The vast majority of eCommerce store owners dive straight in to their online business, adding products, taking photos and often making great attempts to optimise their products with dreams of gaining top search engine rankings without any real appreciation of what search engines such as Google are actually looking for. A single blog post isn’t going to suddenly turn you in to a search engine expert but a little knowledge can sometimes make a big difference to the success of your efforts to gain greater visibility.
The elements that Google take in to account when they are deciding how highly to rank a site are often referred to as Ranking Factors and there are hundreds of them. For our purposes and to simplify understanding we will divide these factors in to five areas.
All content that you add and any activities that you undertake related to your site should take at least one of these areas in to account. Lets explore them in a bit more detail. All search engines take ranking factors in to account but as Google owns by far the biggest marketshare we will refer to Google during the rest of this post.
Relevancy relates to anything that is written on your website. In simple terms, the more relevant that your web page/product is compared to the search term entered in to Google, the more likely it is that Google will recommend your website in search results but it goes much deeper than that.
Relevancy is assessed in three ways.
Google will look at the most relevant page on your website and see how closely this matches the search term. This doesn’t mean that you can simply decide what term you want to rank for and write it over and over again on the same page (often referred to as Keyword Stuffing), Google are way smarter than that. They have become really good at understanding what good content is and what bad content is. You should add well written content to your site that will be of interest to your customers and that aligns well with what you want to rank for.
Also keep in mind that Google doesn’t want to struggle to work out which is the most relevant page on your website so you should ensure that you don’t have multiple pages all competing for the same search term. An example of this would be 5 products with exactly the same content/product description but with different colour options. This repeated content is referred to as ‘Duplicate Content’ and it is one of the main reasons why some eCommerce sites fail to make gains in search engine rankings. Ideally your site should have zero duplicate content.
Your site should be structured to group related content/products together in to an area of topical relevancy. For eCommerce sites such as PrestaShop stores this should be easy to achieve as a good site structure will often suit your product category structure and also how your customers will expect your store to be arranged.
It makes complete sense for similar products to be grouped together within a topical area of your site (i.e. a category or sub-category). Be careful to ensure that your products remain tightly grouped in logical categories. You may find that you sometimes want a certain product to appear in multiple categories at the same time. For example; it would make complete sense for a sofa to appear in the main ’Sofas’ category of a site but it could also appear in the ‘Living Room’ category. In this case just make sure that you set the ‘default category’ for that product to the most relevant category within PrestaShop.
As well as assessing page and topical relevancy, the relevancy of your site as a whole plays a big part. If your site sells sofas and nothing else then your domain as a whole is pretty much 100% relevant to anyone searching for sofas. But if you your site sell sofas and beds then your site is roughly only 50% relevant the people searching for sofas.
When an online store becomes successful and known for selling a specific type of product there is a lot of temptation to try to capitalise on that success and to start offering a wider range of products in a bid to make more profit. Be very wary of this approach, especially if the majority of your existing product sales come from organic search traffic. Expanding your product range may feel like the logical thing to do but at the same time you will also be diluting your relevancy for the products that have made you a success in the first place.
Conversely you may already be offering a wide range of unrelated products (Amazon being the ultimate example of this) but unlike Amazon you find that you are struggling to gain traction within search engine results. In this instance focussing on a niche area of products may help to improve the relevancy of your domain. This doesn’t mean that you necessarily need to remove the majority of the products from your store, PrestaShop has excellent multi-store functionality that can allow you to create additional stores to focus where needed.
It is always best to get some professional advice before making any major changes that could effect your online business and if you do start making any changes then makes sure that you back-up your site fully just in case you need to revert any changes.
Relevancy is only one of the five areas that we will be looking at during this post but it is worth keeping in mind that it is the one area that you have most control over.
Authority comes from areas of the web outside of your site, normally in the form of a link one someone else’s site that points to your website. Within the SEO and Digital Marketing industry these are referred to as inbound or external links. There is also evidence to show that mentions of your company or brand on other websites that have a high authority themselves will also have a positive impact on your site’s reputation with Google.
