanism that redirects or sends users to a newly specified URL when attempting to land on an outdated or obsolete URL (in this case, the Out-of-Stock product or product line).

Not only are 301 redirects especially helpful in directing users to the right content, thereby keeping them engaged and on the site longer, but they also instruct search engines to treat the new destination URL as a new page to prioritize ranking. Additionally, any links pointing to the old URL will be redirected to the new page, which is crucial in preserving any SEO link equity.

The beauty in leveraging 301 redirects is that they enable you to maintain SEO performance while maximizing UX. Unlike 404 pages where users are presented with a dull and sparsely informative page, a 301 redirect helps steer users in the right direction. It is up to you to determine where that user goes, whether that’s an obvious product substitute, the parent category page, or an entirely new page (more on these use cases below).

As a rule of thumb, 301 redirects should be the first priority of business when addressing a permanently Out-of-Stock product. The creative challenge is pinpointing where the new destination will direct users (and search engines) and how that decision will ultimately influence users’ path to conversion.

Key point: Not all redirect types are created equal. Some eCommerce sites use 302 (temporary) redirects, which are seen as a weaker signal for change vs. a 301. Learn more about how Google treats different redirect status codes.

404 and 410 Pages

In essence, 404 pages communicate to users that the page they are looking for is “missing.” Widely referred to as an “error” page, 404 pages are notorious for high bounce rates, lost link equity, and diminished SEO performance.

410 pages, on the other hand, let your users know that the page they are looking for is gone forever - but has been intentionally removed.

What’s the difference? The 404 indicates that the product page is not present at the given location, and with the ambiguity that it may have never been (or the server has no idea whether it has been) - or it may simply be temporarily gone/located somewhere else.

The 410 indicates that a product page is not present anymore, but it used to be there in the past, giving users - and search engines - a sense of understanding.

That’s not to say you can’t make a 404 page for SEO or with better UX design practices. But in rare cases when a 301 redirect is not possible, a 410 page is usually the next best alternative, and it’s respected (read as: successfully deindexed) more quickly and effectively by Google vs. a 404 error.

You should never have a page throw a blank 404 or 410 error without a message stating why the page is missing. You should always let your users know why the page they are looking for cannot be found and what to do instead.

There is an art to crafting a well-designed and well-written 404 or 410 pages. It requires an aesthetically pleasing design and copy that is engaging, useful, and on point with your brand. Additionally, these pages should contain links to relevant content in order to point users in the right direction. Adding a layer of resourcefulness can mean the difference between keeping a user engaged and on your site versus having them immediately bounce.

Why Use 301 Redirects Over 404 and 410 Pages?

While a 301 redirect is generally preferable for SEO and usability, in seldom cases it’s just not possible to maintain. Keep in mind that it’s not very common when a 301 can’t be implemented. But in scenarios when redirects aren’t feasible (too many of them, or a product line is intentionally retired and not brand aligned), a mindfully tailored 410 page is the next best alternative.  

Both a 404 and 410 page essentially mean that a page no longer exists. As we just discussed, deleting a page forfeits any SEO and traffic value that it’s receiving. As such, it’s almost always best to apply a 301 redirect whenever possible. Some of the primary reasons behind this include:

  • Traffic - Any page that’s earning traffic, either from organic search, referral visits, or social media, has potential business value. The more traffic a page is receiving, the greater the need to implement a redirect and ensure those users land on relevant content. Use log files or Google Analytics (search for pages with "404" or "page not found" in the title to see these in GA.)
  • Link Equity - Pages that are earning backlinks from external sources are fueling the site’s SEO - and therefore ability to rank. This is especially the case when those backlinks are high quality. Only when a page has zero backlinks can it be safely removed with negligible SEO damage. (Even then, it still could be receiving enough traffic, thereby justifying a redirect.)
  • Revenue - Similar to traffic, the more revenue a page has generated historically, the business value in redirecting the page. If an Out-of-Stock product has converted users into paying customers, then it’s important to point those users to the next best alternative (and not just a 404 or 410 page).

