SEO for ecommerce: how to boost your organic rankings
Search engine optimization (SEO) can be a bit of a mystery to many people—but when done correctly, it can pay huge dividends over time and it can even become one of the most profitable marketing channels for your ecommerce brand.
Fundamentally, SEO is the practice of creating content that helps people searching online find your website.
With 39 percent of global ecommerce website traffic coming from search, people are almost certainly searching online for your products or services.
And any improvement in how you perform in those searches will help you tap into an audience who might have not even heard about your brand—yet.
SEO is a huge topic, and to do it well, it’s important to understand the principles behind the best practices. In this article, you’ll learn everything from foundational strategy to how to implement SEO tactics.
Read on to learn the answers to these common questions:
- What is SEO in ecommerce?
- Why should you optimize your ecommerce site?
- Paid versus organic search results
- What’s the difference between on and off-page SEO?
- How can you get started with SEO?
- How do ecommerce platforms affect your site’s SEO?
What is SEO in ecommerce?
SEO is the act of creating high-quality, relevant content that people are searching for and ensuring this content can be found, crawled, and indexed successfully by search engines (most commonly, Google).
Your SEO efforts will help to ensure people can find your products and website, even if they don’t yet know about your brand.
While the goal is to write content that search engines can easily understand, SEO best practices increasingly focus on content that people find helpful. Excessive use of a keyword may have helped rankings a decade ago, but now search engines now prioritize content that people engage with and learn from.
Why should you optimize your ecommerce website for SEO?
Ninety-three percent of shoppers begin their product searches on digital channels. If your customers can’t find you, your brand doesn’t exist to them.
Many businesses can succeed for a while by word-of-mouth alone, but if the people your customers refer can’t find your business, they’ll take their business somewhere else. SEO helps you make it as easy as possible for your current and prospective customers to find you.
If you’ve been selling online for a while, do an analysis of where your sales are coming from. Go into Google Analytics acquisition reports and sort by channel. Chances are, organic traffic is one of your highest-traffic channels and it’s also likely one of your highest converting channels.
All searches are either branded on non-branded. A branded search will include your brand name, whereas a non-branded search will not.
Some (or most) of this traffic may come from branded searches—people who are searching for your brand and finding you through Google—but some of it may come from non-branded searches, such as people searching for a product you offer that provides a solution to a problem or need they have.
Even if you don’t have many non-branded searches now, increasing your SEO efforts will help your customers find you without having to include your brand name in their search keywords.
Besides being one of the marketing channels with the highest ROI, SEO provides long-term benefits. When you do paid advertising, the moment you stop paying for ads, your traffic from that channel will dry up and you’ll stop earning revenue from it. With SEO, a bit of time and effort up front can pay long-lasting dividends.
Paid versus organic search listings
When someone searches for something on Google (or any alternative search engine), there are two types of results: paid and organic.
SEO affects how you appear in organic search results, but people will see your organic page listing alongside paid search listings, so these paid ads compete for customer attention.
Fortunately, when you compare how shoppers respond to paid search results versus organic, it’s clear: Shoppers don’t like paid ads. In fact, research and stats suggest that nearly 80 percent of them ignore paid ads in search results.
Still, it’s good to understand what paid search results look like and how they function as you develop your SEO strategy—you might even use paid search while you build up your organic search.
Paid ads on Google
Paid listings appear at the top of the search engine results page (SERP) and they’re usually limited to four links. You see these ads when an advertiser bids on a keyword you searched for—“men’s socks,” for example.
Search engines take into account many factors when it comes to which ads will appear first on the page—the quality score of the landing page, the relevance of the landing page to the ad copy, and the overall amount of the bid.
All things being equal, the highest bid will appear first followed by the next highest bid and so on. You only pay when someone clicks on your ad, but it’s good to know that many keywords, especially in highly competitive industries, can cost a decent amount of money per click.
Organic listings, on the other hand, are completely free and will appear below the paid ads. This is where SEO comes into play—you optimize your website so you come up for relevant keywords in the organic listings, ideally on the first page and somewhere in the top three spots.
The click-through rates (CTRs) for the top listings are significantly higher than the rates for listings further down the page or even on pages two and beyond. CTRs are calculated by dividing the number of people who click on your listing by the total number of people who saw your listing—also known as “impressions.”
What’s the difference between on-page SEO and off-page SEO?
SEO tactics fall into two categories: on-page and off-page SEO.
On- and off-page SEO efforts both aim to help your website rank higher in search results, but they’re unique: On-page SEO relates to optimizing your content on a target page, while off-page SEO takes into account factors outside of that page, such as external websites linking to it.
All the ways you can optimize your website will fall into these two categories. These tactics focus on ranking factors that search engines consider to determine what your rank will be for a search query.
Keep reading to learn more about ranking factors of both on- and off-page SEO.
With on-page SEO, the goal is to strategically include your target keyword and topic throughout the content on the page.
There are several locations where your keyword makes the most difference:
1. Meta title
The meta title is the clickable part of the link you can see on Google. It can include up to 70 characters and it should include your keyword, ideally at the beginning.
