Overcoming The SEO Challenges Of Huge Online Commerce Sites

Ecommerce sites featuring product catalogs present interesting search engine optimization challenges. Typically, these sites will carry large volumes of products, organized into various groupings. Let’s take a look at a snippet of the Zappos home page as an example.:


Notice in the left menu the neat categorization of the shoes category of products on the left. First we see a breakdown into women’s and men’s shoes, and from there it breaks down further into various type of shoes. In addition, across the top you see an alphabetic menu for drilling down by manufacturer name. This provides the site visitor with multiple ways to navigate to the product they want to buy.

Now if we click on sneakers under men’s shoes we can see what this looks like a layer deeper:


In this shot we see that Zappos offers many levels of refined navigation. You can pick your shoes based on theme, size, width, color and brand. You also start to see individual products listed on the page. Overall, this provides a great experience because shoppers can use the approach that works best for them. However, if you step back and think about it you can begin to see the basic complexity involved. There must be tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of shoe products on this web site.

On many ecommerce sites of similar complexity (whether the product is shoes or not) you will see one of two things:

Hundreds of thousands of pages with an image of the product, drop downs for selecting specific product features and a few bullets about product features (which were supplied by the manufacturer) and little else. The problem is that these pages will likely be seen as low quality pages because they have so little search engine parsable content. As a result, these pages may not even be indexed.

The same scenario as above, except with the addition of a manufacturer supplied product description. The problem with this scenario is that the manufacturer is providing that same text description to everyone else selling their product, resulting in duplicate content. Whenever the search engine sees duplicate content they will choose only one of those pages to show in the search results, and the page they choose may not be yours.

Unfortunately, this is not the only set of problems. Let’s now consider all the navigation pages. What would be the material difference between a page offering blue men’s sneakers and a page offering brown men’s sneakers? Not much at all, so those pages are likely to be seen as duplicates of one another as well.


Create a killer link profile. If you have a strong enough link profile, Google will resolve many of the duplicate content choices it needs to make by picking your site instead of another. In addition, it will much more likely be forgiving to include what would otherwise be seen as low quality pages in the index. What kind of link profile is good enough? The best way to think about this is that the objective is to have a better profile than the competition.

One of the reasons for Zappos’ success is the strength of its link profile. Zappos was an early entrant in the market, offered a superior shopping experience, and built a strong brand that consumers trust. All of these things have helped them build a strong link profile and continue to enhance it over time.

Build out unique content. One obvious solution is to put unique content on every page. If you have hundreds of thousands of pages this sounds like a big mountain to climb. In addition, how would you write a different description for a blue, size 6, nike air, men’s running sneaker and a blue, size 6.5, nike air, men’s running sneaker. Definitely challenging.

Amazon has addressed this problem using user contributed content in the form of customer reviews, as you can see in this example:


This gives them great unique content for each page. However, this will not work for sites that do not have a critical mass of traffic. For sites without an authoritative link profile, or without enough traffic to generate a lot of customer commentary, it is probably a good idea for them to generate their own unique content.

The way to do this is in layers. Probably 20% of the pages of any site are the most important ones, at least from a search engine perspective. Of course, on larger sites even 20% may represent tens of thousands of pages. In that case, the best thing to do is to go yet another layer further up in the hierarchy and perhaps address the top 2%. Once you have identified the targets figure out how to write 100 to 250 words of unique content for each page (more for the top 100 pages or so). It does not take a lot to increase the perceived quality of the pages for users and search engines, so this effort will be well worth it.

You can make this more affordable by contracting with overseas-based content writers. We do this in our efforts, and the writing quality is not bad. The information is usually quite accurate, though the English is sometimes not so good. But, then we use local (US based) resources to do a quick edit of the content to fix the language errors and to verify accuracy. Using this process we can get these short articles for under $10 each.

How do you prioritize the pages that should get this new content? Focus on pages close to the home page of your site, as well as pages that appear to be drawing the most traffic. You can get this latter metric from the “most requested pages” or “top landing pages” report in your analytics package.

Engage in PageRank sculpting. No, this concept is not dead, just changing. For example, I consider use of the canonical tag to tell the search engines that one page is essentially the same as another one as an exercise in sculpting. So if you have a page for size 6 men’s blue Nike xx27gh running sneakers (not a real product), and one for size 6.5 men’s blue Nike xx27gh running sneakers, you can use the canonical tag to tell the search engines that these pages are both really the same content as the men’s Nike xx27gh running sneakers (the base page prior to picking a size or a color).

This has the effect of telling the search engine how to deal with pages that it will likely perceive to be low quality or duplicates. The link equity will be consolidated on the most important version of the page, and over time, the search engine is likely to crawl much less frequently pages that have a canonical tag on them.

There are other ways to do sculpting as well. A variety of techniques exist for implementing links to pages that make the page invisible to the search engines. For example, a link to a page can be implemented in an encrypted form of Javascript, or within an iFrame to make it invisible. If you use one of these methods you prevent the search engines from spending any time crawling pages you want them to ignore, but you have to worry that this may change as algorithms get tweaked over time, causing one of these types of techniques to stop working. I would avoid this route unless you are very savvy and able to respond quickly when such algorithm changes occur.

All of these techniques work together to provide an ecommerce site a strong growth path. Sculpting helps the search engine focus its attention on the most differentiated pages of your site. Creating great unique content directly on product pages provides a better user experience and gives the search engine spider something to chew on. It also makes the site more attractive to link to, which along with the sculpting will help drive increases in search engine traffic. This will provide cash flow that enables funding the development of more content. It is a great virtuous circle to build your business steadily over time!

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Industrial Strength


About The Author: is the president of Stone Temple Consulting, an SEO consultancy outside of Boston. Eric publishes a highly respected interview series and can be followed on Twitter at @stonetemple.

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  • http://www.michael-martinez.com/ Michael Martinez

    Oh, good. Yet another piece of bad SEO advice coming from a major SEO site. Eric, why don’t you prove that there is actual value in so-called “PR Sculpting” before acting like it’s okay to hand out this kind of crap with a pretense of credibility?


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