Ecommerce SEO

CHAPTER 8:

Product Detail Pages ( PDPs)

Length: 14,287 words

Estimated reading time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

This guide has almost 400 pages of advanced, actionable insights into on-page SEO for ecommerce.

Written by an ecommerce SEO consultant with 20 years of research and practical experience, this exhaustive SEO resource will teach you how to identify and address all of the SEO issues specific to ecommerce websites, in one place.

The strategies and tactics described in this guide have been successfully implemented on Top 10 online retailers, small & medium businesses, and mom and pop stores.

Please share and link to this guide if you liked it.

Many marketers consider that the “bread and butter” of ecommerce websites are the product detail pages, aka PDPs. Since that is where the add to cart micro-conversion happens, PDPs are considered the “money pages”, and tend to get the most SEO attention. After all, if you do not rank when someone searches for your products, you will not have the chance to sell them. While the focus of the product detail pages is to convince and convert, conversion elements have to be balanced with SEO.

In this part of the course I will break down the most important sections found on product detail pages, and we will look at ways to optimize for a better search experience.

I will explain how to optimize URLs for product detail pages, and then we will go into details about optimizing images and videos. We will also dig into optimizing product descriptions, and how to handle product variations and thin content.

Then we will see how you can optimize product names and discuss why it is important for SEO to collect and properly optimize product reviews.

Since products go in and out of stock often, I will show you how to address this situation as well. And finally, we will learn how to optimize page titles for ecommerce.

URLs

It is a good idea to keep products on category-free URLs whenever possible, because products can be re-categorized from one category to another and because category names can change, in time. Neither of these alterations is advisable, as re-categorization or renaming means that you will need to handle 301 redirects, even possibly 301s chains, which can quickly become a headache.

While a product can be accessed through multiple paths due to multi-categorization, the final PDP URL should not contain categories or subcategories.

Use: mysite.com/product-name instead of mysite.com/category-1/product-name or mysite.com/category-2/product-name

If you need to feature categories in the URL, you need to decide on a canonical URL for each product, then point the rel=“canonical” to the representative URL on all the possible URL paths that lead to that product. Also, try to link only to the canonical URL, especially in the global navigation and on internal links.

If the product comes in multiple variations, then the URLs for those SKUs should contain some important SKU attributes (e.g., the manufacturer, the brand name, the color attribute).

The URL might look like this:
mywebsite.com/brand-SKU-name-important-attribute

Keep in mind that including the brand in the URL is OK, since an SKU belongs to one brand only. If you need to use categories or subcategories to generate PDP URLs:

  • Set the category or subcategory name in stone.
  • Use the product’s canonical category and keep the product under that category or subcategory.

Images

Users can get product info straight from images, including details that are not covered in product descriptions (which are mainly skimmed, not read in detail). So, there is no surprise that high-quality images, taken from multiple-angles and showing the product-in-action, increase user satisfaction. However, images also need to be optimized for search engines.

When it comes to increasing conversion rates, savvy online retailers understand the importance of images, especially for product images. A study[1] of online consumers found that:

  • 67% of consumers believe that an image is “very important” when selecting a product.
  • More than 50% of consumers value the quality of a product image more than product information, description, or ratings and reviews.

From an SEO point of view, product images can drive organic traffic through Google Image Search and universal results that include images. Images can also be used to improve the document relevance, and to optimize internal linking.

To understand images, search engines will first look for the alternative text of the HTML image element, img. Some search engines will be able to extract the text from images, using a technique called optical character recognition, or OCR.

Let’s optimize an image for SEO. We will start with a very basic implementation of the image element, ending up with a highly optimized, SEO-friendly image tag. (Note: I will use the terms tag and element interchangeably.)

This is the basic image element:
<img src=“0012adsds.gif” />

Before we proceed, how do search engines analyze images? Here are some signals that search engines use to understand, categorize, and rank images:

  • They take into consideration colors, sizes and image resolution.
  • They look at the image type (e.g., is the image a photo, a drawing, or clip art?).
  • They also weight text by its distance from an image and extract context from the text around an image.
  • They look at the overall theme of the website. For instance, adult websites will have all images tagged as “adult” and will be filtered out when the safe search filter is on.
  • Search engines will use the alt attribute of the image tag. The content of the alt text is directly used in document relevance analysis. The title attribute of the image tag is not cached, but it can provide additional context.
  • They also use image file names.
  • They look at the total number of thumbnail images located on the same webpage as the ranked image.
  • OCR (optical character recognition).
  • Self-learning artificial intelligence trained by human input at large scale. ReCaptcha is one form of human input.

As you can see, search engines take into consideration plenty of clues when analyzing images. For those who want to know more about this subject, a Microsoft patent application from 2008 provides an interesting description of how images are ranked for image search.[2]

Did you know that when you solve an online captcha, Google (and possibly other search engines) uses that input to validate or refine artificial intelligence for image recognition? There are about 200 million captchas typed in every single day; that is a lot of human validation. If you are interested in this subject, watch the TED talk about ReCaptcha[3] and massive-scale online collaboration.

Here are some image optimization best practices:

Take your own product images
This is not an SEO factor per se, but it will help you differentiate from competitors, and can open doors for image licensing partnerships (which may come with some valuable backlinks). However, having familiar imagery is important when searchers look for a product they already know. If you do take your product images, do differentiate but try not to alter the look of the products too much.

Add an alt attribute to every significant image
Adding alt text to images is the best way to give search engines more information about the image and the page content. Without the alt text, the chances of an image being indexed in Google Images are lowered.
<img src=“0012adsds.gif” alt=“yellow t-shirt” />

The only attribute of the img element that gets cached by search engines is the content of the alt attribute.

Here’s a typical product listing grid:

Figure 379 – Products displayed in a grid view on a category listing page.

Below is the content that will be cached by search engines, based on the alt attributes:

Figure 380 – The alt texts are highlighted with a red border.

The alt attributes should contain keywords, but those should not be simply a list of keywords. When writing the alternative text for your product images, think of how you would describe the product image to a blind person in a very succinct and relevant way, in fewer than 150 characters. That sentence will be your alt attribute.

Most of the time, the alt text of a product thumbnail image is the exact product name. In the case of thumbnails for a category listing page, the alt text is the category name.

However, you can add a few more details by including significant product attributes. Instead of the alt text alt=“DG2 Stretch Denim Long Skirt”, you could use alt=“DG2 Stretch Denim Long Skirt in brown”.

Spacer images, 1px gifs, or other images used just for design purposes should still have an alt attribute, but it should be empty, alt=““. This is mostly for code validation and cross-browser compatibility. All other images that visually depict something important to visitors should have descriptive text.
Microsoft recommends to:

“Place relevant text near the beginning of the alt attribute to enable search engines to better correlate the keywords with the image. A copyright symbol or other copyright notice at the beginning of the alt attribute will indicate to the search engines that the most search-relevant aspect of the image is the copyright, rather than what the image depicts. If you require a copyright notice, consider moving it to the end of the alt attribute text”.[4]

More of Microsoft’s recommendations for alt text can be found in their “Image Guidelines for SEO” documentation.[5]

More and more websites have started using CSS sprites, to reduce the number of HTTP requests made to the web server, thus improving page load times. While this is great, the implementation makes it impossible to add alt attributes, raising accessibility and SEO concerns. You can load icons, spacers, and other small images using CSS sprites, but product images should be loaded as single images with proper alt texts.

Use the title attribute
Search engines do not cache the content of the title attributes for images. However, this does not mean that search engines do not use the title attribute to extract relevance signals, or that you should not implement it. The title attribute displays as a tooltip on mouseover in many browsers and is used to give users additional information.

Figure 381 – Title attributes show up as tooltips at hovering the mouse on images. The Outdoor Storage thumbnail contains the title attribute “Outdoor Storage”.

If an image is representative (i.e., a product image), it requires an alternative text, and it can have a title attribute too. The content of the title attribute should not be an exact copy of the alt text, but rather should complement it. Keep the attribute short enough (i.e., under 255 characters), and do not just list keywords—create a meaningful sentence.

