Organic traffic from Google and other search engines remains critical to many merchants. It generates a steady stream of prospects. And it insulates merchants from over-relying on Amazon for sales.
There is no greater authority on search engine optimization than Stephan Spencer. He’s the co-author of The Art of SEO and the sole author of other leading digital marketing books. He founded Netconcepts, the pioneering SEO firm. He’s a worldwide speaker, consultant, and host of two popular podcasts.
I recently spoke with Spencer on bare-minimum SEO tactics for ecommerce. What follows is the full audio interview and a transcript, edited for length and clarity.
Practical Ecommerce: What is the bare minimum that small-to-mid-sized merchants can do to maintain or improve organic search traffic?
Stephan Spencer: It depends on their time and resources. If there’s very little time, but they have other people to assign work to, there are some options.
If they have a budget but no time and no internal staff, they still have options. But the worst thing to do is go with the low-cost option. You’re better off doing nothing than potentially harming your search engine optimization from working with a low-quality provider.
Don’t hire somebody who’s going to wreck your reputation in the eyes of Google. If you have some time and you’re hungry for knowledge, and you want to learn it yourself, you can pick up my book, The Art of SEO. Maybe start with chapter seven, which is all about content marketing. It’s not too technical.
PEC: What if a merchant said, “I can do four hours a week, and I’ve got the budget for one premium SEO tool.” What would you advise?
Spencer: I’d ask her what the objective is. What’s the desired outcome? She needs to be outcome focused. You have a tool now. Maybe it’s Ahrefs or maybe it’s SEMrush. Maybe it’s Majestic. Maybe it’s LinkResearchTools. Maybe it’s Screaming Frog or DeepCrawl. All those are great tools.
But if there’s nobody making the data-driven decisions for your business, a tool a waste of money. You’re better off spending that money on a person, versus a tool, if there’s nobody who’s going to glean insights from that tool.
PEC: Wouldn’t the outcome for most merchants be to obtain more traffic?
Spencer: Yes, but not all traffic is created equal. I could double your traffic but it would be garbage.
I could buy Facebook likes legitimately with ad campaigns. That’s the worst thing to do because now you’ve got a bunch of unrelated likes clogging the system.
You could do the same thing with SEO. You could add a bunch of garbage into the system and be in a worse situation. You hired somebody or you used a tool or you followed some advice in a blog post, and now, two years later, you’re figuring out that something went haywire.
PEC: How do merchants choose which one or two tools are best for them?
Spencer: It comes back to having a smart, specific, measurable, and attainable goal. This could be, for example, a goal of increasing my organic Google traffic over the next four months by 500 percent. I’m just making that up. It might be doable. It might not be. But that’s very specific.
So now I’ve got a goal that I can say, “Well, what are the tools that’ll help me get there?” And you first have to identify what is your Achilles heel in terms of your SEO. If your link authority or link equity is lousy, then you should focus your tool investments on things for link analysis and link building.
If, on the other hand, it’s an internal linking structure issue and how you pass link equity internally around your site — maybe you’ve got fast navigation and it’s not properly configured for SEO — then it’s a different set of tools, perhaps DeepCrawl or Screaming Frog or Botify.
If you have little budget, then Screaming Frog is a great option. It’s free for up to 500 URLs. A very small website — a couple of hundred products and a handful of articles or blog posts — could be under the 500 URLs.
If you wanted to improve organic rankings, you could study the search analytics reports in Google Search Console, which is free. But probably you’re going to want a lot more capability, such as a rankings tracker.
Develop a list of keywords that you want to rank on and feed them into the rankings tracker tool. Rank Ranger and STAT Search Analytics are among my favorites. Both can also track your featured snippets, which appear at the very top of the organic listings — an instant answer, essentially.
Now let’s get to link building. “Link analysis” is figuring out whether you have toxic links and whether your link profile looks natural and not engineered. LinkResearchTools is a fantastic toolset. It contains something like two dozen tools overall.
PEC: What is a toxic link?
Spencer: The kinds of links that Google does not want to see that are pointing to your site, such as spammy websites, porn sites, and sites that are infected with malware and viruses. Having those sorts of sites linking to you is not a good thing.
They could result from a negative SEO attack, where a competitor — someone — wants to push you down the search results. Someone could buy bad links on your behalf or build toxic, low-quality links to your site.
Every ecommerce merchant should monitor toxic links. A great tool for that is Link Detox, which is part of LinkResearchTools.
PEC: Tell us about your consulting practice and other activities.
Spencer: I’m writing books. I run two podcasts. One is marketing related called “Marketing Speak.” Another, which has nothing to do with SEO even though it sounds like it, is called “The Optimized Geek.” It’s all about bio-hacking, life-hacking, living a hundred years, and having lots of energy and vitality.
I’m working with SEO clients. I have a small, boutique firm. I didn’t want to build a huge agency in three different countries with 65 employees all over again.
PEC: Amazon is increasingly dominant. Many consumers now start product searches on Amazon. Is optimizing organic search traffic on Google less important than optimizing for Amazon search?
Spencer: The commonsense answer is to optimize for both. Amazon is a great starting point for consumers. But, for ecommerce merchants, if you’re putting all your eggs in the Amazon basket you’re asking to get devoured eventually by Amazon.
I like Amazon. It’s a real boon to the economy and a boon to consumers. However, Amazon could notice your success and say, more or less, “Wow, that’s really great. We should create an AmazonBasics version of this product and just sell this direct.” And so now you as a merchant are out of business.
PEC: Anything else?
Spencer: To learn more about SEO, go to StephanSpencer.com for archived webinars and presentations that I’ve given at different conferences. Lots of stuff there. There are checklists and worksheets and whitepapers. I’ve written tons of articles over the years, at Practical Ecommerce, Search Engine Land, and many other sites.