Search statue

Holiday preparation for organic search begins now

Search statue

One of the most anticipated seasons in e-commerce is only a couple of months away. With as much as 30 percent of annual retail spending happening in November and December, the last two months of the year mark a make-or-break period for retailers striving to reach annual revenue and profit goals. With so much on the line, now is the time for e-commerce professionals to make the moves to ensure that their sites are in a position to deliver happy holidays.

Easier said than done? Sure. But getting ready for the holiday rush is not impossible. Let’s start by laying out some of the the challenges:

  • The time lag between making changes on your site and seeing the results of those changes. Even after you make improvements to key pages, the impact doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time for the bots crawling the web to recognize your brilliance.
  • A world in which consumers’ attention spans are shrinking and their lives are accelerating. Even once you and your site are ready for them, they might not be ready for you.
  • The reality of facing ongoing internal battles, fighting for project prioritization to feed the endless supply of tactics to feed incremental gains. Every gain is important, but some are more important than others.
  • Marketing teams that need to forecast organic opportunity and ROI in an ever-changing landscape. To do this, both internal marketers and external users need distinct content to interact with.

But the challenges can be overcome. Let’s take a look at what you can do in advance of the holiday season to address the issues above.

The ever-changing landscape

We’ll start with the ever-changing organic landscape and consumers’ interaction with it. With consumers being increasingly bombarded by content about everything under the sun, it is more important than ever to own your niche. Content is still king, however content is being consumed in many different formats. The competition for consumers’ attention is relentless.

The imperative here is to have a complete understanding of the niche you’re in. I recommend working with your paid search team and requesting a detailed report on grouped keywords that are converting well at the product level. The report will yield valuable insights.

Knowing your niche will help inform your content. But given the robust competition for users’ attention and the key role content plays in commerce, it is important to follow best practices when publishing content. You should make a big push toward including standardized schema markup, image handling and the inclusion or focus on related video content, provided you have the budget and resources. Making these three elements part of your publishing strategy will help your brand own your niche. These changes take time to prioritize and change; address them now so the changes can be re-crawled prior to the holiday rush.

Holiday SEO webinar

Building category pages around these niche products that include the top visual elements will allow your content to have high relevancy scores and a higher likelihood of being discovered by the consumers you want to reach. Be mindful of current online trends and include the markup that can add the best utility to the user (schema and open graph protocol for example).

The autonomous user

As a marketer, you spend a lot of your time working on the human user experience when it comes to your holiday offerings. We often ignore the valuable autonomous user experience. E-commerce, listing and publisher sites tend to have a larger site index in search engines than any other line of business. The difficult reality here is that these types of sites create distinct issues for the search engines collecting information on them.

Let’s start with the search-engine bots that crawl your pages (AKA “the autonomous user”). They visit periodically. Adding content, schema markup or optimizing your images on deeper pages may not provide an impact for days or weeks (months with sites on a slower crawl cadence) depending on the hierarchy of that page. But there are a few strategies that you can put in place now to address these issues to get the most out of your updated product offerings over the holidays.

First, you need to remove duplicate content from your site, if you haven’t done so already. Duplicate content frustrates human users searching for information and products. It is also the biggest issue we see with the autonomous user experience and organic performance. To clean up duplicate content, first look at the faceted results for categories (sort by brand/price/size …) and also the faceted results for products (size, color …). If these results produce a new URL, then you need to direct the autonomous user appropriately.

Often, the canonical link element is not enough to set the primary landing page. If canonical links are broken anywhere on your domain, it’s common for search engines to ignore the directive sitewide. Complementing the canonical should be the meta reference of NOINDEX/FOLLOW to assist the bots in handling the filtered results. Additionally, if your site uses query string parameters, you should be managing them individually from within Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools. Note: Make sure you are only adding the NOINDEX/FOLLOW attributes to pages with filtered results.

Second, make sure your site search results are not indexed. You can also do this by using the meta NOINDEX element, but if you are using a clean URL path, you can include the search directory in your robots.txt file.

