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Search Engine Optimisation Strategies and Tactics for Ecommerce

Today, in Part 4 of 12 Ecommerce Website Design & Development White Papers in 2012 we are going to cover Search Engine Optimisation for Ecommerce, or SEO for short.

It is important to note that although we are writing with a focus on ecommerce, the SEO tactics we discuss are equally relevant for any website, not just for ecommerce websites.

Let’s begin with the basics.

A search engine exists to organise information. It finds information on behalf of its customers and ranks it according to how ‘well’ the information fits with the search.

A search engine listing

Search engine optimisation, SEO, is essentially three components that work together to ensure that search engines ‘understand’ what information your site contains (your key topics) so that they can ‘recommend’ your website to the searcher.

How well you rank in the search listings does not depend on how many people visit your website, but on how well you execute and balance the three components of SEO:

  1. The design and technical aspects of your website are critical in how search engines understand what is on your site is about, this includes keyword friendly addresses (URLs), content that can be indexed (e.g. words within images are not ‘read’ by the search engine), site speed, the quality of the user’s experience of your site and other quality factors.
  2. Search engines look at ‘offsite’ aspects of your website: the number of websites linking to yours and whether they are popular for similar topics, and if their niche (key content) matches your own and how many people are recommending your key content on social media sites, reviews and ratings.
  3. Ongoing creation of relevant content to your market segment (if you only sell shoes, the majority of your content should probably mention something about shoes: laces, leather, care, making your own, stitching, etc). The content you create must use the keywords and keyphrases that your target customers are actually searching for within your titles, headings, onsite links, and in the body copy and product descriptions.

SEO is a long-term activity. It is something that must be planned for from day one, and must be maintained, checked, tweaked and re-implemented over time.

Know your place

There is no easy way to say this, so we’ll just get right out with it.

If you want to rank #1 for a single keyword – let’s say ‘tools’ – you better have deep pockets to take on Screwfix, Machinemart and Toolbox, occupying the first three places on Google. That’s not even including the next seven brand names on the first page like B&Q and the marketing engines of Amazon and eBay that get millions of inbound links!

If you’re wondering why you aren’t on the first page of Google for your single product keyword, then you need to look at your marketing budget, market share and reach and adjust accordingly.

SEO is not about tricking, deceiving or otherwise ‘gaming’ search engines into showing your site above others. They are smart enough to know when you are spamming them.

SEO is about creating value for your customers. This is something done long-term.

It is not done once and forgotten about.

Forget irrelevant ‘measures’ of SEO like being #1 in Google and instead focus on what you can actually do to connect with your customers on a realistic budget.

Begin with research

This is essential for getting the right words and phrases into your website to help the search engines recommend your ecommerce site to the searcher. The closer the match, the better you’ll do.

Abandon all thoughts about selling for a minute. That will come later. You need to find out what your potential customers are looking for and how they are looking for it.

This means knowing what words they are typing into the search field on Google, Bing, and Yahoo (even Facebook and Twitter) to find the products and services that your organic competitors sell.

By ‘organic’ we mean the websites you are competing with in search listings, not necessarily your brand’s competitors.

Make a target keyword list

Begin by listing out the likely words you think your target customers would use (start with the ones you would use) to find the products you sell. If you sell one or two products, then 5-20 keywords will do. If you sell hundreds of products…well, you do the maths.

By ‘keywords’ we don’t mean a single word. No one searches like that anymore.

“SEO”

People naturally search using multiple words because they know that the more they put into the search engine, the closer they will be to the result they are after.

“SEO tactics for ecommerce”

For ideas, take a look at the top listings in the search engines and at your brand competitors. What are they using for keywords and keyphrases? Are they using unique descriptions? How do they label photos? What is their information architecture? Do they use keywords in links? Are they targeting the same shopping personality that you are targeting?

Use what works for your unique product offering and for your unique target customers.

For an in-depth look at researching keywords, have a read of Keyword Research Tips & Strategies over at BlueGlass.

Create a strategy

Before you run off and start jamming words and phrases willy-nilly into web pages, you need to understand why you are putting those words in those places.

You need a plan.

Begin by answering this one simple question: How are you going to add value?

I.e. What is it that your ecommerce website business uniquely offers of value that no one else does (or that you do better)?

