Practical Ecommerce

SEO for 2014: Easy on-page optimization tips

“What’s so fascinating and frustrating and great about life is that you’re constantly starting over, all the time, and I love that.” – Billy Crystal

Search engine optimization is a never-ending headache for many ecommerce entrepreneurs. Regular algorithmic changes with Google, Bing, and Yahoo can mean that the efforts you make today could be undone tomorrow, particularly if your SEO strategy is gimmicky and based on trying to “trick” the engines to liking you. Plus it seems that no matter what you do to improve your content and design, there is always something left that could still be done to make things more effective.

With the start of a new year right around the corner, though, it is a good time to sit down once again and take a look at your SEO strategy, particularly if you’re a solo entrepreneur that manages his or her own SEO efforts in-house.

The Holy Grail of SEO is high PageRank backlinks (i.e. inbound links from other websites to yours), but they are hard to get, are driven by quality content, and take months or years to culture. Creating quality, user-valued, brand-centered content should always be the cornerstone of your SEO efforts, but there are simple, easy on-page things that you can do to make your website’s pages more attractive to search engines.

Revisit Keyword Research

You’re likely already well aware of the important search keywords on which you would really like to rank strongly. Still, it never hurts to do a bit of fresh keyword research to insure that your list of target keywords is up to date.

It’s unrealistic to think that the vast majority of relatively small websites are going to rank well on thousands of keywords. It isn’t unrealistic, however, to rank well on several dozen keywords, particularly if many of them are not too competitive to start with. And just because a particular keyword isn’t all that competitive doesn’t mean that it isn’t lucrative.

For the longest time, Google offered a great, free keyword research tool – called (unsurprisingly) the Google AdWords Keyword Tool. You could use this tool even if you didn’t use AdWords. The replacement for this tool is the Google Keyword Planner, which is available under “Tools and Analysis” in your Google AdWords account.

Even a few minutes with a keyword research tool might be of value in focusing your attention on new opportunities for keyword “strategy,” whatever that might be.

The goal is to get together a list of anywhere from 100 to 300 keywords and key phrases that you believe are directly related to the products that you sell and that are descriptive of the sorts of things in your web store. Some of these will no doubt be “short tail” and generic (e.g. you sell garden hoses but want to rank on “gardening”) but most will be “longer tail” and more specific and oriented to particular products and categories (e.g. “expandable lightweight garden hoses”).

Formulate a Landing Page Strategy

From there, the next step is to build a simple spreadsheet with your targeted keywords in the first column, one keyword per row of the spreadsheet.

In the next column of the spreadsheet, go ahead and list the page on your website that should be the preferred landing page for someone who searches on that term.

Imagine that you sell birdhouses, for example. An important keyword for you might be “brass birdhouses,” in which the landing page for that term might be your category page for brass birdhouses. The term “cedar birdhouses,” by contrast, would be targeted to your category page for cedar birdhouses.

A more particular search like “small barn wood birdhouse” might target a particular product page that closely fits that description. Likewise, a branded search for a particular product (“Dunwood Classic Redwood Birdhouse”) should target that particular product page.

One implication of this exercise might be the discovery that a term that you think is important doesn’t have an appropriate landing page on your site. For example, imagine that your birdhouse web store currently only categorizes products by the materials from which they are made.

Nonetheless, imagine that you’re interested in targeting visitors who search according to the size of birdhouses (e.g. “large birdhouse,” or “small birdhouse”). In that case, you should consider creating a new set of product categories that correspond to the keywords that you care about. In addition to the value in terms of SEO, presenting your products in terms of the categories that consumers are considering can really influence conversion rates and time-on-site.

Another possible outcome of building this spreadsheet that might surprise you is that you find that you’re almost always targeting the home page of the site. Although it is tempting to want visitors to always come through the front door, the truth is that landing on a relevant interior page on the site is going to be more effective as a selling tool for many, many searches.

It’s also easier to optimize an interior page for a particular longer-tail search term compared to trying to optimize the home page for every term you care about. And optimizing interior pages on various related long-term search terms will have the added benefit of potentially raising the overall visibility of higher-level pages on broader term searches.

Optimizing Page Titles

Now it’s time to add a third column to your spreadsheet. Go ahead and type out the current page title for each website page that you have listed in your spreadsheet.

Page titles are important to search engines, and they are relatively easy to optimize. The question at this point is simple: Is the current page title adequate to your SEO goals, given that you’re trying to rank for that particular keyword?

