Optimizing product pages for search is an important strategy for attracting customers who are closer-to-conversion than those that arrive to your home page or through higher-funnel campaigns.
What are the best practices for optimizing code, copy and consumer-contributed content?
Understanding semantic matching
With Google’s search algorithm, the only constant is change, and in the last few years Google’s algorithm has moved away from keyword matching to a semantic approach. This means it’s less important to have exact keywords appearing in the beginning of a title tag, for example, or to be used in product descriptions with a specific frequency than in years past.
You may have noticed that Google often returns results for a query that contain no matches to a given keyword on the page or in source code. For example, first-page results for “childrens running shoes” returns pages with titles using “kids,” “boys” and even “small fry.” It’s not until position 13 that a title with “childrens” appears.
The top two organic results for the term “plaid sleeping bags” (both from LL Bean, below) contain no use of the term “plaid” on the product landing page.
A search for “mens hooded jackets” returns a broader set of matches which may or may not actually contain hooded jackets. While this isn’t the optimal experience for an online shopper seeking something specific (matching keywords exactly provides reassurance that relevant products are to be found behind the click), this is the way Google has chosen to operate at this time.
While keyword use remains a ranking factor, it’s just that – a single factor in the recipe. Semantic matching means SEO for product pages is less about optimizing for specific search terms (Google will attempt to make the semantic associations on its end), and more about SEO-friendly site structure, proper HTML markup, structured markup and mitigating thin and duplicate content.
Leveraging Rich Snippets
Rich snippets are a form of structured data which provide search engines with additional information about your content. The most common snippets used by ecommerce sites display product prices, star ratings and stock availability.
When star ratings are displayed, it reinforces to the customer that the listing is for a product page (versus a blog post or other content), and assures the customer that the review content they crave is available on your site. This can positively impact click through rates and time on page / bounce rate – all factors Google considers when scoring relevance for a page to a given query.
While there’s no guarantee that Google or other search engines will display your snippets in search engines (it appears to depend on the query and other behind-the-scenes factors), it’s best practice to bake this markup into your product templates to maximize the chances they’ll appear in search (and give you an edge over the competition).
For more information, check out Google’s guidance on using product schema.
Optimizing product page URLs
Because a product can live in multiple categories (such as New Arrivals, Sale, brand categories, Women’s or Men’s, sub-categories, Best Selling or themed categories), best practice for product URLs is to have one “clean” canonical URL (without category parameters).
…should point to the canonical version:
Using a canonical version is preferred to 301 redirects, as they can slow down servers.
Handling SKU variants
Products that come in multiple variants (most commonly color) can have their own product pages and URLs, or live on a single, configurable URL.
In theory, a SKU variant with its own URL can be optimized for the variant’s search terms, which can give you an edge in search engines, especially for products like “red Chuck Taylors” or “rose gold iphone” where color carries search demand.
The problem is color variants can compete with and even cannibalize each other in organic search for non-variant terms like “Chuck Taylors” and “iphone,” and search engines may handle them as duplicate content.
For example, SoftMoc carries five colors of the Converse Chuck II Viz Flow hi-top sneakers, with unique URLs for each color variant.
The problem is Google has filtered all but the white color from its index (results in position 2 and 3 below are for the low-top version of the sneaker).
This means SoftMoc can’t rank for other colors in search, and even an exact search for “softmoc mens chuck II Viz Flow black hi tops” will not return the correct color variant or style (hi top) in Google search.
Skechers, on the other hand, successfully gets many variants of the sneaker style “OG 82” indexed, even though it uses the same description copy across all 19 SKU variants (including men’s and women’s versions).
Skechers uses rel=”canonical” tags to point variant URLs to a clean, master URL.
This signals to Google that color variant pages are copies of the canonical version. With this approach, any links pointing to color variant URLs will be rolled back to the canonical version, preventing any backlink credit dilution.
Both /og-82-classic-kicks/burg and /og-82-classic-kicks/nvy point to og-82-classic-kicks/. This approach effectively tells the search engine to treat non-canonical URLs as copies of the canonical URL.
Using rel=”canonical” does not guarantee your variants will rank for variant-related searches. Rather, it informs Google that some pages are copies of other pages, which helps Google understand your site structure better, but only provides the “what” and not the “why.” It’s not a directive for Google to index or return your SKU variant URLs for queries related to SKU variants. And it doesn’t necessarily mitigate bandwidth issues that search crawlers encounter with large sites.
You may have noticed that Skechers’ product pages contain multiple color options on every SKU-variant’s URL (unlike SoftMoc), negating the need for multiple URLs if not for SEO purposes. While Skechers may be doing this as a way to show all available colors at-a-glance in internal site search and category list pages, this also has implications on user experience, as it inflates product list results and pagination, which can be user unfriendly – especially on mobile screens.
Theoretically, the “best” way to optimize for specific colors in Google and Bing is to create unique descriptions for each variant – “best” in the sense of most likely to be treated as a stand-alone page and least likely to compete with and cannibalize other variant pages. However, the impact on user experience and the resources required to customize each page make this an unattractive and inefficient solution. It also bloats the amount of pages to crawl. Depending on how much bandwidth Google is willing to spend on your domain, this strategy may still negatively impact indexing.