Meta titles aren’t visible on your actual page. The title that shows up is called the H1 tag (more on that later). Instead, the meta title lives in the metadata of your website—which is information about each page—so it’s only seen in search engines or your browser bar, like this:
One thing to bear in mind: If you want to add your brand name, include it at the end, since people are likely to care more about the topic than your brand.
2. Meta description
The second component to metadata is the meta description—the snippet of text that appears below the link on a search engine like Google.
It should include your keyword and clearly explain what the reader can expect to find on the page.
The meta description might not be a direct ranking factor, but it can influence a searcher into clicking on your listing—and your CTR is a direct ranking factor that will cause your rankings to increase or decrease. Since search engines prioritize quality content, great CTRs will help to show the search engine your content is worthy of ranking higher.
3. H1 tags
H1 tags are heading tags that are generally located at the top of your page as a page title. They’re a ranking factor, so they should include your keyword.
As with the meta title, SEO experts suggest using your keyword at the beginning of the H1 tag. But if your keyword doesn’t naturally fit in the beginning of the H1, prioritize the person reading your content by writing an H1 tag that sounds natural—after all, your content is written for humans, not search engines.
4. Alt text
Alt text is the text that describes an image. Search engines and individuals using a screen reader can refer to the alt text to understand what the image is.
Search engines can’t view images, so all they have to go on is the alt text of an image to learn what an image is about, which is why alt text is a ranking factor.
All of your images on your site should have alt text—and including your keyword in the alt text (if it’s applicable to the image) can also help you rank higher.
This is the address of your page, which includes your domain (www.mywebsite.com), as well as the subdirectory (also known as path) of the page (www.mywebsite.com/path-goes-here).
This is a direct ranking factor, so your URL should be short, easy to read, and contain some variation of your keyword.
Most SEO experts recommend omitting “stop words”—common words that aren’t central to the keyword meaning—in your URL to keep it concise. Here are some examples of stop words:
- A, an, the
- To, for, on
- And, or
- Is, are
Use your best judgment about what you’d like to include in your URL. As long as you include the keyword and it makes sense to readers, you can’t go wrong.
6. H2 tags and body copy
The bulk of the content on your page is body copy and H2 tags (along with H3, H4, etc., depending on how many headers you use).
This is the main portion of your page, so it should include some variations of your keyword and explain the topic in a clear, human, readable way.
H2 tags are the most significant ranking factor, so include your keyword in at least two of your H2s.
In the rest of the body copy, include your keyword throughout your page. The amount you use your keyword is called keyword density, and most experts recommend that your keyword shows up once or twice for every hundred words—which is a keyword density of one to two percent.
- More on-page SEO ranking factors
On-page SEO also includes all of the technical enhancements you can make to your site, including page speed improvements, internal linking, secure sockets layer (SSL), more commonly you’ll see it as a secure site via HTTPS), and much more.
Off-page SEO is the practice of acquiring backlinks from other sites to your site. A backlink is a link that’s placed on another site, preferably one that has a high domain authority, that links back to the content on your site.
Google sees backlinks as votes of confidence and a signal that the content on your site is high-quality and worthy of being shared.
One thing to bear in mind with backlinks: Not all links are created equal. You should also never buy or sell links since this can hurt your rankings or penalize your site.
Domain authority determines how authoritative a search engine views your website.
Typically (but not always), older websites will have a higher domain authority than newer websites—both because they’ve been around longer and they’ve had more time to acquire more high-quality backlinks.
It’s always better to get a link from a site with high domain authority than one with low domain authority, so if you’re doing outreach to get more backlinks, prioritize higher websites with higher domain authority.
How you can get started with SEO
As you optimize your website, there’s plenty of best practice advice to follow around how to get started.
First, identify how your website is currently performing in organic search, what your competitors are doing, and what keywords you should be going after.
Once you know the current state of your SEO and the keyword strategy you’ll adopt, you’ll have a much better idea of what existing pages you should optimize for which keywords and what types of new content opportunities you can leverage.
Carrying out these steps is no small feat. You may even want to bring in some outside help from an expert if you don’t have the time to learn everything there is to know about SEO.
But before you take that step, you can learn about the basics to guide you. These three steps will help you get started:
1 | Conduct a technical on- and off-page SEO audit
The best place to start is with an SEO audit to identify your key strengths and opportunities.
A thorough SEO audit will help you assess whether your website’s on-page SEO factors—like title tag, meta description, and URL—contain relevant keywords and follow the best practices for optimizing a website.
An audit will also take into consideration backlinks on your site, your domain authority, and any technical issues that may hold your overall SEO back (such as slow load speeds or a robots.txt issue).
2 | Conduct a competitor audit
Who are your closest competitors? Understanding their presence on search can be a good indicator of the content you should create to compete with them in organic search.
A competitor audit will include many of the same on-page and off-page factors you’d look at on your own website.
The difference? You’re looking for opportunities where you can win against your competitors’ content—areas where they have a gap or where you can provide more valuable, optimized content to outrank theirs.
