How to Optimize Your Website for Organic Search
Before you sell products on search engines like Google, you have to present your website to Google.
Earning visibility for your e-commerce website on search engine results pages (SERPs)—whether it’s normal organic listings, Featured snippets, or other SERP features—requires search engine optimization, or SEO.
Unlike digital media or email campaigns, SEO is a continuous process—think of it as maintenance to keep your website healthy for search engines. That said, the more solid foundation you build on, the less maintenance you’ll be required to do.
What makes SEO work for e-commerce websites isn’t necessarily the same as for other types of business websites. The audience has more transactional goals, and your website (and SEO) should reflect that search intent.
That’s why before doing e-commerce SEO, it’s helpful to understand the logic behind your decisions. (If you know your SEO ABCs already, then feel free to jump to our optimization tips!) So before diving into the deep end of e-commerce SEO, we’ve included a primer to have you thinking like a digital marketing pro.
What is E-commerce SEO?
People use search engines to solve a need. SEO is about optimizing your website so that the people who need your help can find you easily. As an e-commerce website, that means helping them find the right product or service, or educating them about possible solutions before they make a purchase. How a searcher expresses a need is through search intent. How you satisfy that intent is through optimizations.
How to Satisfy Search Intent
Today’s SEO goes past spacing out keywords on a page. It’s about knowing who your customers are, what is their intent, and how can you satisfy it with great content.
Imagine you own an online footwear outlet, and a potential customer searches in Google for “size 11 red women’s running shoes,” you’d want the product page that has your most popular pair fitting those criteria to show up in the search results.
On the other hand, if someone searches for “men’s shoes near me,” you’d want them to find the Google My Business profile or location page of your nearest storefront.
And if they want a “shoe size guide,” it’d be helpful if you had a blog post explaining what makes a great fitting pair of shoes. That post could link internally to your most relevant shopping page, thus distributing ranking power and helping guide the user down the conversion funnel.
Intent can range from informational to navigational, transactional to commercial. To understand your customers’ needs and then match them with on-page content, you’ll use optimization tactics, the O in SEO.
Understanding Optimization Tactics
SEO is accomplished through a variety of tactics designed to make your site more user-friendly for your customers and thus more appealing to search engines.
In the U.S. alone, Google accounts for nearly 90% of search engine market share, making it the primary focus for search engine optimization. Google ranks its organic results using algorithms updated 9 times daily on average (3,234 updates in 2018 alone).
When a user searches a query like “men’s running shoes,” Google’s algorithms look at hundreds of ranking factors and thousands of signals across millions of websites to deliver the most relevant results; that all happens in a fraction of a second.
What Google thinks is a valuable result breaks down into a few fundamental concepts—authoritative content, great user experience, and sound technical performance; these are also the fundamentals that optimization tactics address.
Chasing Google’s algorithm is tricky. That’s why the best SEO agencies focus on optimization tactics that help users above all else.
What SEO Tactics Work Best on E-commerce Websites?
While most websites can benefit from SEO, not every optimization is worth the time it takes to implement it on your website.
E-commerce SEO is its own brand of digital marketing. A typical business website might have a few dozen pages, including a homepage, service pages, a contact page, an about us page, and a blog.
An e-commerce website can have thousands of product pages, as well as category pages, location pages, a checkout page, a customer login page, plus informative buyers’ guides and blog posts. That’s a lot more content to manage, especially for a busy store owner.
That isn’t to say e-commerce SEO is difficult, but it does mean that getting the best return on your tactics requires you to focus on what’s most important and make the best use of your CMS features.
Top 3 E-commerce Search Engine Optimizations
Before you start selling online, make sure your website is set up for SEO success. Follow these steps to lay the foundation for organic search performance.
1. Keyword Research
Keywords, referred to as “search queries,” give you an idea about what intent searchers have and how they expect to find information presented to them.
Where to find keywords
Investing in paid keyword research tools like SEMrush or Ahrefs can give you immediate insight into your audience’s search behavior. If you have the budget, consider a subscription for these tools, or find an SEO agency that uses them.
If your marketing budget won’t cover keyword research tools, then you can still find search queries the old-fashioned way by mining search suggestions.
Type a query into Google’s search bar—”running shoes,” for example—and you’ll be fed a number of suggestions—”running shoes near me,” “running shoes for men,” “running shoes for women,” “[brand] running shoes”; the list goes on.
Search those queries, and you’ll then find additional keyword ideas in “People Also Ask” boxes, related search suggestions, and high-ranking websites. From these areas you can also glean content ideas.
Amazon is likely your competitor. However, it is also a search engine rich in e-commerce keyword suggestions, as well as ideas for product categories, descriptions, and more.
Categorizing your keywords
The best way to manage your lists of growing search terms is to sort them by product categories.
As a store owner, you may categorize your products a certain way, but don’t limit yourself to preconceived ideas. If your categories don’t match how your customers actually search for the products, you could be creating confusion that drives away sales.
Find broader keywords and look for patterns. Do people search by product type, application, or some other feature like size or color? Make a tab for each category in a spreadsheet and sort keywords as you collect them.
If you find questions or long-tail keywords that address specific pain points, set those aside for buyers’ guides, blog posts, or other informational content ideas.
2. Website Architecture
Before you build a menu or pages, create a sitemap of the website’s architecture. In SEO parlance, architecture refers to the hierarchy between page topics. Good architecture presents information to customers in a logical way, guiding them down the sales funnel. (Do they want to view “all shoes” or a particular pair?) It also helps Googlebot crawl your pages and learn the relationships between them.
