As Autumn approaches now is a good time to go over your website and make sure there are going to be nasty surprises during, as what is for many, the peak trading period. Usually falls in SEO performance can be due to small, innocuous errors which can be easily fixed. However, far too often ecommerce websites can suffer very serious declines in organic traffic.
For some reason Google loves to push big updates just as websites start to get settled into their Christmas routine. We’ve had a ‘Penguin’ update (related to spammy links) in October 2013, another one in November 2013, two significant ‘Panda’ updates (page/site quality) in November 2012, a ‘page layout’ update in October 2013, with a major ‘Penguin’ update and ‘65 pack‘ update earlier that month and a week before that an ‘Exact-Match Domain’ update and another ‘Panda’ update. The year before, in 2011, there as a Panda update, a 10 -pack and a ‘Freshness’ update in the November with other Panda updates the month before.
If you know much about these types of updates you will understand that there is a general trend going on in the run-up to Christmas: killing spam.
We expect that our customers aren’t engaged in any nefarious SEO tactics, but one thing we have learned over the years with Google is that to never expect that your website will not get hit as collateral damage. We do know that the Head of Search Spam (as he was called in the past), Matt Cutts is on leave until at least the end of October – so we should expect that you should have your site sparkling at least a month before – why? – because Google often sucks in data and processes it for their big updates, even if more of their algorithm is in almost ‘real time’. It is better to be ahead of schedule.
Here are our tips to get you to that less-risky state:
- Check your link profile – this should be the first thing you check as often it can be the most troublesome to fix. Use software such as (often all of) Link Research Tools, Link Risk, Majestic SEO, A Hrefs and Google’s own Webmaster Tools. Our preference is to use as many tools as we’ve got access too and download ALL of the inbound links and aggregate them. Then load them up to the Link Research Tool’s Link Detox and get your score. In virtually every circumstance you will still need to get some links ‘removed’. When you have classified the links and rerun their software, review all the links and try and contact as many as possible for them to be removed. Give yourself a day on this, if you haven’t got a manual penalty already, disavow the ones you think Google could get upset by – and then wait. Also look out for having too high a frequency of the same anchor text linking to you. This may look like you’ve tried to buy links. At the time of writing we’re overdue a Penguin update so a big one should be ‘odds on’.
- Set up link alerts – often bad links will creep up on you so use one of the tools mentioned above to keep an eye on any new links created and react as necessary. Do not only look out for links from sites that stand out as ‘dodgy’ but make sure you take action if you get hundreds of links from the one website – especially if you haven’t got them ‘nofollowed’.
- Monitor your own internal links – often pages start to drop in rankings when they have been linked to too heavily within a website with valuable anchor text. If you have created a page and every single page links to it with text such as “cheap loans” in the footer (it may even be white text on a white background) – then you will need to take a view on this and consider diluting the anchor text with other RELEVANT phrases or cull some of those links.
- Check the ‘depth’ of your key pages – the reverse of having too many links is having too few. If your ‘target’ pages are only linked to deep within your website then you need to establish a method to link to them closer to the homepage. Screaming Frog will show you how ‘deep’ a page is. Simply click on the page within the ‘Internal’ tab and then in the bottom pane look at the ‘URL info’ section and the ‘level’ number. If this is more than 3 (depending on the value Google places on your website) then you should really take action.
- Run reports on other ‘quality’ signals – having <title> tags that are largely similar across your website not only reduces the opportunity to rank for a wider range of search phrases, but it also reduces the overall perception of ‘quality’ Google gives to websites. Use Screaming Frog to discover your title tags and work out if each is unique and relevant to the page it is on. Make they’re not too short and try and use words that don’t exactly match what are in your <h1> tags.
- Look for broken and redirected links – use Screaming Frog again to find links within your website that are broken and get them fixed. Also look for links that are now redirected to other pages and get them redirected to the correct page. Too many 301 redirects (in my honest opinion) is a quality score – keep on top of this. Also do the same for external links. Make sure if people move content on the sites you link to are kept up-to-date.
- Are your product and category pages unique, engaging and relevant? Having short, dull and uninspiring product pages not only will turn shoppers off, but also the search engines. Take time on each one to enthuse customers. Get ‘in their head’ and sell hard to them – but don’t frighten them off. Even consider video reviews.