Now that you have dealt with the two usual suspects that impact an autonomous user’s ability to crawl your site, it’s time to address crawlability. Some people downplay the importance of an XML sitemap but we have seen them play a distinct role in getting content indexed, specifically in sites using single-page applications or relying on a heavy dosage of JS/AJAX for content delivery. XML sitemaps should be clean and, if possible, include images and video for the best performance possible. If you are changing only a handful of pages, I recommend using the Fetch as Google tool and the render capabilities within the Google Search Console. This will escalate the identification of new content and also provide great insight should there be any issues with rendering the page.

Focusing on the autonomous user behavior now will have a measurable impact on your organic search performance moving forward. A clean index will also mean better performance from any new category pages you generate for the upcoming holiday season. Keep in mind that these changes also take weeks or months to provide noticeable impact. Search engines won’t see any crawl-behavior modifications until they try to revisit the page. The deep pages are on a longer cadence, which is why there is a lag between implementation and measurable impact.

But your patience will pay off. As will your foresight in beginning your holiday SEO preparation now. After all, there is no time like the present when it comes to putting yourself in a position to come out ahead in e-commerce’s biggest make-or-break season.

Photo of searcher statue by Paul Hudson published under Creative Commons license.

Brian McDowell is BloomReach’s principal digital strategist. Contact him at brian.mcdowell@bloomreach.com.

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How to optimize SEO by the book

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Given the complexities and mysteries of search engine optimization, Traian Neacsu knows that sometimes SEO practitioners just need a hug.

Not very practical, we’re afraid. So how about a book? Yes, a book to untangle and demystify SEO, at least somewhat. Not as warm as a hug, but far more scalable.

And so, “E-commerce SEO: An Advanced Guide to On-page Search Engine Optimization for E-commerce.”

“Writing a book like this, it took two years, because I had to raise a kid and run a digital marketing agency and write a book as well,” says Neacsu, who lives in Vancouver.

The work was a labor of love. Well, a practical labor of love. See, at the time he started writing, Neacsu was running the digital agency he mentioned. He had plenty of clients who were both interested and frustrated by SEO, a key means of attracting new customers and readers to products and content on the web. It is something everybody talks about, but not everybody understands.

A whole industry has grown up, consisting of agencies and experts, who come in from the outside, and executives and managers who work on SEO from the inside. The goal is to devise digital strategies to attract customers and encourage practices that create good experiences for those users who do come.

It is a cadre of specialists, commonly referred to simply as SEOs, that can be poorly understood. Yes, they are responsible for web traffic, but whether traffic rises or falls is not entirely within their control. SEO practitioners can be an easy target for supervisors looking to cast blame for poor performing pages and sites.

And so clients of Neacsu’s agency would call with questions about SEO. What will build traffic? What are best practices? What’s to be avoided? The information was out there, mostly on the web, in a hundred different places.

Bringing the broad knowledge of SEO together

“I said, “OK, I need a single place of reference to help my clients and send a quicker response to them,” he said.

And so he settled on “E-commerce SEO,” with sections covering crawl optimization, keyword research, internal linking, information architecture and other SEO basics.

There is a saying, “Write what you know,” but in some ways Neacsu focused on what he didn’t know — at least not at first. See, early in his career, Neacsu built his own website, a job site of sorts. He was pleased with the site, but it didn’t appear that anyone else was.

“If you build it they will come,” he jokes. “Yeah, that never happens.”

So he started digging into SEO. He was self-taught, relying on forums and others who were learning as they went, too.

“I learned from others a long time ago,” he says. “There were a lot of great people who responded and spent their own time to respond to my questions. That’s how I learned. This is my way of giving back to the community.”

Well, not exactly giving back. The book is available online for $69 or $49 for a PDF. Neacsu says he’s kept the price high in part because he’s having second thoughts about whether a book is the best medium through which to deliver SEO knowledge.