Our initial sample image tag can now be improved to read:
<img src=“0012adsds.gif” alt=“yellow t-shirt” title=“athletic women wearing a yellow tee shirt” />

Do not underestimate title attributes just because search engines do not cache their content. They can play a big role in providing context to users, and we do not know how search engines use them to extract relevance.

Specify the width and height of the img tag
Let’s improve the img tag further, for faster browser rendering and better page load speed:
<img src=“0012adsds.gif” alt=“yellow t-shirt on a model” title=“athletic women wearing a yellow tee shirt while running” height=“250″ weight=“100″ />

Figure 382 – These image dimension tags helps with faster browser rendering.

Tip: for infinite scrolling or other image-heavy use, defer image loading until images are visible in the browser.

Use keyword-rich file names
You probably noticed the unfriendly file name used in the initial example: 0012adsds.gif. This filename does not help search engines understand what the image is about, and it should be avoided.

Figure 383 – This is an example of a good image file naming for a category thumbnail, as it includes the category name “brake discs”. The file names for product images should be even more specific.

Your file names should include the product name, the category name, or whatever is depicted in the image. Having keywords in file names has long been recognized as an SEO factor.[6]

A common challenge for large ecommerce websites that use hosted image solutions to manage, enhance, and publish media content, is that most of these solutions do not create SEO-friendly image names. For example, this URL is not SEO-friendly at all:
http://s7d5.samplemediahost.com/is/image/TA/116015_ZZZZ?$pdppreview_360$

Talk to your provider to find out whether there is a workaround to achieve a better file-naming convention.

If we further optimize our example to include a relevant file name, we now have the following image tag:
<img src=“yellow-t-shirt.gif” alt=“yellow t-shirt on a model” title=“athletic women wearing a yellow tee shirt while running” height=“250″ weight=“100″/>

You should set and enforce image-naming rules. Otherwise, things can quickly get messy. For example, you could have the rule to append the image ID at the end of the file name after two plus signs, as in this example:
yellow-t-shirt++0012.gif

Provide context for your images by using captions and nearby text
Image captions or nearby text surrounding the image can provide context to search engines.

4 ipods followed by text description

Figure 384 – The descriptions in this screenshot provide context to search engines.

Apart from adding relevant image captions, you can provide a better context for your images by placing plain text content nearby. Whenever possible, add a relevant sentence close to the image, both visually and in the HTML code.

Here’s how our img element can be improved even further by adding a caption to it:
<img src=“yellow-t-shirt.gif” alt=“yellow t-shirt on a model” title=“athletic women wearing a yellow tee shirt while running” height=“250″ weight=“100″ />Adidas 2011 Summer Collection </br> Yellow T-Shirt

In many cases, the caption will be the product or the category name.

Create standalone landing pages for each image
If it makes sense (e.g., if you sell stock images), create dedicated landing pages for each image.

landing page dedicated to a single image on pixmac.com

Figure 385 – This is an example of a clean and useful landing page dedicated to a single image. In our example, the image is the product that is sold online.

You can also encourage users to generate content on your website by allowing them to comment, share or rate images.

Make use of image XML Sitemaps
Create image XML Sitemaps and include information about your product and category images. Here are the official guidelines on how to accomplish this.[7]

xml source code highlighting image details section

Figure 386 – The basic information in the image Sitemap should include the path for your image files.

You will also be able to specify information such as image caption, geolocation, title attribute, and license. Once you have generated this file, submit it to Google using the Search Console.

Add EXIF data to your images
At least one search engine (Google) has confirmed that it uses EXIF[8] data when analyzing images. More and more photo and mobile devices automatically add EXIF information such as geolocation, the owner of the picture, or the camera orientation. If this data has the potential to provide search engines with additional info about images (and apparently it has), edit the EXIF data for your product and category images. Do not make this a top priority, however.

Adding image metadata such as User Comments can be a good way to reinforce your image’s title or alt text. Other metadata that may be useful are Artist, Copyright or Image Description.

screenshot of exif editing software

Figure 387 – You can use EXIF editors to change images’ metadata.

It may worth testing how adding EXIF metadata affects traffic from Image Search. Just keep in mind that Google re-crawls images at a much lower rate than the regular web. Also, it pays to mention that when you use image optimization tools to reduce the image size, you can accidentally remove existing EXIF data.

Group similar images into folders
If possible and appropriate, all images that can be logically grouped around a similar theme should be grouped into folders. You can replicate the directory taxonomy of your website to use it for images as well.

If the URL path for your T-shirts category is mysite.com/clothing/tshirts, then your images can be placed under mysite.com/clothing/tshirts/images/

browser address bar that contains a proper URL structure

Figure 388 – You can see how this t-shirt image is located under the /t-shirt/ directory. This directory contains only t-shirt images.

The advantages of grouping into folders are that you will be able to add keywords to the image URL and provide relevance clues to Google Image Search users. While grouping has limited influence on rankings, keywords in the directory structure are some of the signals search engines are looking for.

In our example, if we put the image under the /t-shirts/ directory, the img tag becomes:
<img src=“/t-shirts/yellow-t-shirt.gif” alt=“yellow t-shirt on a model” title=“athletic women wearing a yellow tee shirt while running” height=“250″ weight=“100″ />Adidas 2011 Summer Collection </br> Yellow T-Shirt

You should place your adult (or other sensitive) images into separate directories.

Use absolute image source paths
The way you reference the image source (src) does not directly influence rankings but using absolute instead of relative paths can help to avoid problems with crawling, broken links, content scrapers, and 404 errors.

If we update the source to reference an absolute path, our example becomes this:
<img src=“http://www.domain.com/t-shirts/yellow-t-shirt.gif” alt=“yellow t-shirt on a model” title=“athletic women wearing a yellow tee shirt while running” height=“250″ weight=“100″ />Adidas 2011 Summer Collection </br> Yellow T-Shirt

Make the images accessible through plain HTML links
Try not to use Flash or JavaScript to create slideshows, swatches, zooming, or other similar features; that will make it impossible for search engines to find image URLs for important images. If you have to use JavaScript, provide alternative image URLs. Otherwise, search engines may not be able to crawl images URLs easily.

Search engines know that users like high-quality images, so always keep the high-resolution product image URLs accessible when JavaScript is disabled. Search engines can execute JavaScript to some extent, but if the only way to reach a product image is with JavaScript enabled, crawlers may never discover that image.
CRO tip: Place your product images above the fold.

Implement plain text web buttons
One technique for improving page load speed, and in some cases even the internal link relevance, is to create web buttons with CSS and HTML. Instead of using the classic web button made of an image, you mimic the appearance of the button by overlaying plain text on a CSS-styled background.

Here’s how a sample implementation looks like:

Figure 389 – The text on the blue background buttons (e.g., “Buy Celebrex”) is plain HTML text that can be selected with the mouse.

Since search engines seem to assign a bit more weight to text links than to image alt text, this technique has the potential to increase the relevance of the linked-to page.
The opposite of this technique is to take “unwanted” text (e.g., site-wide boilerplate text) and embed it in images. For instance, if you have a global footer that includes a regulatory warning at the bottom of each page of the website, you could embed it into an image, so it is not diluting the page relevance. This is a bit gray hat. Keep in mind that this technique is used mostly by spammers to pass email filters, and it can be flagged as spam on web pages, too. Use it at your own risk.

Figure 390 – The text in the image above is not plain HTML text; it is embedded in an image. With such tactics, keep in mind that Google is fully capable of reading text from images.

Make it easy to share images
Whenever appropriate, make it easy for users to share and embed your images. This is great because with a mandatory image attribution requirement you can generate backlinks.

In this example take a look at how Flickr integrates social sharing and embed codes:

Figure 391 – You can encourage users to share images, especially product images. User-generated photos, such as a product in real life or inspirational pictures can be re-shared.

To recap, we started with a very basic image element:
<img src=“0012adsds.gif” />

And we have ended up with this optimized version:
<img src=“http://www.domain.com/t-shirts/yellow-t-shirt.gif” alt=“yellow t-shirt on a model” title=“athletic women wearing a yellow tee shirt while running” height=“250″ weight=“100″ />Adidas 2011 Summer Collection</br> Yellow T-Shirt

Videos

A 2011 study[9] found that videos in search results have a 41% higher CTR than plain-text results. One online retailer found that visitors who view product videos are 85% more likely to buy than visitors who do not.[10] According to econsultancy, Zappos sales increased between 6% and 30% on products with product videos.[11] There are multiple benefits to having videos on PDPs, so there is no doubt that you should do it if the budget permits.

