SOS for ecommerce SEO: how to optimise a site without content
Again and again we're told that search engines prioritise content, and the recent introduction of Google's Featured Author snippets makes it clear that, as far as the search engine giant is concerned, well-written, original text is a vital aspect of any site's optimisation tactics.
But where does that leave the millions of ecommerce sites which function primarily as a shopfront and carry little content apart from product info?
It's an enormous (and important) web sector, but one that's increasingly sidelined by the evolving search engine optimisation story - particularly since Google's recent algorithmic updates set about punishing the dubious backlinks on which many such sites depended for both click-through traffic and enhanced search engine positioning.
Sidelined by the search engines
The struggle to attain high-placed indexing becomes even greater for retailers dealing in widely available goods: the low-competition niche appeal of something like 'diamante baby boots', for instance, is always going to have better chances of gaining prominent search engine placement than items as ubiquitous as 'wedding bouquets' - a search term that'll literally reference hundreds of thousands of sites.
In fact, when questioned on this very subject, Google's own Matt Cutts more or less admitted that the 'products on a page' model simply doesn't work, inferring that any small business about to embark on ecommercial venture should think long and hard about developing alternative formats (below).
Which isn't much help to those who have already invested time and effort in sites that are increasingly difficult to optimise. So what SEO options do you have with an ecommercial site that's lacking in original content?
No content? Add some
Even if your site exists primarily as an online sales catalogue, one of the most obvious ways to add the kind of content you'll need to compete in online search is by including a blog or articles section.
Sounds straighforward? In some ways it is, but to have any real chance of making an impact on both users and search engine bots you'll need to ensure that the content is entertaining, useful and, above all, unique.
Make sure it's unique
While it may seem tempting to save time by adding readymade, syndicated content or articles gleaned from one of the many online article providers, the bottom line is that if it's already featured elsewhere on the web - and particularly if it appears in a multitude of other sites - it's unlikely to enhance your online presence, and may even be penalised under Google's stringent new quality guidelines.
If you don't feel able to create such content yourself (after all you're a retailer, not a writer!) look into options for commissioning original work. And take the time to approach any chosen topic with a little creativity.
Everyday products; outside the box thinking
It may seem next to impossible to come up with compelling text on a subject such as door handles, for example, but lateral thinking will pay off. Approaches could include an article on how, exactly, door handles work; a survey of their changing appearance through the ages; or a slideshow featuring different looks of doorknob in various home-decor settings.
Once you've come up with an idea, search for it online to find out if has already been widely covered. (If it has, you'll probably want to come up with more original concepts).
Apply similar thinking to other site content such as images, and the potential use of video or other rich media. Once created, you can glean extra value through redistribution via social media channels (see below).
Content that's unavailable (or less prominent) elsewhere online is key to optimising your site. It may only attract a small audience, but crucially, it at least stands a chance of featuring fairly prominently in SERPS, bringing you the extra traffic (and hopefully, backlinks), that will continue to improve recognition of your site in general.
More innovative product descriptions
Product descriptions offer one of the few real opportunities to add original text to catalogue-style pages themselves, so resist the temptation to utilise out-of-the-can blurbs and instead devise your own captions.
Don't overdo the keywords. If, for example, you're describing 20 varieties of 'dog chew' on a page that already includes exactly those the words in the title tag and main heading, endless repition not only makes for dull copy, but can incur search engine penalties for keyword over-use or 'stuffing'.
Instead, look for alternative phrases such as 'canine treat' or 'doggy snacks' with which to vary your product descriptions. And be aware, too, that it could be worth optimising entire pages for less conventional search enquiries specifically to avoid competition with better-established sites. Google's keyword tool will help you find out exactly which phrases are being used to search for products like your own.
Bricks and clicks - the importance of physical location
If your ecommerce site is designed to promote an existing, store-based business, it's definitely worth focussing on locality as an important aspect of your online optimisation strategy and offline marketing tactics.
