How does your merchandising strategy affect SEO? Columnist Stephanie LeVonne describes the various challenges that can arise if you overlook the importance of communicating your merchandising strategy with your SEO team.
When optimizing an e-commerce website for SEO performance, you’ll often notice that the product being sold (i.e., the bread and butter of the business) is generally not a focal point in the SEO discussion. After all, SEO recommendations aren’t necessarily based on a brand’s product mix, but rather a strategy is developed based on the holistic needs of the website.
While it’s important to understand the product and how it’s positioned in the marketplace (luxury product, discount product or something else), that’s typically where the conversation ends. Often SEOs liaise directly with marketing managers, and because of this, there’s generally little discussion around the merchandising strategy and how it can affect SEO.
Below are five common, yet overlooked, scenarios which detail the importance of communicating your merchandising strategy.
Challenge 1: Inventory issues & negative reviews
What does inventory management have to do with SEO? Turns out, a lot.
While I think it’s safe to say that most brands use a live inventory system, meaning that stock-status is updated in real time, some companies haven’t yet adopted this technology. And for this reason, order fulfillment can become a real challenge.
One consequence of having loosely managed inventory is overselling merchandise. While this is undoubtedly a huge problem, it may not seem like one that affects SEO, until of course, we examine the trickle-down effect.
Essentially, orders that cannot be fulfilled will need to be refunded in a timely manner. While this might not seem like a criminal offense, telling someone that the sweater they ordered for Christmas is now on back-order probably isn’t going to make them a brand advocate any time soon — especially if this is their first interaction with the brand.
While some customers might call to voice their concern, many will likely take to social media or Yelp to air their grievances. What was once a problem with fulfillment has now turned into a full-fledged issue of reputation management.
Challenge 2: Out-of-stock products & schema markup
Perhaps your brand has implemented “stock” schema markup which allows you to display whether products are in stock or out of stock directly in the SERPs. This nifty little enhancement gives consumers information at the tips of their fingers, without ever interacting with your landing page.
Going back to the inventory management discussion, the real problem begins when products that are frequently going out of stock aren’t updating their stock status on the back end as they are replenished. This can result in incorrect “out of stock” messaging appearing in the SERPs.
In the most extreme cases, depending on how your products are set up in your CMS, one color variation going out of stock could trigger all instances of the product to appear completely out of stock. Not only will you lose sales, but your traffic will likely take a hit as well.
As a best practice, continually check the appearance of your schema markup on a regular basis. If worse comes to worst, you can always temporarily disable the schema until you get a handle on the situation.
Challenge 3: Product variants & canonical tags
One common issue that many websites face is URL confusion (i.e., multiple products or pages competing against each other in the SERPs). In the case of many e-commerce sites, these are often products which are identical but differ in color. An easy way to mitigate this issue is to use color swatches on each page and ensure that when a color is selected, it does not generate a dynamic parameter in the URL.
Color swatches allow for consumers to browse all variants of a product — and since only one URL is created, you reduce the chance of duplicate content.
While this would be deemed a “best practice” rather than a strategy, there are still some websites that create individual URLs for each different color of a product and each different size. For instance, if you offer the same shoe in red, gray and black, and it’s available in six different sizes, imagine the number of pages that would generate! (Hint: It’s a lot)
Another common scenario that can have major implications is the following:
Product goes out of stock and page is taken down, and product comes back in stock and new page is created.
Firstly, let’s address the fact that taking down a page or removing it from your navigation does NOT mean it’s gone. In fact, that page is likely still live and being indexed, especially if it’s in your XML sitemap. Without a solid canonical tag strategy in place, you will inevitably create pages and pages of duplicate content.
If this is an issue for your brand, it’s essential to make sure you have canonical tags in place. Ideally, you should try to have one product page where users can select multiple colors. In the event that the product goes out of stock, you could change the on-page messaging to say something like, “This product is temporarily unavailable — check back soon” rather than remove the page in its entirety, especially if there is a slim chance you will remember to reinstate it.
Challenge 4: Never-ending sales
Whether your brand plays in the luxury space or targets the bargain-savvy shopper, you understand the power of a good promotion. Sales generate a sense of urgency which entices consumers to buy now.
With many retailers trying to take advantage of unofficial holidays (think “national ice cream cone day”) it’s easy to get overzealous with your promotional calendar. Running promotions too frequently can cause consumers to become immune to your messaging and tune you out. Rather than take out their credit cards, consumers are more apt to debate the necessity of the purchase — and even delay the sale if they know they can expect another in a few weeks.
The SEO implications of this can be realized in the form of lower average order value, which translates to decreased revenue. Not only does this cheapen the appearance of your brand, but it puts you in a spot where consumers no longer see the value in paying full price.
Challenge 5: You’re not exclusive
Working with resellers is a great way to gain exposure for your brand — until your resellers start to outrank you for your own products, that is. If you’re working with a large reseller, you may not have much say in terms of which products they’ll stock. In fact, they might give you an ultimatum as to which products they will need to stock if you want to be in their store.
If you aren’t strategic about the resellers you work with, you may quickly find yourself ranking No. 2 or No. 3 for your own branded product terms! It’s important to manage these relationships while still maintaining some level of exclusivity over your products.
To continue increasing sales on your website, you’ll need to convince consumers why they should shop direct. This can be difficult, since resellers will often undercut you on price and may even have a more favorable return policy. However, having a handful of products which can only be purchased exclusively through your website will entice consumers to check back for new products rather than simply browsing your collection at Nordstrom.
If you’ve noticed a downtrend in organic revenue or a decrease in other metrics, it’s worthwhile to re-examine your merchandising strategy and identify any hiccups. The objective here isn’t to change your merchandising strategy to be 100 percent SEO-approved, but rather to keep an open dialogue with your SEO team so they’re aware of the current situation and can create an informed strategy.
Giving your SEO team transparency into your procurement process, and even how your affiliate relationships are managed, can end up saving you both time and money in the long run.