Videos can be either self-hosted on your servers or hosted by a third-party provider. Some providers like YouTube are free, while others like Wistia are paid. Keep in mind that if you host videos on third-party websites rather than on your website, you might miss the opportunity to gather links to your videos. If the video goes viral, you will miss a lot of backlinks and social signals.​For example, Dollar Shave Club launched their viral video on YouTube, and its website gathered almost 20,000 backlinks.

Many websites mentioned the brand name without linking to Dollar Shave Club, however most of the websites linked to the YouTube video. Should they had self-hosted the video, people would have linked directly to the video URL on Dollar Shave Cub, thus increasing their backlinks.

Figure 392 – The number of backlinks for dollarshaveclub.com spiked after the video went viral. This is a positive side effect of the video becoming viral.

However, take a look at the number of backlinks the YouTube URL gathered:

Figure 393 – If these links would’ve pointed to Dollar Shave website, it would’ve helped increase their search authority.

Here are several tactics to get the most out of your product videos:

  • Transcribe the video and make the text available to search engines, whenever doing so makes sense (e.g., when you have an expert video-reviewing a product, or when you have how-to videos).
  • Add social sharing buttons and easy-to-use embed codes.
  • Create video XML Sitemaps[12] and submit them to Google and Bing.
  • Repurpose your videos to produce related content—e.g., presentations, user manuals, instructographics,[13] podcasts, etc. You can go the other way too: use other existing media types to create the videos.
  • Mark up the product video with schema.org vocabulary.[14]
  • If possible, embed the video with HTML5 rather than iframes.

It is best to either self-host the videos or use a paid hosting solution that allows you to embed the videos on your own URLs. This will increase the chances of getting video-rich SERP snippets for your domain name. YouTube provides rich snippets for the domains the videos are embedded on, but only sporadically.

The next image is a representation of how Google ranks a YouTube video in the first spot, while Zappos does not get a video rich snippet although a video is included on their page.

Figure 394 – Why does Google rank their own property (YouTube) while the content creator (Zappos), ranks below YouTube?

Product descriptions

Product descriptions should be written to improve conversions by creating an emotional connection with users and enticing them to act. It is a known fact that evoking any emotion is better than not evoking emotions at all. While most people only skim descriptions, if you carefully craft the first sentence to be engaging enough, you will increase the chances of making a sale.

The best product descriptions are written by copywriters who have familiarity with the product and some basic SEO training, and not by SEOs with some copywriting skills.

Figure 395 – Read this description. It does not read like the classic SEO style you are used to, isn’t it?

It is a lot of work to write converting product descriptions, and therefore you may be tempted to skip it. However, the good news is that many of your competitors will not invest in great product descriptions, for the same reason. You can capitalize on their mindset and start differentiating your brand and gaining SEO advantage at the same time.
Prominently display a brief product copy crafted to sell the benefits of the product (also known as the “benefits copy”), in an easy-to-spot place on the product page. You can complement it with a more detailed product copy that describes the product features (also known as the “features copy”), on a less important area of the page.

Try to incorporate the following into the copy:

  • Product-related keywords (e.g., SKU numbers, UPCs numbers, catalog numbers, IBANs, part number, etc.).
  • The root form of the words used in the product name, as well as variations and synonyms (e.g., “seat”, “seating”, “chair”).
  • The product name (make sure you repeat it in the product description at least once).
  • Other names the product might be known by.

Doing this will be important not only for search engines but for your internal site search as well (given that the site search uses multiple data sources to score and rank items). So, review your analytics data, incorporate frequently searched queries into your product descriptions, and use the same queries to feed your internal site search database.

Figure 396 – Section (1) of the copy focuses on benefits, while section (2) lists the features.

In the previous image, section one focuses on benefits while section 2 lists the product features. The layout of the PDP allows the features copy to follow immediately below the benefits copy, which is ideal but not always possible, due to design constraints. In many cases, the page layout allows room for only one or two sentences and a hyperlink to a section down the page, where you can list more detailed product info (i.e., details presented in tabbed navigation.)

Figure 397 – Tabbed navigation allows space for longer product descriptions.

Tabbed navigation is a very common design element on PDPs, but there are some concerns about how search engines treat content that is not visible to users (e.g., in non-active tabs, in accordions, in “read more” dropdowns, or in collapse & expand sections).

Search engines will index this content, but they do not assign the same weight to content that is not visible to users. In the past, Google suggested that text hidden for design purposes is fine as long as you do not hide too much content with too many links.[15] However, what that means is that this technique is not considered spam. However, coming mobile-first indexing, the content behind tabs will be assigned the same weight as visible text.

You can create separate URLs for each tab, but that would decrease the overall content on the product detail page, which is not a good idea. Moreover, the user experience is better if the tabs can be switched quickly, without reloading the page.

An interim solution, until mobile-first indexing is rolled out for your website, is to display the entire product description without any expand, collapse, or tabs. Search engines seem to prefer this, but design limitations introduce constraints.

Figure 398 – The above is a well-written product description that is fully visible without any parts of the content behind tabs or read more. This is also a very good example of how a “boring” product can have a great description.

If you want to use tabs to make the user experience more pleasant, consider the following:

  • Display the product description (or other more important content) in the default active tab. If search engines can understand which content is hidden, and which one is not, then putting the most important content in the default tab increases the chance of getting more out of it.

Figure 399 – The product description tab is the default active tab and is accessible when bots request the page. Additionally, the implementation uses hash marks to switch between tabs, which means that the content of the Specs and Reviews tabs is already loaded in the HTML code.

  • Do not generate separate URLs for each tab, unless the information provided is substantial enough to justify creating a new page.
  • If you want the content inside the tabs to be indexed, make sure it is available with JavaScript disabled.
  • If the tabs contain the same boilerplate text on all product detail pages (e.g., shipping information, legal, etc.), you can put the repetitive text in an iframe to avoid duplicate content issues.
  • Consider placing user reviews outside the tabbed navigation.

Product descriptions are one of the best spots to feature internal contextual links. Ideally, you will link to parent categories in the same silo (maybe using the same URLs as in breadcrumbs), but you can also link to other related products that make sense for users. Because internal links may be taking users away from the product page, you should balance internal linking and conversion.

If you are not careful, product descriptions can generate duplicate content, either within your website (if the same product description is used across multiple product variations’ URLs) or on external websites (if you use generic manufacturer-supplied descriptions).

Manufacturer-supplied descriptions
The general SEO wisdom is that you should write your own unique product descriptions. That is indeed one of the best approaches to optimizing PDPs if you can put it in practice. However, keep in mind that this does not work with every product or within every industry. For example, it makes sense to write unique product descriptions for expensive wristwatches, but not for ordinary pencils. Also, this is often not economically feasible for websites with very large inventories.

Moreover, in some cases, Google ignores the product description and chooses to rank what’s best for users based on their intent and location.[16] So, while unique product descriptions may not always rank at the top, you still have to test the impact of writing 100- to 200-word product descriptions at scale, before deciding whether it will work to your advantage. Start with your top 10% most important items, write the descriptions for conversions and branding, then measure the impact on rankings and traffic. If 10% is too much based on your inventory size, then start with the top 100 to 150 products.

I know at least two websites that were able to rank for very competitive keywords, by creating unique and very compelling product descriptions. Because 90%+ of the pages on those websites were PDPs, they drove up the relevance of the entire website. Those two websites rank now with almost no backlinks pointing to them.

If the generic description provided by the manufacturer/supplier is just a small part of the main content on a page, it should be fine, according to Google.[17] If the manufacturer requires you to keep their descriptions unaltered and that causes SEO problems, place each description in iframes with a noindex in the frame source. In this case, you will need to add unique content to differentiate your website from competitors.