Not all inbound links are equal. The more authoritative a website is that links to your website the more weight/authority it will bring with it. An authoritative site is a website that is well stablished, well trusted, that has a strong brand with good content and that itself has lots of high quality inbound links. The ultimate example of this would be a site like www.bbc.co.uk. It’s more than unlikely that your average eCommerce store is going to manage to get the BBC to link to their site but understanding what makes a good link can help when you are looking at what potential links you can get.
At the other end of the scale are sites that have very low or no authority. These can be brand new sites that haven’t managed to gain any authority of their own but very often they are sites that are of no real value to people, that have no brand, no good content and no authoritative links.
Links = Authority
Some areas of the SEO and the Digital Marketing industry stem from a shady past where the elements that make up an authoritative website were manufactured (faked) and links where created from sites with faked authority to point to other websites to make them rank higher. Google struggled to tell the difference between what was real and what was faked and so this approach worked really well until Google finally figured out how to tell the difference.
Building good authoritative links to your website is difficult but it can be done and it will make a difference to how authoritative Google sees your website and how likely it is that Google will recommend your site in search results but you do need to be careful. The basic rule is ‘Don’t Try to Cheat’.
Building low quality links with no authority can be very easy. You can very quickly find websites such as Free SEO Link Directories where you can quickly create listings that will link back to your site but don’t go down this route. These types of links will build no authority for your site and can actually land you in big trouble with Google. This is not to say that all links with low authority are bad. All websites have to start somewhere and they all start with no authority. If you can gain a link from a new website that then grows to become an authoritative site then this could be a big benefit to you.
The best way to build authority to your site is to earn it either by adding great (or interesting or funny or emotive or valuable) content, doing something different/creative or by giving people a reason to talk about you by doing something newsworthy or running a competition. Here’s a link to a good post about link building for eCommerce websites with links to further resources at the bottom of the post – E-Commerce Link Building (http://searchengineland.com/e-commerce-link-building-challenge-wont-go-away-202930) – This post is a few years old but it gives some very sound advice.
One last thing worth mentioning about links is ’Topical Authority’. Links from web pages and websites that align with the topic of your site will have a much more positive effect than links from unrelated websites. As an example; If your site sells designer handbags and you create a blog post about the hand bags on stage at this years Paris Fashion show then it is going to be much better for your site to gain links from other fashion related sites as apposed to a website related to the history of Welsh sheep farming.
Trust is like a protective armour that surrounds your site. If Google trusts your site (and your brand) then you will be much more resilient when things change in the way that Google operates and when you potentially make other mistakes on your site (such as allowing some duplicate content to appear). Trust will also give Google more confidence when they are deciding which websites to recommend in search results.
When we meet new people we don’t automatically trust them. It takes time to get to know someone, to find out that they can be relied upon and ultimately that you like them before you give someone your trust. Google is no different and so helping Google to learn about your website, your business and your brand will go a long way in building trust.
The first thing that you should do (if you haven’t already done it) is to register your business with Google My Business (GMB). GMB is predominantly a service for getting your business listed within search results for your localised area (i.e. your county or city). It is very likely that you are selling products and shipping nationally or internationally so local search rankings won’t mean much to you but by setting up your business with GMB then you will be taking a big step to helping Google to understand you. Here’s a link to a really useful guide to help you get set-up with links to further reading should you need it – Guide to Google My Business. It is also worth mentioning that once set-up with Google My Business you can also optimise your listing and create citations which will also help to start building site authority.
Linking out from your site to highly relevant ‘Authority’ sites will help to align you with other trusted sites. When you are creating and adding content to your site link out to other sites that will help to give more information around a topic and that will add value to your site users.
Make sure that your trading address is located within the footer of your web pages and that it is coded using schema.org markup. If you aren’t sure what this is then speak to your web developers.
If your business is a registered company then make sure that your company number appears on your site, either within your terms and conditions page or your contact page. If your registered office address is different from your trading address then ensure that this is also included.
Bounce Rate and Site Engagement.
It is known that user interaction and user engagement are factors that Google take in to account when they look at how to rank a website. If Google recommends a website based upon a search query, a user clicks on the search result to visit the site and then the user returns back to the search results a few seconds later this will indicate to Google that the website may not be that worthy of ranking again. This visit to a website and then leaving the site without visiting any other site pages is called a ‘Bounce’. A high Bounce Rate can indicate that your site isn’t very engaging and it can impact on your trust rating. You can view what your site bounce rate is by setting up Google Analytics tracking.
