At this point, the viability of e-commerce as a retail method can no longer be denied. The US Census Bureau reports that 53% of all Internet users (around a billion people) worldwide have made an online purchase at least once by the end of 2016. In the US, e-commerce sales account for just 10% of annual retail revenues, but the figure is set to grow sharply over the years as smartphone and Internet adoption increases across the nation. Already, an estimated 40% of American men aged 18-34 are saying that they’d rather buy items online than wait in a brick-and-mortar checkout line.

As the online market expands and opportunities arise, retailers need to make sure that they’re well positioned to capitalize. As the case is with any form of business, market visibility is essential for attracting leads and converting them into loyal customers. In order for you to do that, you need to tap into a web traffic source that sends qualified visitors your way.

Studies have shown that there’s no better driver of good traffic on the web than search engines. An estimated 95% of all online experiences begin with search and Google alone processes 1.2 trillion searches per year, making it the undisputed leader in the global search market. It’s also the search engine where you’ll want to appear at the top of queries for keywords that are associated to the products that you sell.

Google claims that it monitors around 200 ranking signals to calculate a page’s relevance to a query. While that may sound daunting, ecommerce sites only tend to need fundamental optimizations to help them gain better visibility. Easy-to-apply improvements in a site’s technical health and content can go a long way in improving overall search visibility.

Here’s how you can build a solid foundation for your e-commerce site’s SEO and improve its overall ability to attract targeted traffic:

  1. Research Your Keywords – Before you start optimizing in earnest, you need to know what terms your target market searches for. This might seem like a foregone conclusion and you may think you know the answers. However, you might be surprised what keyword data tools can reveal to you.

Tools such as the Google AdWords Keyword Tool, SEMRush, and WordStream can give you estimates on how many searches per month happen in your target location. These tools can also give you insights on the degree of competitiveness you can expect from each keyword.

  1. Optimize the title tags – The title tag is one of the most important on-site SEO factors. It’s the text that’s shown as the blue, clickable heading that search engines display in their search results. It’s treated as the title of every HTML document and it’s supposed to convey what a page is about in a string of 60 characters or less.

When you publish your category and product pages, make sure that title tags are written specifically for them. This can be done manually or it can be automated via a CMS platform. Regardless how you do it, make sure that this string of text reflects what the page is about and mentions the target keyword at least once.

  1. Optimize Header Text – Text formatted with HTML header tags (H1, H2, H3, so on) is also an important signal for search engines. These help the algorithms determine what a page is about and it gives human readers clues as to what they can expect from the rest of the text.

Just like title tags, it’s best for header tags to contain keywords relevant to the page’s core topic. If you’re optimizing a product page, make sure the product’s name is formatted as H1. The same goes for category pages – the names of the category pages should be used in the header text.

  1. Optimize URL Slugs – Ecommerce CMS platforms tend to auto-generate the URL slugs of a site’s pages. These text strings are essentially the file names of the HTML documents that make up the pages.

Instead of having the CMS auto-assign names to your URLs, configure it to be consistent with the product or category names of the pages they represent. Making the URL slugs canonical (context-bearing) and including the keywords they represent helps search engines understand what the pages are about.

  1. Add text copy to category pages – This is a mistake that a lot of ecommerce site owners make. Most ecommerce category pages display just the images and links of top products or have subcategories displayed under them. As such, they end up serving no other purpose than to be doorways to other pages. Google has stated in the past that this type of content is considered “thin” and may not perform well in search. To address this deficiency, consider adding blocks of descriptive text in these pages.

For instance, an online store selling makeup may have a category page for lipsticks. A block of text between the headline and the product links that states what lipsticks are and describes the products carried by the store will help search engines recognize the relevance between the page and the keywords they’re targeting.

If you feel that the text block hinders your page’s overall design, consider placing the text within the page’s body, but beneath the product listings. Text that’s lower in the body may not carry the same SEO weight as the one that’s immediately visible, but at least it’s there and will still provide search algorithms with the textual breadth and relevance necessary for better performance.