Another thing to keep in mind as you identify your competitors: An SEO competitor isn’t always a true competitor, they’re simply a brand that might rank for the same keywords you want to target.
For example, if your brand sells fitness gear and you want to create a blog about fitness tips, you might also compete against health food companies that create similar health-focused blogs.
Keep an open mind and think about it from your customer’s perspective—who’s competing for their attention?
3 | Do keyword research
Once you understand your site’s current state, the next step is to identify what search terms you want to target with keyword research.
Outside of your own intuition about what your customers search for, there are several tools you can use to identify and evaluate keywords.
One underrated way of finding keywords is by looking at your website’s search box to learn what products people look for on your own site.
Here are a few other tools to help you see what search terms you already rank for and help you identify new terms:
Alternatively, you can also use search engines themselves to find keywords.
When you start typing a keyword into Google, predictive search will suggest related queries that you can investigate as potential keywords.
Tools like AnswerThePublic also break down predictive searches into question categories—who, what, why, when, where, and how. You can then create content to answer these questions and attract visitors to your site.
You can also use Google’s related searches, which will appear at the bottom of the search results page. These terms give you insight into how other people have searched and can be great suggestions for a potential keyword you can target.
When you find interesting keywords through these tools, do some digging to find out whether the keyword is right for your brand. Two key data points should guide your evaluation: search volume and competition.
Search volume is the number of times people search with a particular keyword, usually measured in monthly increments: monthly search volume (MSV).
Not all keywords are created equal and some will have more search volume than others. But don’t be fooled: Bigger is not always better when it comes to search volume.
Popular keywords with high MSV are likely to be highly competitive, which will affect how likely it is you’ll be able to rank for them.
Competition is a scale of how many other websites are also trying to optimize for or bid on a particular keyword—ranked as low, medium, or high competition.
Most SEO tools (Moz, SEMRush, and more) provide this value for any keyword you’re researching so you can understand how likely it is for you to rank for the given term.
Typically, optimizing for long-tail keywords—phrases with three or more words—is the best initial strategy, since they often have higher intent and less competition than short-tail keywords—search terms with only one or two words.
For example, if somebody is searching for the keyword “pizza”, they could be looking for a recipe, a definition, a pizza restaurant, and much more. But if they search for “pizza shop near fanueil hall boston ma,” it’s much easier to understand what they’re looking for and hoping to find.
What’s the ideal MSV and competition for you?
Looking at MSV and competition together will help you prioritize keywords that fit target criteria for both.
For example, a keyword with low search volume and high competition is generally something you won’t want to use time or resources on due to how much work it takes to rank on page one and the low return it yields.
Ideally, it’s best to balance worthwhile MSV with medium competition that’s still attainable for you to beat.
When you’re just getting started and building your domain authority, it will be more difficult to rank for higher competition keywords, so start with lower competition and work your way up.
Ecommerce platform-specific SEO
All the major ecommerce platforms provide a variety of plugins, apps, and built-in functionality to help you optimize your store for search engines, and they offer all the tools and functionality you need for a successful SEO strategy.
BigCommerce provides built-in tools that allow you to optimize your website pages with titles, descriptions, alt text, URLs, and more. You can find all of your SEO and URL settings in the applicable section of your “store settings” page.
They also offer integrations with many dedicated SEO tools you‘ll likely want to explore as you invest more resources into driving organic traffic to your website.
WooCommerce users can take advantage of the SEO tools available for WordPress.
The most popular tool is Yoast, which includes all the features you’ll need to easily optimize your pages and site architecture—it even offers on-page optimization suggestions to help you see your SEO at a glance.
Magento is a very search engine-friendly platform with tons of great features to help you get optimized quickly.
One benefit of Magento: Their out-of-the-box SEO tools handle a lot of the technical work, such as auto-creating title tags and canonical URLs, which explain to Google where the original content is located.
Shopify has several great built-in features that make it easy for you to optimize your website, as well as extensive integrations for any additional tools and features you may want.
They also provide excellent documentation on how to accomplish tasks like creating a title and meta description, adding alt text to images, and much more.
How to approach SEO optimization
SEO is a great way to attract high-quality, relevant traffic to your ecommerce website. But whenever you create or optimize content, always prioritize your visitors first—never a search engine.
Google’s become increasingly sophisticated and excels at understanding the intent of a keyword and displaying relevant results to the searcher. Google’s goal is always to provide the best results to the searcher, so your content should always be helpful and written in a readable way.
It’s also important to remember that SEO can take time. You won’t find your brand on page one, driving thousands of visits, in the first week.
SEO is a marathon that’s all about creating high-quality content your current and prospective customers are searching for, and making minor tweaks and adjustments to ensure they can find it.
The work you do to optimize your site for SEO will pay off—you’ll likely see greater traffic, better brand recognition, and more sales as a result of your efforts.
Learn about the entire ecommerce customer lifecycle for tips on how to encourage the people you attract with your SEO efforts to make a purchase.