A high bounce rate doesn’t however always tell the whole story. Site engagement is most likely a much stronger ranking factor and it is possible that you can have fantastic engagement but also a high bounce rate. Imagine that you found this blog post via a Google search. You could land on this web page from search results, spend 15-minutes scrolling down the content reading this article. You might sign-up for our newsletter and then leave the site to go back to the search results. Is that a bad thing? It certainly isn’t. Make sure that along with bounce rate you also look at the average Time on Page. The higher the time on page and the more site engagement the better.
If you are using the standard PrestaShop module for Google Analytics tracking then you will need to use Bounce Rate and Time on Page to calculate site engagement however if you are using Google Tag Manager to track your site visitors then Google will automatically monitor page scroll and click activity and adjust your site Bounce Rate to take user engagement in to account. Just get in touch if you need help setting up Google Tag Manager.
Domain Name Information
A lot of businesses owners don’t know who has access to their domain name and who pays for the renewal of it. It is always worth while making sure that you know how to access your domain name management account. Whilst you are checking that you’ve still got access also check to ensure that all of the details related to your domain name are correct.
To be able to sell and manage domain names, a domain seller has to be registered as a domain registrar. This also allows the seller to have access to the information associated with a domain name.
Google is a registered domain registrar but they don’t sell domain names. This seems a bit odd until you realise that as a registrar they then get full access to see all of the information associated with a domain.
Make sure that you don’t hide you domain name information. Many registrars offer the option of ‘Domain Name Privacy’. Don’t choose this option, make sure all of the details are public.
Make sure that the telephone number on your domain record and the address match with the phone number and address displayed on your website.
Ensure that you maintain at least on active social media account linked to from your website.
This doesn’t need to be the usual suspects of Facebook or Twitter. Whilst these two mainstays of social media are good platforms for helping to build good trust signals they aren’t for everyone or every business. Whatever social media platform you choose, make sure that you link to it from your website, that you post regular content relevant to your business goals and that your social media profile links back to your website.
Encourage your customers to submit reviews about your business, your products or your services. One of the easiest ways to encourage your customers to leave reviews is to offer then a discount on their next order if they submit a review. The email template system that generates emails when order statuses are updated is a great way to automate the review request for you.
If your customers submit reviews directly to you then when you adde these to your site then ensure that the reviews are coded using the correct schema.org markup. Direct reviews are great but positive reviews submitted to Google or Facebook will also have a positive effect on your trust rating.
Google have recently launched their new “Google Customer Reviews” that will show seller ratings that appear on Search Ads, in Google Shopping, and on an optional badge that can be displayed on your website. Read more here – https://support.google.com/merchants/answer/7188525
It is sometimes tempting to tweak (or embellish) a piece of data or information to make your point of view or your products appear more appealing or authoritative. This might fool the odd site visitor but it won’t pull the wool over the eyes of Google.
Google has more data at their fingertips than any other business on the planet and their ability to cross-reference thousands of data sources against each other is nothing short of astounding. Whatever information you put on your site will be compared against almost every other website in existence and if your information is wrong then you could suffer for it.
You may not know that the data or information that someone has given you is incorrect but as the owner of a website it is ultimately your responsibility to vouch for the integrity of everything that you publish so always double check your facts and figures before publishing them.
Quality has and always will be a subjective thing. If you ask enough people for their opinion on the quality of something then you will get a wide range of answers but you shouldn’t use this as any kind of excuse for any area of your website. Google will look at all areas of your website when assessing quality including but they will ask some pretty basic questions.
Does the site provide interesting, original ideas?
Is the content well written?
Would you share the site/page with a friend or colleague?
Would you be comforatable entering your credit card details in to the site?
Duplicate content, poor quality writing, poor grammar, spelling mistakes and content that doesn’t engage will all have a negative impact. Not all businesses have the luxury, time or budget to employ someone who finds writing easy but at the very least you should get someone who is good at writing to read through your pages and point of any selling mistakes or errors.
