Over time, the SEO industry has developed many “best practice” assumptions that work well for many businesses, but that can be harmful when applied without concern for where those practices came from.
When SEO was a cottage industry, it was built primarily by webmasters who were running their own blogs, and many of the values and business assumptions that came with that have been carried over, applied where they don’t belong.
This is especially true for SEO and ecommerce sites.
For this reason, an SEO accustomed to working with B2B clients and bloggers can give bad advice when it comes to ecommerce, and ecommerce marketers taking advice from SEO blogs can also get the wrong idea.
Here are five pieces of advice that, while they can be good, are dangerous to apply to ecommerce sites uncritically.
1. Get Your Keywords from the Google Ads Keyword Planner
The Google Ads Keyword Planner is the most widely used and familiar tool in the SEO industry.
It is the only source capable of providing estimates of monthly searches for any given keyword; all other keyword tools that provide search estimates are getting their data from it.
No SEO pro should employ a keyword strategy that doesn’t incorporate this tool.
So why am I telling you not to get your ecommerce site’s keywords from Keyword Planner?
Well, like every other piece of bad advice here, it’s not always bad advice.
Certainly, there are cases where you should get a keyword from the Keyword Planner.
The reason that this can become bad advice is that the suggestions you get from the Keyword Planner for your industry are the same ones every single one of your competitors will get when they also turn to the Keyword Planner.
The Keyword Planner is useful for testing whether an idea has an existing search audience. You should use it for that purpose.
But testing ideas and getting ideas are not the same thing, and the sources for most of your keyword ideas should come from elsewhere.
Here are some sources for keyword ideas you should consider:
- Look at which queries are already bringing you traffic using SEMrush or a similar tool, as well as the Google Search Console. Identify keywords you are already ranking relatively well for without targeting them and begin targeting those keywords more explicitly.
- Use Keyword.io, or a similar tool, to extract autosuggest keywords from a seed keyword. Tools like these offer hundreds of long-tail keywords that you wouldn’t discover using the Keyword Planner and are especially useful for fleshing out the content on your landing pages and blog posts.
- Using a tool like SEMrush, look at forum and Q&A sites that your target audiences follow and identify queries that they are ranking well for. When a forum or Q&A site is ranking well for a query, that typically means the competition is relatively low.
- Brainstorm brand-specific keywords that people might search for and check them in the Keyword Planner.
- For new products and brands that are just hitting the market, look at keywords for similar products and the phrases and types of queries that are often attached to them.
2. Content Is King
Upon seeing this subtitle, some of you are probably already drafting your heated responses, so let me explain why “content is king” can be bad advice.
If “content is king” means that whatever exists on the page should be developed specifically with your target audience in mind, designed specifically to meet their needs based on the kinds of search queries they would have used to reach your page, then I agree. Content is indeed king.
But if “content is king” means that a content marketing-focused strategy is the best fit for the SEO of every ecommerce site, this can frequently be bad advice.
The problem is that “content is king” often leads to a boilerplate SEO strategy based on identifying keywords and writing blog posts about them.
But this is rarely the top priority for an ecommerce site, which may feature thousands of product pages, each of them with dozens of technical SEO errors, with opportunities to capitalize on keywords for those product pages, duplicate content issues, and more.
Prioritizing a more SEO friendly platform is, in many cases, a better investment.
“Content is king,” interpreted wrong, presupposes a business model that just doesn’t describe the typical ecommerce site.
Sure, Amazon has a blog, but how many of you have seen it?
People visit ecommerce sites to shop.
Your SEO strategy needs to be based in that understanding.
Using a blog to capture top-of-funnel leads and push them toward your marketplace can be a successful strategy, but by no means should you assume it’s the best approach for your business, and you certainly shouldn’t assume it’s your top SEO priority.
3. Prioritize Link Building
This will sound like blasphemy to some, but link building should never be assumed to be the top priority for any brand.
This is doubly true for ecommerce sites.
For example, many ecommerce sites would be better off using any of these seven strategies:
- Optimizing for long tail keywords.
- Redirecting out-of-stock pages.
- Optimizing new product pages.
- Optimizing user-generated content.
- Updating your technology.
- Eliminating duplicate product descriptions.
