Google rarely discloses algorithm details. That lack of transparency forces search engine optimizers to work in the dark. I equate it to the medical profession, where doctors are fighting an unknown illness. Ask 10 doctors why your head hurts, and you could get 10 different answers.
To be sure, searches on Google sometimes directly lead to a purchase. But other times those searches prompt the shopper to identify potential products, to research. The latter makes it difficult to track the return on investment from search engine optimization.
Google rarely discloses algorithm details.
So while I can’t calculate clear-cut ROI from SEO, I can address the activities that, in my experience, typically lead to higher rankings for ecommerce merchants. It’s not a stretch to suggest that 80 percent of your daily SEO activities should be connected to the four items below.
Optimizing for Crawl Budget
Googlebot uses a set amount of bandwidth for every website. As it crawls a site, Googlebot follows paths it has encountered before. It also seeks new pages with the remaining bandwidth. Google has said that the more valuable a site, the more bandwidth it will dole out to Googlebot. The result can be pages on a website that are not indexed, either because Google doesn’t know about them or because it takes too much bandwidth to crawl them and ascertain their purpose.
Through crawl budget optimization, you can close down paths and pages that offer users (and Google) little value. Ecommerce sites, especially, can have a lot of bloat due to dynamic URLs and faceted browsing, resulting in duplicate pages.
Canonical tags and the robots.txt file can be your weapons against crawl waste. Identifying the bloat on a large ecommerce site takes time. Implementing the changes takes even more time. It’s typically a manual exercise. But it can produce positive results in terms of expediting Googlebot.
Title Tags and Meta Descriptions
Ecommerce owners frequently tell me that “the title tag helps me rank better for the contained keywords. Meta descriptions are not a ranking signal, but they are nice to have.”
But that’s only half the picture.
Eye-tracking studies have shown that searchers scan the “blue link” — the title tag. If the tag resonates, they’ll read the meta description. If the title tag and meta description resonate, they will click.
This is important. It means putting time into the title and meta description is necessary, to produce a combined, well-crafted message.
For example, consider the search query on Google for “buy nylon guitar strings.” The results on page one are all underwhelming.
The listing below from Guitar Center uses the category name (“Nylon Strings”) for the title tag. The meta description is “Enjoy the lowest prices and best selection of Nylon Strings at Guitar Center. Most orders are eligible for free shipping.” But Google didn’t include that entire description. If searchers didn’t know Guitar Center was an ecommerce store, there is little to encourage them to click. It’s also unclear where they would land.
A listing from Amazon is only a little better because the word “shop” is an eye catcher for potential buyers. But it fails with the “Classical Guitar Strings” keyword in the title tag. Sure, nylon strings are used for classical guitar. But some country and folk guitarists use them, too.
Musician’s Friend got lucky with clustered results. The first result — “Nylon Strings | Musician’s Friend” — is the same as Guitar Center. It’s underwhelming. But the second one — “How to Choose to Right Strings for Your Acoustic or Classical Guitar” — is compelling. If I’m unsure about what to buy, I might click that listing. Then, since I’m on the site already, perhaps I’ll buy a product.
So what’s an ideal listing? In the hypothetical example below, I’ve crafted a title that appeals to the shopper and mitigates ambiguity. I’ve offered variety, social proof, and a carrot of “free shipping.”
A retailer once told me, “I can’t hire someone to test and update my title and meta descriptions all day.”
My response was, “Why not?” Optimized titles and descriptions improve rankings, clicks, and sales. What better reason to hire someone? A retailer can prioritize products and categories by highest margin, or highest impression rate through Search Console.
In 2019, many tests indicate that more clicks equal higher rankings. That alone should encourage you to find the time.
Speed and Usability
When Google tells you what’s important for SEO, make it a priority.
For a few years Google has emphasized speed, so that results will load instantly for searchers. Google has made page speed a ranking factor, and it promotes the Accelerated Mobile Pages for even faster sites.
A fast page equals a better experience. It’s as essential as easy navigation. When websites are faster and cleaner, revenue almost always increases.
Chrome users can evaluate site speed in Lighthouse — in the “Developer Tools” menu, at View Developer Developer Tools Audits. A sample report from Lighthouse is below. Take your report to your developer team, and show them the red portions. In my experience, most performance shortfalls can be improved with some smart investments.
Page speed is not just a ranking advantage. It also drives conversions as consumers increasingly expect a page to load in less than three seconds. If your page is slow, the browser’s back button is your worst enemy.
Links (and Content)
Google equates a link to a web page as an endorsement. But it’s tough to convince someone to link to product pages without an incentive. Yet paying for links violates Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.
Google’s link-related algorithms are complex. Not all links count the same. You could get a hundred new links from lesser-known or low-traffic sites and not notice a difference. But you could get a single link from, say, a respected, leading news source that raises your entire site.
Thus, despite the difficulty, it’s a bad idea to ignore link building.
The Musician’s Friend content example above —”How to Choose to Right Strings for Your Acoustic or Classical Guitar” — ranked for the query “buy nylon guitar strings.” It’s terrific, evergreen content.
And, it’s earning links. Ahrefs says it has 55 links from 27 domains. And the article itself links to internal category pages, which drives traffic (and search bots).
The painful truth is that most ecommerce sites are bad at content strategy. In 2019 nobody will link to content on a product category page. Few will link to a buyer’s guide, much less a fluffy blog post.
Brick-and-mortar stores have knowledgeable employees to provide information and answer questions. An ecommerce store should have the equivalent, in a big way.