When it comes to SEO, it’s good to get used to constant change. With Google consistently changing their algorithm, as well as some of the major changes that have come in 2020, it’s more important than ever for eCommerce businesses to be willing to adapt and change. So what do you need to do for your marketing strategies to continue to generate revenue and drive growth for your business?

Online Versus In-Store Shopping 

2020 has proven unpredictable, both small and bigger brands are not immune to the repercussions of major events. As a result of these events, several stores have closed shop creating a direct impact on eCommerce shopping. It is estimated that the rate of physical retail store closures will have a larger impact on eCommerce in 2020 than it did in 2019.

With such extraordinary events, consumers have greatly altered their shopping behaviors. Many are shopping online, taking advantage of curbside pickup, and looking for retailers to offer a unique shopping experience to match local health guidelines. 

As we head into 2021, businesses need to keep a close eye on how consumers’ buying habits will change as the economy, lifestyle and numerous other external factors play a role in their spending habits. 

The Online Buyers Journey Has Changed 

Online shopping is going to drastically increase as more individuals look to this source to make big, small, planned, and impulsive purchases. With retail stores continuing to shut down and local mandates constantly changing, these limitations have encouraged shoppers to turn to the Internet for their shopping needs. 

What does this mean for you? It means it’s time to invest in SEO to improve your online presence. 

Approximately 40,000 search queries are processed by Google every second. This means there are approximately 3.5 billion search queries every day. With this many searches happening each second, taking the time to ensure your website is properly optimized to rank for relevant keywords will generate significant traffic for your website. In addition to site optimizations, technical and advanced eCommerce SEO will continue to be a large factor in large enterprise SEO strategy. 

Technical SEO Elements to Optimize for Enterprise Sites

Focusing on improving your eCommerce site’s technical SEO elements will greatly improve your site’s visibility and usability. The two technical elements that one should focus on is accessibility and indexability.  

Accessibility

There are several factors that directly impact your site’s accessibility for search engine crawlers. We will cover the following elements: site architecture, site navigation, robots.txt files, XML sitemaps, and site speed. 

What is the Best Site Architecture for an eCommerce Site?

Before jumping into anything SEO related, you’ll need to take some time to do some research and put together a plan. When it comes to planning an ideal site structure, it’s imperative that you use keyword research during your preparation.

However, most eCommerce businesses don’t take keyword research into consideration when considering their information architecture. Instead, they often ask questions such as:

  1. How are users navigating the current site? 
  2. What does the site structure look like on my competitor’s website?
  3. What category of product(s) do we need to get more visibility for?
  4. What are the most important core categories that we should be highlighting?
  5. How do we create a better landing page experience? 
  6. How do we create a better visual experience for our users? 

While these things should be considered, the issue with taking this approach to building a site’s architecture is that there is usually little to no data behind building an effective site structure. Whoever is tasked with the new site designs is using their gut feelings. Going this route often does not involve the SEO team, which means nothing is optimized for search engines or users.  Ultimately, the best site structure for an enterprise eCommerce website is one that is simple and SEO optimized.

Why should eCommerce sites consider SEO for site structure?

Approximately 87% of shoppers perform product searches before they commit to making a purchase and nearly 63% of online shoppers begin their buying process by consulting with a search engine

Do these stats convince you that SEO and organic traffic are significant factors in pulling in relevant traffic? Let’s add two more statistics for good measure. In a recent survey, organic search was noted as the main driver of traffic comprising 41% of visitors. Another study from 2015 found that businesses that perform SEO tasks effectively will make approximately $4.76 for every $1 you invest

Users need to be able to easily navigate through your site, but search engines likewise need to easily know what pages are more important on your site for search relevancy. 

6 site architecture components to optimize for search  

Now that you know what kind of site structure you need and why this is so important to business success, here are the six components when optimizing your enterprise eCommerce store for search engines.

The above picture is a great example of how to better your site structure by relevance. It also stresses the importance of planning your site navigation based on your site’s home page, which is usually the most visited page of every eCommerce site. 

This is where doing your keyword research comes in handy. You want the right focus keyword(s) used on your homepage and product pages to ensure each page is optimized. 

Another way to more easily convey your site content is with simple URLs. Long, confusing URLs make it harder for search engines to crawl your site and visitors to link to your content. Keep your URLs concise and use relevant words that give people and search engines more clear information about your page.

Information architecture should be leveraged to structure websites in such a way that enhances findability and usability for both search engines and end-users. In more simple terms, it takes website complexity and turns it into a comprehensible structure. A strong rule of thumb, if you can’t find something on your website, Google search bots won’t be able to find it easily either. 

