Common eCommerce Technical SEO Problems

Between shopping almost exclusively online and working with eCommerce sites, I tend to see a few common problems repeatedly. This post is about the ones I have come across most commonly. Many of them are pretty basic SEO issues, like having clean URLs while others are a bit more involved, like stacked URLs. In this post, I cover:

Ugly URLs

While URL best practices have been around for quite some time, poor URLs are pervasive problem. For example, there is no good reason for the following URL to exist: http://www.bikes.com/main+en+01_101+NomSousCategorie.html?CATID=1&SCATID=7&Y=2012

Ugly URLs

This URL should be rewritten as one of the two following:

  • http://bikes.com/gravity-freeride-bikes/
  • http://www.bikes.com/downhill-freeride-bikes/.

Best Practices 

Keep in mind the following best practices when creating URLs:

  • Don’t use dynamic URLs, create clean/pretty URLs
  • Avoid using parameters in static pages
  • Use dashes instead of spaces or underscores
  • Use all under case letters in your URL*
  • Use relevant keywords in the URL**
  • Users should be able to guess what the page will be about by the URL
  • Shorter is better

 *Capitalization impacts how search engines handle URLs and can create duplicate content. Further URLs with capitals in them should 301 redirect to the correct URL. Using all under case letters will not improve your search engine rankings but is the norm on the internet and should be used for the sake of consistency.

 ** Be careful to avoid keyword cannibalization in your URLs.

While there are many nuances to how a URL can be best formatted, here are typically the best ways to format URLs for ecommerce sites:

  •  Category Page: site.com/category/
  • Sub-Category Page: site.com/category/sub-category/
  • Sub-Category Page: site.com/sub-category/
  • Product Page: site.com/category/sub-category/product-name
  • Product Page: site.com/product-name

URLs for Yearly Products

Many companies have products that are revamped yearly. Cars are probably one of the best examples of this – Models are changed or significantly revamped frequently. Another example is bikes and bike parts. Every year, a new model is released that is “improved”, redesigned, or at least a different color. As such, many bike retailers create new pages every year and 404 the old pages when they sell them out.

 An example of this is the RockShox Recon Gold RL fork. Every year PricePoint creates a new page for this for including the year:

http://www.pricepoint.com/detail/23555-315_ROC072_KIT-3-Parts-59-Forks/Accessories/RockShox-Recon-Gold-RL-Solo-Fork-2012.htm

Let’s ignore the ugly URL for the moment and assume the URL is:http://www.pricepoint.com/Accessories/RockShox-Recon-Gold-RL-Fork-2012.htm

Instead they should have one page for the fork, creating an authoritative page for the product:

http://www.pricepoint.com/Accessories/RockShox-Recon-Gold-RL-Fork.htm

This will concentrate link equity on one page, instead of spreading it across different pages associated with year model year, which increases the ability for the site to rank for the model name. When the new version comes out, replace the content and specifications on the one model page. Then the old model should be moved to an archives page, which would include the date. This could look like the current URL or:

http://www.pricepoint.com/Archives/RockShox-Recon-Gold-RL-Fork-2012.htm

EVO does a good job with this. As you can see, they put the 2012 models on the authoritative model page. When the new model year comes out, a new page is created for the old model, containing the year, and the product is moved to their outlet:

http://www.evo.com/snowboards/rome-artifact-rocker-snowboard.aspx

http://www.evo.com/outlet/snowboards/rome-artifact-rocker-snowboard-2011.aspx

When the old model year sells out, the page should be 301 redirected to the authoritative model page.

Product variations

Much like having static, pretty URLs, having one page for each product seems quite simple, but I have come across way too many sites doing it wrong. There should only be one page for a model. This means, you don’t create a different page for every different size, color, or other variation.