Mapping your E-commerce website’s architecture
Once you have keyword research and know which categories to label your products, mapping the website architecture is just a matter of putting those categories, products, and other pages in the right spots.
The main page in a website hierarchy is the home page. According to Google, click-depth (distance from the home page) affects SEO. Therefore, every page should be reachable from the homepage in a reasonable number of clicks. Pages that are the same number of clicks should have equal value. And every step further from the home page should indicate less value, or at least a smaller target audience.
As an example, if you have a shoe store, you might create a site architecture that looks like this:
- Running Shoes
- Dress Shoes
- The Winston
- The Charles
- Shoe Cleaner
- Store Locator
- Running Shoes
Your website navigation should then mimic that hierarchy, so the main menu might then look something like this:
Running Shoes | Dress Shoes | Accessories | Contact | Store Locator | Blog
You should also have breadcrumbs on pages to tell the user where they are in the website architecture. On a product page for The Winston dress shoe, a breadcrumb might look like this:
Home > Dress Shoes > Men’s > Leather > The Winston
3. On-Page Content
Now that your website pages are built, it’s time to fill them in with on-page content. The first step is to review your list of keywords and map them back to corresponding pages. Each page should have a unique keyword focus. If not, you risk creating pages that compete with one another for search rankings, a phenomenon known as “keyword cannibalization.”
Don’t stuff keywords
If you haven’t heard of “keyword stuffing,” it’s the practice of overusing keywords in your website content. The end result is a page that’s hard to read and, since Google penalizes keyword stuffing, counterproductive to your SEO.
With the advent of BERT and other natural language processing capabilities, search engines like Google can now recognize the meaning of search queries and on-page content more easily. So write naturally and for the benefit of the reader above all.
Google also judges websites by E-A-T (Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness). This especially applies to Your Money, Your Life pages, where the information can influence a person’s spending habits or other important decisions. For e-commerce websites, YMYL guidelines should influence your content quality; expertise is a key factor.
That said, customers often expect to see the queries they search for show up in website content. So put your focus keywords in prominent places on the page, as long as that placement is logical above all else. But never force the issue; always write for the user.
Where should you add keywords?
In terms of where to add keywords, here is a list of several places on your webpages where they can be beneficial.
SEO-friendly URLs in e-commerce are URLs that contain a page’s topic rather than a series of letters or numbers.
- example.com/category - yes
- example.com/1105da - no
Readable URLs benefit your e-commerce SEO by making your URLs more sharable and memorable. They also let customers see what’s on the page before they visit a link. Having keywords in URLs is also a ranking factor for Google, albeit a very small one.
Title Tags and Meta Descriptions
Before a customer visits your webpage, they see it appear as a snippet in the search results. A normal organic snippet contains a URL breadcrumb, a title tag, and a meta description.
Title tags tell your customers (and Google) in a few words what they can expect to find on your page. Meta descriptions elaborate on that title tag content.
Title tag lengths are dynamic and based on many factors, including the pixel widths of letters or the device someone is using. Title tags on mobile search results may be shorter than on desktop searches. If your title tag is too long, it will be elided (Title Tag vs. Title T …), so make sure to front load any important information.
The standard recommendation for title tags is 50-60 characters max. There’s no penalty for going over, but studies have shown correlations between shorter title tags and higher click-through rates.
For your e-commerce website, a good template for title tags might be:
Product | Category | Business Name
Meta descriptions are short descriptions of your on-page content. The recommendation for length is 160 characters max. Longer meta descriptions may be elided.
Unlike title tags, meta descriptions aren’t a ranking signal, but keywords in them can be highlighted in the search results. Google has a tendency to make its own meta descriptions to better satisfy the searcher’s intent. If this happens to you often, it may be time to rewrite your meta descriptions.
Page headings and content
Most product pages have headings that feature the product’s name. They also have product tabs that can provide content such as product overviews or specifications. These are opportunities to incorporate keywords in your copy.
There are two types of keywords: head queries and long-tail queries. A head query would be a competitive, high-volume query like “cleats,” whereas a longer-tail query might be a lower-funnel query such as “baseball cleats” or even “best cleats for playing baseball on dirt infields.”
Head queries can be useful on category pages, whereas longer-tail queries can enhance your product pages, FAQs, or be the subjects of blog posts or buyer’s guide sections. If you find queries with locations mentioned, such as “near me” or “in [city],” those are best served on location pages.
Keywords also provide opportunities for link anchor text. Internal linking helps distribute ranking power across your website. If you have a “baseball cleats” product page that refers to “playing on dirt,” link that text to your blog post about the “best cleats for playing baseball on dirt infields.”
How Long Does SEO Take to Show Results?
If you change any URLs, title tags, or page content, those updates will be picked up by Google during the next crawl. You may not see the results immediately, but the efforts will pay off down the road.
One way to speed up your e-commerce SEO on an existing website is every time you update a page, put the URL into Google Search Console’s URL Inspection tool and request a new crawl.
If you update a page URL, make sure to redirect the old URL to your new, SEO-friendly URL. If you delete a page, make sure to delete it to its closest match. While 404s aren’t a ranking factor, they can be a burden for your customers. Good 404 pages contain information and a way for users to get back to your products.
When is it too Late to Optimize Your Website?
The answer is never. If you set up your website for SEO in the beginning, you can manage it more efficiently and only need to make minor adjustments going forward. However, it’s never too late to make improvements. Just remember, the goal isn't just traffic or rankings but conversions and sales, so prioritize the content and technical website updates that give your e-commerce customers a better experience.
This extended guide is based on a guest post on nopCommerce blog.