Minimally the page title should be descriptive of the content of the page, and include usage of the exact keyword you’re targeting. For example, if you’re trying to get a category page to rank on the term “brass birdhouses” then the title of that page should include the term “brass birdhouses.”

Ideally, the term should also appear early in the title. “Brass Birdhouses for Your Feathered Friends” is going to be more effective than “Birds Love Brass Birdhouses” – though I doubt either of those page titles are all that great.

Lastly, take a look at the length of the page title. It’s tempting to use lots of words in the page title, but hold the length to 70 characters. Search engines will use your page titles in the search engine results page when they serve your page up as a result. But the engines will truncate the result if it goes more than 70 characters.

Good titles will be keyword-rich, but not keyword-stuffed, descriptive of the content on that page, under 70 characters, and encourage a user to click on that result, if it showed up on a search engine results page. Do yours?

Optimizing URLs

What goes for the page title often goes equally for the page’s URL. Although there is a debate about what impact dynamic URLs have on search engine results, the fact is that most web stores can control their URLs, and product and category pages that have simple static URLs are easier to optimize.

As with page titles, use of your critical keywords in the URL can have benefits. In fact, you can make a good case for using your page titles as, essentially, your URLs. For example, if your category page title is “Brass Birdhouses” because you’re targeting that keyword, you can make a case for the URL being www.thebirdhousestore.com/brass-birdhouses.html.

But don’t just go changing all your URLs on a whim. Unless you are developing a brand new website, those pages are likely already indexed by Google, Bing, and other search engines, and just changing the URL will be disastrous for your existing search engine rank on those pages (searchers clicking on search results will get “Error 404″ page not found errors).

You can change your URLs, but for every change you’re going to have to create a 301 redirect. Almost all web store builders have an easy built-in menu for doing this. This is a time-consuming process, but vital.

Furthermore, consider the fact that the value that a well-written URL brings is actually rather marginal, overall. If a page is ranking poorly and you’re trying to make it better, then this is a trick worth trying. But if a page already ranks well with the existing URL, it might be best to just leave it alone.

Optimizing Meta Data

Next comes the page meta data. From an SEO standpoint, the “easy fix” meta tag to be concerned about is the “description” tag.

In the next column on your spreadsheet, paste your existing description meta tags for each page on your website that you’re targeting.

You might be surprised to discover that pages that are critical to your SEO strategy are actually missing this meta tag completely. It’s easy to overlook adding that bit of meta data when you’re building out a site.

There isn’t a “trick” to writing good description tags that isn’t part of writing good page titles. Look at the descriptions as they are today. Do they use the keywords that you’re targeting for that page? Are those keywords used early in the description itself? Are the page descriptions actually descriptive of the content of the pages to which they are attached?

As with page titles, there are limits to what the search engines will display in terms of the search results snippets. Hold the complete meta description to no more than 156 characters, ideally, and get those keywords featured early in the description, as this can enhance click-through rate as well.

Lastly, just as page titles should be unique, so should page descriptions. Don’t use the same page descriptions for more than one page on the site. That should actually follow naturally from your overall strategy, as the keywords you’re targeting should also be different for different pages.

Optimizing Page Content

What goes for the other elements in your on-page SEO strategy, go equally for the actual page content on your site.

This likely will not end up as a column on your spreadsheet, but look at the pages that you’re targeting and ask yourself the same old question: Do your targeted keywords for each page actually show up on the pages themselves?

There are useful easy-to-implement strategies for calling a search engine’s attention to particular keywords on a given landing page. Simply using a keyword more than once is a strategy, though you should avoid “keyword stuffing” — the practice of using a particular keyword too much or in awkward ways that are clearly designed to “trick” a search engine but provide no user value.

Another strategy is to use the keyword on the page within the context of your H1 (header) tags, in essence, noting to the search engine that the keyword is in the page headline. As with page titles, use the keyword early in the headline, and don’t use more than one set of H1 tags on the page (that’s what H2 through H6 are for).

Beyond that, keep in mind that retail websites often suffer from the problem that category pages and product pages are image-heavy and text-light. This is good for the user, actually, but the search engines can’t do anything with a picture directly. The best that they can do is to rely on the images ALT tag, which should go with every picture.