Organizing site information gets more complicated the further down you get into the site’s taxonomy. Sites are structured to have categories and subcategories and then faceted navigation pages.

Take Pottery Barn, for example. the top level categories are simple and include the following: Furniture, Outdoor, Bath, Rugs, Lighting, etc.  

However, when you move down to the actual product listing pages (PLPs) or product matrix pages (PMP page) for example, things get more challenging. You have to organize filtered content in a simple and effective way while giving users options with how they filter and find information. 

Not only do you need to organize all of this information, there are other areas like blogs, community forums, or guides that need to be structured in a way to help search engines understand how relevant you are to a search query. Once you organize all of this information, you can build a plan around how to better arrange this information on your site to make it easier for search engines to crawl it. 

As you organize a site’s taxonomy, you need to consider the types of information a consumer would need as they move through the buyer’s journey to conversion. 

Many enterprise sites organize topics into keyword buckets around overarching topic ideas. This allows them to understand if they have organized and created content around the core topic areas. Planning all of this can be very tricky but I suggest first nailing down your content buckets. 

Do keyword research to get familiar with how consumers search for products online.

Use SEMrush or Google’s AdWords Keyword Planner tool to familiarize yourself with consumer search insights and to find relevant keywords that aren’t too broad or competitive. 

In the case of REI, they could take the main bucket of backpacking and start to organize things like this: 

Image Source: Stryde  

Pro Tip: There are tools like MarketMuse that can help eCommerce companies understand the gaps in their technical SEO strategy. Once you get that data you can organize information on the site based on an SEO plan that works to clean up the gaps on the site.     

Now that you have collected and organized your site information, the two most important things for optimizing your information architecture for SEO is findability and usability. 

1. Navigation

Having strong navigation is crucial to your site’s accessibility and visibility. Your navigation not only tells your users where they can find your products, but it also indicates to search engine crawlers what you have to offer. 

The following technical components have a significant impact on your SEO performance: 

  • Primary Menu: This is the first menu your online shoppers will use when they try to navigate to the products they are most interested in seeing. It is crucial your primary navigation is simple and connects users to the category pages that generate the majority of your revenue.
  • Secondary Menu: Several eCommerce stores have secondary menus that help users further filter their product selection. These secondary menus should remain simple as well.
    • Search Bar: On-site search features can help keep consumers shopping on your site longer. However, mobile site search experiences are a big issue for ecommerce sites. Whether you have a built in system or have an integration with your online store, make sure your site search is useful and you are tracking users search data so that you can use that information to better align the Dev team with the SEO team for better keyword optimizations.
  • Homepage Design:  The layout of your homepage is a significant factor in your eCommerce navigation. Your page should include a focus on your highest revenue generating products, inform users of new products, sales or promotional benefits. Your homepage is your first impression and you have 5-10 seconds to encourage them to stay on your site just a little longer. 

2. URL Structure

When designing your URL structure, it is best practice to follow your site navigation by keeping it simple and clear. Companies with a large catalogue of products and categories can be difficult for your users to navigate and manage. 

When working on your URL structure, Google recommends the following tips:

  • Use logic when constructing URLs. Ask yourself if this URL is simple to understand. 
  • Instead of spaces use hyphens.
  • Keep URLs under 70 characters if possible.
  • Use lower-case letters. 
  • Add keywords to focus on in your URLs.
  • Trim unnecessary parameters when possible. 

An example of this is Target. Instead of including each subdirectory in the URL structure such as target.com/home/storageandorganization/decorativestorage, they condense the URL to be https://www.target.com/c/decorative-storage-organization-home/-/N-5xtto. 

3. Faceted Navigation

It is common for an eCommerce site to have a wide catalog of products that range in size, color, and price. With this much information, it is necessary you have faceted navigation that can help improve your user experience. 

Faceted navigation provides an easier way to filter your products based on simple descriptors such as material, color, size, etc. This will allow your shoppers to easily navigate to products that interest them. 

If faceted navigation is not implemented properly, it can prove to not be search optimized. It can lead to duplicate pages and unnecessary URL combinations. Pages with duplicate or identical content will negatively impact the indexability and visibility of your pages. 

To implement faceted navigation your eCommerce site should consider:

  • Identify specific URL parameters for search engines to crawl 
  • Determine parameters that will most likely produce duplicate content
  • Use configuration logic for URLs with unnecessary parameters (rel= “nofollow” or robots.txt disallow)
  • Improve site indexing

Using Target as our example again, you will notice they have implemented specific facets that improve user experience and are SEO optimized. Users can click on their unique specifications and be taken to relevant products without searching through several pages.