He says he’s now working on some ideas that will allow the information he’s assembled to be more dynamic, to change with the times, to remain current.

Which underscores one of the things that makes executing successful SEO so difficult.

“The landscape changes so fast,” he says. “It’s very difficult for managers, for SEOs, for anyone, to keep track of that and the pace of it.”

Think about it: The way consumers search, the devices they search on, the quality of the results they expect, it’s constantly changing. Search engines strive to change with them — or even ahead of them — to ensure that consumers are served well on the web.

SEOs need to keep up with all of that. Neacsu says that job is particularly tough in the world of e-commerce. This he now knows first hand. Neacsu is the SEO specialist for BuildDirect, a home improvement product marketplace. (Full disclosure: BuildDirect is a BloomReach customer.)

“The thing is that the more products you sell online, the more complicated the website is going to be and the more complicated the information architecture,” he says. “Then you go into the technical problems with the website. The more products you add and the more pages you have, the more chance of getting it wrong.”

Some basic tips to get SEO right

Neacsu’s book is 319 pages of ideas and techniques for getting it right. But at a higher level, he has some basic bits of advice.

It all starts, Neacsu says, with focusing on the user experience. When you’re thinking about content, for instance, think about content that is helpful and interesting. Don’t make things hard on your users.

Take mobile for example. The massive shift to mobile, after all, has changed pretty much everything about digital commerce. Neacsu says he’s seen some mobile sites that greet visitors with a pop-up asking for an email address to proceed. Really?

Even worse, some mobile sites open with a pop-up ad blocking the entire screen. That is a terrible experience and not one that search engines are going to view favorably. And so doing away with such frustrations are a no-brainer.

That said, Neacsu has one other key bit of advice: No matter how focused you are on the customer experience, keep your SEO experts involved in the conversation from start to finish.

For instance, Neacsu says, let’s say to improve your customer experience, you decide to dramatically reduce the load time of a key page.

“Whatever you do on the page should follow that goal,” he says. “But then don’t make any changes without consulting the SEO guy.”

Yes, cutting that huge copy block would help speed things up. But what SEO purpose does that content serve? What affect will eliminating it have? You should at least know the answers.

“Sometimes I think there is a disconnect,” Neacsu says. “The user experience team doesn’t really know that whatever they do has an effect on SEO.”

The key is to remember that everybody is on the same team and, ultimately, has the same goals.

“In the end, I think that is what good SEO is trying to push,” Neacsu says. “A good website is a user-friendly web site.”

Maybe that’s the saying that SEOs are looking for. Forget, “If you build it, they will come.” Think instead: “If you build a user-friendly website they will come. And they will come back.”

It’s a comforting thought. Almost as comforting as a nice warm hug.

Photo of “E-commerce SEO” by Mike Cassidy.

Mike Cassidy is BloomReach’s storyteller. Contact him at mike.cassidy@bloomreach.com; follow him on Twitter at @mikecassidy.

 

product search engine story

What you need to know about product search engines and why it matters

Product search engines allow searchers to find products offered by online merchants. And while product search engines have a specific mission, the challenges they face are similar to those faced by web search engines.

For instance, those who design product engines must return the best set of results they possibly can for a search query, ordered by relevance. The quality of a search engine is evaluated by using HRS (Human Relevance System) and user-engagement metrics like click-through rate, last-click rate, first-click rate, abandonment rate etc.

The same metrics are used by other vertical engines, like job search engines, image search engines, local search engines etc. In this write up, I want to share how building a product search engine is unique.

From a consumer standpoint, the important metrics around product search engines are similar to the important metrics for most vertical search engines and web search engines:

  • HRS based metrics like NDCG, DCG, Win-Loss Ratio.
  • Click-through rate (clicks/visit), conversion rate (views/visit).

From a merchant perspective, we consider different metrics — like revenue per visit (RPV), revenue per search session (RPS), margin per visit (MPV) and also search participation rate (searches/visit). The more revenue the user brings in and the more engaged the user is, the better for the merchant.

