A Comprehensive Guide to Technical SEO for Ecommerce Websites
There’s a good chance you don’t realize the negative impact your technical SEO is having on your customer acquisition.
Technical SEO refers to the side of SEO that is directly related to your website design and construction. It’s the stuff that sits in your code base, under your page layouts and load times, and often going unnoticed, silently killing your page rankings and organic traffic.
Despite what you may have heard, SEO is not dead, and technical SEO is more important now than ever. Search engine rank criteria have evolved. If your website design hasn’t been revisited in a while, these search engine algorithms are going to examine your current site construction, compare it against their criteria, and judge it worthy of a lower rank.
And you know the difference in traffic and revenue, when you rank in the top 3 for your target keywords versus ranking in the top 10. Issues with your site’s construction and technical components can keep you out of the top 3.With over 30% of all ecommerce traffic coming from search, it’s important that your website construction and design works in your SEO favor. This article is going to show you a few important technical SEO factors that can HIGHLY impact your rankings.
We’ll begin at the most logical of places: your site foundation.
If Your Ecommerce Website Structure is Weak, So is Your Customer Acquisition
Search engines regularly “crawl” websites to rebuild their index and make sure they have the most current, up-to-date information for the public to access. “Crawling” means that the search engine is checking each page, following the links provided, and returning data about that page and website. (source) Think of it like an army of robots crawling the web, speed-reading each page, and making copies to return to their home base, the giant index.OK, so why do you care?
Your site must ensure these crawlers can easily navigate your site. When they easily find the information they’re looking for they index your pages, which is your foot in the door to getting ranked well.
Let’s review a few tactics you can use to make sure crawlers can easily navigate your site:
1. Get Your URL Structure In Order
Keeping your products organized is key to ensure that your URLs are indexed. When your ecommerce website has thousands of products, if you don’t begin organization from the beginning, correcting the organization structure can be quite a headache.
If you have multiple product categories, your URL structure needs to reflect that same categorization. Many content management systems (CMS) have the functionality to auto-generate URLs once a page is created. If your front end is designed to auto-generate URLs, you may end up with something like:
A URL like this will do you absolutely no good.
When your URLs get crawled, they begin at the URL itself. Is there any indication in the URL as to what you are selling or what – exactly – is located on this page? In the above example, no. In an ideal world, a good URL structure looks something like this:
Just looking at the above URL, you as a human, can put together what is going to be displayed once you click on the link: a product named “Kingsway” which is part of the “professional shirts” collection. All of this can be gathered just by reading the URL.
That’s great for SEO because it means that the search engines will also be able to understand what should be displayed on that page and rank it accordingly.
2. Build Your Overall Site Architecture According to “Best Practices”
When search engines are ready to crawl into your site content – the pages, the actual bones of your website itself – it needs to be easy. Meaning, the easier search engines can run through and understand your pages, the easier it is for the user (your customer). Of course, that will result in a higher rank.
You can ensure they’re able to easily crawl your ecommerce website by implementing the best site structure. Your product pages are a great place to start when evaluating your site architecture. Let’s look at an example from Fender, who recently went through a website redesign with technical SEO focus:You can see how the Jazzmaster product page design reflects what a search engine is looking for. As the user scans the page from top to bottom, the information the user is looking for remains priority. Behind the scenes, the code reflects these signals to the search engine with titles, image alt tags and content being labeled with the correct HTML.
Additionally, product pages are a great example of places schema markup can be used. You may have heard the term “schema markup” before, but if you don’t know what it is, it’s basically a type of code which allows a search engine to understand what various pieces of your code mean.
“Schema markup is a semantic vocabulary that tells search engines what your data means, not just what it says.” – Neil Patel
For example, you can use schema markup to allow information like price, product status and reviews in your product’s search engine result listing:These pieces of microdata are what we call “rich snippets” – they make your listing appear more attractive and valuable and are a great place to start product page SEO. When a search engine result has rich snippets the click-through rate (CTR) improves. And when you’re battling on the first page of search engine results pages (SERPs), an improved CTR could mean thousands of dollars in difference to your sales.