[Screenshot from Target]

4. Canonical Tags

Canonical tags indicate to Google search bots which pages they prefer to be indexed. These tags can be extremely beneficial when you have pages with similar content, examples may include unique URLs for shopping cart pages, reviews and search results. The canonical tag will let the search bot know what page you want indexed. 

How to Best Set up Canonical Tags for Search 

The rel=canonical element helps webmasters prevent duplicate content issues. It does this by specifying the “canonical URL”, the “preferred” version of a web page.

One Facet Selected

In URLs with one search parameter, the page should have a canonical back to itself.

http://www.example.com/bracelets.html?color=pink

<link rel=”canonical” href=”http://www.example.com/bracelets.html?color=pink” />

Multiple Facets Selected

In URLs with more than one search parameter, the page should be canonical back to the category page.

http://www.example.com/bracelets.html?color=pink&finish=gold

<link rel=”canonical” href=”http://www.examplei.com/bracelets.html” />

In the example above, make sure to leverage your robots.txt file. 

If there is more than one key=value pair, disallow those URLs in the Robots.txt file to keep Google from crawling those pages. Here is what that would look like: 

http://www.example.com/bracelets.html?color=pink&finish=gold

Include this command in your robots.txt file: Disallow: /*&*

This will allow you to fix most of the canonical issues happening on the site since there will be an actual structure. 

5. Breadcrumbs

In terms of your website, breadcrumbs are the small secondary navigation that indicates to the user the location on a website they navigated to. Breadcrumbs enhance user experience and provide multiple SEO benefits including:

  • Reduces the number of clicks a user has to make to get to the desired web page
  • Improves navigation to category and product pages
  • Increases internal links
  • Keywords are included on your web page

6. Pagination

When you are looking to display multiple products on your site, you likely used pagination as a way to load new items. 

Pagination allows you to separate items into smaller sections. To optimize the content for search engines, you add rel=”next” and rel=”prev” tags to them. 

[Screenshot from Nordstrom]

However, in 2019, Google decided to tell us they no longer used rel=prev/next for pagination.

So should your enterprise eCommerce site remove rel=prev/next?

No.

If your site has already implemented these tags on your website, do not remove them. Removing these tags can harm your future performance. These tags are used by more groups than Google. W3C uses these tags to improve web accessibility and ADA compliance. Other browsers use this information to prefetch data. 

Robots.txt File 

Robots.txt are files that mark which pages of a website should not be crawled by search bots. 

Purpose of implementing Robots.txt:

  • Block login pages, forms or other sensitive information from being indexed
  • Maximize crawl budget
  • Block whitepapers and PDFs from being indexed

While Robots.txt files can help with your indexing efforts, most websites do not use this method since Google has gotten good at determining the most important web pages to be indexed. 

However, eCommerce websites benefit from implementing Robots.txt files that include the following URLs:

  • /cart.php
  • /search.php
  • /checkout.php
  • /login.php

XML Sitemap File 

An XML sitemap is a file containing all website pages and how often they are updated. This file is similar to a robots file because it helps search engines know which pages of a website should be crawled by search bots. XML sitemaps are especially important to enterprise site since they: 

  • Have millions of pages of information being crawled 
  • Frequently update, remove and add new products to the site 
  • Continually make content updates to existing content on the site 
  • Have weak internal linking to deep pages
  • Create numerous orphan and dynamic pages based on their site architecture 

While XML files can help speed up your site’s ability to be crawled and indexed, it’s not guaranteed that every page listed in the XML sitemap(s) will be indexed and ranked. You are merely giving search engines a strong suggestion that these are the most useful pages on the site. Google will use this information as its algorithm determines which pages are quality landing pages and should be included in their index. 

How Google uses XML sitemaps today are primarily for understanding when the URL was last modified. 

That is according to a Tweet from John Mueller from 2017. Google ignores the priority tag in a sitemap format, so there’s no need to include those tags. 

XML Sitemap Limitations: 

Sitemaps are limited as well. They should only have a maximum of 50,000 URLs per sitemap and the file size needs to be less than 50MB. If the file is larger than 50,000 or 50MB you will get an error message in Google Search Console once you submit the sitemap. 