An example of this is WorkingPerson.com. With their shirts, they create a different page for every different color:

http://workingperson.com/workwear-1/shirts/carhartt-shirts/carhartt-shirts-royal-blue-pocket-t-shirt-k87ryl-28707.html

 

 

A really similar version of the above page exists for the black version of the shirt: http://workingperson.com/carhartt-shirts-pocket-t-shirt-k87blk-88443.html

 Carhartt T Shirt Black Working Person

 

On the above pages, you can see additional colors. Clicking one of these images takes you to a new page instead of simply changing the color. Creating all these different pages creates a significant duplicate content problem for your site. Further, giving people a page for every different color allows users to spread link equity across multiple pages. Combining these options onto one page will concentrate your inbound links on one page, increasing the ability for that particular page to rank for the model name.

There are a lot of sites doing this well. One example is Target, where they use JavaScript to simply display a different color rather than taking you to the homepage.

 Blue T Shirt at Target

http://www.target.com/p/Jerzees-Men-s-Short-Sleeve-Tee-Assorted-Colors/-/A-13742786#?lnk=sc_qi_detaillink

Homepage Redirects From the Root

Like the number of sites that have terrible URLs, it is shocking to see the number of sites that have their homepage set to something other than the site root. One example of this is http://lecreuset.com which redirects to http://cookware.lecreuset.com/cookware/TopCategoriesDisplay?storeId=10151&catalogId=20002&langId=-1

Another example is http://www.acehardware.com which redirects to www.acehardware.com/home/index.jsp

The primary problem with this is that redirecting your homepage will result in a dilution of link equity – about half of the people who want to link to your homepage will link to the redirected page and half will link to the root. This creates a significant problem when you are trying consolidate link equity and make sure that it flows properly throughout the site.

 OSE Ace Hardware

 OSE Ace Redirected Homepage

 What makes this problem worse is that in most cases I have come across, these redirections are utilizing 302 redirects rather than 301 redirects so link equity associated with the root become atrophied at that page and isn’t passed to the acting homepage.

Check the types of redirects through HTTP header checking tools like:

So what causes this problem? In most cases it is the CMS; for some reason some CMS’s will redirect the homepage to another page. When this issue is brought up to developers, the common response is that this can’t be changed. This statement typically needs a little interpretation. What “We can’t make it not redirect” usually means is “It will take a lot of time”. This is a big difference. To get a better response from your dev team, you should not only explain what you want them to do but why. Tell them conceptually why it helps (the atrophied link equity) and what they will help accomplish (strengthen the page, improve rankings, improve revenue).

Improper Homepage Links

While many sites are set up properly so the root doesn’t redirect to a different homepage (as discussed above), the header logo still links to an improper page. An example of this is Kohl’s – the homepage is properly displayed at http://www.kohls.com/ but if you click on their logo, it links you to http://www.kohls.com/upgrade/webstore/home.jsp. 

Kohl's Homepage

This creates the same problem as redirecting your homepage, splitting your link equity. Additionally, this creates a duplicate content problem. This should be remedied by changing the logo to link directly to the homepage and 301 redirecting the old page to http://www.kohls.com. 

Kohl’s is using session IDs in the URL instead of using cookies. This combined with using an improper link associated with the logo can create even greater duplicate content and canonicalization issues. While the above action is the way it should be handled, a short term solution could be to add the canonical tag, pointing to http://www.kohls.com, on http://www.kohls.com/upgrade/webstore/home.jsp.

Stacked Redirects

Another frequent issue with ecommerce sites is stacked redirects (having several redirects in a row – either 301’s or 302’s). Stacked redirects are often found when the homepage redirects to another page – frequently this will redirect through several different pages first. An example of this is http://lecreuset.com (one of the sites in the previous section). The homepage redirects through the following path:

http://lecreuset.com >>302 Redirect>> http://cookware.lecreuset.com/ >>301 Redirect>> http://cookware.lecreuset.com/cookware/StoreView?langId=-1&store Id=10151&catalogId=20002

In this example, the first redirect should not exist and should redirect via one 301 redirect:

http://lecreuset.com >>301 Redirect>> http://cookware.lecreuset.com/cookware/ StoreView?langId=-1&storeId=10151&catalogId=20002

This is a pretty mild example; in circumstances where new versions of pages (or products) are continually built out, it isn’t uncommon to see five redirects in a row.

