SEO: When to Scale (or Not)

My first ecommerce website, in 1996, was static and hand-built. Managing products — prices, photos, descriptions — was hugely burdensome. A few years later, almost all ecommerce sites were dynamic, powered by databases.

But dynamic sites produced a new set of search-engine-optimization problems, such as duplicate content, irrelevant tagging, and complicated crawl paths.

Search-engine optimizers now face issues of scale. Most ecommerce platforms have improved their SEO functionality to enable easy, sitewide changes. But it’s impossible to scale SEO entirely. I often encounter ecommerce site owners that ignore non-scalable recommendations to preserve smaller SEO budgets that neglect essential manual optimization.

Here’s a typical conversation with an ecommerce merchant.

Merchant: Bill, we are replatforming and need to change the URL convention.

Me: To mitigate traffic drops, we should 301 redirect legacy URLs to their new versions. We will need to review each redirect individually.

Merchant: Can we create those redirects automatically?

Me: We’ll need to create a column of legacy URLs and a column of new URLs. Then we’ll map the columns to each other. Perhaps there are some keyword lookup scripts we could write, but there will likely be manual work.

Merchant: But we have tens of thousands of products. I don’t have the time or money to do that.

At this point, I’m always tempted to say, “Buy the time.”

Recovering Traffic

To be sure, ecommerce websites have many pages. But SEO shortcuts are sometimes ill-advised. Redirecting URLs is critical to preserve traffic in a replatform. But merchants often try mass redirecting to their home page, or cherry-picking only a subset. The result takes Google more time to reindex the site and delays recovery in organic search traffic.

Conversely, merchants that manually implement precise 301s (often with interns or temporary workers) experience much less disruption — in traffic and revenue.

Scaling Done Right

Scaling sometimes requires additional development. I work with a merchant with a question-and-answer section on its site. Google is showing those answers as a (top) rich snippet. It’s helping the merchant own space on search results and drive more clicks.

But the setup took an investment in development. We added markup to each page using JSON. By using existing on-page variables, we created code to push the markup to 50,000 pages at once. After that, organic traffic grew 5 percent in a month — the equivalent of hundreds of thousands in revenue.

It’s an example of scaling done right. The custom scripting and implementation cost money. But the revenue gains were much higher. And it was cheaper than hand-coding 50,000 pages!

In short, scaling can expedite many ecommerce SEO tasks. But do not disregard the task if a bit of extra work is involved. Even in 2020, SEO sometimes requires humans.

Bill Sebald
Bill Sebald
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