If necessary, you can use these metrics to “vet” what redirects will provide more or less value to your eCommerce store’s bottom line. In other words - evaluate which OOS products have provided either SEO or business value historically and prioritize redirecting those vs. pages which never provided either.

How to Handle Temporarily Out-of-Stock Pages

When it comes to handling temporarily Out-of-Stock products, you have more options for letting your users know the product is Out-of-Stock and what to do in the meantime.

There are two main scenarios when it comes to products that are temporarily Out-of-Stock. The product is either Out-of-Stock with an expected restock date (most common with popular products), or the product is Out-of-Stock and the product availability date is unknown.

There are many ways to relay this "stock message" information to your users, and the important thing is that removing the product page is unnecessary - and should be discouraged. Instead, notify your users that the product is Out-of-Stock by making it unselectable on your site. You’ve likely seen this before when you’ve shopped online. A grayed-out and unselectable product image with the words “Out-of-Stock,” and -if/when possible - a return date. In short, this is all you need to let your users know a product is temporarily Out-of-Stock (communication is key!)

Ideally, also enable a waitlist for temporarily Out-of-Stock products to inform your users when the product is available. This is a good idea whether or not you have an expected restock date. Just be sure to set a reminder to send an email notification to users when the product is back in stock (or automate this process.)

Hiding temporarily Out-of-Stock product pages is an extra layer you can take if you don’t want your users landing on the product page while navigating your site - or if the expected return time is a long way off. This often involves removing the page from core navigation menus and associated product category pages. You can also go to the lengths of removing any internal links to the page, making it even less accessible.

*KEY POINT: The period of time users will need to wait to receive their item is a critical difference in the level of effort you should consider going to in order to make it a positive user experience. The longer the wait, the more you should hold their hand through the process (though this varies by product line obviously.)

While these measures help prevent users from accessing a product that’s temporarily Out-of-Stock, the page remains live and indexed, helping prevent any losses in SEO performance. Keep in mind these options for temporarily Out-of-Stock products are not mutually exclusive and isolating, meaning you can implement several or even all of them as desired.

4 Primary Use Cases of Managing Product Stock

To effectively combat inventory stockouts, it's important to understand the four major use cases behind managing product stock and foreseeable stockouts. Below we discuss these primary use cases and the expected behavior we recommend implementing:

1. Products Where There's One Obvious Product Substitute

In this common scenario, an item is unavailable but there’s at least one obvious alternative product that provides a sound alternative for the customer. For this use case:

  • the Out-of-Stock product page should redirect users to the recommended substitute product page.
    AND
  • It should include messaging that conveys the “why” to the user, for example: “The product you were looking for has been discontinued. We recommend this new product instead.” And in some instances, you can mention how the product manufacturer has updated the product, and this substitute is the new version. This message can be implemented (technically speaking) via an interstitial that’s triggered by the redirect - so you can tailor the message accordingly.

Essentially, the objective is to inform the user so they know exactly what happened and why and the next step a customer should take if they wish to fulfill their order. Be creative with your wording and convey your message in a way that’s both engaging and empathetic in an on-brand way.

2. Products Where There's No Obvious Substitute

When there’s no clear substitute for the Out-of-Stock product, the next best solution is redirecting users to the appropriate parent (or child) category with similar items, where the product was initially nested. Not only does this action support quality UX, but it also ensures any relevant link equity is naturally retained.

In this case, it’s also best practice to include a message highlighting that the discontinued product is no longer available and encourages users to browse this section instead to find a similar product in lieu of the original one.

3. Entire Category or Product Line is Being Retired

In cases when an entire product line or category is being retired, the first step is to build a new landing page explaining that the line is no longer available, and if appropriate, why it has been retired. Additionally, be sure to include links to other relevant products, categories, or critical pages of the site that the user might be interested in instead.

This tactic is beneficial if the retired product line was a popular category that distinguished your brand from other online retailers. For SEO, all page rank will be redirected to this new page and again further distributed through the links you choose to feature on this page.