A small florist, for example, is never going to be able to compete with established multi-nationals for keywords such as bouquet home delivery or floral gifts, but can certainly generate valuable local business by making location a prominent feature of on-site copy.
A potential client looking to purchase a gift of flowers in 'Smalldorf', for example, is as likely to search for nearby businesses ('buy fresh flowers Smalldorf') as they are to initiate a more general query.
If your business exists as physical storefront, promote this fact - not just on the website itself, but by harnessing the potential of social media, too (below).
A Facebook page is unlikely to gain you thousands of friends, shares or likes if you're dealing in a product as run-of-the-mill as, say, pet food (although anything's achievable if your content is truly exceptional).
Nevertheless, social networking sites can certainly provide your business with valuable exposure in terms of traffic, potential backlinks and even sales.
So go ahead, set up a Facebook profile, and feature some of the engaging content you've worked hard to add to your website's blog or articles section.
While search engines frown on duplication generally, they're unlikely to penalise your own redistribution of content in the form of social media posts (although you may want to substantially change wording in articles, for example, or simply provide links to the original source), and any traffic emanating from a social hub is likely to figure favourably in a search engine's assessment of your site's overall user-value.
And again: for businesses with physical retail premises, there's real commercial mileage in cultivating local networks of Facebook admirers whose own friends within the local community may never before have heard of your store, site or services. Facebook provides a perfect platform for spreading the word.
Even if the products you offer are as seemingly difficult to differentiate as, say, wire coat hangers, lateral thinkers should be able to find uses for rich content options such as video.
A mini-movie masterpiece on 'Coat-hanger Art', for example, (and yes, there's actually plenty of it) may just excite enough interest on sites like Youtube or Facebook to provide valuable traffic and backlinks to your site, resulting in highly search-engine-friendly link-juice and even potential sales.
Be aware, however, that the time, effort and resources required to create video content may not justify its (realistically) very low chances of making much impact in an already hugely overcrowded arena.
... and image
Alluring images have always been central to the online buying experience. Few potential customers are going to be tempted by low-quality product photos, and such emphasis on the visual becomes even more important for items that are unique or unusual, such as designer jewellery items or boutique furniture.
What's more, the recent surge in popularity of 'discovery engines' such as Pinterest brings more opportunties than ever for retailers to market their wares through pic-appeal alone.
There's a growing community of virtual pinboarders looking for content to feature in their collections - images which, once pinned, should link back to the site from which they originated, making for extremely valuable sales potential and backlink mileage.
By starting your own Pinterest page you can exhibit beautiful images from your site in the hope that they'll attract followers, repins, and generally add to your SEO efforts.
And it's not only the more obviously photogenic product categories that can potentially benefit from the rise in user-generated online 'curation'.
Let's reconsider those dog chews. An image of a pack of treats is hardly going to attract much attention, but one that cultivates the 'ahh, so cute factor' - a pile of chews topped with a candle, complete with dog in a party hat, for example - is far more likely to engage.
If your site simply has to illustrate its inventory with 'standard' product pics (and many, of course, do), think about utilising quirkier content in the blog or articles sections.
And remember, too, that even the most basic product photos can vary hugely in quality and clarity.
You'll also want to properly optimise all images on your site with meaningful, descriptive alt text - a basic SEO operation that's often overlooked - which increases their chances of featuring in conventional search engine image results.
Ecommerce requires logical site structure
The importance of logical site structure is, perhaps, even more of an issue where ecommercial sites are concerned: not only does it enhance a user's experience by making it easier to find exactly the kind of products they require, it also adds considerably to your SEO efforts by making your pages easily indexable and conferring extra credibilty to links.
Without going into too much detail, ensure, for example, that sequences of similar pages don't cannibalise each other's value - if you run a clothing business, for instance, individual pages with similar content detailing 'menswear' and 'male attire' are going to diffuse the value of a single, category-defining page such as 'mens clothing' prominently featured in your navigation with relevant sublinks ('mens casual clothing'; 'men's formal clothing', for example).