Product variations

Even with unique product descriptions, you can run into crawling and duplicate content issues, if products come in multiple variations. For example, the Nike Dual Fusion shoes come in red, green, and black; this can generate unique URLs for each possible product variation. Usually, product variations generate exact or near-duplicate content, and such cases are best handled with rel=“canonical”. However, rel=“canonical” is not the only solution.

Decide how to handle product variations once you understand how your target market searches online; base the decision on your business goals.
For instance, if your target market uses search queries that include product variation keywords, you may want to have unique URLs for each variation. Make those pages available to users and search engines, and do not use rel=“canonical” to a representative URL. The challenge is to make these pages compelling, by adding unique product descriptions for each variation.

Let’s discuss a few approaches to handling product variations.

URL consolidation

With this approach, you handle all different product options in the interface, using a design that helps users make faster and better product selections. All product variations are listed on a single product detail URL that does not change when an option is selected in the interface.

For instance, you can provide product options with dropdowns or swatches, as depicted in the next screenshot.

Figure 400 – Changing the color and size options with a drop-down selector does not change the URL.

Figure 401 – The same with this example. These swatches change the product image and product description but at the same URL.

To increase the chances of the consolidated page surfacing in SERPs for queries that include variations such as colors – e.g. “Nike Dual Fusion 2 Run Gray” –, include the variation as plain text copy in a search engine friendly way. For instance, the product description or the specs copy would include something like, “this item is also available in gray, red and blue”.

If you already have unique URLs for each product variation, and you want to consolidate them into one representative URL, you can either 301 redirect or use rel=“canonical” to point to the authoritative URL.

Unique URLs for each product variation

Having unique URLs for each product variation allows product variation pages to show up in SERPs, for various product attributes queries. However, since the content on these pages is very similar, they might compete against each other—or worse, they might be completely filtered from the SERPs. If you use unique URLs for each variation, then the variations pages will include a self-referencing rel=“canonical” tag.

Additionally, having individual URLs for each product variation may dilute indexing properties and link authority, because people may link to multiple SKU URLs instead of a single one.

This approach should be implemented if your data shows that your target market searches for various product attributes such as model numbers, colors, sizes, etc. (e.g., different tire sizes, like P195 / 65 R15 89H).

The challenge and key to success with this approach is to create unique enough content for each variation page so that it does not get filtered by Panda, and it does not create duplicate content pages.

Unique URLs for each product variation with a canonical URL

A hybrid approach is to use the interface to allow users to select product options without changing the URL, and at the same time have separate URLs for each product variation. Each product variation URL can point to the authoritative product using rel=“canonical”. This is how Zappos handles product variations.
The canonical product page is http://www.zappos.com/nike-dual-fusion-run-2~2.

The following product variation URLs (different color models) point to the canonical URL above:
http://www.zappos.com/nike-dual-fusion-run-2-pure-platinum-dark-gray-gym-red-black
http://www.zappos.com/nike-dual-fusion-run-2-black-pure-platinum-dark-gray-metallic-platinum
http://www.zappos.com/nike-dual-fusion-run-2-pure-platinum-dark-gray-gym-red-black

Because all color variation pages point to a canonical page, Zappos ranks in Google SERPs with the canonical URL, even when someone searches for a color-specific product.

Figure 402 – Zappos ranks with the canonical PDP, which is the page for the pink shoes. Users will have to take additional steps to find the red color option, which is probably not the best search experience.

Some of the advantages of having separate URLs for product variations are:

  • Users can share each variation URL.
  • You can link internally to specific variations.
  • People can backlink to any variation URL.
  • You can list product variations on internal site search results, or even on category pages.

For example, if an item is available in various colors, and someone visits the category page to select “red” from the faceted navigation filters, you will want to show only red items. If you do not have separate URLs for “red”, it is simply not possible for that user to share the “red shoes” page with someone else.

Additionally, if you run product listing ads for variation-specific keywords, it is better to send users to a product variation landing page. Pages targeting product attributes tend to convert better than just one-size-fits-all pages that require users to find the product filtering options.

I usually recommend creating separate URLs for the most important product variations, not just for SEO reasons, but also to provide better landing pages for PPC and PLA campaigns. If you get into SEO issues (crawling, duplicate content or ranking cannibalization), you can always noindex variation URLs, or you can implement rel=“canonical” to point to the representative URL.

The following is a quote from Google:

“Google allows rel=“canonical” from individual product variations to a general/default version (e.g., “Taccetti 53155 Pump in Beige” and “Taccetti 53166 Pump in Black” with rel=“canonical” to “Taccetti 53155 Pump”) as long as the general version mentions the product variations. By doing so, the general product page acts as a view-all page, and only the general version may surface in search results (suppressing the individual variation pages)”.[18]

Thin content

Even after creating unique descriptions for every single product in the database, you might find that pages have been filtered out of SERPs because they have been classified as “thin”. This means that the amount of content on the PDPs is not “relevant enough” for Google to include the URLs in its results.

Figure 403 – Highlighted in red is the entire description for this product, and pretty much the entire text content on this page. Unless this page has good authority, its chances of being included in the SERPs based solely on content are slim.

Ask your programmers to provide a .csv file that contains the word count for each product URL. If the website is relatively small, run a crawl with Screaming Frog and sort the URLs by WordCount. Your data needs to include only non-boilerplate text, such as the word count for product descriptions, user reviews or other forms of UGC. Get this list in Excel and sort by lowest count. Find pages with low content (e.g., under 50 words), and add them to the copywriting queue based on their importance. If there are too many pages with thin content (I usually set that threshold at around 50 words of content unique to the site), you may even consider noindex them until you can add more content.

Product names

Product names are one of the elements that attract the user’s eye within moments of landing on a page. On most ecommerce websites, the design of the PDPs usually follows the same pattern: the product image is to the left, the product name is either above the image or to its right side. The add to cart button is to the right of the product image, and the product info is either on the right or below the product image.

Probably this is why users scan PDPs using the well-known “F” pattern.

Figure 404 – The “F” pattern applies to ecommerce websites, too. Image source: NNgroup

Although there seems to be little correlation between rankings and H1 headings,[19], Google suggests[20] that they assign more weight to H1s. It is therefore still a good idea to wrap the product name in an HTML heading element, preferably the H1.

The following is an excerpt from Google’s SEO Report Card, which aimed to identify potential areas for improvement on Google’s product pages:

“Most product main pages have an opportunity to use one <h1> tag … but they’re currently only using other heading tags (<h3> in this case) or larger font styling. While styling your text so it appears larger might achieve the same visual presentation, it does not provide the same semantic meaning to the search engine that an <h1> tag does. The product’s name and/or a few words about its features are great to have in an <h1> tag for the product main page”.[21]

However, if the document structure requires it, an H2 for the product name will work too. Note that the heading hierarchy on PDP templates will be different from the heading hierarchy on category pages or other page templates. Keep in mind that visually, the product name should be the largest font size on the product page.

Do not be afraid to create long product names. Two-column PDP layouts can easily accommodate this. Include the brand or the manufacturer associated with the product, especially if you sell products from multiple brands. Also include model numbers, collection names, SKU numbers, or other important product attributes.

Figure 405 – On this dress PDP, the product name includes the brand, the fabric, and the color. This is great info for users and search engines.

Figure 406 – The product name in the example above does not even include the category the product belongs to, slippers. It may be obvious to users that they are looking at slippers, but not including “slippers” in the product name is not good for search engines.

The person (or the team that adds new products to the catalog), should be trained to understand how your target market searches for those products and should propose product name templates based on that data.

This is not a complex process, and if you want to make sure you do not mess up the product names, add just the shortest product name in the database and then programmatically add other relevant product attributes to it.

Product naming gets complicated when you do not have control over product names. That can happen when you run a marketplace where suppliers upload product sheets. In such cases, naming conventions are hard to create and enforce, and it may be better to let suppliers use open text fields for product names. If sellers upload products, you should enforce a maximum number of characters to be used in the title. Amazon, for example, has a maximum limit of 250 characters. It is also a good idea to have a system that checks if the titles are not truncating words at the 250-character limit.

If you allow product names to be changed, give the update rights to one person only. Optimally, this person should be aware of the impact of changing product names (e.g., URLs might change, potential backlinks loss, internal linking updates, 301 redirects from old to new URLs, etc.).