  1. Make product copy unique – Another common mistake by ecommerce retailers is the direct lifting of product descriptions from manufacturer or competitor sites. Google tends to filter out pages with duplicate content because it wants to serve search results with as much diversity as possible. Whichever page among many with similar content it sees first, it treats as the “original.” That means everyone else who follows might not get their pages indexed at all due to stark similarities in copy used.

When publishing product pages, try to write them in your own words. Uniqueness gives search engines a greater reason to index them and helps them rank higher than their redundant counterparts from competing sites

This, of course, is easier said than done. With hundreds, if not thousands of products in an average ecommerce site, there may not be enough resources to write unique copy for each product. In these cases, it’s best to do the writing for products that are high in your priority list.

You can also consider not re-writing the product descriptions, but adding supplementary content in the page instead. For example, Amazon usually doesn’t deviate from manufacturer descriptions but it does have a lot of user reviews in its product pages that makes the duplicate product descriptions a small part of the page’s overall content. By providing additional unique text, you add the kind of unique value that Google rewards with indexation and ranking boosts.

  1. Optimize site speed – Google announced a few years ago that the load speeds of webpages has been included in the list of their ranking factors. Over the years, speed became an increasingly important signal that can make a major difference in organic search performance. If you want to have an advantage over you ecommerce competitors, improving site speed is  the way to go.

To see if your site needs page speed improvements, you can use Google’s free PageSpeed Insights tool. Just enter your URL and hit Enter. Google will grade that specific webpage and provide you with a list of design and development elements that need to be improved.

  1. Make all your pages secure – As the case was with site speed, Google made secure URLs (HTTPS) a ranking factor a few years ago. According to the search giant, HTTPS offers more secure user experiences and preserves the integrity of data that shows up on the browsers of users.

Implementing HTTPS for your ecommerce site isn’t exactly a quick and easy exercise. You’ll have to get the help of your web developer to set up the secure pages and 301 redirect the old ones to them. For smaller sites with about 100 pages or less, the migration could take a few hours. For ecommerce sites with thousands of pages, the project can take weeks or months of work.

  1. Display trust signals – It’s in Google’s best interest to make sure that it features legitimate businesses at the top of its search results. After all, users who keep on finding shady sites will eventually start complaining about possible scams that they keep finding over the web. To that end, Google looks for signals that will provide clues on how trustworthy a site is. Among the easiest to attain are on-page trust signals.

Displaying your site’s phone number and physical address is a good start. You can take things to the next level by signing up for a Google My Business listing and verifying your business address. You can then embed the Google Map displaying your location and prove to Google and your shoppers that you’re a legitimate enterprise that can be reached by customers and authorities for any concerns.

  1. Maintain a Blog – Adding some personality to your online store is a great idea because people love buying from stores where they feel they have more of a connection. Write about new products, tips, and some occasional humor topics to give your company a voice that people can relate to and communicate with. This helps people recall your brand better and refer you to people they know.

Having a blog also helps you grow your content library and gain social media shares which are correlated with good SEO performance. Articles can also help you attract valuable links from relevant sites in your industry to help accelerate your climb through the search rankings.

These tips are easy to apply and should give you a headstart in your SEO campaign. They won’t push you past the likes of Amazon, but they’ll set you on the right direction to do exactly that. Keep in mind that SEO is not a one-and-done type of marketing ploy. It needs to be fine-tuned continuously to help you keep up with the ever-changing search landscape.

By Kar

Dr. Kar works in the interface of digital transformation and data science. Professionally a professor in one of the top B-Schools of Asia and an alumni of XLRI, he has extensive experience in teaching, training, consultancy and research in reputed institutes. He is a regular contributor of Business Fundas and a frequent author in research platforms. He is widely cited as a researcher. Note: The articles authored in this blog are his personal views and does not reflect that of his affiliations.

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