- Think about relevant internal linking – if products are related either link to them manually or use a tool to automatically feature related products based on features, product titles or popularity.
- Get your rich snippets live – rich snippets have become increasingly popular over time and they do help click through rates from the search results pages. This not only relates to product information microformatting, but also product reviews and your supplementary content such as recipes etc.
- Establish how you handle removed products – if you get a peak in sales for a particular product and you sell out, it is vital that you make sure that any links or traffic to that page isn’t lost. If you have just a temporary outage allow people to register for stock alerts – and don’t ‘404’ the page. If it is permanent either redirect to similar product or put a notice on the current page and recommend a different product.
- Look for internal shallow pages – Google doesn’t want to know about blog archives by date, category, tag or author. Noindex, follow these pages. They’re just not interested in returning “archive page 45″ – they want to index blog posts themselves.
- Make sure you handle pagination properly – Google helps you tell them that pages are in an organised, sequential structure with the pagination mark-up. Personally, I’m nervous with this tag. I just like to reduce risk by noindex,following any pagination page other than the first page – especially for very, very numerous lists of pages such as with reviews pages. I’m also nervous about doing it for category pages.
- Check all of your canonical tags – people make so many errors here. Again use Screaming Frog and use their ‘Directives’ tab and pull the ‘Canonical Link Element 1′ column across to next to the ‘Address’ column and compare. The first thing you should look out for is to see if you are missing the domain from the canonical (this happens more than I would like to admit). Then make sure that each uses the right version of http v. https. Another common issue is forgetting that your system either uses, or doesn’t trailing slashes at the end of URLs.
- Check for duplication – you can use something such as Plag Spotter for people copying your content or it appearing on other sites you own. There is also no harm in taking lines of text out of your website and randomly checking them in Google for exact matches. When you find a duplicated page you can either try and get it removed, file a DMCA complaint, rewrite your own text or, if you own the page, manage canonicals or remove the content.
- Make the most of category pages – often these can be used to target your core keywords. This is the case as often they have navigation links to them and feature a range of desirable products that given them greater scope to be ranked than on their own – if you work in a competitive industry. Really work hard on providing detailed, comprehensive and engaging content that covers all facets of the product range and gives the potential customer all the guidance they need to make an informed buying decision.
- Go over your “Queries” data in Google Analytics (my preferred location). You can find this under ‘Acquisition’ > Search Engine Optimization > Queries. There are a number of ways to use this data , my preference, however, is to organise descending by Average Position. Any search terms that are of relevance should either be better worked into a category of products, individual products are new, useful content solving that customer problem. Often you’ll find ways people search for your type of products that you haven’t thought of. Also you’ll find out that the keyword you rank #3 for doesn’t actually deliver any traffic.
- Make sure your homepage at least tries to rank for your top keywords – often your homepage will have more ‘weight’ than internal pages so it makes sense to try and use this page to work harder for those difficult keywords. The trend may be for very image-heavy homepages, but don’t understand the benefit of placing useful, relevant and engaging text on the homepage so people can quickly summarise what you’re about and find the specific information/products they’re looking for.
- Check your sales funnels – don’t just assume that you’re converting at a rate you deserve – work harder. You can find many useful tips here, but do set up sales funnels in Google Analytics and use software such as Crazy Eggto see where people click when they visit your website.
- Leverage interactions for social and linking– check your customer emails for prompts to like and share your content. In your sales confirmation emails share useful blog content you’ve written and solicit reviews.
- Run reports on a weekly basis – this isn’t a ‘set and forget’ exercise. If you’ve completed your SEO audit at the beginning of September then don’t leave it until the first of December before you do it again. Keep on top of your links, duplication, sales funnel, internal linking, customer reviews, social shares, blog content, important messaging such delivery times, returns and the like.
- Check for spelling mistakes – this is also a quality signal. Use CheckDog to regularly crawl your website to look for and report issues.
- Go through your product and collection and try and ensure you’ve used your own images and not stock ones or taken off other websites. Using bespoke images could be a sign of quality, whilst ‘stealing’ images could result in the copyright holder succeeding in getting Google to remove that page from their search results.