Also, in most cases, it is a good idea to set product names in stone or not to update the product name URL when the product name changes. However, the latter option may pose some issues with new URLs containing old product names. So, you need to balance updating versus not updating URLs when product names change. Although not preferred, a solution is to keep the PDP URLs free of product names and use only product IDs in the URL. Consider this approach only if you cannot easily implement 301 redirects.

Use Schema.org Product[22] type to mark up your code with product names, brands, manufacturers, images, and a lot of other product properties. Search engines do not yet use many Product properties, but as long as you already keep product attributes in your database, it will not be much of a hassle to mark up your HTML code at a later date. Google supports some of these properties[23] and will gradually support even more. The preferred way to markup the content is JSON-LD.

Reviews

There is no doubt that product reviews are good for users and conversions. According to one study,[24] adding just the first review can increase conversion by 20%. Reviews enriched with additional info about the reviewer, or reviews that offer the ability to rate a particular product criterion (e.g., quality versus price) are even more useful for users.[25]

You can generate reviews by collecting them from people who purchased on your website, or you can integrate them from vendors who sell reviews. Keep in mind that it can take many purchases to get a single review. Anecdotally, it took Amazon 1,300 book sales to generate the first review[26] for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

This is why it is a good idea to implement both in-house and third-party reviews, especially if you are just starting out.

The reviews can end up on multiple URLs, depending on the solution you chose and how you customized their out-of-the-box implementation. This means reviews can occur on URLs on your own website, on the vendor’s website, or other competing websites. This is likely to create duplicate content issues, so you will need to pay attention to. Just keep in mind that there is no such thing as a “duplicate content penalty”. However, if your reviews are duplicated somewhere else, they may not be working as well as you would expect.

When implementing reviews, first you need to decide which type of content you want to surface in SERPs for “reviews” related queries: do you want to rank PDP URLs or product review URLs that are specially constructed to target queries like “review + product names”.

Let’s say you want PDPs to show up in SERPs for “reviews” related keywords.
In this scenario, the reviews should be placed on the PDPs and should be openly available to search engine robots. This means that the reviews will not be inserted in the code with JavaScript, AJAX or other technology that loads them client-side. The reviews should be available in the HTML source code when a bot fetches the PDPs. All other pages, sections, or subdomains that list the same reviews should be blocked with robots.txt.

For instance, Amazon allows the reviews for this bicycle SKU (Kent Super 20 Boys Bike (20-Inch Wheels), Red/Black/White) to be indexed.

Figure 407 – The customer reviews are included on the PDP itself, and Google caches the reviews.

To check whether your reviews implementation is SEO friendly, look for the content of the reviews in the text-only cached version of the PDP. Additionally, do a “Fetch & Render” using Google Search Console to see if the reviews are showing up on the rendered page. Make sure you are rendering the mobile pages as well.

What if you want a dedicated product reviews page to show up in SERPs, instead of the PDP?
Some vendors require a subdomain or a directory to publish their reviews, e.g., reviews.mysite.com or mysite.com/reviews/product. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and it is a valid approach for merchants who plan to attract searchers in the research stage of the buying cycle. The “reviews” keyword modifier (e.g., “Under Armour Stormfront Jacket reviews”) suggests that users are closer to a buying decision. To increase the chances of product review pages ranking for “review”-related keywords, consider linking internally and externally with “reviews” in the anchor text.

Figure 408 – The reviews subdomain shows up in SERPs. This was a deliberate decision on Clinique’s side.

If you want the dedicated product reviews page to show up in SERPs, be careful with duplicate content on your website. In many cases, you will list the same product reviews on both the PDP and the product reviews page. In these instances, you will have to prevent crawlers from finding the reviews on the PDP. When you have the same reviews on multiple URLs, search engines will have difficulty identifying the right page to surface in SERPs.

To check whether your reviews generate duplicate content, copy a few sentences one at a time from various reviews, and do a “site:” search on Google:

Figure 409 – In the example above, the same review shows on 15 URLs. This needs to be investigated.

However, if you list only a small fraction of the total number of reviews on the PDP (e.g., five out of 50), then you can let search engines access the reviews on the PDP, as well as on the product reviews page. In this case, do not block the reviews subdomains/directory with robots.txt.

You can see this implemented on Amazon:

Figure 410 – Amazon has a dedicated directory for product review pages.

The reviews for Kent Super 20 Boys Bike (20-Inch Wheels), Red/Black/White (Sports) are accessible to Googlebot and have been cached by Google. Amazon can afford this approach because the product reviews page lists three times more reviews than the PDP.

Figure 411 – Amazon could improve the product reviews page by consolidating the three paginated pages into one superset.

Amazon opens reviews pages for bots to rank multiple review pages related to this bike:

Figure 412 – The first position is taken by the PDP, while the second and third rankings are taken by the product reviews page.

Here are some SEO considerations you may want to keep in mind when implementing reviews.

Pay attention to duplicate reviews on other websites
If your provider syndicates reviews in an SEO-friendly manner to other websites (meaning they are accessible and available for indexing by search engines), that will cause duplicate content issues. Again, it is not like you are going to get penalized for doing this, but the SEO effectiveness of the reviews will be diminished.

If the provider syndicates the reviews, you should allow crawlers to access duplicate reviews only if you add substantial unique content to the pages the reviews are listed on, in addition to the reviews offered by your provider. For example, you can feature your Expert Reviews or reviews that you collected on your own.

If 90% of the reviews are syndicated somewhere else on the Internet, wrap them within an iframe, put them inside a blocked robots.txt subdomain, or AJAX the review implementation.

You also need to be careful if you syndicate your reviews on comparison-shopping engines (CSEs).

Figure 413 – ABT is the source of the review, but Bizrate and Shopzilla have the same content indexed and might rank above ABT.

If you plan to syndicate reviews on CSEs, then select which reviews to keep for your website, and which ones to syndicate.

Mark up reviews and ratings with structured data such as microdata, microformats, or RDFa.
Use Schema.org vocabulary to mark up the reviews and ratings to get SERP rich snippets (stars, ratings, videos, etc.). The reviews and ratings have to be displayed on the same page as the relevant product. Google explains its implementation in detail in this article.[27]

Also, when working with Schema markup, this tool might come in handy: http://schema-creator.org/product.php.

Separate URLs for each review
If your current implementation generates separate URLs for each review, then using rel=“canonical” to point to a view-all reviews URL is acceptable.[28]

Display reviews of related products
If a product does not have any reviews, but there are other closely related items with reviews (e.g., the same pair of Nike shoes, but in a different color), you can display reviews for the related item. However, you have to ensure that the reviews make sense to users. Do not markup the reviews with semantic markup and place those reviews in a JavaScript or robots.txt blocked iframe – the purpose is to offer something useful for users, and not to spam search engines.

Tip: Reviews are one of the best ways to keep product detail pages “fresh”. If you keep adding reviews to a product page regularly, the page will be crawled more often, its authority will increase, and it will show up in SERPs for more queries.

Other ways to freshen up PDPs are to include excerpts from relevant blog posts or to add one or two sentences from research papers related to the product (if applicable).

Expired, out-of-stock and seasonal products

Product lifecycles and seasonality can rarely be avoided. Some products can expire for good, and others can go out of stock. Out of those that go out of stock, some may be re-stocked, others will not. Other products are available only during a certain season, while some products are evergreen and never change or run out of stock. The way you handle product lifecycles from an SEO perspective depends on future inventory availability.

There is no definitively correct way to handle product lifecycles, but generally, try to:

  • Avoid removing OOS items URLs until you know if the product comes back in stock or not. If you remove URLs, they will return a 404 header response. 404 pages are taken out of the index after a while, and you might lose some possible backlinks. If you need to return a 404 page, then at least create a custom page that will help reduce bounce rates.
  • Also avoid serving soft 404s, which are light-content pages responding with the 200OK response code, but their content display just “Sorry, the item is no longer available” or something similar.[29]
  • Do not 301 redirect every out of stock PDP to the home page or their parent category page. Since the home page is unrelated to the out of stock product, 301 redirecting a PDP will be treated as a soft 404, and this will not preserve indexing signals.
  • Use meta “expiry” if your items are not available after a certain date. Classified ads can be marked up with this tag.