How to Correct Your Site Architecture & Implement Schema Markup
To improve your site architecture, first address the two areas we covered above: your URL structure and your product pages. Both of these are directly related to your site’s hierarchy. If you need to re-build your hierarchy, now is a good time.
Instead of immediately hiring an ecommerce SEO company, you should meet with your development team to come up with what your site hierarchy will look like. Here is a very basic example from Moz:
Next, you need to make sure that your URL structure reflects this hierarchy (www.yourdomain.com/category/subcategory/detail) and, as a rule of thumb, each should read like plain English when you say them aloud! Here’s a helpful infographic which outlines a few tips for SEO optimization through URLs:Once your hierarchy and product page URL structures are in place, building a sound site architecture is done inside the code by giving the most relevant information to your user. This is one of the most integral parts of an effective ecommerce seo strategy.
For example, on your product pages, your site title, product title and product description should include the product keyword for which you want to rank. The description should also include relevant information that your visitor will be looking for.
Additionally, that code should be bolstered with schema markup so you can tell the search engine that the price displayed on your product page actually means the price of the item. With this level of attention, the search engine will be able to easily crawl that data and display it in SERPs. Where other listings don’t have a price listed, yours will! And users are more likely to click on those listings complete with rich snippets.
To implement schema markup on your own site, have your ecommerce development team visit the schema.org website which is a completely comprehensive guide to using their language in combination with the microdata in your website’s code.
Finally, you’ll need to create and submit a sitemap so that search engines have a “map” to follow what you’ve built. You can read Google’s Webmaster’s Guide to sitemaps here and use a free online tool to make one. Just search “sitemap generator” and you’ll find many free and effective sitemap tools.
Now that we’ve covered a few architectural items and how to correct them, let’s discuss another hugely important technical SEO factor: speed.
Don’t Make Your Customers Wait With A Slow-Loading Site
Just a 1 second delay in page load time can cause a 7% decrease in conversions. That’s a lot of money when you’re doing upwards of $50,000 or more in sales per day!
1 in 4 visitors will abandon a website if it takes more than 4 seconds to load.
Have you tested your own site? It’s very likely that it does NOT load in 4 seconds or less, as the average is somewhere around 7 seconds.
There are a couple of factors that impact page load time, especially with ecommerce websites:
1. Product Imagery
The first of these is quite obvious: images. As an online retailer not only is it necessary that you have multiple product imagery, but also high quality imagery.
Since the current design trend is demanding larger image files to increase conversions, maintaining the balance of quality images and optimal page load time becomes very important for a large online retailer. How do you maintain the balance?Image compression, when done correctly, can save you lots of space and increase page load time significantly. However, just resizing the images won’t fix the problem. Image compression is more complex than just reducing the size of an image and deals, instead, with optimizing the image size by removing unnecessary colors and data. So, unless you know exactly what tweaks to make in Photoshop, it’s best to use a tool to compress your product photos.
2. Size of Your Website Code
Secondly, the size of your code also impacts how quickly your site loads. Depending on the efficiency with which your development team has built your site, there may be room for speed improvement when looking at your store’s actual code.
Two areas you can improve your page load time in your code is with optimizing your CSS delivery and minifying your code. There are ways to make your CSS (the styles your website uses) more lightweight and faster-loading. By changing the location, reducing the amount of declarations and operators in your CSS and by simply removing any unused styles can save you some precious space.
How to Compress Your Images and Your Code
Since making your code lighter can be done in multiple areas of your ecommerce website, let’s focus on how you can optimize the two areas we’ve discussed: product imagery and website code.
If you have a development team who knows what they’re doing in Photoshop, then they can alter the necessary parameters to correctly compress your website images. Not only is that pretty unlikely, but it’s also probably more time-consuming. We suggest using an online tool or a software solution to effectively compress your images without losing quality. Here at Blue Stout, we use TingyPng.com – but there are multiple tools out there. Here’s a comprehensive list from Practical Ecommerce.
To optimize your website code, you should definitely use a tool as editing this amount of code line-by-line could take years! To compress your code you can use an software solution like Gzip (but not on images!) or Google-recommended YUI Compressor. There are also many applications that can integrate with your platform to help minify your code. Here’s an example from Apptrian, a code minifying app for Magento:The above tools enable you to optimize your site load time in reducing the size of your overall site. Quick load time will help you as we move forward in discussing our next technical SEO element: mobile-friendliness.
