Recently, I discussed elements of a well-optimized product page. This week, we want to talk about the most common SEO mistakes made on e-commerce websites:
- Broken internal links
- URL structure
- Slow load speed
- Low word count
- Duplicate title tags
- Improperly formatted title tags
- Missing alt text
Perhaps the most important and most often overlooked mistake website owners make is accidentally blocking crawlers, thereby preventing indexation in the search engines entirely. Also known as “spiders,” these robots “crawl” your website to determine what it’s about, how quickly it loads, what kind of experience it offers a human visitor and more. Google’s spider, for example, is called Googlebot.
The issue of a lack of what we call crawlability — the website being able to be crawled — usually arises from the website developer blocking crawlers during the development phase (rightfully so) and then forgetting to unblock them once development is complete and the site is launched. A file called the robots.txt file contains the instructions for these crawlers, and this is where the blocking/unblocking occurs. This file always lives in the root directory at site.com/robots.txt.
SEOs and site owners put what are known as Disallow directives in this file to prevent certain areas of a website (e.g. sensitive information, cart/checkout pages, etc.) from being crawled and indexed. Sites can also be too crawlable, potentially creating duplicate content, as is the default behavior of the Magento platform. Usually, during development, a sitewide Disallow directive will be put in the robots.txt file temporarily to block the entire website from being crawled until launch. If your site isn’t showing up at all in Google after being live for about a week, chances are this one tiny line of code is the culprit.
2. Broken Internal Links
Broken links are exactly what the name implies — links on pages of your website that don’t work, resulting in a “404 Page Not Found” error for visitors clicking them. Perhaps the URL of the linked page changed or the page indeed no longer exists. This leads to both a bad user experience and a red flag for search engines. Moreover, these broken links are no longer passing link juice to your internal pages as originally intended. You can easily identify broken links on your website by using an SEO crawler tool like Screaming Frog.
3. URL Structure
URLs on your site should follow a logical, hierarchical, tree-like progression, with branches getting smaller as you get further into the site. This both helps search engines understand the information architecture of your site and provides a good user experience for the visitor. Be sure to map this out during the design phase of your website; it’s much harder to change and reshape things later on.
Specifically, let’s say your e-commerce website sells rain gear and you have a subcategory page for Men’s Breathable Waders. It should be obvious that your navigation menu wouldn’t make this a top-level category from the homepage. Similarly, your URL structure should match this breakdown — instead of site.com/mens-breathable-waders, we want this page to reside within a smaller subcategory like site.com/mens/waders/breathable. If a user then wants to go back to check out other types of men’s waders, they intuitively know simply by looking at the URL that they can follow a breadcrumb up/back one level, thereby avoiding any confusion or ambiguity about the navigation.
Google has been pushing for websites to adopt SSL (Secure Socket Layering) for a while now, even establishing it as an explicit ranking factor and enabling a “Not Secure” warning in the Chrome browser. Users are also more protective now than ever before about their data and privacy. It’s imperative that your e-commerce website has a valid SSL certificate and is served over the HTTPS protocol (think of the little green lock icon in your browser’s address bar), since you are collecting sensitive visitor information like credit card numbers and addresses. SSL certificates are both easy and free to get nowadays, and are even automatically included with platforms like Shopify.
5. Slow Load Speed
Users now expect a quick-loading web page, and they’ll bounce if your site is too slow. Amazon famously found that for every 1 second of latency, they lost $1.6 billion annually. Technologies and tactics like gzip compression, caching, image compression and Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) can vastly improve your website’s load speed. Use a tool like GTMetrix to test your load speed and identify areas where you can improve.
6. Low Word Count
Content is king! Search engine crawlers can’t “read” an image or video. They primarily rely on text to get an idea of what a particular page is about and where it should rank. Studies have explicitly shown that high-ranking pages are much more likely to have higher word counts than lower-ranking pages, with a strong positive correlation. Moreover, your product and category descriptions are the perfect way to provide useful information to visitors and encourage them to convert!
7. Duplicate Title Tags
You’ve probably heard of the infamous “duplicate content penalty.” Google doesn’t like to see more than one page that appears to have almost identical content on it. Title tags are the most important SEO element of a page, thus it’s important that pages don’t share the same title tag. Make sure every single page on your site has a unique title tag to avoid duplicate content. Most e-commerce platforms will not do this for you automatically; run a scan with Screaming Frog or SEMRush to see if your site has any duplicate title tags.
8. Improperly Formatted Title Tags
Similarly, it’s common to see title tags that are improperly formatted and not at all optimized. Most CMSs and e-commerce platforms will default to using the page title as the title tag if you don’t specify otherwise. For example, if you have a product called Red Widget on your site, the title tag generated will likely simply be “Red Widget.” This is far from ideal. Not only does it not help your SEO efforts, it doesn’t do much to entice the user to click through from the search results. Just remember you should limit this tag to about 70 characters. A better title tag for our Red Widget product might be “Buy Red Widget Today with Free Shipping from Widget Co.”
9. Missing Alt Text
Another oft-overlooked aspect of page optimization is utilizing alt tags for images. Again, search engine crawlers can’t “see” an image, so they rely on things called alt tags — simply a tag briefly telling the user and the crawler what that image is. Alt tags are an easy way to improve your SEO, compete for image-search results and improve the accessibility of your site for vision-impaired visitors who also rely on alt tags.
Alt tags should be written as plain text phrases with spaces between words. For example, the main image on our Red Widget product page would likely have an alt tag that simply reads “red widget.” You can be as descriptive as you want — going with “large red widget” or “small red widget,” for example — but don’t try to game the system here by using long phrases or sentences like “cheap red widget with free shipping.” Search engines can recognize and penalize that.