Driving new visitors to your site is essential in order for an ecommerce business to succeed, and getting ranked at the top of Google’s organic search results offers the visibility necessary to generate new leads and drive more traffic straight to your site.
Unfortunately, search engines are far from stagnant, and algorithm updates like Panda and Penguin have the power to wreak havoc on your ecommerce site’s rankings, unless you have an SEO strategy that’s equally adaptable.
With Panda updates now incorporated as a regular part of Google’s changing algorithm, staying on your SEO toes -- especially for ecommerce sites -- is more important than ever. Here's what you need to know to adjust your ecommerce SEO strategy for the post-Panda world.
The Effect of Panda on Ecommerce: Why Ecommerce Sites Were Some of the Hardest Hit
Since the first Panda update in 2011, ecommerce sites in particular have suffered serious blows to their rankings, their products’ exposure, and ultimately, their sales. Despite the fact that Panda was engineered to root out poor quality sites with bad user experience, the update devastated even legitimate ecommerce sites and left e-tailers reeling.
After the first few Pandas, many in the ecommerce industry began to ask themselves: is Panda “out to get” ecommerce? It’s true; Panda impacted ecommerce sites particularly hard, leaving many e-tailers with a growing feeling that they’re being picked on.
The real reason ecommerce was so hard hit, however, has nothing to do with favoritism, and everything to do with the nature of ecommerce sites themselves.
If the goal of Google’s Panda updates -- to improve Google’s search results by rooting out webspam -- is to target sites with a high volume of pages, pages with thin content, duplicate content, and more, it’s natural ecommerce sites would be hit differently than others.
Google’s algorithm is advancing every day, and it’s more sophisticated than ever. But it still has a limited scope of understanding and the search engine is often incapable of inferring what searchers can. When Google crawls multiple pages for each product, sees pages filled by images with lots of links but low word counts, repetitive product descriptions, and more, the algorithm sees “webspam” and ranks it accordingly.
Fortunately, there are a number of issues that ecommerce sites can address in order to overcome Panda, show Google their real value, and start seeing the rankings they deserve.
Recovering from Panda: Common Ecommerce Problems and Solutions
One of the biggest problems for ecommerce sites is content. With so many product pages, a lack of content on each page, as well as duplicate product descriptions, can be the source of some serious problems for ecommerce sites looking to boost their organic rankings.
Resist the urge to copy-paste descriptions from the manufacturer. It can be difficult -- and definitely daunting -- to write unique product descriptions for each product page on your site, but it’s absolutely essential if you want to top the search results, drive traffic, and stay safe in the face of Google’s Panda updates. For some inspiration on compelling product description copy, just pop over to ModCloth's site. Their product descriptions are whimsical, detailed, and speak directly to their target persona.
Microformatting and Rich Snippets
Rich snippets are a tremendous SEO resource that many e-tailers fail to utilize to their full potential. Microformatting makes specific product-level data more accessible and easier for Google to index, helping search engines infer what searchers can naturally infer on their own -- allowing Google to more easily identify (and display) a business’ name, a product’s make or model, a brand, a product’s price, and so on.
Broken links are not only penalized by Google, they’re pretty frustrating for potential customers, too. Panda wants to improve user experience, and whether it’s a mistake or the page has actually been removed, nothing ruins a user’s experience more -- or gets a prospective customer to leave a site quicker -- than a broken link leading to a page that no longer exists.
Usually pages that have recurring 404 errors will naturally fall from Google’s index with time; removing the URL with Google’s Webmaster Tool is the key to resolving the issue sooner rather than later.
Canonical Tags and Unfriendly URL Structure
When users navigate their way through an ecommerce site, there are often a number of ways for them to reach the same product. Let’s look at an example.
A shopper can come across blue Thomas the Train bedsheets through a number of different channels. For instance:
In each of these instances, a customer landed on the same product page in a different way. Many ecommerce sites choose to reflect each step of the process within a unique URL, depending on the channel the customer took to find the product. In this case, it would look something like this:
While these URLs may provide context and give customers a sense of confidence that they are on the right page, to Google, they’re nothing more than multiple URLS with duplicate content -- which is exactly what Panda was engineered to eliminate.
So what can you do to keep both customers and search engines happy?
Implement Rel=Canonical tags, which will allow you to identify a single URL as primary, and all others as “identical” versions of the original page.
If all of this seems like old news to you -- well, congratulations! Your SEO was already friendly to the post-Panda world. But if you did experience some Panda backlash (or if you haven't yet but are concerned you will), these adjustments to your SEO should help you and your ecommerce site sleep more snugly at night.
Liz Knight is the marketing manager for National Positions, an internet marketing and SEO company based in Los Angeles, CA. National Positions works with hundreds of companies and has been named to Inc. Magazine’s list of fastest growing privately held companies from 2009-2012. Liz specializes in content creation and inbound marketing.
Image credit: Ray Larabie