Lastly, be sure to redirect all retired products to this new page so that any referral visitors who click through to those pages will instead land on something more resourceful than an Out-of-Stock product page, or worse, a 404 page.

4. Pre-order Pages

Products made available for pre-order are unique exceptions from the latter use cases, as the current product page remains the same (no redirects, no new builds). Proper messaging is key; users should readily see that the product is not yet available but will be on a clearly defined future date.

In this case, it’s important to be as detailed as possible. Consider addressing some of these common questions to best cover your bases:

  • How and when will the customer be charged when the product is in stock? (i.e., Are you charging them now, or when it arrives? Will they have to provide a credit card to checkout now or later?)
  • Will they have advanced notice and approval on those charges prior to when they occur? (i.e., Will they need to manually place an order then, or will it already be in place?)
  • How will shipping be handled, and how does shipping cost influence the final price?

Not only can pre-order pages help secure customers for in-demand products, but they can also get the SEO ball rolling quicker by enabling certain product pages to be indexed sooner rather than later after the product releases.

Most Common Mistakes with Out-of-Stock Products

With all the latter points made about handling Out-of-Stock products, understanding commonly made mistakes brings it all together. Below are a few mistakes that online retailers make when faced with inventory stockouts.

OOS Mistake #1 - Taking No Action

Entirely neglecting an Out-of-Stock product is one of the worst ways to handle the situation. It’s the equivalent of ignoring a first-time customer in a brick-and-mortar store when they inquire about a particular product.

Taking no action for Out-of-Stock products on your eCommerce site leaves interested users hanging, and in many cases, results in high exit rates and high bounce rates. Span this negligence across many Out-of-Stock product pages, and the effect can cumulate into excess indexation bloat. In turn, your site can experience diminished trust by search engines and ultimately suffer SEO losses in the long run - not to mention the distrust or aggravation this could create with potential buyers.

OOS Mistake #2 - Deleting the Page

Simply deleting a page for an Out-of-Stock product is one of the worst possible actions you can take - at least, without proper vetting to determine if/when it’s okay to do so AND serving a high quality 404/410 page. Deleting a page will cause a 404 (missing page) or a 410 (page gone) status code that tells the customer that the “page is not found.” Either way, your customer has little-to-no options and will likely leave the site.

When you just delete a page, you are compromising the organic traffic and backlinks that page earned. This is detrimental to your SEO performance, especially if a particular product page performed well organically or had (has!) several high-quality links pointing back to it.

OOS Mistake #3 - Redirecting to Your Home Page

Redirecting an Out-of-Stock product to your homepage is another common mistake that doesn’t necessarily serve users. While a 301 redirect to your homepage can ensure any product page’s backlinks are retained, this often lazy practice can make for a poor customer experience and lead to high bounce rates.

301 redirects are best used to transport a user to a similar product or related product category to the one they were originally interested in. This way, they still find something similar to what they were originally searching for, and you can still potentially make a sale.

Final Thoughts  

The eCommerce space doesn’t run 1:1 like the brick-and-mortar world. If you have an inventory stockout at a brick-and-mortar shop, you can simply put up a sign or notify customers directly and in person. Still, your brand identity and inbound traffic likely won’t be affected.

This is not the case with Out-of-Stock products on an online store where you likely have new customers finding your site daily from different avenues. You need to let your online customers know a product is Out-of-Stock in a clear way that will minimize any confusion or harm to your brand and your store’s online presence. In this case, your online brand and presence is dictated heavily by your SEO performance.

Out-of-Stock products are a fact of life for any eCommerce business. Likewise, most online shoppers know and understand when a product is Out-of-Stock. You can mitigate any damage (i.e., high bounce rates, lost backlinks, ranking drops, etc.) by letting users know a product is Out-of-Stock with the proper strategy.

Need Help With Your Product Page SEO?

The Gray Dot Company is a prominent SEO consulting firm and we are ready to help you with any and all of your eCommerce SEO needs. Contact us today to learn more.

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