- Eliminating duplicate pages.
Focusing your attention on expanding your product catalog and optimizing your new product pages can help you rank for a large variety of keywords that have little competition, in which case focusing on link building is a waste of time.
“Link building” often also entails a boilerplate strategy that isn’t a good fit for your brand.
Some brands are already picking up so many natural links that a guest posting strategy focused on anything other than the top brands in the industry will be a waste of resources.
If your brand already has a decent sized audience, finding ways to encourage them to link to your site naturally is often a much more effective way to “build links” than the boilerplate strategies that are typically associated with the phrase.
Prioritizing link building can be especially damaging when ecommerce brand decision-makers believe that every product page on their site needs to have inbound links in order to rank, which is simply untrue and can imply that dangerous link schemes are necessary.
Many SEO pros wrongly believe that “links are the most important ranking factor,” but this can’t be the case, because there is no most important ranking factor.
The ranking factors that matter the most change based on what query the user is searching. Google’s Gary Ilyes has confirmed this:
He specifically mentioned that there are many queries where the highest ranking pages have no backlinks at all:
Ecommerce sites can frequently perform well in the search results by targeting a large number of queries rather than prioritizing links.
Every ecommerce brand is different, and some brands should prioritize link building, or perhaps more accurately, link earning. But this certainly isn’t the case for every brand.
4. Eliminate User-Generated Content
Circling back to the worst interpretation of “content is king” for a moment, some SEO pros believe that, because user-generated content isn’t created by expert content creators, user-generated content is always bad, and that it always needs to be removed, noindexed, or consolidated.
While there are certainly cases where user-generated content can hurt your site, there are many cases in which it is incredibly useful to have.
When it comes to ecommerce sites, user reviews are one glaringly important example.
Most ecommerce sites should allow users to leave reviews of their products, and most of them will see a net benefit for their SEO as a result.
Google’s own human quality rater guidelines note that user-generated content can be considered main content, and that user-generated content spans the entire rating spectrum, depending on the purpose of the page and whether the users can be considered to have Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness (EAT).
Presuming that user reviews have been vetted and are published using a trustworthy platform, user reviews by people who have bought the products fit the bill of having “high EAT” and would earn the page a high score from human quality raters, which are used to inform the algorithm.
The guidelines also state that a large number of positive user reviews can be considered a sign of good reputation.
5. Emulate Your Competitors
While it’s common knowledge that businesses need a unique selling proposition in order to succeed, SEO pros often advise clients to identify keywords to target by looking at what keywords their competitors are targeting, or to identify places to find links by linking at their competitor’s backlink sources.
Researching your competitors is an intelligent part of any marketing strategy, and SEO is no exception.
But relying too much on your competitors for SEO information, like keywords and backlink sources, is a losing strategy.
You won’t be able to replicate every link your competitors have earned, nor will you be able to outrank them for every keyword they are ranking for.
Copying what they have done might earn you a little bit of traffic, but typically if they got their first, they will generally stay there.
If you want to find businesses to emulate, it’s usually a better strategy to look outside of your industry, or at least your most direct competitors, and take a look at how other businesses are succeeding that target a similar audience.
Look at similar industries and identify how they have differentiated from one another. Perhaps there is a business in another industry that has differentiated itself in a way that can provide you with ideas about how to differentiate yourself from your competitors.
If you want to emulate the link building and keyword strategies of other brands, turn to businesses that have earned a similar audience to yours, but that sell different kinds of products.
SEO is an area of expertise that relies on a wide skill set.
Applying pieces of SEO advice indiscriminately, without understanding how that advice is justified, can be dangerous.
There is no templatized SEO strategy that works for every business.
Much of the SEO advice in existence isn’t written with ecommerce sites in mind.
Consider why each piece of advice above can often backfire, and develop your SEO strategy with these considerations in mind.
More E-Commerce SEO Resources:
- 8 Data-Driven Tips for Achieving E-Commerce Success
- SEO for Ecommerce: How to Write Meta & Product Descriptions
- 6 of the Biggest Misconceptions About Ecommerce SEO
Screenshots taken by author, August 2018
Subscribe to SEJ
Get our daily newsletter from SEJ's Founder Loren Baker about the latest news in the industry!