Mobile Ecommerce Performance ABSOLUTELY Affects Rank
Demand for a quick-loading site is much higher, but even more so is the demand for a fast-loading mobile-friendly site. Users are looking for information returned quickly and they’re doing it from their smartphones.
In fact, more Google searches now happen on mobile versus desktop. (source) Just take a look at the internet usage chart below:It’s no wonder Google is making stronger and stronger pushes toward mobile-friendliness in their algorithm updates. As more people are searching for information on their phones, the content served up needs to appear in an effective and valuable way.
If your ecommerce website is optimized for mobile, you will – in fact – achieve higher rank. Google said it themselves:
“Starting April 21, 2015, Google Search will be expanding its use of mobile-friendliness as a ranking signal. This change will affect mobile searches in all languages worldwide and will have a significant impact in Google Search results. Users will find it easier to get relevant, high quality search results optimized for their devices.” (source)
Unfortunately, being optimized for mobile isn’t as simple as a few lines of code or a simple CMS plugin. Remember the site architecture conversation from above? The same concept applies here, too. Your website must have the correct mobile architecture in place in order for your content to appear correctly to search engines and to users.
For example, one of Google’s main recommendations is to “avoid frustrating” the mobile user. Well, that’s vague. But what they mean is that you should have systems in place within your code to prevent a mobile user from having a poor viewing experience on their phone versus what they’d see on their laptop or desktop.
For example, if you have an embedded video on your site that plays well on desktop but it won’t load on mobile because it requires Flash, you should have a line of code that gives an alternate display option if the user is visiting from mobile. Perhaps they are shown an image instead. If your visitor see a broken video link, the chances of them bouncing are high. That’s not a good sign for Google and they’ll demote your site rank.Mobile optimization is a process that requires deep planning as there are many factors to consider. There are pieces of code that tell a search engine, “Hey, this is what you display on mobile” or “This page is mobile-friendly”. Achieving this will create a much more seamless user experience (UX) and your chances of moving up in rank are much better.
How You Can Make Your Ecommerce Website Mobile-Friendly
The first step to becoming mobile-friendly is to have a plan. Building out a mobile site architecture is key to determining what different levels of your hierarchy will demand alternative media or display alternative content on mobile.
To begin, you can test your site to see how it performs on mobile. Google has a mobile-friendly test tool where you can enter your URL and see how well it performs across mobile devices. Bing also has a mobile-friendly test tool which you can access. Both tools give you an analysis of your site and suggestions of areas to improve.
Next, you can review Google’s Developer Guide to Mobile-Friendly Sites which shows you how to configure your site for multiple devices and help search engines understand your site. This guide is a bit more in-depth and outlines important criteria when it comes to hiring an ecommerce development agency, too.
How to Conduct a Technical SEO Audit for Your Ecommerce Website
We recommend that an online retailer conduct a technical SEO audit every two years. As search engine rank criteria are constantly evolving, 2 years is the minimum time we think is necessary to revisit your strategy.
A Technical SEO Checklist for Online Stores
Conducting an audit is a lengthy process and can be done by completing the steps below which are outlined in this comprehensive ecommerce seo checklist:
Check indexed pages
- Do a site: search.
- How many pages are returned?
- Is the homepage showing up as the first result?
- If the homepage isn’t showing up as the first result, there could be issues, like a penalty or poor site architecture/internal linking.
Review the number of organic landing pages in Google Analytics
- Does this match with the number of results in a site: search?
- This is often the best view of how many pages are in a search engine’s index that search engines find valuable.
Search for the brand and branded terms
- Is the homepage showing up at the top, or are correct pages showing up?
- If the proper pages aren’t showing up as the first result, there could be issues, like a penalty.
Check Google’s cache for key pages
- Is the content showing up?
- Are navigation links present?
- Are there links that aren’t visible on the site?
Do a mobile search for your brand and key landing pages
- Does your listing have the “mobile friendly” label?
