SEO Tips for Large Ecommerce Sites

The following post is based on a presentation I did recently at SMX West (here it is on SlideShare). The topic was SEO for ecommerce sites, and I used my experiences working with Zappos to create a short (but hopefully useful) set of tips. Overall, my presentation was less focused on practical tips and more on the overall advantages and challenges large ecommerce sites face. (Here's a review of my panel at MarketingPilgrim: Ecommerce Search Marketing Tactics.) With that in mind, I thought it would be helpful to give some practical tips here on the blog. Search engine optimization is most certainly different depending on the site and industry you're working on and in, and ecommerce is no exception. The large etailer Zappos.com, who I've worked with since 2001, is the world's greatest customer service company that happens to sell shoes, and clothing, and handbags, and lots of other stuff (yeah even Wii's!). I work alongside one of the leading ecommerce SEOs in the world, Aaron Shear, who has taught this seasoned SEO plenty of nifty tricks.

Introduction

First, a quick intro to the search marketing landscape within Zappos. In 2008, Zappos did over $1,000,000,000 in sales. In addition to strong customer loyalty and an increasingly strong brand, the company has a robust and sophisticated paid search program in place (led by Darrin Shamo).
The Zappos Search Team
While SEO has always been a part of the plan at Zappos, it's become increasingly important over the last couple of years. During the early part of 2009, we've been working on creating synergies between paid search and SEO - from developing a feedback loop on keyword data, to strengthening ROI by supporting high-cost terms with increased organic performance. There is a lot to be gained when the SEO team works closely with the PPC team, in any business.

What to Look for with Large Sites?

The most important issues when dealing with ecommerce sites (and for that matter, any large site), is really two-fold: 1. First, look for scale. What optimizations can be implemented which have the longest reach, and require the least amount of internal resources? 2. Secondly, look to leverage what's there. Do you have several hundred thousand pages indexed in the search engines? Do you have several million backlinks? Taking advantage of these existing strengths should be a top priority. A third point, which I'll keep on its own, is to approach SEO with a user-centric point of view. A large ecommerce site is made up of a great many customers. These are not blank faces - empty people with full wallets - they are your company's lifeblood and the advocates (or deterrents) of your brand. Additionally, keeping the focus on your users will pay rewards down the road in search marketing. What are links, for example, if not votes that search algorithms score? As Bob Massa precisely states,
“Search engines follow users.”

What are the Goals?

What exactly are the goals of SEO for ecommerce sites? Well, obviously sales! Revenue is the bottom line. But what tactics and strategies lead to sales? And what is the overall goal of those tactics and strategies? Briefly, the goal is SERP domination (relevant, user-centric domination of course). At Zappos one of our aims is to populate search results with a diverse set of listings. The following screenshot shows an example with the query women's shoes in Google:
Google SERP penetration
There are 6 listings for Zappos and 6pm.com (a site owned by Zappos) above the fold, including product feeds from Google Base, paid, and organic listings.

What are the Main Factors?

On big sites it boils down to one thing: muscle. Large sites can attract a large amount of links, and can get large amounts of pages indexed in the engines. On-page SEO becomes paramount; it's not about what others are doing so much. Acquiring backlinks matters less when you have a few million. With a lot of internal PageRank to push around, URLs, content and internal linking are the major factors at work. This is especially true as Google, for example, begins to reward brand strength with increased search visibility.
Lots of external links
Here's a screenshot with backlink info (and much more) from Aaron Wall's essential SEO toolbar. If you're not using it already, I highly recommend the install. Once you have 6mil backlinks and nearly 1mil pages indexed, the game changes. There is more muscle to push around. In situations like this, we ask ourselves: what can we do that will have the biggest impact, with the smallest resource investment? A few of the main criteria we look for include:
      • URLs:
    Search engines like pretty, user-friendly URLs without excessive duplication (one URL per page please). They improve the experience in search results, they add context and relevance, and make the search engines a better place to search. Keywords in domain names trump pretty much everything (but not sub-domains anymore, so much).
      • Internal linking:
    Internal linking isn't just about spiders, of course, but it sure helps them get around. A good information architecture should be the foundation of any ecommerce site. Above and beyond that, related product and category links (relevant, targeted, and limited in quantity) are very effective for users and SEO.
      • Content:
    Everyone knows people want content. Because people want content, search engines want it too. Therefore, make content that people want to read, and share, and tweet, and bookmark, and make it easy for bots to find.
      • Internal linking:
    It's important! So I listed it again.
      • Backlink acquisition:
    As was already pointed out, backlinks become less of a dependence issue as they grow in quantity. Where backlinks continue to be important, however, is when a company wishes to branch out and extend their brand into new product or category verticals.
      • Internal linking
    Yup, listed it again. It's that important.

    SEO isn't Only About SEO

    You read that right - SEO isn't just about search engine optimization. It's also (dare I say mostly) about people. Getting buy-in on projects can be very difficult in a large organization, where development resources are spread thin. What's the solution? Create projects that aren't about SEO, but have valuable search benefits. Projects that build on interesting or creative ideas, but also have SEO value baked in, can be very effective for taking shortcuts around typical company 'sell and deploy' time cycles.
    The Product Smackdown! at Zappos
    Using language beyond just "getting some links" or "encouraging crawling" (things we care a lot about as SEOs) gives you more credibility and implies a wider potential impact that other teams will appreciate. It's also easier to push a project from idea to implementation. By making it less about SEO and more about the site's visitors, and by providing enough inherent value that it will spread well on its own (or at least have a good chance), we can shortcut SEO into particular lifecycles of the company. Why is this a good thing? In short, user-centric projects: • Are sometimes easier to get buy-in • Take the focus off SEO for essential departments like dev and UX • Keep the focus on providing value (the end goal, right?)

    The Big Picture

    Aside from the benefits and challenges in working with large ecommerce sites, there are political factors at work. Bottom line: you have to know where your place is in the overall processes of a large organization. SEO isn't everything, and your team is just another team with their own particular needs, goals, and priorities.
    Is it good for the company?
    Resources are a constant hindrance to success in SEO at any large company. The dev team is already taxed and limited with time, and the last thing they want to hear about is your SEO needs. There are also difficulties getting SEO 'believed in' among development and UX teams (and if they're anything like Zappos, they're going to be incredibly bright and sharp folks). They code the sites, create the user experience, and we're the consultants recommending tweaks and fixes (as well as new initiatives). I've found the best way to fit into such a professional hierarchy is with sincere respect, and a knowledge of my own place in the picture. At the end of the day, we are all working towards the same thing: growing revenues. It's not about you, it's about the company's bottom line. Put your ego aside, provide value, and make it happen!
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