XML Sitemaps to include  

It is recommended to set up numerous sitemaps for different types of information that can be found on your site such as: 

  • Image sitemap(s) 
  • Video sitemap(s) 
  • Google News sitemap(s) 
  • Products page sitemap(s) 
  • Faceted URL sitemap(s) 
  • Category page sitemap(s) 
  • Subcategory page sitemap(s) 
  • Store location page sitemap(s) 
  • Resource page sitemap(s) – i.e. – blog, articles, learn, type pages 
  • Newsroom sitemap(s) 
  • Events sitemap(s) 
  • Brand page sitemaps (if you carry numerous brands) 
  • Collection sitemap(s) 
  • Sale/Deals sitemap(s) 
  • New arrivals/releases sitemap(s) 

XML sitemap URL exclusions: 

Not only should you have numerous sitemaps for your site, you need to consider the types of URLs you should exclude from being added to your sitemaps. This will keep Google from crawling and potentially indexing pages you don’t want being indexed on your site. Things such as: 

  • Internal site search URLs 
  • Paginated pages 
  • Non-canonical pages 
  • ID/Parameter URLs 
  • URLs with multiple facets selected (as shown in the Canonical tag section above) 
  • Pages blocked by the Robots.txt file 
  • Pages with meta noindex tags 
  • Duplicate content pages 
  • Paginated page URLs 
  • Reply or comment URLs 
  • Campaign ID or pages with tracking code added to them 
  • Archive pages 
  • Login/Account or other form fill pages
  • Redirect pages 3xx, 4xx error or soft 404 error pages, 5xx server error pages 

The reason you want to exclude 3xx and 4xx URLs from the XML sitemap is because you are telling search engines the information no longer exists. Here is a quick breakdown of these status codes. 

Redirects: 301 vs. 302 vs. 404 Error page. 

301 Redirect 

301 redirects indicate to search engines that your webpage has been permanently redirected to a new URL. 

302 Redirect

302 redirects indicate to search engines that your webpage has been moved temporarily. These types of redirects are commonly used when you want to temporarily redirect your users to a new page when you are updating your website. 

404 Errors

A 404 error is not a redirect, it is an indication that your page can no longer be found. These errors can occur when your page is deleted from the site or server, but all of the links to the webpage are still active. 

Once you identify which pages are causing errors or need to be redirected you can determine the appropriate redirect, 301 or 302, to implement to maintain search value and link equity. 

XML sitemaps seem simple enough to manage, but this can be a more advanced technical SEO strategy for enterprise eCommerce sites. Many are running on custom-built platforms that will require extensive development resources in order to filter and automatically generate a list of URLs that meet the list of suggestions above.    

Page Speed: 

Page speed is another advanced SEO tactic for large eCommerce sites but a significant ranking factor for Google. A slow page speed results in search engines crawling fewer pages using their predetermined crawl budget. This can negatively impact which pages are indexed and your user’s experience. Pages that take longer to load can result in higher bounce rates and lower click-through rates. 

How to Improve Page Speed:

Compress Files

Use tools that allow file compression to reduce the size of CSS, HTML, and JavaScript files that are larger than 150 bytes. 

Minify Code

Remove unnecessary spaces, commas or characters from your code. In most cases, this basic cleanup can greatly improve load speed. 

Review Redirects 

Try to reduce the number of times a user is redirected before they reach the final site. Every time you redirect a user, they will experience additional wait time for the HTTP request cycle to finish.

Delete Render-Blocking JavaScript

Before a browser can render a page they have to parse HTML. If your page has additional scripts, it will slow down the browser because it will have to execute the script before they can pull up your page. 

Structured Data Using Schema Markup 

Schema markup is code that makes it easier for search crawlers to understand and display your content. 

An example of using schema markup includes providing contact information for your company. It is easy to add the contact information in the footer of your site, human browsers have come to expect that information to be there.

Search engines need a little more help breaking down that information. Adding schema markup can tell search crawlers the contact information is yours instead of additional random information. 

Here is the code as an example:

Internal Links

Internal linking helps guide consumers from one page of your website to another. It benefits consumers by giving them more options to engage with your site. Internal links also help search engines crawl your site, and increases your chance to rank for specific keywords.

You can use internal links on just about any page, i.e. home page, blog posts, category pages, and product pages. The latter is the most necessary for eCommerce sites. Internal linking can also be used with breadcrumb navigation and showing related or similar products. 

Setting up your eCommerce business for success starts with a well laid out site architecture and is followed by more advanced SEO elements such as XML sitemaps, Robots.txt files and site speed. Unfortunately, many large ecommerce sites design and build a site first and then try and optimize it for SEO best practices after the fact. By starting with the elements mentioned above, you will avoid the headache of restructuring and building parts of the site a second time. 

Laurel is a member of the executive team at Stryde. She's been doing digital marketing for businesses for 10 years, but she had several blogs as a teenager and in college (that are only available via archive.org). While her expertise is in content, social media and SEO, she loves talking about conversion rate optimization.