For most ecommerce sites, the simplest and arguably most user friendly approach is to bake SKU variants into a single URL, ensuring that the keywords related to variants are properly applied to image titles and alt attributes, and appear at least once in product copy. This reduces the amount of URLs on your domain, increasing the chances Google indexes all your products.
Using manufacturers’ stock product descriptions is efficient, but not optimal for SEO. Chances are these blocks of copy not only appear on your manufacturer’s website but also your competitors’ sites. When Google finds many pages using the same content block, it attempts to choose the best one — which may be your manufacturer’s site, depending on its domain strength and if the content was first discovered by Google on your supplier’s domain.
For example, Ecco’s website contains the “stock” description.
Retail partner #1 uses the stock description word-for-word.
Retail partner #2 uses most of the stock description, changing only the last sentence (which is not enough to be considered original, non-duplicate copy).
Amazon takes the time to craft a unique description, which certainly helps its SEO effort. Not to mention, custom-crafted copy can be a lot sexier than stock descriptions. Your own copy may also convert better.
Large ecommerce sites often don’t have the resources to write fleshed-out, custom descriptions for every product. If this is the case for your site, short descriptions for most products in your catalog may suffice. However, writing custom content for high margin, high sell-through, and highly viewed products can be very worth the investment — especially when you’re paying for traffic to these products through Google Adwords or Product Listing Ads. Use your analytics to prioritize this task.
Traditional “SEO copywriting” for product pages emphasizes keyword use and repetition on the page.
For example, Baby Haven wastes no opportunity to repeat “Sophie the Giraffe” on the product page:
Keyword use remains a ranking factor in 2016, but there’s no evidence that repeating keywords several times helps you rank higher against other sites. And excessive keyword use could be a negative ranking factor. Remember that Google frowns upon anything that looks like an obvious SEO tactic, and encourages all copywriters to write for users.
Google has long condemned practices like hidden text, cloaking, and anything that shows users different content than what’s contained in the code.
Does this apply to content “hidden” behind accordions and tabs?
Google suggests it may “discount” and not give the same consideration for ranking relevance when keywords appear in content blocks not immediately visible to users.
Product content collapsed in an accordion menu
If you use accordions, make sure your product description appears expanded by default.
Product content section expanded
Content like size information, brand boilerplate or customer service information are safer to keep collapsed. But ideally, product reviews are not collapsed behind an accordion menu or tab, and are provided their own section on the product page.
Avoid hiding review content behind tabs, for SEO and user experience
SERPs (search engine results pages) were never designed with ecommerce in mind. Results’ lack of visuals is why Image Search is a useful hack for many online shoppers – especially on mobile devices.
Google reports that “people who search and shop on their smartphones at least once a week say that product images are the shopping feature they turn to most,” and that it commonly receives user requests for prices and “where can I buy this?”
That’s why Google recently rolled out Image Search ads, recognizing Image Search’s value to consumers and retailers alike.
To optimize for organic ranking in Image Search, ensure you’re leveraging image title and alt attributes. Include the product name and color in each tag.
Keep in mind that surrounding text also influences image search ranking, so ensure the color variants are included on the page.
And don’t forget to leverage image sitemaps.
Video demonstrations are the ultimate product image, and can greatly impact conversion. Stacks and Stacks reports its customers are 144% more likely to purchase products with video, and a survey by Liveclicker found 57% of retailers report that customers who view product videos have a minimum of 50% higher average order values.
These benefits exist whether you self-host product video or use third party services like Youtube and Vimeo. Whilst third-party hosting is essentially free, hosting your own product videos can boost your SEO. When self-hosted video is embedded on other sites, backlinks are credited to your site versus Youtube or Vimeo. And traffic from search engines sends searchers directly to your product page.
Self-hosted video can be optimized for search engines by using:
An XML video sitemap Helps Google crawl and index more of your video content
Rich snippets for video Helps pull additional context into your video listing, like a description and star ratings, and allows you to include a static thumbnail image
Optimizing review content
Review content can help SEO by matching longer-tail, contextual queries like “climbing rope for low angle.” User reviews often contain comments about common (and unexpected) uses which may not appear in a product’s description or specs.
Review content may also help your page “freshness” in the eyes of search engines (how frequently content is updated).
Today, most of the major players have solved this SEO issue by developing in-line SEO extensions that plug reviews into your HTML for engines to read. However, these features don’t always come out-of-the-box, and may require your developer’s integration or an upgrade in your subscription tier (e.g. Yotpo).
To optimize your in-line, SEO friendly reviews, Bazaarvoice advises “adding eight reviews to the page substantially increases the freshness score in the Google algorithm. Additionally, pages with some visible reviews (not under a tab) more consistently receive snippet stars in Google search results.”
Bazaarvoice also recommends sorting reviews by relevance, as its own product’s relevance algorithm favors reviews that are content-rich and recently added — content more likely to help SEO (hinting that its algorithm factors target keywords, relevant synonyms and adjectives).
The vendor also suggests capping reviews at 30 per page (validated through its own testing), and optimizing subsequent paginated results with “[keyword] + reviews” to capture these opportunities.
How you manage out-of-stock products has SEO impact, along with UX and merchandising implications. The next chapter of Ecommerce Illustrated explores ways to optimize OOS pages across these dimensions. (Have you subscribed?)
Need help with your ecommerce SEO strategy? Drop me a line.
Ecommerce Illustrated is a project of Edgacent, an ecommerce advisory group.