SEO Considerations for Retailers: The Basics

Many managers of established online retail storefronts are finding that newer competition is overtaking them in search engine rankings for their product keywords.   And others still have yet to crack the top five search engine result pages.    If you’ve found that traffic to you product pages from organic searches is dropping or your product pages simply have never appeared anywhere close to the top of search engine results, you have most likely not yet implemented Search Engine Optimization (or SEO) techniques that have been working for your more successful competitors for years.

I feel the following techniques are the most important initial steps for improving your products’ taffic rankings.

  • If you aren’t currently utilizing Google Merchant Center to upload products, what are you waiting for?  It’s free and very simple.  Regularly uploading product feeds to Google is the easiest way for your products to become potentially accessible from page 1 of a Google search.   The “Shopping Results for” link is usually one of the first five Google entries when product keywords are used.   If you’ve done it right and your product is considered by Google to be one of the three most relevant for the search keywords entered, a link to your product page will appear directly under the “Shopping Results for” link on that priceless first page.   If your product isn’t one of the top three, your goal should be to get on the first page of “Google Shopping”, which is where the shopper is taken when the “Shopping Results for” link is clicked.   The default sort sequence is “Relevance”, but getting close to the top for the second most common sort sequence of “Price: Low to High” would obviously be beneficial.  In a future article, I will delve further into ways to improve products’ Google Shopping relevance and other techniques to get the most out of the Google Product Search.
  • Writing effective product descriptions is a great way to distinguish yourself from competitors who are selling the exact same products.   There are many schools of thought on how long descriptions should be, how many keywords should be used, how often keyword should be repeated, and if the descriptions should be more geared towards the consumer who is actually reading the description or the search engines that are using the descriptions to build search engine indexes.   But there is no disputing the fact that using the canned manufacturer’s product descriptions that are most likely already being used by other sites does not help your rankings.   A 20- or 30-word description that simply gives the product specifications will also not help you stand out.  Take the time to write descriptions that contains at least 50 words and that includes about five important keywords related to the product.  It is okay to repeat a few keywords, but you will be penalized by the major search engines if you go overboard.    Because it may take many weeks or months to re-write your descriptions, start with the products that are visited most, have the highest profit margin, or the highest conversion rate.
  • The words used in the links to each of your products (the product’s URL) are indexed just like the description and the product name.   A link such as http://mysite/product_info.php?products_id=52724 is not going to be effective as http://mysite/Penn-State-Nittany-Lions-coffee-mug-set-p-363.html.   Most shopping cart solutions offer some type of “SEO URL Rewrite” feature, but it often is not used by default.   If your product names are not included in the URL, I strongly suggest that you do some research and determine how you can implement this feature with your shopping cart.
  • As with the product URLs, page titles are also indexed.  The page title may even be important because it also is the title of the entry on the search engine result page for most search engines.   Your page title should include, at a minimum, the product’s name and its category along with the name of your site.   Again, your shopping cart may already include a “Dynamic Product Page Title” feature.   It’s amazing how many sites still have the same static title on all product pages.

There are a number of tools that you can use to to determine the effectiveness of your SEO changes.   Obviously, the true measure of effectiveness would be increases in online sales.  But an improvement in the position of links to your site and your products in search engine results based on keyword searches is the primary goal of SEO.   If you improve your position to the first three pages, increases in traffic and sales should follow.   Use a rank checking tool like SEOBook’s Rank Checker to get a snapshot of your products’ keywords before any SEO changes are made.   This particular rank checker will return your site’s position in Yahoo, Bing, and Google search results if it is in the top 200 for each keyword or key phrase.   You can then get additional snapshots monthly or quarterly so that you can hopefully see the positioning values getting smaller and smaller.   Keep in mind that if you have changed a product page’s URL so that it contains the product name, the entry for the old URL may show in the top 200 at first.   But it will steadily slip off the list because search engine crawlers are no longer visiting that particular URL.   It should eventually be overtaken by the newly named URL, and that entry should settle in at a much higher position than the original.

Internet storefront considerations for manufacturers and distributors

These days, many manufacturers and distributors are looking to the Internet to increase their sales.  An Internet storefront can be a great way to provide your customers, sales teams and business partners with access to your products.  There are some unique challenges for manufacturers and distributors when it comes to selling products online.  How are current distribution channels maintained?  Who will manage the website content?  How will orders flow into the back-office systems?

I have seen businesses struggle with Internet sales projects because of these challenges.  Here are some of the more common challenges that need to be addressed.

The Internet storefront will change your sales channel(s). It will impact someone’s profits.  To open an Internet storefront, the sales channels will need to be addressed.  If you have sales representatives, will they receive the same commission on sales generated  by their customers that order via the website?  Do you have merchants that will see the web store as a direct competitor?  Different pricing structures will be necessary.  Will the shopping-cart software support your pricing methods?

Maintaining product information is difficult and time-consuming. When considering the overall project for opening an online store, do not underestimate the scope of work to set up and maintain the product information.  Most businesses have very basic product descriptions that mean something only to the internal staff.  Adding meaningful product descriptions that promote the value of the product and providing quality images is a lot of work.  With new and changing products, the work is never done.  The person or team that produces this content is adding value to the company that goes beyond the website.  It takes skilled staff with excellent product knowledge to build a successful Internet store.

The store will need to integrate with your back-office system. If you are serious about using the Internet as a sales channel, you will need to integrate the store to your back-office systems.  Will you need to maintain inventory levels on the storefront?  Can the inventory be refreshed daily or will you need real-time inventory levels?  How about product prices?  All good shopping carts support multiple price levels, but do they support your pricing methods?

What about special discounts, promotions and surcharges?  Should customers be able to see orders not placed on the website?  There are many additional integration needs that could come into play.  If the store is set up as an island that doesn’t talk to the back-office systems, it will become burdensome and a customer-support nightmare as sales grow.

Who will have access to the store? Depending on your line of business, sales to the public could be excluded.  Should they be?  The public might need a different pricing model, or the website may need to be configured to require a sign-in to view the store.  Give this considerable thought.    Some of our clients do not sell to the public, but will allow the public to see the products they offer without any prices.  If the person wants to purchase online they need to contact a customer service representative to open an account.

While on the subject of customer accounts, consider business customers that have more than one buyer.  Will your store need to support multiple user accounts per business account?

The bottom line. Although the move to Internet sales has a lot of roadblocks, an increasing number of businesses are using the Internet as a successful tool to increase their sales.  There is a significant shift taking place.  Online sales can reduce your sales overhead and allow you to reach customers you wouldn’t normally have access to.  It is a great tool to drive national and international sales.