This is your story and it gives a clue as to the strategies you should use to grow your business using SEO.

If your offer is ‘helping people find the ethical products they desire,’ then you need to prove this with more content than products listings. What you write, how you position the products, even your strategies will be influenced by this objective.

As a new ecommerce business, one of your business objectives might be to gain market share. One strategy to gain market share might be to grow your blog presence. One tactic to achieve this business strategy is SEO.

Write this down:
Business objective→ Strategy→ Tactics→ SEO

SEO tactics

If your tactic is to optimise blog posts, you need to choose topics relevant to your target audience and optimise those posts around the topics and keyword groups that people will search for, find and share.

For our ethical ecommerce shop, we might create a set of SEO blog activities that would look something like this:

  • write news-like posts about launches of specific ethical products and companies
  • post product reviews of ethical products
  • create research-based posts on how specific ethical activities influenced product design, shopping behaviour and marketing
  • put up strong opinion pieces that get people talking and commenting about ethical issues and products
  • comment on other relevant blogs with thoughtful and insightful ideas that contribute to the conversation or expand on your ethical stance
  • create a social media presence and link to your own content, share ideas and link to other sources of ethical product information
  • create external links to relevant ethical companies, organisations and information
  • add posts to your email marketing efforts
  • attend conferences in your niche promoting the blog

These activities might not (at first) seem like SEO tactics, but on closer examination, every single one of these tactics has huge SEO value: keyword-rich content for search engines to index, highly relevant content that will match a range of search parameters, regular activity, high-quality content that gets talked about and linked to, recommendations of your content from social sources, offsite links and an experience for your target customers that adds value.

Measurement

It’s no good having a strategy if you can’t see how you’re doing (and no, counting ‘hits’ isn’t a good metric). You need to know how many unique visitors you get, what they do, where they go, how much they buy and which keywords they converted from. Do certain phrases convert better than others?

Get a good metrics package and use it.

On-site tactics

When you create new content for your ecommerce website, you need to make sure you are following your SEO strategy and using appropriate keywords, or creating new keyword groups based on the new product lines you are adding.

Custom product descriptions
If you plan on cutting corners by just using the boring manufacturer’s product listing, make another plan.

If you have the same content as 100 or more ecommerce sites out there using the default description, how would you expect the search engines to differentiate your offers?

Using your own unique description content means you’ll be unique instead of 1 of 100.

Other on-site SEO tactics for your ecommerce site include:

  • Keyword-driven links to other areas or related products on your site
  • SEO-friendly navigation and URL structures
  • Design and user experience considerations in favour of SEO
  • Proper use of an internal search engine

Offsite tactics

One of the most recent developments in search engine rankings is the ability to use rich snippets to enhance the information shown in your search result. These are things like star-ratings, reviews, thumbnail images of the product and a price range.

One reason to consider using rich snippets is that they help the searcher make a decision before they go to your (or competitors’!) website.

Link building
This remains the single most effective SEO tactic because it tells the search engines (and searchers) exactly something about the value of the content that you have. In fact, social ‘signals’ are now a large influence on search rankings in both Google [1] and Bing [2].

That’s why in the last ecommerce white paper we stressed that link building is about making relationships. You build online relationships by adding value.

Going back to our SEO tactics for the ethical ecommerce shop, you would reach out to other bloggers in the ethical sphere, commenting on their posts, adding valuable information to the discussions on their sites, and building a relationship with these bloggers. You may then start reaping the rewards with their links to your content and products.

It takes time and you need to be interesting enough that people WANT to link to you.

Conclusion

Search engine optimisation (SEO) for ecommerce involves first understanding your business objectives, then creating strategies to support those objectives, and finally identifying the SEO tactics to use to support that strategy.

To be successful in attracting links, visitors and buyers to your ecommerce website, your SEO tactics must add value to the shopper – how are you supporting, enhancing and ultimately fulfilling their desires.

References

  1. SEOmoz, Social Annotations in Search: Now Your Social Network = Rankings, http://www.seomoz.org/blog/social-annotations-in-search-now-your-social-network-rankings, Accessed 07.04.2012
  2. Searchengineland, Bing Ups Ante in Social Search, http://searchengineland.com/bing-ups-ante-in-social-search-re-ranking-serps-with-likes-77269, Accessed 07.04.2012