6 Common Retail SEO Pitfalls (and How to Avoid Them)

Filed in MY BEST POSTS, SEO by Matt McGee on May 3, 2007 10 Comments

cashI’ve found myself analyzing a fair number of retail Web sites in the past 5-6 months, for companies ranging from mid-size to just about the top of the retail ladder. No matter what size the retail operation, though, I keep noticing a similar group of problems. I thought I’d outline six Retail SEO problems, some of which are unique to the industry, and some which are not.

1. An SEO un-friendly CMS system.

Not too long ago, I came across a CMS (content management system) that republishes the entire site, AND with new URLs every time the site owner updates the content. That’s an extreme example of an SEO un-friendly CMS system, but there are many others out there in use. What you need in a CMS is flexibility and freedom — freedom to customize page titles and meta tags, to name categories and sub-categories how you want, to add as much content as you want for category, sub-category, and product pages, etc.

2. Poor crawlability.

Too many shopping sites have session IDs and multiple dynamic variables in their URLs. Both are those are crutches where SEO is concerned. Spiders don’t accept session IDs, and will generally ignore pages/sites that force session IDs. Session IDs should be in a cookie instead of in the URL. And dynamic variables should be kept to a minimum; 1-2 is best, and I’d say three is the max. Anything beyond that and you risk the spider choosing to ignore your pages.

3. Poor keyword research & usage.

I just wrote earlier this week about how to use keywords, but that’s only half the battle. When I interviewed Jon Glick of Become.com last year, he shared a good example of poor keyword choice/usage:

“A fashion retailer might give us a title like ‘Lacoste – Blue Pique Polo’ and never use the word ‘shirt,’ so when a user searches for ‘Lacoste shirt’ they don’t come up.”

I’ve seen a lot of that lately. Keyword research will help retailers find the exact phrases shoppers use.

4. Lack of content.

For a variety of reasons, this is a huge problem for many retail sites. Their mistake is to focus on sell, sell, sell, without realizing that inform, inform, inform is often a necessary precursor to getting the sale. Karon Thackston wrote earlier this year on Search Engine Guide about how “68% of shoppers want…better imagery, more product descriptions and details.” Anthony Garcia made a similar point on Grokdotcom: “It seems that most (retailers) want to ignore that fact that their flimsy product descriptions are fueling buying apathy.” Great content sells the product and it’s absolutely necessary for SEO.

5. Putting catalogs on the Web.

This is very related to No. 4…. Many retailers have spent good money on writers and designers to put together a high-quality print catalog, and it’s tempting to take that paid-for material and put it on the Web. But don’t give in to that temptation. Catalog copy is often far too brief to have any chance of acquiring natural search traffic; it’s a different style of writing that relies more on flowery, descriptive language. Searchers don’t usually search that way, so catalog copy hurts your SEO efforts.

6. Product Turnover

One last common issue worth mentioning relates to the speed with which some merchants add and remove products. In some niches, it’s not uncommon for 1/3rd of inventory to be available on the Web site for a month or less. The SEO implications of that should be obvious, especially when it sometimes takes that long just to get deep product content spidered, much less indexed and at the top of the SERPs. In situations like this, where rapid turnover minimizes your chances for product-level SEO traffic, it’s better to focus on the more stable category or sub-category pages above these “quick hit” products.

Those are six common retail SEO problems and some thoughts on how to avoid/solve them. I should mention that all is not gloom and doom. Internet Retailer magazine’s recent search survey revealed some good news where retail SEO is concerned: 81% of retail respondents are working on improving product descriptions, 68% are using keyword research to find phrases that searchers are using, and 58% are even optimizing product images. That’s good news for retailers and shoppers, too.

[tags]seo, retail seo, shopping[/tags]

Comments (10)

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  1. Matt: I’d be interested in your thoughts on what SEO-friendly eCommerce systems are available in the wild. It’s something I’ve looked at in the past – especially with open source software – but I haven’t seen anything that looks interesting.

  2. Miriam says:

    I continue to be dazzled by your ability to create posts like this. You KNOW this stuff so well. I’m going to have to go the chiropractor from nodding my head so much “yep, yep, yep” to your posts!

    We’ve been struggling with one of these issues and I thought I’d mention it here as Gerard has asked a question above.

    We use securenetshop’s cart because, rather than it dynamically generating the product pages, one builds the physical pages and then integrates them as the last step with the cart. This results in real, static, product pages that can be individually optmized and filled with good informational content and well as something to buy.

    However, it’s this very aspect that makes the cart unsuitable for very large projects. It takes several months to build a 1000 product e-commerce site this way, and though I do believe the end result is ‘meatier’ than a site built with session ids, it’s really nitty gritty to do this, and there isnt a CMS associated with it that then easily lets the client go on to add their own products in future, unless they want to learn HTML and handcode like we do.

    What are your thoughts on this. Hope this comment isn’t too long, but your post and this issue have brought this to the front of my mind, as we turn away work for clients who want to put up a 3000 product website. I don’t want my husband to keel over from manual data entry, so we have to say ‘no’ because we don’t have a good alternative method to the way we normally build for small businesses.

    I’d love to hear your thoughts!

  3. Matt McGee says:

    Miriam – thank you so much. Don’t mean to hurt your neck with my posts, though! 🙂

    Gerard, thanks for registering and commenting. Have to confess, though, that I haven’t taken this to the next step and done any serious investigation into which platforms could be recommended. I remember commenting on some other blog (maybe SEOmoz?) a couple months ago that the best piece of linkbait for someone to work on would be a detailed article about the most SEO-friendly CMSs and commerce platforms. Really wish someone would put that together…..

    Miriam – I think your approach is the right way to go. The product/sales pages should be separate from the shopping cart, and they should be optimized. Those pages obviously need an ADD TO CART button, and when that’s clicked the customer “enters” the cart system, but they should be able to easily return to the store.

    I don’t have any ideas on solutions, though. In my previous job, when I was doing some webdev and a little bit of programming, we had our own database language that was written in-house and it handled everything without a flaw, even big product databases in the 4- and 5-figures. I could optimize the product pages just fine, or we gave control to the client to write page titles, meta tags, etc. It was all very customizable. The drawback to this setup is that, because it was our own programming language, your site was not portable to another web host. Fortunately, few clients were ever inspired to leave … but the ones who did had to start almost from scratch with their new host/developer.

  4. pobrien says:

    Great article, I’m looking for anyone who has had success managing the ever changing nature of your product catalog. I’ve tried to develop scripts to automatically write 301 redirects. Stop by and get in touch

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