- Are your landing pages mobile friendly?
- If the answer is no to either of these, it may be costing you organic visits.
Title tags are optimized
- Title tags should be optimized and unique.
- Your brand name should be included in your title tag to improve click-through rates.
- Title tags are about 55-60 characters (512 pixels) to be fully displayed.
Important pages have click-through rate optimized titles & meta descriptions
- This will help improve your organic traffic independent of your rankings.
- You can use a tool like SERP Turkey to help
Check for pages missing page titles and meta descriptions
The on-page content has the primary keyword, variations & alternate keyword phrases
There is a significant amount of optimized, unique content on key pages
The primary keyword phrase is contained in the H1 tag
Images’ filenames & alt text are optimized to include the primary keyword phrase
URLs are descriptive & optimized
- While it is beneficial to include your keyword phrase in URLs, changing your URLs can negatively impact traffic when you do a 301. It’s recommend to optimize URLs when the current ones are really bad or when you don’t have to change URLs with existing external links.
- No excessive parameters or session IDs.
- URLs exposed to search engines should be static.
- 115 characters or shorter – this character limit isn’t set in stone, but shorter URLs are better for usability.
Homepage content is optimized
- Does the homepage have at least one paragraph?
- There has to be enough content on the page to give search engines an understanding of what a page is about. It’s typically recommend to have at least 150 words.
Landing pages are optimized
- Do these pages have at least a few paragraphs of content? Is it enough to give search engines an understanding of what the page is about?
- Is it template text or is it completely unique?
Site contains real & substantial content
- Is there real content on the site or is the “content” simply a list of links?
Proper keyword targeting
- Does the intent behind the keyword match the intent of the landing page?
- Are there pages targeting head terms, mid-tail, and long-tail keywords?
- Do a site: search in Google for important keyword phrases.
- Check for duplicate content/page titles using a tool like Moz Pro Crawl Test.
Content to help users convert exists & is easily accessible
- In addition to search engine driven content, there should be content to help educate users about the product or service.
- Is the content formatted well and easy to read quickly?
- Are H tags used?
- Are images used?
- Is the text broken down into easy to read paragraphs?
Good headlines on blog posts
- Good headlines go a long way. Make sure the headlines are well written and draw users in.
Amount of content versus ads
- Since the implementation of Panda, the amount of ad-space on a page has become important to evaluate.
- Make sure there is significant unique content above the fold.
- If you have more ads than unique content, you are probably going to have a problem.
There should be one URL for each piece of content
- Do URLs include parameters or tracking code? This will result in multiple URLs for a piece of content.
- Does the same content reside on completely different URLs? This is often due to products/content being replicated across different categories.
Do a search to check for duplicate content
- Take a content snippet, put it in quotes and search for it.
- Does the content show up elsewhere on the domain?
- Has it been scraped? If the content has been scraped, you should file a content removal request with Google.
Sub-domain duplicate content
- Does the same content exist on different sub-domains?
Check for a secure version of the site
- Does the content exist on a secure version of the site?
Check other sites owned by the company
- Is the content replicated on other domains owned by the company?
Check for “print” pages
- If there are “printer friendly” versions of pages, they may be causing duplicate content.
Accessibility & Indexation
Check the robots.txt
- Has the entire site, or important content been blocked? Is link equity being orphaned due to pages being blocked via the robots.txt?
- Use the Web Developer Toolbar
- Is the content there?
- Do the navigation links work?
Now change your user agent to Googlebot
- Use the User Agent Add-on
- Are they cloaking?
- Does it look the same as before?
XML sitemaps are listed in the robots.txt file
XML sitemaps are submitted to Google/Bing Webmaster Tools
Check pages for meta robots noindex tag
- Are pages accidentally being tagged with the meta robots noindex command
- Are there pages that should have the noindex command applied
Do goal pages have the noindex command applied?
- This is important to prevent direct organic visits from showing up as goals in analytics
Site architecture and internal linking
Number of links on a page
- 100-200 is a good target, but not a rule.
Vertical linking structures are in place
- Homepage links to category pages.
- Category pages link to sub-category and product pages as appropriate.
- Product pages link to relevant category pages.