Figure 414 – The header response code for inexistent URLs should not be 200 OK.

In the screenshot above, you can see how the server responds with 200 OK for a dummy URL request. There are instances when this kind of setup makes sense, for example when you want a PDP to load properly with only a product ID present in the URL). In such cases, you need to include a rel=”canonical” to the representative URL.

Discontinued products

These are products that have reached the end of their lifecycles.[30] For example, Canon stopped manufacturing the Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III model in 2012. Sometimes, end-of-lifecycle products are replaced with a newer model, but other times they are discontinued for good.
If a product is replaced with a newer version, you can 301 the URL for the old model to the latest product URL. If possible, alert users with a message that the product they are looking for has been discontinued, and it has been replaced with a newer one. The old product name should not be close to the text “not available” in the source code. Otherwise, the “not available” text may show up in the SERP snippet. You can even place the non-availability message in a robotted iframe or JavaScript, to avoid that. Do this only to improve the CTR on SERPs, and not to attempt to game search engines.

Because the target market does not stop searching for a product immediately after the manufacturer discontinued it, you should redirect searchers only after you notice a significant decline in the search demand for that product, or when all your stocked items for that SKU are sold. Until that time, display a notice on the old PDP announcing that the product has been discontinued, and link to the newer version.

Some prefer leaving both pages alive indefinitely, with or without a notification message, depending on stock availability.

Figure 415 – This PDP URL is still available and responds with a 200 OK code, although the product has been discontinued. This is an acceptable solution because if you still have the discontinued item in stock, you want to sell it.

Upcoming products

Create pages for high-demand products that have not yet been released, but will be on the market shortly (i.e., a few months down the road). Such pages must be content rich and helpful for users. The usefulness of this tactic is that these pages will be mostly non-commercial, and they will have the ability to gather links organically from trusted sources more easily, compared to commercial pages.

A month before the new product launch, increase the number of internal links to those pages, for example by linking from the home page. Take pre-orders or capture contact info before the launch date. The moment the product becomes available, allow users to add to cart.

If you plan well, you will be positioned ahead of your competitors at the product release date.

Out-of-stock (OOS) products

There are two main use cases for OOS products:

  • The product will never be restocked.
  • The product goes only temporarily out of stock.

If the product is never restocked, you have a couple of options. The first is 301 redirects to one of the following pages:

  • Another variation of the product (i.e., the same product but in a different color).
  • A replacement product (i.e., an updated version of the product).
  • A parent category or subcategory (this one is not advisable, so I recommend not doing it).

The second option is to leave the PDP page return 404. You will do this if you cannot implement the first option.

The third option is to leave the PDP alive and return a 200 OK response code. In this case, it is very important to display a clearly visible notice communicating the reason for unavailability. It is also important to guide users to a replacement, or a similar product. Optionally, the “add to cart” button can be changed to “out of stock” and deactivated, so users cannot add the item to cart. Another option is to allow users to “save for later” or “backorder”.

To minimize the effects on the conversion rate for permanent out of stock PDPs, offer related items in a very accessible spot on the page.

If the product goes temporarily out of stock, the page should return a 200 OK response, and let customers know that the product is currently out of stock. It should also provide users an estimated availability date if that is possible.

Eventually, you should offer an incentive (e.g., a 10% discount) to compensate for the inconvenience, and to collect their email address to announce the re-launch of the product. Additionally, make sure users can back-order the product.

Figure 416 – The “Temporarily Out of Stock” messaging is easy to spot, and it is clear. However, it would be better to have it separated from the product name.

If all the products under a subcategory are out of stock and the PDPs received qualified traffic in the past, 301 redirect to the parent category. The subcategory page will redirect to the parent category since it does not have any stocked products. This may not be the best approach from a user experience perspective, but you may want to preserve eventual backlinks pointing to PDPs and subcategory pages. If the subcategory generates minimal revenue, traffic, and backlinks, let it return 404.

Keep in mind that shoppers may become frustrated if too much of your inventory is out of stock. In this case, markup the affected pages with noindex, and remove them from navigation until your inventory improves. This helps to address content quality and Panda penalties.

Here are some additional recommendations for handling out of stock products:

  • Google treats expired products as “soft 404” errors. This means that OOS pages are considered low-quality content, and in many cases, such pages should be noindexed.
  • Google’s official recommendation is to remove OOS pages from its index by returning a hard 404 Page Not Found header response. However, this approach does not work well for UX and conversion.
  • Out of Stock SKUs should not be presented anywhere in the site navigation. However, they can appear on internal site search result pages when someone queries the SKU number or the exact SKU name.
  • Out of Stock URLs should be accessible for type-in traffic or email, to assist those who have questions about a product they purchased in the past and is now OOS.
  • OOS products should be accessible to the sales team, on your intranet.
  • Neither 404’s on discontinued or long term out of stock product URLs (which is what many times Google recommends), nor 301 or 302 header redirects provide the most optimal user experience.
  • Google says do not 301 or 302 to a parent category or home page, and this is the correct approach.

Despite all the options above, I believe there is a better approach from a UX and SEO perspective: instead of a “useful” 404 page, show the OOS page only to users landing from outside your website (i.e., organic or referral).

On this page, display a modal window with a very short and clear message about the product status. Offer one link to the OOS product, and another link to the related or the replacement product. Be careful about the size of the modal window for mobile. It should cover a maximum of 20% of the screen size, and it should be placed at the bottom of the screen.

The messaging on the modal window can be similar to: “Sorry, this product is out of stock. Visit the out of stock product or navigate to the replacement product”. The modal window displays a 10 seconds countdown timer. Ten seconds should be enough for most people to read the message. At zero, the user is redirected to the most appropriate page.

The redirect is done with either JavaScript, which seems to be passing SEO signals along, or with the meta-refresh tag. If you want to pass authority from the old to the new page, the JavaScript timer and the meta refresh must be under 5 seconds.

Seasonal products

If the product is seasonal, handle it in a similar way to out-of-stock items. If the product will return in stock the next season, then leave the page in place, notify the users, and remove the ability to place orders. If it does not return, then 301 redirect to another variation of the product (i.e., same product but in a different color), or a replacement product.

Seasonal products, just like event and holiday URLs, require some attention in regards to URL naming and maintenance. For example, if you use years in the URL, when you update the URL the next year, it is like starting over again. Of course, you could do a 301 redirect from the previous year’s URL to the current one, but it is better to avoid using URLs that designate years or other time indicators. Instead, use a generic URL that can accommodate new dates or models in existing URLs.

For example, Ford uses ford.com/cars/focus/ for their newest Focus model, 2018. Toyota uses toyota.com/corolla/ for all Corolla models, no matter the release year, as you can see in this screenshot:

Figure 417 – This URL naming convention consolidates links to a single page, year after year.

The same recommendation applies to special-event URLs that occur regularly. Instead of mysite.com/valentines-day-2018, use mysite.com/valentines-day/. This page can be promoted harder when the time comes, but it should not be allowed to return a 404 status code after the event ended.

Title tags

While <title> is technically not a tag but rather an HTML element, it is often referred to as a tag in SEO contexts.

An internal analysis[31] that Google performed on their very own Google product pages found that over 90% of those pages could improve its SEO simply by optimizing the title tag.

Since Google emphasizes titles in blue text, they are the first element searchers scan on SERPs. Titles play a big role in determining whether searchers will click on a particular listing. They are also one of the most important on-page SEO factors, and when others link to your pages organically, they tend to use the page titles as anchor text.

It is important to mention that just as with Google Ads, the title of a SERP snippet has the biggest influence on CTR. Moreover, because SERP CTR and dwell time are now parts of RankBrain, it is very important to aim for better click-thru rates on your organic results. Higher than average CTRs and longer dwell times are quality signals used by search engines.

The SERP title myth
Many otherwise knowledgeable webmasters (and even a few SEOs) believe that the content of the title tag is the only source Google uses to generate and display the SERP titles.

Figure 418 – SERP titles are emphasized in blue.

