Optimizing Out-of-Stock Product Pages

Out of stock (OOS) product pages – should they stay or should they go?

Even if you exclude unavailable products from your navigation structure, customers can still attempt to access these URLs through bookmarks, blog and affiliate links, wish lists and social networks. A 2012 study found ~50% of Pinterest links point to unavailable product pages. This traffic presents an opportunity to convert if you handle OOS pages right.

For products that are temporarily unavailable, keeping the page live with an “email me when back in stock” message is the best approach.

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But gone-for-good items can be handled in several ways, each with advantages and disadvantages.

4 Ways to handle permanently out of stock items

1. Use your 404 “not found” page

Converting defunct product pages to 404 pages is the easiest approach (advantage), but is the worst customer experience (huge disadvantage) – with the least opportunity to salvage the click.

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While 404 pages are the least effective, they’re better than nothing:

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If you must use the 404 page method, include links to content the visitor may be interested in to mitigate page bounce.

Sephora links to brands and bestsellers:

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Target shows a selection of top-rated items:

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Note both Sephora and Target acknowledge in their 404 page copy that the error is due to the product no longer carried (versus an error in the URL string or other issue), and attempt to salvage a page bounce with guided navigation (suggested categories, Sephora) or merchandising (product recommendations, Target).

The challenge with “high-level” recommendations is they’re not contextually relevant to the product attempted to be viewed. The customer has as much chance of finding a suitable alternative as starting their journey from the home page.

2. Keep the product page URL as a landing page

Converting the product page URL to a custom page that recommends items based on the sold-out item’s brand, category or other attributes gives you a better chance of keeping the visitor engaged.

Urban Outfitters removes product page content while maintaining relevant product recommendation widgets, and offering a link to “Shop all [brand].”

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Adidas shoes on Pinterest, pinned from Urban Outfitters

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Product detail page maintained, and merchandised with similar products

Luisaviraroma maintains the product page, and suggests viewing more from the designer, or more from the category.

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Karmaloop combines this approach with restock email opt-in. Depending on your business and ability to re-stock products, leaving a restock option on a “permanently” expired product page can be a good way to gauge demand for a product to return.

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The Shopping Channel maintains all product content including the description, reviews and associated recommendations.

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While right-column recommendations get noticed above the fold, Last Call cleverly displays top-aligned recommendations for products that are unavailable (in-stock product pages show recommended products below product information).

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Regardless of where recommendations are placed, ensure that they’re being populated properly. Yoox’ “More by this designer” carousel pulls from different designers.

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3. Redirect to Product Search

6pm redirects OOS URLs to product search for the item’s name. While this is a creative hack to direct visitors to the closest alternative products, the better tuned your search engine is for relevance, the more likely the tactic fails and produces zero results (precise matching versus near matches).

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4. Redirect to a category page

Many sites skip the link options and simply redirect defunct product pages to their parent category pages with 301 (permanent) redirects.

For example, this unavailable Valentino stiletto is redirected to the Valentino category page.

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While redirecting to a category page is a simple fix, often category and brand pages don’t present comparable alternatives to the product the visitor wanted to view. Keeping the product page live with a tight set of relevant recommendations may be a better user experience.

What is the best way to handle out of stock products for SEO?

If you’re a large site that regularly sells out of products, maintaining live pages for search engines to crawl means risking Google will spend crawl budget on unavailable products and neglect your live products.

One way to mitigate this is to apply noindex tags to product pages you want to keep out of search engines, but keep accessible to visitors through bookmarks, social sites, Pinterest boards, et cetera.

However, you may find redirecting to a category page is the simplest way to handle pages that you’ll never resurrect, with the possibility that the redirects will boost your category page backlink profile. 301 (permanent) redirects flow backlink credits from your expired product pages to your category pages, which over time may strengthen the page’s SEO (provided Google hasn’t or doesn’t decide to discount these credits based on the nature of the redirects).

For users’ sake, don’t redirect to the home page – select the next-best-thing for the products in question. (404 pages do not have any SEO or user benefits).

If your catalog is small or relatively evergreen and you’re not concerned with an ever-growing graveyard of product page URLs, keeping product pages live may be your best opportunity for converting visitors to similar products through recommendation widgets. Some products maintain search demand long after they sell out, so leaving them live and indexable (without a noindex tag), with descriptions and product reviews in-tact could also have SEO value, so long as your similar-product recommendations are appealing. (You may apply this strategy to select OOS products only).

Keeping description and review content in tact also prevents your site from becoming heavy on “thin content” which can hurt your domain’s reputation with search engines. If you choose to strip content (like the Urban Outfitters example), keep these pages out of search engines with noindex tags.

Some SEOs recommend reusing URLs when possible or relevant to preserve a page’s backlink profile and capitalize on existing bookmarks and social site links. While it may be tempting to do so, this is a poor bait-and-switch experience for your visitors (even if they are very similar), and can mess up your analytics and reporting when you view across a date range that includes the life of both products.

There’s no absolute right or wrong way to handle out of stock product URLs, it depends on your catalog size, turnover and merchandising strategy. If you do decide to keep URLs live, ensure you consider the SEO implications as well as user experience.

It’s also a good idea to keep tabs on click through and conversion rates if you choose a keep-alive “landing page” strategy. You may find certain products are successful keeping live, while others are better redirected to a category page. So long as it’s technically feasible with your ecommerce platform, a combined approach of live OOS pages and redirects may be your optimal solution.

Need help with your ecommerce merchandising strategy? Drop me a line.

Ecommerce Illustrated is a project of Edgacent, an ecommerce advisory group.

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