Search engine optimization (SEO) is a complicated process, especially for e-commerce sites. But getting the basics in place, if you don’t already have them, will provide a big boost right off the bat. And on-page SEO is often much easier and has faster results than off-page tasks such as link building. If you’re just launching or you’ve not yet applied any SEO best practices to your store, the following list will help you get started.
1. Google Webmaster Tools
Get a Google Webmaster Tools account, add and verify your site. This free set of tools from Google provides a ton of information about your website, and we’ll use some of this in the next steps. To get started, go to https://www.google.com/webmasters/tools/ and click the Add Your Site button. Follow the steps to add your site and then verify it.
2. Page Titles
Make sure each page has a useful, unique title. The title tag is not only one of ways a site ranks for a given term, but it is also displayed in Google’s search results (aka SERPs, for “search engine results pages”) and helps a searcher determine whether they want to click through to your website. The title tag should contain the keywords that you want the site to rank for, but it should be written for a human. Don’t just stuff it full of keywords; use the main keyword/phrase in a readable way that entices people to click through.
You also want to make sure the page titles are unique, so that no two pages on your site have the same title. Google Webmaster Tools has an easy way to do this: Just log into your GWT account and go to Search Appearance > HTML Improvements. You should see “Duplicate Title Tags” on the right side of the page. If you have duplicate title tags, this will be a link that you can click to see a report of pages that have the same title tag. Additionally, in GWT you can see any title tags that Google reports as either too short or too long.
3. Meta Descriptions
Write great meta descriptions. Just like the title tag, the description tag often (but not always) appears in the SERPs, and searchers use it as an indicator for whether to click through to your site from Google. The meta description should be 156 characters or less, but long enough to fully describe the page. Again, include the keyword phrase if possible, but make it sound natural. The HTML Improvements section in GWT (as mentioned above) will also show you pages with duplicate, too-short, and too-long meta tags.
4. Product Descriptions
Write unique product descriptions. It’s oh-so-easy to use the descriptions provided by your vendors; the problem is, that’s what every other retailer who sells the same item is doing. If, instead, you write unique product descriptions, using your keywords, and making sure the length is a minimum of 300 words, you’ll get an instant boost in value for your product pages. The descriptions should be scan-able, because when reading online, people tend to steer clear of long, dense paragraphs. Use bullet points to identify key features and benefits, headings to separate sections, and bold or italics to highlight short key phrases.
5. HTML Headings
Use HTML heading tags such as <h1>, <h2>, etc. in meaningful ways, including keywords in them whenever possible. Any given page should have exactly one H1 tag, but can have multiple H2, and H3 tags. You can use CSS to style these to fit with your site’s design and aesthetics.
6. Product Images
Images are an often-overlooked area for SEO. The alt text for the image should contain your keyword phrase, but the actual image filename should include keywords as well. If you want to rank well in Google Image search, which can be a great source of traffic, it helps to have unique images not used by other sites. For this purpose, consider taking your own product photos. Finally, optimize the images for as small a file size as possible without visibly reducing the quality. I like to use Photoshop’s “Save for web and devices” option for this. For more information on optimizing images, read this post by Dave Davies over on Search Engine Watch.
7. Only One Homepage
Typically, the URL for your homepage is going to be the domain itself, such as http://www.domain.com. However, depending on your content and e-commerce platforms, you may also be able to reach the homepage through other URLs, such as http://www.domain.com/index.php or http://www.domain.com/mm5/merchant.mvc?Screen=SFNT. If possible, use just the domain name, but whatever you use, make sure it’s consistent. Don’t use one URL to link your logo and another URL to link the word “home” in your navigation bar! You can also learn about canonical URLs to tell Google that all versions of the homepage are really the same.
8. Improve navigation
9. Link Between Pages
It can be useful to link between products, especially when there is some relation between them – such as similar items or a main item and its accessories. Most e-commerce software offers internal linking features such as related products. But, when it makes sense, you may also want to link contextually from one product to another, typically within the description. For example, if you’re selling a 120-piece art kit but you also offer a 175-piece kit, you may wish to add that information to each product’s descriptions, and link between the two product’s pages. The context of the link – in other words, the text that surrounds it – can give your site a boost.
10. Improve Page Load Times
It’s been long known that one of Google’s ranking factors is how long it takes a page to load. So improving your load times not only makes for a better user experience, it helps your SEO efforts too. The time a page takes to load can be divided into back-end items such as how long it takes to load information from the database; and front-end items like how long it takes to transmit the images on the page to the visitor’s browser. The back-end processing greatly affects something called TTFB, or time to first byte – the amount of time it takes before the first byte is received by the browser. Lowering your TTFB is one of the most important aspects of page load as it relates to SEO. We use WebpageTest.org to get data on load times, including TTFB.
11. Add Site Maps
There are two types of site maps to cover in this section. The first is for the human visitor, and is an overall view of your website and links to all pages or at least to key sections, depending on the size of your site. The second is an XML sitemap that is used to send a list of URLs and their relative importance to Google and other search engines to help them better crawl your website. There are a number of tools, free and paid, that help you build either kind of sitemap.
12. Encourage Customer Reviews
Customer reviews help convert other buyers because they are considered an unbiased opinion about the product you’re selling. But they have significant SEO value, too. First of all, the content of each review is likely unique and will only appear on your site. Pages with higher word count rank better than shorter pages, generally, so the increased number of words is helpful. And, if you get reviews often enough, Google will see that your page content changes regularly, a factor that increases the likelihood of the page being crawled more often.
13. Encourage link sharing
It has been long thought that social signals, like Twitter tweets and Facebook likes, are a ranking factor when it comes to Google. Matt Cutt’s recently stated otherwise. But getting customers to share products has a less direct SEO benefit, too. The more ways someone has to find your site and your products, the more likely they are to spread the word – and that includes writing about you and linking to your site. Natural, unsolicited links to your website are still one of the most important factors Google uses to rank a website. (Note, “natural” and “unsolicited”; those are important words!)
Make it easy for customers to share your pages on their favorite social networks, by adding a services like AddThis, or by implementing share/like/tweet buttons right individually on your website.
There are many other ways to improve your chance of ranking well on Google. SEO is a science and an art, and a field of study all to itself. But these basics will help you get started. You may not have the time or capability to address them all at once, but pick a couple and get started, and see how it improves your website’s placement on Google.