Horizontal linking structures are in place
- Category pages link to other relevant category pages.
- Product pages link to other relevant product pages.
Links are in content
- Does not utilize massive blocks of links stuck in the content to do internal linking.
- Does not use a block of footer links instead of proper navigation.
- Does not link to landing pages with optimized anchors.
Good internal anchor text
Check for broken links
- Link Checker and Xenu are good tools for this.
Proper use of 301s
- Are 301s being used for all redirects?
- If the root is being directed to a landing page, are they using a 301 instead of a 302?
- Use Live HTTP Headers Firefox plugin to check 301s.
“Bad” redirects are avoided
- These redirects can easily be identified with a tool like Screaming Frog.
Redirects point directly to the final URL and do not leverage redirect chains
- Redirect chains significantly diminish the amount of link equity associated with the final URL.
- Google has said that they will stop following a redirect chain after several redirects.
Use of iFrames
- Is content being pulled in via iFrames?
Use of Flash
- Is the entire site done in Flash, or is Flash used sparingly in a way that doesn’t hinder crawling?
Check for errors in Google Webmaster Tools
- Google WMT will give you a good list of technical problems that they are encountering on your site (such as: 4xx and 5xx errors, inaccessible pages in the XML sitemap, and soft 404s)
- Are XML sitemaps in place?
- Are XML sitemaps covering for poor site architecture?
- Are XML sitemaps structured to show indexation problems?
- Do the sitemaps follow proper XML protocols?
Canonical version of the site established through 301s
Canonical version of site is specified in Google Webmaster Tools
Rel canonical link tag is properly implemented across the site
- Make sure it points to the correct page, and every page doesn’t point to the homepage.
Uses absolute URLs instead of relative URLs
- This can cause a lot of problems if you have a root domain with secure sections.
Review page load time for key pages
- Is it significant for users or search engines?
Make sure compression is enabled
Optimize your images for the web
Minify your CSS/JS/HTML
Use a good, fast host
- Consider using a CDN for your images.
Optimize your images for the web
Review the mobile experience
- Is there a mobile site set up?
- If there is, is it a mobile site, responsive design, or dynamic serving?
Make sure analytics are set up if separate mobile content exists
If dynamic serving is being used, make sure the Vary HTTP header is being used
- This helps alert search engines understand that the content is different for mobile users.
- Google on dynamic serving.
Review how the mobile experience matches up with the intent of mobile visitors
- Do your mobile visitors have a different intent than desktop based visitors?
Ensure faulty mobile redirects do not exist
- If your site redirects mobile visitors away from their intended URL (typically to the homepage), you’re likely going to run into issues impacting your mobile organic performance.
Ensure that the relationship between the mobile site and desktop site is established with proper markup
- If a mobile site (m.) exists, does the desktop equivalent URL point to the mobile version with rel=”alternate”?
- Does the mobile version canonical to the desktop version?
- Official documentation.
Review international versions indicated in the URL
- ex: site.com/uk/ or uk.site.com
Enable country based targeting in webmaster tools
- If the site is targeted to one specific country, is this specified in webmaster tools?
- If the site has international sections, are they targeted in webmaster tools?
Implement hreflang / rel alternate if relevant
If there are multiple versions of a site in the same language, update the copy so that they are both unique
Make sure the currency reflects the country targeted
Ensure the URL structure is in the native language
- Try to avoid having all URLs in the default language
Analytics tracking code is on every page
- You can check this using the “custom” filter in a Screaming Frog Crawl or by looking for self referrals.
- Are there pages that should be blocked?
There is only one instance of a GA property on a page
- Having the same Google Analytics property will create problems with pageview-related metrics such as inflating page views and pages per visit and reducing the bounce rate.
- It is OK to have multiple GA properties listed, this won’t cause a problem.
Analytics is properly tracking and capturing internal searches
Demographics tracking is set up
Adwords and Adsense are properly linked if you are using these platforms
Internal IP addresses are excluded
UTM Campaign Parameters are used for other marketing efforts
- These can artificially lower bounce rates.
Event tracking is set up for key user interactions
You can access this checklist, in full, here in the original article.