We recently sat down with Sitemap founder Austin Cline to discuss some of the top issues he sees with e-commerce stores’ SEO. As one of the internet’s leading SEO eCommerce specialists, Austin has worked on dozens of websites from large stores offering more than 10,000 SKUs, to small stores featuring custom-built machines, including homedepot.com, sherrilltree.com, ringsend.com, and evelo.com.
Q: If there was one mistake you had to pick out that almost everyone makes, what would it be?
A: If there’s one place I see eCommerce stores mess up their SEO, especially large stores with >10,000 SKUs, it’s with canonical URLs.
Most eCommerce stores have “variants”, or versions of a product to choose from like brand, size, color, type, etc. For example, you may have a men’s long sleeve shirt available in multiple colors—blue, green, white—and let’s say some of them are on sale too. When you filter the shirt to be green, a new URL is often created by appending various characters (also called parameters). For example:
The default URL might be www.store.com/mens-shirts/long-sleeve/. After you add filtered, the variant URL might be: www.store.com/mens-shirts/long-sleeve?color=forest-green&sale=promoholiday
As you can imagine, this can create thousands, if not millions of URLs (yes, we have actually seen websites with >50 million random URLs being indexed up by Google 🤯). Not only that, but chances are, those are going to be large URLs.
The variant URL is generally not the URL you want Google to pay attention to. “Canonicalizing” a URL is a fancy word for saying that the website’s code has a URL structure that tells Google and search engines which URLs to index or pay attention to.
Back to our example, the canonical URL should be www.store.com/menss-shirts/long-sleeve/
When it comes to indexing pages, we generally recommend only indexing URLs up to the 3rd filter. That’s plenty of information for Google to crawl and understand.
You can see if these canonical URLs are being indexed by Google in Google Search Console.
Q: OK, so we know we don’t want Google to be paying attention to all the potential combination options, but what if a store needs to rank very specific types of products? How can they make sure search engines can find their products?
A: Good question. Let’s say a store sells lawnmowers. If you’ve done your keyword research correctly, you may find there’s a ton of volume for very specific lawnmower product keywords. You may find people search for things like “John Deere lawnmowers on sale” or “Briggs & Stratton push mowers with bag.”
Most large stores are going to have product listing pages (PLPs) that are like catalogs of specific product categories that can then be filtered down as we talked about with canonical URLs.
To rank for those specific keywords, you’ll want to make sure your website is updating the page title and meta information when filter options are selected.
In our lawnmower example, if a user lands on a “Lawnmowers” category page, then filters to show only Briggs & Stratton lawnmowers that have a bag, but the PLP page title and metadata don’t change, it’s going to be difficult for Google to index your website for those specific keywords.
In this case, it makes sense to set your canonical URL to include the filters and parameters.
We definitely take this on a case-by-case basis though. There’s no one way to optimize your navigation because every store is different.
Q: That sounds like a lot of work for product listing pages. How important are those pages to an SEO strategy?
A: Product listing pages are a core set of pages to rank in eCommerce SEO because they contain multiple products, often in the same category (like the page that lists all men’s polos or all lawnmowers).
If your page is struggling to rank for your target keyword, technical SEO isn’t the only thing to try. Don’t be afraid to add an on-page blurb of text. Doing this allows you to add content and keywords Google may be looking for when it comes to ranking PLPs. There are a lot of stores taking advantage of this and for good reason.
Q: Got it! Now, one of the buzz topics I keep hearing about in e-commerce is “Core Web Vitals.” Can you tell me what that means exactly, and is it something we all actually need to be paying attention to?
A: Yes, website performance is a much bigger deal in 2021 and beyond. While it’s always been important, Google is making moves to include page performance as a ranking factor, and it starts with Core Web Vitals (CWV).
In a nutshell, CWV is a measurement of a website’s performance. In sports, we call it fast-twitch. it’s the same type of thing here: how quickly (down to the nanosecond) does your website react to user interaction.
There are three main parts to Core Web Vitals:
- LCP (Largest Contentful Paint): The LCP metric reports the time it takes for the largest image or text block visible above the fold to be rendered, complete, and ready for interaction.
- FID (First Input Delay): FID measures the time from when a user first interacts with a page (e.g. when they click a link or tap on an interactive element) to the time when the browser responds to the action and starts processing it.
- CLS (Cumulative Layout Shift): CLS is a measure of the largest burst of layout shift scores for every unexpected layout shift that occurs during the entire lifespan of a page. A layout shift occurs any time a visible element changes its position from one rendered frame to the next.
If you want to dive deeper into optimizing for Core Web Vitals, web.dev has a great piece on it here. If you’re not familiar with technical SEO, there are tons of resources available. It helps if you have a background in web development, but either way, since Google takes website performance seriously, so should you when optimizing a website.
Q: Sounds like having a great web developer on your team is an important key to SEO success! You mentioned a little bit about content too. As we wrap up today, can you give us one tip for winning content on an e-commerce site?
Well, I would say focusing on “keyword intent”, but that’s an incredibly broad topic and too much for this conversation. Instead, I’ll touch on one specific type of content that tends to get quick and profitable results for eCommerce stores: buyer guides.
Many consumers begin their buyer journey on Google by asking questions like:
- “What type of suit will last the longest?”
- “Will my leather bag wear out if I use it often”?
- “What kind of lawnmower is best for yards bigger than 1 acre?”
These are important questions you should know the answer to. And chances are, you’ll need to create buyer guides to rank for these popular terms.
Buyer guides are based on helpful information. Look for commonly asked questions and write content that answers them. As long as it’s helpful and answers the user’s questions, it has a great chance of ranking.