Matt Cutts, Google’s head of search spam, answers a question about ecommerce sites in his latest Webmaster Help video where a user writes in to ask:
How would Google recommend handling eCommerce products that are no longer available? (Does this change as the number of discontinued products outnumbers the active products?)
Matt prefaces his answer by saying this is a good question, and it does matter depending on how many products you have and how long they tend to stay available for customers to buy.
If you run a specialty store that deals with a very small number of products, Matt suggests using your inactive pages to direct customers to items are in stock by suggesting other items they may be interested in.
If you run a mid-sized ecommerce store with hundreds of product pages, Matt suggests doing a 404 for products that are no longer available. It’s better to get rid of the pages rather than become known as the store that frustrates users by displaying items that are out of stock. However, if the item may come back in stock, Matt suggests to keep the page up and let users know the item is temporarily unavailable.
Matt also gives an example of what to do if you run a gigantic ecommerce site like Craigslist where products are frequently becoming unavailable after a period of time. In a case like this Matt recommends using the meta tag ‘unavailable after,’ which tells Google to stop indexing the page after a certain date.
To hear Matt’s full response in his own words, please see the video below: