Content Strategy Tips for E-Commerce Websites

E-Commerce sites are usually behemoths.  Usually content is king, but in e-Commerce, the copy is a forgotten son plugging away against Claudius (or Scar, depending on whether you’re a Shakespeare person or Disney).

The hardest way is not always the best.  Apply that to your average enterprise, e-Commerce site (along with some knowledge that doesn’t come in a fortune cookie), and you come out with a workable content strategy.

 Content Curation King

I see where you’re going with this (via WSJ).

 As you don’t have infinite (client) funds and infinite staff with infinite time, you will be unable to write unique content for every one of thousands of pages that often describe nearly identical products.  Instead, you have finite funds, finite staff, and a finite strategy. So instead, you write protocol for content, and protocol for said content’s indexation.

Protocol Definition

No.

What to Automate, When to Automate

1. Homepage

Optimize this page manually. The homepage is your time to shine. Take that keyword strategy and make your page title sing. Turn your meta description to click-through gold. Place text on the page and not that oh-so-fancy Flash that the design agency on the account is so excited to produce.  Evangelize, ye SEO.

2. Category Pages

How many types of products does your client sell? Usually, that number is between five and eight if your client is sector-specific (e.g., home and kitchen appliances).  The big box stores usually have ten to fifteen primary product categories.

Amazon Site Structure

Site structure is the first step to unique content. When one page is unique from the next, then its content can be made unique from the next.

 A side note on Amazon: Usually your client is not quite as Amazonian as Amazon (unless your client is Amazon). This means that usually your client cannot afford to have a messy site structure.

Since there are only five to fifteen category/department pages, these should be optimized manually, using high search volume category-level keyphrases from your keyphrase strategy.

3. Sub-Category Pages

At this point the URLs of most e-Commerce sites are wreaking havoc.  Take this URL, for example, that is the subcategory “Clothing” within “Clothing & Accessories” on Amazon:  http://www.amazon.com/clothing-accessories-men-women-kids/b/ref=sa_menu_apr?ie=UTF8&node=1036592.  The search engine reads this part – “ref=sa_menu_apr?ie=UTF8&node=1036592” – when it scores the URL.

Most of these URLs are this way because the page is dynamically served, and populated automatically by the CMS. In other words, when pages are dynamically served, typically the URLs reflect that automation. This is where you start, after you’ve cleaned up the site structure, of course.

The URLs for category and subcategory pages should be general and straight-forward (e.g., domain.com/refrigeration/bottom-freezer-refrigerators.html), derived from the keyword strategy and site structure.

In some e-Commerce websites, the subcategory pages are dynamically served.  If this is the case, then you or the development team will have to update the CMS to make this possible.

Some commonly used product management systems have an “SEO version,” which opens up some functionality for the CMS. If you’re shopping for a new e-Commerce CMS, quiz the product rep before you agree to anything. If the client’s system is homegrown, work with the tech team to develop workarounds where possible.

Side note: If there are links built to pages via the old URLs, you’ll have to 301 redirect the old URLs to the optimized URLs so that you don’t lose traffic and trust, algorithmically speaking.

4. Item List Pages

The item list pages are where the URLs will need to be automated, through the CMS.  In most e-Commerce sites, the subcategory pages are not dynamically served in response to user search filters, but the item list pages always are.

In the case of item list pages, though, optimization is less important, except where it interacts with user experience. In other words, page titles, URLs, page placement, navigation, footer links, and other user-facing content only help insofar as they face the user. Meta descriptions and image alt tags (unless the client loves mouseovers) don’t matter.  This is because you are deindexing the item list pages.

 Don’t panic.  Here:

Don't Panic

Item list pages, when indexed, are the epitome of everything panic-inducing about dynamically served pages.  Here’s why:

If the client’s CMS creates pages in the order in which the user selected product filters, then the CMS will automatically generate almost identical pages for a “white Samsung bottom freezer refrigerator” and a “bottom freezer refrigerator that is from Samsung and white.” This means that your website will have multiple URLs that describe the same page, according to every possible permutation of the order of the product category filters.  This means that your website will be seen as having duplicate content by search engines.

Workaround for Duplicate Content without Deindexing Item List Pages

No workaround to deindexing will solve the difficulty in item list pages, but this one can get close.