Yes, most of the time, the content of the title tag is displayed in SERPs, as you can see in the screencap above. However, the SERP title is not based solely on what is wrapped within the HTML title tag. Google’s goal is to be relevant, so it is expected that they will not blindly use just the content of the title tag to generate the most relevant snippets for users.

For example, let’s say you forgot to add the product name in the title tag, and a user searches for that product. Google might classify the page as highly relevant for that search query, due to great content and backlinks. However, since the page title is missing, displaying an empty title in Google SERPs would be a poor experience. In such cases, Google will use other sections on the page to extract and display a title that is more useful to the searcher.

A very common question is: “Why is Google changing/rewriting/not indexing my title tag properly?”. As mentioned, Google’s goal is to provide the most relevant titles for searchers. Google will use various data sources and signals to accomplish this. They will also analyze the page content and look for external relevance signals from other sources (e.g., from the now extinct DMOZ, Yahoo! directory, or the anchor text in backlinks), to match a user query with relevant content extracted from a page.

Here are some scenarios that may trigger search engines to alter the SERP titles:

  • A malformed title tag.
  • Titles that are too short or too long.
  • A page blocked by robots.txt, but with many backlinks related to the search query.

Getting a different title in the SERPs than the one in the HTML code does not mean that Google indexed your pages or titles incorrectly; it just means that the search query determines whether your HTML title tag is displayed.

Since we are discussing titles and CTRs, I would like to touch on concepts such as SERP CTR, SERP bounce rate, dwell time and pogo-sticking.
SERP CTR is the click-through rate on organic search results.

SERP bounce rate[32] is a bounce that happens when searchers click on a SERP result, and then go back to the initial SERP without interacting with the content on the page they clicked on. That is not necessarily a bad thing, depending on how much time the searchers spent on the website.

Dwell time is the amount of time that a searcher spends on a page before returning to the SERPs.

Pogo-sticking is defined as going back and forth between a SERP and the web pages listed in the results.

All the above are “crowd-sourced” metrics used by search engines to self-evaluate the quality of their results. For example, if a spam page managed to rank first for a competitive keyword, but it does not get enough clicks because users easily identify its SERP snippet as spam as soon as they see it in the listing, that page may be deemed irrelevant in regard to the keyword. Similarly, if a page ranked number one for a particular keyword gets many clicks, but almost everyone bounces back within a second, that signal gets picked by search engines (most likely by RankBrain, in Google’s case). Search engines may reduce the rankings of that page because it is not useful for users and because of very low dwell time.

In an older crowd-sourced test I ran years ago, the rankings of the target URL went up from #16 to #12 for a long-tail keyword, after test participants clicked the URL in SERPs, visited a couple of pages, and spent some time on the test website. However, since this was not a large-scale experiment; it is possible that the fluctuation was just due to personalization, or natural SERP variations.

However, if you think about it, it makes sense for search engines to test and analyze how users react to different results, and to adjust results and algorithms based on SERP CTR and dwell time. Although it has not been officially confirmed, Matt Cutts suggests in a video that Google takes clicks into account when they test new algorithms on live results[33].

Remember, there is a metric that Google uses internally to measure the quality of their results: the long click.

“This occurred when someone went to a search result, ideally the top one, and did not return. This means Google has successfully fulfilled the query”.

The ideal scenario is to “finish the search” on your website. That is the ultimate quality signal you can send to search engines.

Consider the following suggestions for improving the effectiveness of your titles:

Title tag and H1s matching
One way to reinforce the relevance of a product page is to match the title tag with the H1 partially. When doing this both elements should contain the product name. This partial match is a good idea, because H1 and <title> should be conceptually related, but not the same.

Optimize your <title> tags for better SERP CTR, and the H1 for conversion and reassurance.

On PDPs, the product name is usually wrapped in an H1, and it can be a pattern along the lines of the following examples:

  • {Product_Name}
  • {Brand}{Product_Name}
  • {Brand}{Product_Name}{Variation or Attribute}

You can use the H1 product-naming convention in the title tag as well, but you need to change it a bit—for instance, by adding modifiers such as “Buy”, “Online”, “Free Shipping” or {Business Name}”. Your title would look similar to:

  • {Product_Name}–{Business_Name}
  • {Brand}{Product_Name}–{Business_Name}
  • {Brand}{Product_Name}{Variation}–{Business Name}

Figure 419 – In this screenshot, you can see that the title tag is different from the H1. Since the product name in H1 is very short, the title tag can easily be complemented with other useful product attributes.

Keep in mind that the keywords in the title tag should accurately reflect the page content and should also be present in the main content area.

A side note about the title tag for category pages: when a category page lists subcategories, either in the faceted navigation or the main content area, the <title> tag can include some of the most important subcategories; this is especially important when category names are very short.

Figure 420 – This is the SERP for “women dresses”. The title tag for Nordstrom includes “Cocktail Dresses” and “Maxi Dresses”. This approach works best for top-level categories with short names.

Keyword significance consolidation
This tactic works only for ecommerce websites that focus just on a particular product line (e.g., bar stools) or in a specific niche (e.g., you only sell furniture). The tactic will help increase the significance[34] of your main keyword, which in return will create more relevance around your website for that product line or niche. Here are the steps you need to take:

  1. On the home page, place the main keyword at the very beginning of the title tag.
  2. Use the main keyword towards the end of the title tag, on every page of the website, even if the title will become longer than 65 characters or 500 pixels.
  3. Mention the keyword in the main content area on each page of the website. If your pages are content rich, repeat the keyword every 250 words.
  4. Consolidate the contextual anchor text from internal pages to point to the homepage. For example, if “speedboat parts” is your most important keyword, then each page on your website should contain the keyword “speedboat parts” in the main content area, and the first instance of “speedboat parts” should link to the homepage.

Figure 421 – This is a screenshot from Google Search Console, prioGoogle removed the Keywords report.

The report above displays the keyword significance for a website that sells only Shoprider scooters. Notice how “shoprider” and “scooters” are the most significant keywords on this website. The website ranks in the top five for “Shoprider scooters” in Canada, close to Shoprider’s official website.

In the past, you could’ve downloaded this list to find keyword variations as well. That was a pretty useful report to understand how Google groups keywords, but unfortunately, it has been discontinued.

Figure 422 – The report showed the keyword variations as well.

Just a quick note here: keyword significance is not the same as keyword density. Keyword significance is measured at the domain level, while keyword density is measured at the document/page level.

Geo-targeting
Usually, ecommerce websites ship nationwide or even internationally. However, there are cases when you cannot ship outside a geographical region, due to regulatory restrictions. For example, if you sell wine int to Canada, you are not allowed to ship inter-provincially.

If you sell only to a specific region, province, or city, you can mention that in the title tag to increase the chances of showing up for a geo-personalized search query.

Figure 423 – The URL ranked second contains the city name in the title tag, while the URL at the bottom of page one does not.

If you are a retailer with multiple locations, build separate landing pages for each store location. The store address should be placed in the title tag, and the landing pages should reinforce the store locations, with mention of surrounding landmarks or with geo-tagged images. At the minimum, the address in the title should include the city and state or province.

Holiday-specific titles
Searchers’ behavior and the queries they use change around major holidays and events such as Boxing Day, Mother’s Day or Halloween. It is useful for searchers and SEO to update the title tag to accommodate these changes. For instance, around Valentine’s Day, the title “Valentine Gifts for Her. All Items on Sale & FREE Shipping” is more enticing and relevant to users than “Gifts for Her. All Items on Sale & FREE Shipping”.

Figure 424 – Tiffany updated the page title to match user intent, before Valentine’s Day.

Character count and pixel length
Google does not index just 65 characters from title tags. It only displays about 65 characters in the SERP title (or the corresponding length in pixels). In fact, Google indexes as many as 1,000 characters.

Knowing this opens the door to experiments such as thinking of your titles in blocks rather than a single 65-character unit. For example, it may be worth testing titles made of two blocks:

  • The first block of about 65 characters is where you craft the perfect title. This block will include category and subcategory names, product names, branding, calls to action, etc. Think of this as the title you would write if you were to follow the 65-character limit. Ideally, this will be the title seen by searchers on SERPs.
  • The second block will contain second-tier keywords such as product attributes, model numbers, stock availability, plurals, synonyms, and so on. You could eventually repeat the most important keyword for your website at the very end of the title, on all pages except the homepage.