Because you want your use of keywords to be proportional to the rest of the text on the page, this probably means that you’re going to want to do some writing. Try to craft at least 50 to 100 words worth of good, descriptive written content on every page of your site, including category pages. By doing this, you’re adding enough content overall that the keyword usage will be statistically proportional.

As an aside, but an important one, it’s tempting to rely on manufacturer’s product copy when considering what to put on a product page. From an SEO standpoint, however, this is almost always a mistake as that same copy will be used often across the web, leading Google and other search engines to regard your store as offering nothing particularly novel to the user in terms of content.

Beyond that, another strategy is to add some highlighting — such as bold or italics — to keywords. Don’t expect this to have much of a dramatic impact, but every little bit helps.


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Comments ( 22 )

  1. Ellen Hakala December 20, 2013 Reply

    Thanks for outlining a spreadsheet strategy to keep us well-organized so that we don’t have any keyword duplicates.

  2. Elizabeth Ball December 21, 2013 Reply

    Thanks Jordan, you’ve described this process well!

  3. Uttam Thakor December 23, 2013 Reply

    Thanks for tremendous SEO On-page tips. Very instructive & Really found this information practicable.

  4. Carole@Rustic Artistry December 23, 2013 Reply

    Any suggestions for how to write different descriptions, titles, etc. for a group of product pages that are all similar except for color (i.e. rust lampshade, green lampshade, etc.)? Also when listing keywords during page creation on the back end, is it best to include many possible variations, such as singular, plural, changing the order of the words?

  5. Jordan Lindberg December 23, 2013 Reply

    Hi Carole! Thanks for the question! Optimizing product pages in particular is difficult when you have lots of products that are very, very similar (like a bunch of lampshades that differ only in color). Having some unique content in terms of the description tags, keyword tags, and body text makes good sense. You don’t want to just recycle the same stuff word-for-word on each page. A colleague of mine suggested that you also look at keeping your titles fairly short so that the unique differentiators makeup a greater statistical portion of the total title/URL … for example, “green lampshade” vs. “rust lampshade” have 50% unique content … but “green, square, medium-sized lampshade” vs. “rust, square, medium-sized lampshade” are 75% the same and only 25% different. As to the second issue, the Google engine does a good job of seeing plurals, word order, etc. for what it is … you probably don’t have to obsess too much over getting all those variations in there. … one other thing to consider, knowing that there is lots of value is user-generated review content, you might consider having a single page for the lampshade, with an option pull-down on the color … with that model, you would get all your user-generated content back to a single page which would then build-up nicely. Having all those different unique pages will make it harder to build-up the same sort of content.

  6. Hemraj Kumawat December 30, 2013 Reply

    Thanks for providing such informative information and hope in 2014 as a SEO to not see post like this anymore.

  7. Bijutoha January 4, 2014 Reply

    I have a note : What is your first choice between longer tail and short tail ?

    Really I am unclear on them, at present which is the best strategy on Keyword Research ?

  8. Jordan Lindberg January 4, 2014 Reply

    Bijutoha – Thanks for the question! Usually it’s easier and faster to optimize a page for a “longer tail” category (e.g. “cedar birdhouses”) and product searches (e.g. “Dunwood small green classic birdhouse for sale”) than for a “shorter tail” generic search (e.g. “birdhouse”). Consider the fact that there are thousands and thousands of sites about birding, birdhouses, and all things with wings. Furthermore, the majority of those sites would love to rank well on a short, generic search like “birdhouses” and, in fact, have content relevant to searchers on “birdhouses”

    But contrast that with longer-tail product and category search terms like I describe … a much smaller group of websites and webpages would have content relevant to those searches specifically, making it relatively easier to attract Google’s attention to your offerings.

    My own view is that a good way to rank on shorter-term competitive searches (like “birdhouses”) is to have a website on which there are lots of pages that rank well for related longer-tail searches. In other words, if you rank well for “small birdhouses,” “blue birdhouses,” “cedar birdhouses,” etc., then the very fact that your site is deemed relevant to all of those makes it more likely that you’re relevant to a generic short-tail search like “birdhouses” in the first place.

    The other thing I would say is that it is really difficult to get a page to rank even on a longer-tail search (“all-weather birdhouses”) if the page you’re working on isn’t really that relevant to the intent of the search. So you’re going to want to have an honest discussion with yourself about your website content — do your website content really support your SEO goals?

