How to Start Building an SEO Strategy for Your E-commerce Website

How to Start Building an SEO Strategy for Your E-commerce Website

I spend a lot of time in e-commerce forums online, reading and answering people's questions about marketing their online shops. When it comes to SEO, the #1 question people ask is: how do I hire someone inexpensive to do SEO for my website?

Sigh. 

I get it. SEO is confusing and scary and if you don't know the first thing about it it seems smart to outsource it to someone who knows what they're doing. But SEO consultants are expensive. You're not likely to find someone cheap, and if you do, you're probably getting scammed.

That's the bad news. The good news? With a little understanding of the basics, you can start building your own SEO strategy for your e-commerce business.

How to Start Building an E-commerce SEO Strategy

Let's start with the basics. SEO stands for "search engine optimization." It simply means working with the content on your website to make your business more visible to the search engines (primarily Google). For e-commerce businesses, a good SEO strategy means making sure your products get found in search. But how do you do that?

Understand how people search for your products

To start with, remember that the internet is just people. If you're going to optimize your website for search, part of that means putting words on your website that actual people use to search the internet.

Do people search for the kinds of items you sell online? If so, what keywords do they use? For example, you might sell a range of men's grooming products including mustache wax and beard oil. Clearly you'd want to optimize your content for the phrases mustache wax and beard oil. But how about:

  • beeswax mustache wax
  • unscented beard oil
  • all natural beard oil
  • beard care kit
  • best mustache wax
  • tea tree eucalyptus beard oil
  • mustache wax made in kentucky

See what I did there? I'm not just using the generic keywords people use to search for my products, but also a string of modifiers based on how my products differ from other mustache wax and beard oil purveyors. Why do I do this? 

Understand how competitive the search landscape is

Unless I'm selling something truly unique, like a chinchilla leash made out of waxed unicorn hair, it's likely there are other people on the internet selling the same things I am in my shop. If that's the case, their products are also likely to appear in search results for the short, generic search terms like beard oil and mustache wax. In fact, not only are my small competitors' items likely to appear in the search results for those terms, I'm also competing with giants like Amazon, Pinterest, Target, and Macy's on generic men's grooming terms. 

In other words, the term beard oil has a high search volume (meaning lots of people are searching for it online), but unfortunately it's also highly competitive (meaning lots of other websites rank for the term). So it's a waste of time for me to try and optimize for that term by itself. 

What I'm looking for are keywords with a relatively high search volume that are not very competitive. They're not always easy to find, but finding them is the most important component to your e-commerce SEO strategy.

This is what you're looking for in your SEO keyword research: high volume, low competition keywords.

This is what you're looking for in your SEO keyword research: high volume, low competition keywords.

Your high volume, low competition keywords are often those product term with a few extra words tacked on to the end. We call these long tail keywords, and they will likely be the cornerstone of your SEO strategy as a small e-commerce business.

There are tools you can use to assess search volume and search competition. If you have a Google AdWords account (free to create), you can use the Google AdWords Keyword Planner to research keyword volume. Keyword Planner reports on the average number of searches your keywords (and close variants) receive over a given period, which gives you an idea of what your search traffic might be if you were ranking for that term. The higher the search volume, the more traffic you'll likely get.

E-commerce search volume research using Google AdWords Keyword Planner

Keyword Planner also reports on keyword competition, but it uses PPC data, not organic rankings data, to assess how competitive a keyword is. I like to use a tool called Market Samurai to get a more nuanced picture of how competitive a keyword is organically.

How competitive is the term "unscented beard oil"? Organic keyword research with Market Samurai.

How competitive is the term "unscented beard oil"? Organic keyword research with Market Samurai.

Market Samurai analyzes the websites that rank in the top 10 in Google for a particular keyword, then reports on how many have that keyword in the page title, URL, meta description and headline. This tells you how well-optimized those websites are for that keyword. (Market Samurai also assesses off-page SEO factors such as domain age, but I did not use those factors for the purpose of this post.)

Build your list of opportunity keywords

With Market Samurai organic rankings research, you can begin to see open opportunities for ranking. If the websites that rank in the top 10 for your keywords are doing so unintentionally, meaning they are not fully optimized for those keywords, your website has a chance of sneaking in the rankings.

Optimize your website for your opportunity keywords

Once you've built a list of keywords you will try to rank for, you need to understand how to optimize your content for those keywords. In order to rank in Google for a word or phrase, it should appear in your page content in six key places:

  1. Page title
  2. Meta description
  3. URL
  4. Headline (H1)
  5. Body copy
  6. Image alt text

This means that if you are going to attempt to get your product page to rank for the term "unscented beard oil" you should have that exact phrase appear in all six places.

