Practical Ecommerce

SEO for Anti-SEO Business Models

I recently changed SEO jobs. I went from an agency that manages clients’ search-engine-optimization efforts, to an in-house SEO manager for a single company. I knew previously, from working with many ecommerce clients, that business models and product offerings have an impact on SEO success. But now I’m living it.

Jill Kocher

Jill Kocher

Groupon, my current employer, is a daily deal site for consumers, selling one steeply discounted deal to a local business in each city every day. This could be, for instance, a 60 percent discount to a popular Austin, Texas restaurant. For local businesses like that restaurant, it’s an advertising vehicle that brings in new customers and creates buzz around their offerings. For search engine optimization, it’s here-today, gone-tomorrow content that’s relevant for 24 hours with a super niche keyword target, and no categorical architecture. It’s very difficult to apply standard SEO techniques to those type of transitory offers.

But it’s not a unique situation, really. In some cases the product offering is so niche that the converting keyword market just isn’t valuable enough to spend resources optimizing for. Let’s say an ecommerce site sells springs, the coily metal things that store energy.

SEO When There Are Few Keywords

There’s money to be made from springs in the ecommerce world, but how many of those spring sales come from SEO? Well, the keyword market is decent if you sell garage door springs, according to the best publicly available data source, Google Keyword Tool. But it’s more complicated if a site is business-to-business focused, and offers compression springs, wave springs, extension springs, torsion springs and all sorts of other non-consumer-focused springs to other manufacturers. They’re not the kind of springs that searchers are looking for on Google. Consequently, when our springs’ site managers look at their analytics, they might see organic search driving visits but very few conversions.

They have a choice. Do they attempt to boost the volume of traffic for general springs searches to increase sales slightly, knowing that the conversion rate is poor? Do they focus hard on smaller keyword niches that convert better? Or, do they abandon SEO hope and focus on other marketing tactics?

SEO Versus Site Technology

In other cases, technology gets in the way. Sites are typically built with usability and conversion in mind. The idea is to get the users in and make it easy for them to convert to the sale. Sometimes the very technology that boosts usability and conversion stifles SEO.

For example, a shoe site may develop a sexy AJAX filtering function in its navigation so that users can choose style, gender, heel height, heel shape, brand, color, size and more, all without reloading the page. It’s sleek, it’s fun to use and average order value and conversion rate have increased. But the SEO benefit is nonexistent.

The site designers didn’t include the ability to load unique landing pages for each filter and combination of filters, cutting off the search engines’ ability to crawl to a unique page for “black leather boots” or “canvas loafers” or thousands of other valuable search phrases. Sure, the shoe site has hundreds of styles of shoes that would match those search phrases, but if the bots can’t crawl the site, the site won’t sell many shoes through its organic search channel.

Again, the shoe site has a choice. Does it redesign the navigation to find a balance between usability and SEO that doesn’t tank conversion? Does it focus on general shoes-related keyword phrases? Or does it abandon SEO hope and focus on other marketing tactics?

Enter the SEO Manager

What is an SEO manager to do when the business model for an ecommerce site is completely at odds with the requirements for a strong SEO program?

Like many things in SEO, the answer varies depending on the site and the business priorities. If the site’s brand is a high priority, rankings for branded and relevant generic phrases becomes a critical part of showing industry leadership, even if the keyword market is smallish or converts poorly. If brand dominance isn’t an important business goal, it may be more effective from an overall marketing view to walk away from intense optimization for small keyword markets, and let the competition waste their resources fighting over the scraps.

An SEO manager should ask, “Is there one money niche that could be focused on that converts better than all the rest?” If so, the company should own that niche, from an SEO standpoint. If the architecture can’t be reworked to allow bots to crawl to the necessary content, could manual landing pages with a secondary static navigation be created to target the most critical keyword phrases? If every other door is closed by competing priorities, perhaps building links to the home page is the only possible proactive course.

Summary

As an SEO manager, in other words, I just can’t swallow the “abandon all SEO hope” path. There’s always a creative solution to the restrictions placed on SEO by marketing, business priorities, legal, finance, editorial and IT. I’ll be exploring more in-house SEO challenges in the coming months. Let me know if there are specific in-house SEO issues you would like to see covered here, or if you have challenges making SEO work among competing business priorities.

 

Jill Kocher Brown

Jill Kocher Brown

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  1. bernie schmidt August 3, 2010 Reply

    Good article – I like the high-level view contrasting the issues of sales conversion vs organic site discovery.

    Similar issues exist in optimizing a https site with a members area – you end up parsing the site into secure and non-secure areas with a degree of data/content replication in the non-secure http portion of the site.

    This allows SEO around the home page and key information pages plus a site map so that potential members can 1) find the site and 2) get enough info to move to the next step (ie moving into the secure area and signing up for membership)

    I look forward to your next post.

    bernie schmidt
    TorontoSmallBusiness.com

  2. David Corman August 8, 2010 Reply

    What are your tips for SEO clients with simple brochure sites with limited or no content/resources who want to compete in relatively competitive markets? What are your tips for building links to those sorts of sites?

  3. Jill Kocher August 10, 2010 Reply

    Hi David,
    That’s the $64,000 question, isn’t it. Without seeing the sites or understanding any details, I can’t give many concrete recommendations. But of course my first thought is: Sounds like these sites need some content. You’ve got to put yourself in other site owners’ shoes — why would they want to link to these sites? If they have little content or resources, do they really offer value? And if they don’t offer value in some way, natural link building is unlikely. I’m not a fan of paid links, so that leaves a site a bit of nowhere unfortunately.

    If the sites have local audiences, then just the fact that they are respected as part of a community can be useful in link building. If my dentist has a website that’s only a page or 2, as his patient the fact that I trust him and would recommend him to my friends may be enough to get me to tweet about him or link from my blog. Perhaps other members of local professional networks that respect him would do the same. Perhaps the networks have websites that would be receptive to a guest columnist. It’s a matter of looking at those social, business and professional connections as link building opportunities.

    Link building is dependent on value — either the content/resources on the site has value (ideal), the relationship with the site owner has value, or there’s some sort of monetary or other incentive to establish value in the linker’s eye. If they’re not getting something, they’re not likely to give a link.