Set the URLs to populate according to the user’s ultimate set of filters and create accompanying URL protocol, according to the keyword strategy. That is, instead of each check box or filter choice generating a new page, the new page is only generated when the user is done choosing.  Then one item list page is created for each unique combination of filters. This cuts down on completely identical content from one item list page to the next.

Washer Item List Page

  • Problem #1: This cuts down on site functionality and user experience, by limiting the user to a single decision-making instance over the course of one search.
  • Problem #2: You still have meta-descriptions and page titles to consider. These will need to be built according to protocol that you lay out. Will your page title be {Color Sub-Category Category Brand Size}, or will your page title be {Brand Sub-Category Category – Color Size}? What are the most essential parameters according to your client’s industry, reach demographics, established demographics, and related keyword strategies? Your client’s item list pages will define very specific, granular product categories, and for optimization (and indexation) to make sense, you’ll need to optimize accordingly.

No need to panic, though!  Instead, just deindex the item list pages, and your problem goes away.  The aim of e-Commerce SEO is to create sales on the site by driving traffic to the site through search engines. If we make the item list pages searchable as they are (with duplicate content), then Google would react by driving down the rankings for those pages, at best. This means that it would be irrelevant if the item list pages were indexed, because they wouldn’t rank in the first few pages of search results anyway.  At worst, Google could react by penalizing the site for duplicate content, which would drive down rankings site-wide.

Another side note! When you deindex, the client may dip in rank before recovering.

5. SKU Pages/Product Pages

First of all, don’t deindex these pages. Your client’s product pages are gold. They are the immediate point of conversion. Drive traffic here directly, and you have proved your ROI without a single PowerPoint deck.

Second, SKU pages are not dynamically served, so protocol here is essential and delicate.  Get specific. Write protocol for page titles; meta-descriptions; image filenames and alt tags (unique for each image, especially where product pages are often home to image galleries for different product views); on-page product descriptions; and more.

Similarly, check to make sure that pages for older, out-of-production products are 301 re-directed automatically to pages for related products.  For usability, have the re-direct work with an accompanying pop-up that tells the user that the new page is the latest along that product line, with a link out (where possible) for more information. Pages for backordered or out-of-stock items should automatically be home to a link for similar products that are in-stock, so that your client doesn’t lose customers because of warehousing issues. To turn warehousing issues into prospecting, you can also ask customers to sign up to receive notifications when their products are back in stock.

6. Editorial and Seasonal Special Offers Pages

Most e-Commerce websites, like other companies, run seasonal campaigns. The difference here is that your classic e-Retailer (that is, an e-Commerce company that is not also a manufacturing company) will be running campaigns that every other e-Retailer in the sector could run, since manufacturers often supply discounts to multiple vendors at a time.  Manufacturer discounts are rarely unique to the e-Retailer, but e-Commerce companies will often combine available discounts to arrive at a unique-looking discount, which will then be advertised. To maximize the effectiveness of the combination discount, companies will build supplemental email and social campaigns, and provide a target link to curated content.  This curated content is the seasonal editorial page describing the discount.  For efficiency, you can help your client build rotating editorial pages.

The client shouldn’t take down a high-performing holiday page once the campaign is over. Instead, the client should stop advertising the campaign, and build next year’s campaign around the existing page that is newly optimized and holiday-specific with eventually years’ worth of links and social signals.

These editorial pages are content (and SEO) fodder, and are a direct part of the conversion funnel (unlike most content pages).  Seasonal campaigns come around every year, so these can often be updated annually so that the page template isn’t newly created every year, and so that the link equity isn’t lost through a 404 error.

And so much more.  E-Commerce is an adventure, through a heavy dose of SEO knowledge, some meticulous curating, and a side order of user experience and click-through.

For more information about SEO for e-Commerce, check out our event in Boston, What’s New & What’s Next in e-Retail.”

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  • Jason Corrigan

    Excellent article Rivka, very thoughtful and informative.

  • I never know what to do with all this ecommerce mess. This post helps, though. And I’m a Disney person.

  • Akash Agarwal

    It’s a great article on content. Thanks for sharing this useful content strategy tips for eCommerce website.