A quick word about keyword stuffing: you want the phrase to appear naturally in the content. Google's algorithm is getting smarter and smarter, and it doesn't like it when the same phrase is repeatedly stuffed into the elements of your website. A good rule of thumb to help you avoid keyword stuffing is to read your copy out loud. Does the keyword sound repetitive? Then consider leaving it out of one or two elements.

Each page on your website can only rank for a single keyword or phrase. So if you optimize a product page for the term "unscented beard oil," it's not likely to also rank for "all natural beard oil." One page, one keyword. This is why you want to pick your keywords strategically.

Be proactive about getting reviews

Reviews can help boost your search rankings because adding reviews means adding new content to your website (good for SEO) and adding opportunities for keyword inclusion. Encourage your customers to leave product reviews by adding a review widget to your website and automating email follow-up.

Structure your website correctly

Google likes to see a well-organized website structure, especially for e-commerce sites. Think of Google kind of like a shopper going into a real store: would they rather go somewhere that is messy and unorganized, or a place where they can easily find everything because it's been shelved into sections?

Use categories and sub-categories to organize products into a hierarchy so it's easy for website users to locate them. 

Nesting categories: ideal website structure for e-commerce

Nesting categories: ideal website structure for e-commerce

For example, in a men's grooming company, you might organize products into categories like this:

Grooming > Beard > Beard Oils > Unscented Beard Oil

Grooming > Beard > Beard Oils > Tea Tree Beard Oil

Grooming > Mustache > Mustache Waxes > Beeswax > 3 oz. tin

Grooming > Mustache > Mustache Waxes > Beeswax > 6 oz. tin

What you don't want to do is lump all products into a single category with no hierarchy, or worse, make each individual product accessible via the home page. Structure is key!

Deal with technical issues that hurt your search rankings

While the content on your website might be optimized for search, Google looks at other elements of your website when deciding where to rank you. These include:

  • Whether your website is mobile optimized
  • How long your pages take to load
  • Whether your content is blocked by pop-up windows on mobile
  • What the overall bounce rate is for a piece of content
  • Whether or not you've submitted a recent site map
  • Content that appears in multiple places on your website, or content that appears other places on the web (this is known as duplicate content)
  • Code that blocks search engines from crawling certain pages
  • Whether your site has missing content, such as broken links or 404 errors

Fixing these technical issues and keeping your website in good standing with Google is one way you can control your search rankings in addition to researching and optimizing for the right keywords.

Improve off-page ranking factors

Google also looks at certain factors happening outside your website when deciding where to rank you. These are called off-page ranking factors, and they include:

  • The age of your website
  • How many websites link to yours, and the importance and age of those websites
  • How many social shares your website gets
  • The content of the anchor text (linking text) used to link to your website

You can control some of these elements by creating and implementing a link building strategy that will get you more traffic from other websites and social media. Getting media mentions by pitching bloggers and journalists is part of a link building strategy, as is creating awesome content on your e-commerce blog that encourages social sharing.

Optimize all your content, not just product listings

While your product listings are an important part of your SEO strategy for e-commerce, to really build a strong SEO game you need additional content on your site that ranks for important search terms. 

You can use your e-commerce blog as a way to rank for long-tail keywords that your audience searches for but that don't directly relate to your products. For example, a company that sells beard oil might blog about the following:

  • Summer beard care tips
  • Beard care while traveling
  • Beard styles 2017
  • Best celebrity beards
  • How often should I wash my beard?
  • How to prep for No-Shave November

You can get good ideas for blog content by using a tool called AnswerthePublic.com, a visual keyword search tool that shows you what questions people type into Google when they're looking for your topic.

Answer the Public's long tail keyword generator shows you questions people type into Google when researching your product. 

Answer the Public's long tail keyword generator shows you questions people type into Google when researching your product. 

Your product category pages are also important opportunities for keyword rankings. Use category landing pages to create collections of products that rank for your long-tail keywords. Some examples:

  • All natural beard care
  • Beard oil sale
  • Beeswax beard products

Each category landing page has a page title, meta description, headline and URL as well as body copy that you can optimize for these key terms. Use them! 

How to measure results

Your SEO strategy is not something you do in a single day, it's a process you work on throughout the life of your business. You won't see immediate results from any of your efforts, but over time if you're doing things right, your search traffic will increase. 

To measure results, use Google Analytics to track search traffic to your website. Google no longer reports on what keywords people used to find your content, but you can make an educated guess by looking at which pages on your site get the most search traffic. There are also a wealth of paid tools (my favorite is SEMRush) to help you understand where you rank in search for particular terms and how your rankings have improved over time against your competitors.