These stacked redirects can create a few problems. The first of which is a reduce amount of link equity ends up at the final page. Every time you do a 301 redirect, some amount of link equity is lost – the amount lost is thought to be in between 5% and 15%.

Secondly, if you have a lot of redirects, it can be easy for a 302 to slip in there and prevent any amount of link equity from being passed to the final page.

Finally, having stacked redirects takes a toll on performance; removing these (especially if you have several) can help speed up your site.

 Detecting Stacked Redirects

It is pretty hard to detect stacked redirects as they can’t be observed through browsing or automatically flagged by a tool.  To detect these, you need to:

  • Look at a crawl report such as Screaming Frog or SEOmoz crawl and manually run pages through a header checker. The bulk header checker on SEObook can be really helpful for this
  • Monitor the development process and have an active role. Make sure you understand how added features or pages are going to be implemented on your site

If you are looking for stacked redirects, many problems can be found by looking categorically at pages, testing page types rather than every individual page. Though this won’t catch all problems, it can be a good start.

Thanks for making it to the end - Let me know what technical issues you guys see most commonly when working on an ecommerce site!

Geoff Kenyon

Geoff Kenyon

Geoff Kenyon is a senior consultant at Distilled where he leads the strategy and execution of online marketing strategies to drive traffic and revenue for his clients.  Geoffh264 // Geoff joined Distilled in 2010 after working in-house and...   read more

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13 Comments

  1. Lorenzo

    Hey Geoff, great article, very helpful. I have a quick question for you, how do you distinguish and see when it's a 301 redirects and when it's 302?
    BTW I found a typo in your article, the URL of Ace Hardware home page is www.acehardware.com while you wrote www.ace.com.

    reply >
    • Hi Lorenzo, Thanks for finding that typo :) You can check the type of redirect through any of the tools I listed in that section (SEObook, Check My Headers, Live HTTP Headers, and HTTP Headers). There are a lot of other tools that will do it too, I just use these.

  2. Nice post! Thanks for sharing, The issues you explained here are not just about eCommerce website. These things you can normally find in any website.

    reply >
  3. Dan

    Geoff, you appear to be a working man who likes to ride, board and occasionally shop at Target. I like you already, great tips! Nervously heads off to check own site

    reply >
  4. Thanks for awesome tips, Geoff!
    Will keep in mind if helping with website with similar (store) structure.

    reply >
  5. That lecreuset.com example is a train wreck - opening up the source was cringe-worthy, and of course there's no canonical.

    A search for "le creuset" returns only 2 sitelinks under the lecreuset.com listing. I wonder if that would increase to the 6 or 8 if issues were fixed.

    Despite all that they rank on page 4 for "bakeware" - huge opportunity when someone convinces them of the value of fixing things.

    reply >
  6. The Geoff, great article with a lot of useful tips, but in the workingperson.com example regarding duplicate pages causing duplicate content issues.How can this cause duplication issues is the content, title and meta data is differen on both pagest??

    reply >
  7. MUAS

    Nice stuff.

    reply >
  8. Monali

    Hey Geoff,

    Thank you so much for sharing this points. Can you put some light on payment gateway for ecommerce website??? Please

    reply >
  9. I'm not really convinced with your explainations on "Product variations". I think you can give efficient signals to Google so that all these different pages show up in the search results. You have to work on metatagas, internal links, , etc to make it works.
    So I think It'as a little bit more complicated than just saying : don't do it because it creates duplicate content. By the way, I agree with the other points.

    reply >
  10. Whilst I am a big fan of well structured websites with clean urls, there are still many examples of successful websites with ugly urls. I would like to see more evidence as to specific SEO impact it has.

    We find that the structure of the website and the usability has a far greater impact on the SEO success of a website than how the URLs are formed.

    reply >
  11. Hannah

    Hi Geoff,

    This is an interesting article. When you said there are 2 options to create the best URL's for subsections and products - either 'domain/category/subcategory' or 'domain/subcategory or domain/category/subcategory/product - which do think is best and why? - What impact does this have SEO-wise?

    Thanks,
    Hannah

    reply >

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