One of the biggest killers for eCommerce websites when it comes to content is duplicate content or thin content.
Duplicate content occurs when the same piece of text appears in more than one place within a website and for eCommerce sites this can happen very easily. The usual causes are the same product being listed multiple times with just colour or size variations or the same elements being displayed on multiple product pages such as delivery information, sizing guides or technical notes. Google doesn’t care that you may have valid reasons for needing to display this content on more that one page, they don’t want to see it more than once. Whatever your justification is, we have never seen an instance of duplicate content on a site that can’t be resolved by a bit of thinking and implementing technical solutions.
If you are using manufacturers descriptions or content taken from other websites then Google will regard you as simply copying someone else’s work and you will always find it difficult to achieve any kind of foothold in search results for anything other than search terms that relate to your brand or your business.
Thin content occurs when there isn’t enough unique content on a page for Google to take notice of. When you consider your product pages have a good look around the page at the elements that aren’t related to the product. You’ll probably find that your sidebar content, header, footer, etc are the same on every page. Google respects that this is a reality of how websites are built and presented. Ultimately they allow site visitors to understand and navigate your site but if your products have really short one-line descriptions then, from Google’s perspective, all of your product pages are pretty much the same with only very slight variations and they will start to ignore your product pages.
User Experience (UX) is a huge subject with many thoughts and opinions all of which can usually be backed up with studies and data. The reason that there are so many different thoughts around UX is that we are all different and we all want, think and do different things. The golden rule is that you should ensure that your site operates in a way that works for most people. Within eCommerce this usually manifests itself within your eCommerce Conversion rate.
At the very basic level your site should be easy to navigate, easy to add products to a basket and easy to check-out and pay. Anything that interrupts this process needs to be attended to.
Not everyone can be a usability expert but it is easy to find out if there are fundamental issues. You have probably spent way too long looking at the pages of your site, you know how every element works so it will be very easy for you to overlook elements that could be a stumbling block for a new site visitor. There is a very easy way around this called the ‘Coffee Shop Test’
Offer to buy someone a coffee at a cafe of their choice in exchange for them spending a few minutes looking at your website. (This person needs to be someone who has never viewed you site before)
After the first 15 seconds ask them to stop looking at the screen and tell you what their first impressions are.
Ask them to find a particular type of product then watch how they go about finding it. Do they use your menu navigation or do they go straight to search? How easily did they find the product? Ask them to talk out loud saying what their thoughts are and where they might be struggling.
Ask them to add the product to the basket and check-out. Could they easily create an account? Make sure they keep talking. Comments like “Why do you want my date of birth?” are the sorts of things you want to pick up and think about later.
Only allow the review of the site to last a maximum of 5-minutes. Beyond this and the person will start to adapt their behaviour to compensate for the failings of your site.
Make sure that you record everything so that you don’t miss anything.
Repeat this process 5 – 10 times and you’ll get a really good idea of what any fundamental issues that your site may have.
Technical Site Build
Technical issues on your site can cause anything from minor problems that you might not notice the effects of to major problems that can have a dramatic impact on the ability for Google to access your site and view the content. This is one area that you will probably need to call of the services of a digital marketing expert to help with. At the very least you should get a quick technical audit carried out to ensure that SEO best practice is followed, that Google can access your site pages and crawl/index your content.
Keep in mind that your website is the foundation that everything else is built upon. All of your marketing efforts will likely focus on driving as many visitors as possible to your website so if the foundations aren’t correct then all of your other efforts could possibly be wasted.
Site speed can have a huge effect on usability, customer perception of your business, how often Google can crawl your site pages and a slow site speed will dramatically effect your product sales.
The causes for a slow website are normally pretty basic and they can usually be resolved quickly often with very little associated cost. For PrestaShop websites the number 1 cause for a slow site is usually that they have not been configured correctly to give the best site performance. The number 2 issue is usually down to large image files being added to your important landing pages causing long download times.
Google have expressly stated that site speed plays a role in how they rank websites and a slow website will undoubtedly adversely effect the quality signals that your site sends to Google.
