Practical Ecommerce

5 SEO Shortcuts to Avoid

Search engines are programmed to reward relevance and popularity, and are striving to algorithmically determine quality as well. Ecommerce sites are programmed to sell product to customers as efficiently as possible while offering a positive brand experience. Ecommerce sites often strive for quick search-engine-optimization wins, which can be easily mistaken for SEO shortcuts that should be avoided.

Companies with little brand equity may be able to afford to try shortcut solutions that could work well in the short-term but can be exposed and penalized as time goes on. These companies tend to have hundreds of domains that they can test on, push the limits on, and then abandon if they burn down. Most ecommerce sites can’t afford a model like that. Companies that value their brand equity need to avoid SEO shortcuts that can potentially result in search-result dampening or even getting banned from search results entirely.

It’s critical to remember that organic search marketing is entirely dependent on organic search engines and their definitions of value and quality. It doesn’t matter how fantastic the product is, how hard the company tries or how earnestly the marketing team wants to succeed in SEO. The search engines make the rules.

It’s up to site owners to decide whether to play by those rules for slower growing, long-term success or to look for a way around the rules to short-term success and higher risk.

But which strategies are high-risk shortcuts that should be avoided? Sometimes it’s hard to tell, but as Google’s head of webspam Matt Cutts said recently in an interview with SEO industry leader Eric Enge, “The main thing is that people should avoid looking for shortcuts. In competitive market areas there has always been a need to figure out how to differentiate yourself, and nothing has changed today.”

SEO Shortcut 1: Buying Links

J.C. Penney was publically penalized last year by Google for buying links. Search engines despise paid links because they prey on the algorithmic dependency on links as signals of quality. If a site has earned many links it must be high quality, right? Not if those links are paid for or given in exchange for product, reciprocal links or other favors. As a result, Google in particular has developed algorithmic innovations to identify and devalue links from link rings, link farms, link exchanges and paid link schemes. Sure, there are some paid links available that haven’t been devalued yet, but how long will they have value and what will happen when they’re discovered? The risk is greater than the short-term reward.

SEO Shortcut 2: Stock Product Descriptions

Ecommerce sites often depend upon product descriptions created by the manufacturer. However, when many sites sell products from the same manufacturer, those product descriptions become an engrained source of duplicate content. To be clear, stock descriptions will not incur a penalty. At the same time, search engines reward unique content. Nothing is less unique than a product description used by thousands of sites. Options include rewriting stock descriptions to be unique, or engaging customers to rate and review products to contribute their own unique content to the product pages.

SEO Shortcut 3: Content Sections

Ecommerce sites often confuse the need for unique content with the creating separate content sections. Slapping a couple of dozen articles together and just linking to them from the footer is not an effective way to harness the power of content marketing. Search engines can easily detect a cul-de-sac of articles hung on the periphery of a site as an SEO shortcut. The same strategy can be used more effectively integrated into the core of the site. The product and category pages are the ones that can convert, and thus are the ones that need to rank. Use that content to augment the ecommerce pages rather than sequestering it in its own section unlinked and unloved.

SEO Shortcut 4: Fake Profiles

Some link building companies will develop small sites and social profiles that exist only to link to their clients’ content. Unfortunately, search engines can easily determine when a mass of profiles on Pinterest and Twitter and small three-page blogs have been discovered that all link back to the same site. It’s an attempt to funnel links to the client site, even when the profiles link to the blogs that in turn link to the client sites. Search engines have been able to detect link spam like this for years.

SEO Shortcut 5: Low-Value Linking

Speaking of link spam, other types of low-value linking definitely count as SEO shortcuts. Inserting carbon-copy comments in blogs with links back to a site are an obvious example. Other shortcuts include off-topic directories, thin articles on article submission sites, low-news-value press releases, and other link sources that have low value to customers.

The bottom line is that creating and promoting content of value takes time and effort. Strategies that shortcut the time and effort should be examined closely to be sure that they really do have value to consumers, as well as SEO value.

Interestingly, all of these SEO shortcuts except for the first paid link example can be repurposed as legitimate SEO strategies if the focus is shifted from SEO shortcut to adding user value. For example, well written articles can have great SEO benefit when promoted via best-practices content marketing strategies, but the same articles could languish with no added SEO value when dumped into an SEO article submission site.

The apparent intent is important in SEO. Can a strategy be misconstrued as an SEO shortcut or an attempt to skirt the rules? If so, it’s not a strategy that ecommerce sites that value their brand equity should feel safe about pursuing. Be very clear, though, that it’s not the company’s perception of the strategy’s intent, it’s the search engines’ algorithmic perception that truly matters to a site’s ability to drive organic search traffic and sales.

Jill Kocher Brown

Jill Kocher Brown

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  1. Ed Klopfenstein July 12, 2012 Reply

    SEO Shortcut #6: Hiring an Intern to Post Links and Blog

    Bad idea, every time, especially if the internship is unpaid. A customer we had to help recover from this practice found a reference to a porn site attributed to their company name and posts that described how they hated the company and that their internship was boring. Like any other marketing effort, experience does count.

  2. Jill Kocher July 12, 2012 Reply

    Ouch, Ed, that’s a very good one. Or at least if you have an intern or even an agency do the work for you, always have someone in-house review the links and content. It’s your brand on the line!

  3. Ryan Bunger July 12, 2012 Reply

    Great advice Jill, tough luck Ed!

    These SEO shortcuts, your 5 in particular, are something that we [Elevate SEM] is avoiding at all costs.

    I especially agree with shortcut #2. Product descriptions are an easy way to "up" your pages unique content, separating them from the rest. Sadly, it’s often overlooked, especially by individuals and companies that are trying to do everything themselves. They don’t have time to write unique product descriptions, upload product, submit it and run their company and, and, and, and…….when will they all realize!?

  4. HK July 17, 2012 Reply

    Great tips.
    Ed, as bad as it is to have an in-house intern pull that stuff, imagine if you had an intern at an SEO company do it! Hire an SEO company and you have absolutely no control over who does the work. Your customer had the right idea to do it in house, they just had the wrong supervisor and HR people doing the hiring.

    As to tip #3 and Ryan’s comment: I have to say that in running an ecommerce business it is always a trade off between getting product up and getting unique content. It’s easy for an seo company to say, "when will they ever learn" they’re not paying for people to create the content and competing with other sites for first sales of new products. The reality of actually running the business is different. Get some unique content in there especially the short description for listing and detail pages, but get the products up asap because in many industries (at least in ours), that is what will distinguish your site from the competition. Having more items and pages will absolutely help your placement.

    Returning customers can be more than half your traffic (ours are) and they are depending your being first with new items. They buy more than new visitors. It’s all about balance.

  5. Sean Hecking July 22, 2012 Reply

    Good thoughts here Jill.

    -3. From my experience, ecommerce sites fall into the trap of over optimizing their product pages and categories. Search engines like to see unique copy/content for sure, but does the copy add any value to the shopping experience? Does the copy help convert?

    When customers reach the product page it’s a very important step and not always the best introducer to your brand. "Add to cart" is where the sale is made but often customers will do a little research before hitting that button. I would rather see ecommerce sites focus on building their brand through content (video, blogs, etc.) and using that content to drive visitors to the appropriate category pages with a little less SEO focus on the actual product pages.

  6. jonathanwills August 5, 2012 Reply

    Thanks for sharing I’ve been looking for something just like this. If only everyone were as generous as you. This should help out a lot of people. It would really help to a greater extent. Thanks a lot!! Keep sharing such valuable posts.