  9. Patrick Williams January 24, 2014 Reply

    I found this article to be quite informative. As an always learning practitioner of SEO for various websites, from an practical point of view this article is very clear on what it takes to optimize a page correctly. Thank you for this help.

  10. Jordan Lindberg January 25, 2014 Reply

    Thank you for the kind words, Patrick!

  11. Spook SEO February 1, 2014 Reply

    Those On-Page SEO tips that you’ve given to us Jordan are very helpful. Every tips is well-discussed and I really appreicate it. Thanks!

  12. Tarun Gupta February 6, 2014 Reply

    It is really an informative post, these are great tips for on-page optimization. It is very helpful for all SEOs especially for beginners. Thanks for sharing this useful post.

  13. Jordan Lindberg February 6, 2014 Reply

    Thanks, everyone! I really appreciate the kind words!

  14. melanie February 10, 2014 Reply

    Very practical and helpful to me.

  15. Mikeski March 5, 2014 Reply

    In my case. My client already have a targeted keywords and what I did is to optimized his websites but I am not sure because some keywords are not really relevant to the landing page. like for example the keyword is “swimming pool design” but the landing page is on the home page.. so better I will recommend that every keyword need to have a relavant landing page. like “site(.com)/swimming-pool-design? .. because what I did also is to diversify the keyword and keyword phrase.. I need your thoughts jordan, looking forward your reply. thanks.

  16. Jordan Lindberg March 7, 2014 Reply

    Hi Mikeski – Even if your client has a fairly short list of targeted keywords right now, it is likely that in the long run that they will want to expand that list quite a bit. So trying to create one and only one page for every keyword would be difficult, even if you thought it would be a good idea.

    In a way it would be nice if for every keyword there was a dedicated landing page just for it alone, but realistically it is much more likely that you will want to associate a number of related keywords and phrases with a particular page. From an SEO perspective that really should not be a problem … one page can serve a number of related keywords. Where it gets difficult is trying to make a single page serve too many unrelated keywords. This can have the impact of causing Google some confusion as to what the page is really about.

    The other thought has to do with site architecture. A more top-level page can try to speak to a wider range of subjects with related sub-pages dealing with specific aspects. For example, you might have a page on “pools” with links to specific sub-pages on “pool design”, “pool maintenance”, “pool chemicals”, “pool repair” or whatever else the website is supposed to address. Best of luck!

  17. Guysavoy March 26, 2014 Reply

    Hey guys,
    Thanks for sharing such valuable information.i want more these type of informatiove blogs, really thankful

    Regards,
    Guysavoy
    http://www.guysavoy.qa

  18. Soumya - SEO Trainer Kolkata April 23, 2014 Reply

    All are valid points. Additionally we did manual competition keyword analysis by visiting each of our competitor sites and jotting down their keyword/s phrase/s into an excel which gives a hell lot of keywords to select from.

    I could not understand why didn’t you mention Rich Snippet Markups. Indeed they dont have any direct impact on ranking but they have a big role on CTR from SERP which intern guarantee better ranking over time. Correct me if I am wrong.

    Onpage SEO factors

  19. Jordan Lindberg April 23, 2014 Reply

    Hi Soumya! Thanks for the note. I agree that Rich Snippets are super valuable from an SEO standpoint, and for just the reasons that you shared. I omitted them only because I was trying to focus on things that are both easy and free.

    For many people “easy” means that it cannot involve any direct manipulation of the site’s HTML, though as you know, it isn’t really that hard to do. I also left out some things that cost a bit of money but which can be valuable, like using SpyFu or Moz for keyword and ranking research.

    Thanks for bringing it up, though, and for people who want to take it on, the website to visit is:

    https://schema.org/docs/gs.html

  20. saurabh April 23, 2014 Reply

    Thanks for tremendous SEO On-page tips. Very instructive & Really found this information practicable. thanku sir

  21. Sam Mudra June 12, 2014 Reply

    Hello Jordan Lindberg, I am first time in your blog and really enjoyed this article. Only two things I would like to point out. First, you could have included something about Canonicalization and duplicate content issue. Second another form of URL mismanagement you missed and that is URL variation for same content. both of these issues has a single solution of using rel canonical tag.
    I am going to bookmark this article page and sharing this in my social channels.
    Thanks for sharing.

    Actionable SEO techniques

    • Jordan Lindberg June 13, 2014 Reply

      Thanks for sharing the article, Sam. I appreciate it. Cheers!

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