Secure Web Pages
Security is currently at the forefront of almost every part of every major web based business and Google are actively pushing the entire internet to becoming more secure. Consumers are also becoming much more aware of security and an ever increasing number of people can tell the difference between a secure and a non-secure website. For those people who still can’t tell the difference Google will soon start to tell them “This site is not secure”
There is a very basic requirement for securing the communication of your website across the internet, this is to ensure that you have a valid SSL certificate and that your site content is served via HTTPS. You can obtain and SSL certificate from your hosting provider and PrestaShop makes it very easy to switch the delivery of your site by enabling SSL and then ensuring that SSL is enabled across all pages – User Guide (http://doc.prestashop.com/display/PS16/General+Preferences)
You can find more information on what Google takes in to account in regards to quality here – Guidance on building high-quality sites
Almost since the foundation of Google they have been working towards a fool-proof method of assessing how authoritative a website is and modifying how they decide what pages should rank highly for search terms. From Google’s perspective it has always been a battle to find the very best results for their users (customers) amongst the vast amount of web pages available. Some of those pages would have been optimised by Search Engine Optimisers, some would contain great information but may not have been optimised well and others would be trying to trick and cheat people. It has not been any easy job for them.
In the real world (offline) we use our existing knowledge, experience and word of mouth to make our decisions about what to buy or who’s service to use. At a broader level we often default to names that we know and trust; Dyson, Amazon, John Lewis, etc and at a local level we often use recommendation to find services such as a plumber, a hair dresser or a builder. These influences (signals) that we are so used to experiencing are all related to Brand. A plumber probably wouldn’t consider themselves as having a ‘Brand’ but if their name is know locally and they have a reputation as being punctual, reliable and carry out good quality work then this is their brand and it would be a great one to own.
Google have realised that Brand Signals are the perfect way for them to base their decisions upon. In the past, people have manufactured authority by creating links pointing to their websites and they have worked really hard at making their sites as relevant as possible but this is no guarantee that these sites will sell the best products or provide the best customer service. With the huge growth in social media and advances in Google’s ability to understand the web and conversational language, brand signals now play an ever increasing part in their decision making. Currently Authority is the biggest ranking factor taken in to account to determine ranking positions but over then next few years it is fully expected that Brand signals will take over as the primary ranking factor so building your brand should be part of your strategy.
Many of the areas covered during this article will have an effect on how much or how little Google understand your brand but there are some additional elements and ’Real Life’ areas of your business that you should focus on that will also provide strong brand signals.
- Have a branded domain name i.e. yourcompany.com
- Make sure that you have a really good ‘About Us’ page. Tell the story of your company who your staff are and link to their professional social profiles if possible i.e. Linkedin
- Make sure that you have ‘Company’ pages set-up of social media sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn
- Get some coverage in your local press. Every business has some kind of story, get your business mentioned in areas that don’t directly related to the web. (Carry out some charity work or sponsor a local event)
- Have strong, ethical brand values and stick to them.
- Become an expert in your market area. Find places on the web where people need help or are asking question and help them. Don’t approach this as trying to promote your business. Provide the advice that the person asking the question actually needs.
- If possible, trademark your brand name.
- Register for local search (covered in the Trust section above) and then build some local/niche citations
- Enter (and hopefully win) awards categories for your business niche area or local area. (As an example, in our area we have the Somerset Business Awards)
- Deal with any bad reviews. If you receive a bad review then respond to it in a professional way that will help to resolve any issue.
- Don’t just leave bad reviews hanging. If your business was at fault then change things so that the same issue doesn’t happen again.
Putting It All Together
If you have covered all of the above an applied it to your business the you should be in a really good place.
Authority is going to be the most difficult area to make improvements to but don’t stress about this in the early stages. Google takes hundreds of factors in to account and what you don’t have in authority you can make up for in the areas that you can make a difference to such as relevancy, fixing technical site issues and building your brand.
Take a look at your competition and be honest about what they are doing better than you. Learn from what they are doing, improve upon it if possible and apply it to your business.
Get any major technical issues resolved first then move on to the next easiest thing. Don’t get bogged down with struggling to get the difficult tasks done when you could be making quick and easy progress with the easy stuff.
When you start seeing results, don’t stop! Keep going and make your site as good as it can be.