If the title is a complete sentence, and you want the entire sentence to show up in the SERP, it is best to keep that sentence under 65 characters.

Branded titles
When I refer to branded titles, I refer to using your brand name, not the other brands that you might be selling. The decision of whether to add your brand name to the title tag depends on various factors such as:

  • The goal of your organic search campaigns, for example branding versus rankings.
  • How strong your offline brand is.
  • The authority of your website (i.e., external links pointing to your site).

I usually recommend not placing the brand at the beginning of the title tag. However, the final placement should consider the following:

  • If you have a well-established brand and a more than decent website authority, you can place the brand at the beginning of the title tag.
  • If you try to build a brand, then place the brand at the beginning of the title.
  • If your brand has only some recognition and your goal is to drive unbranded traffic, you should add the brand name at the end of the title tag.
  • If your brand is not known, or if you do not care about branding, do not include your brand name in the title at all.

Figure 425 – Big names like Amazon include their brand name right at the beginning of the tag. This tactic works for recognizable brands as they rely less on page titles for SEO reasons.

Sometimes Google will change the title tag to append the brand name either at the end or beginning, whenever it believes it makes sense for users. In the example below, you can see how a search for “engagement rings” returns Costco’s website, with the brand name at the end of the title.

Figure 426 – The SERP title includes the brand name, Costco.

However, if you look at the screencap from their HTML code, you will notice that the title tag does not include the brand name.

Figure 427 – However, the HTML page title of that same page, does not include the brand name. Because the SERP title would be too short (just the category name) Google decided to add the brand name automatically, to make the results more appealing to searchers.

Keyword prominence
The term prominence refers to the closeness of the keywords to the beginning of the title tag. On category pages, start the title with the category name; on product detail pages, start with the product name.

But why is prominence important? Firstly, search engines assign more weight to words at the beginning of the title. Secondly, western readers skim text from left to right, and it is important to reassure them that the page is relevant by placing the category or product name at the beginning. An exception to this is if you have an established brand, or if you are trying to build one; in these cases, start the title with your brand.

Keyword proximity
Proximity refers to how close words are to each other. If your targeted keyword is “women’s dresses”, you should not place other words between “women’s” and “dresses”. For example, the title “Women’s Casual & Formal Dresses” is not ideal; instead, it should be “Women’s Dresses: Casual, Formal, Going Out and more dress styles at{BrandName}”.

Just a quick note about category names: when deciding on category names, do some basic search volume research. The screenshot below is from Google Keyword Planner, and it shows that “women’s dresses” has significantly more search volume than “womens dresses”.

Figure 428 – The search volume for “women’s dresses” is almost double compared to “womens dresses”.

The importance of keyword prominence seems to have decreased after the Hummingbird update, as Google is not focusing on exact match keywords as much as it used to. However, it is still advisable not to break apart important words such as category or subcategory names.

User intent modifiers
User intent keyword modifiers are words that can be placed before or after the targeted keywords, to attract searchers at a specific buying stage. Based on user intent, search queries can be categorized into three main categories: informational, transactional and navigational.

We discussed user intent in detail in the Keyword Research section. There, we saw that while the vast majority of search queries are not transactional, informational and navigational queries are still valuable because they can assist conversions. Hence, ecommerce websites should make efforts to capture consumers with relevant content at each buying stage.

One way of clarifying the purpose of a page to users is to include user intent keyword modifiers in the title tag:

  • You can include transactional modifiers such as “buy”, “sale”, “discount”, “cheap”, on category and product detail pages.
  • Navigational modifiers (e.g., Sears Store Vancouver, BC) can be included on store location pages. You can add the brand name on “About Us” and “Contact Us” pages.
  • Educational modifiers such as “learn”, “discover”, “read”, “find”, or “guide” can be included on shopping guide pages.

Keywords order
In some cases, you will find that words have different search volumes, and even different meanings, if arranged in a different order. For example, “dog toys” has a different meaning than “toys dog”, and it also has a different search volume. When the order of words creates different meanings, you will have to create separate landing pages.

Singular versus plural
It is known that using the same keyword more than twice in the title tag may raise spam flags. However, is the plural form of the keyword considered repetition?

When search engines analyze the content of a document, they use a process called stemming[35]. That means that they strip words to their root form (e.g., “dresses”, “dressed”, “dressing” are all variations of the root word “dress). If you view the matter from this angle, the plural variation can be considered a repetition. Although Google will treat singular and plural words as different keywords, I would not recommend using singulars and plurals in the same title.

That is because there is more than just stemming when it comes to plural or singular—there is user intent. Generally speaking, search queries containing plurals suggests that users are looking for a list of items rather than just one particular item. Moreover, in some instances, the same word can have different meanings in singular versus plural—e.g., “car cover”, which may refer to insurance cover versus “car covers” as in weather-proofing.

I recommend using the plural on listing pages or shopping guides, and the singular on PDPs. For example, the title on a category page can read “Canon Digital SLR Cameras”.

For a product detail page under this category, the title will read “Canon EOS 60D 18 MP CMOS Digital SLR Camera with 3.0-Inch LCD (Body Only)”.

Stop words
In computing, words such as “and”, “or”, “the”, “in”, are named stop words.[36] Since these were usually deemed non-essential for relevance scoring until the Hummingbird update, search engines used to filter them out, when analyzing and classifying documents. Use a natural language to create your titles, and if that means including stop words, do not sweat it; you are good.

You should pay attention if your CMS automatically removes stop words from titles and URLs because some stop words are important for users and can completely change meanings. For instance, if you sell music online, and the CMS automatically removes the word “that” from the band name “Take That”, you will end up with a very suboptimal page title, e.g., “Best Take Albums” instead of “Best Take That Albums”.

Word separators
The word separator most used by SEOs is the pipe sign “|”, but symbols such as hyphens and even commas are good choices too. Google suggests not to use underscores,[37] and I would also recommend staying away from the following special characters: ‘ “ < >{}[] ( ).

Some websites use catchy titles with a lot of non-alphabetic symbols to grab searchers’ attention (e.g., ~~~!FREE iPods!~~~), and possibly higher CTRs. Keep in mind that the use of special symbols may get you a better CTR but might also result in spam flags.

Character savers
If you need to squeeze in more text, you can replace certain words with their corresponding symbols—for example, the word “and” with the “&” symbol, or the word “with” with the “/” symbol or the word “copyright” with the “©” symbol. Remember to implement special characters using HTML entities (“&” as &amp; “©” as &copy).[38]

Other great space-saving options are abbreviations (e.g., instead of “extra-large” you could use XL), and shorter synonyms (e.g., T-shirts instead of tee-shirts). The decision on which version of the keyword to use in the title has to be based on the search volume for those keywords, and also on the content targeted on the page.

Calls to action (CTAs)
A page that ranks second, but has a great compelling CTA in the title, could theoretically grab more clicks than the page ranked first if that first page has a poor title. Remember that one of the most important elements tested in advertising and conversion rate optimization is the headline. On SERPs, your headline is the title.

CTAs include action verbs, unique selling points or promotional words. Sometimes, promotions can also affect CTR. An example of a promotional title is: “All Digital Cameras 60% OFF”.

Competitive differentiators and free shipping
If you know that your target market is sensitive to a particular feature or benefit that is part of your unique selling proposition (e.g., you offer a “lowest price guarantee”), use that to attract more clicks on your listing, and to differentiate from competitors. You can do the same if you have a competitive edge (e.g., you are the exclusive retailer of a product/line of products).

Figure 429 – “Free shipping” is extremely exciting for shoppers, and Zappos features that prominently in their page titles. This tactic works for conversion and better SERP CTRs.

Test your titles
SEO testing is theoretically possible,[39] but very hard to statistically conclude since search engines involve a lot of uncontrolled variables. However, title tag variations are one of the easiest SEO tests you can run. Here are some ideas for your tests:

  • Place your brand at the beginning or end of the title.
  • Add one or more important product attributes to the product name.
  • Add the most important subcategory names before or after the parent category name.
  • Test various unique selling points at the beginning/end of the title.
  • Test various title patterns

References:

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