As we know most search engines use multiple signals, which they eventually combine with a machine-learning/hand-tuned model. While the models are important, the set of features the models use to rank results is equally as important. But what are some of the features that are unique to an e-commerce search engine?

Product and Attribute Understanding

Most web search engines use syntactical features/matching algorithms like BM25F /TF-IDF and other N-gram matching features. Product search is an area where we need to understand products and attributes in depth.

Wilson 4-Drawer Filing Cabinet Black

file cabinet

Brand: Wilson

Type: 4-Drawer

Product Type: File Cabinet

Color: Black

The understanding of these features helps us do matching better. This understanding also helps us to get into semantic understanding of queries and matching. Having a strong attribute-extraction algorithm helps here.

 

Query Understanding

This is another area, which goes hand-in-hand with the product understanding. Annotating queries into understandable attributes helps us substantially in semantic matching of products.

“wilson 4-drawer filing cabinet”

Brand: Wilson

Type: 4-Drawer

Product Type: File Cabinet

Color: Black

Query understanding also involves understanding synonyms — in this case understanding that a “file cabinet” is the same as a “filing cabinet.” Similar to web search engines, stemming, autocorrect, related searches are areas to understand as well.

Autosuggest or Guided Search

auto-suggest

Users often need help on what they need to find — so guiding users with autosuggest can help with search participation rate. From a product search perspective, we can funnel the users to the queries which bring in the most revenue or are most likely to increase the merchant’s revenue.  

Inventory Optimization

Inventory and availability are very important signals we need to understand in a product search engine. A product which has sold out or is not available in most popular sizes is not something which want to show to a customer.

Product Performance Data

Unlike web search engines — which use the number of clicks, last clicks, first clicks, click-through rate etc., — we can use the revenue contributed by the product and the propensity of a user to interact with the product, including cart additions, to assess product performance.

Shipping Consideration

As users, we often want to buy the products that have the fastest ship times/best supplier. (For example, on Amazon Prime users often go for Prime products because they have faster and more reliable shipping.)
Screen Shot 2016-07-19 at 4.40.53 PM

Facet Quality

Facets are a very important part of product search engines. They help users narrow down the set of choices they can make. When we have thousands of choices, the right set of facets and the right ordering of facets makes a big difference.

Personalization

Shopping search is definitely one of the verticals where personalization has a huge impact. For example, deep personalization based on gender preferences is something that can dramatically influence results. And when it comes to  B-to-B merchants, personalization is key, given how widely the buying patterns of different accounts vary.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of features that we can optimize to build a better product search engine. But taken together they provide a good flavor of some of the unique considerations for building a high-quality product search engine.

Cover photo of search sign by Pleuntje published under Creative Commons license. Screenshots from Wayfair and Amazon.

Ramkumar Rajendran is a Director of  Engineering at Bloomreach

 

Fast Track

Site merchandisers are on e-commerce’s fast track: Part four of four

Fast Track

Five or 10 years ago, a hiring manager encountering a job prospect with a “digital marketing degree” might have wondered what diploma factory the candidate visited online to score that quirky credential.

But like everything internet-related, things change — and quickly.

Today, digital marketing majors fresh out of college are in high demand, says Richard Last, senior director of the Global Digital Retailing Research Center at the University of North Texas.

The school, which confers a four-year digital marketing degree after an intense deep-dive into nearly all aspects of e-commerce, sees its graduates snatched up quickly by retailers looking for an edge.

“We’re, I’d say, at close to 90 percent employment at graduation,” Last says. “One hundred percent in three months.”

The majority of those students, Last says, are hired to do site merchandising, the work of making sure the right products are presented in the right way, at the right time, at the right price and in the right combination to encourage web visitors to buy.

Merchandising has always been important, going back to the pre-internet days. But e-commerce has raised the stakes. And the rise of mobile, big data and the tools to quickly and meaningfully analyze it, have brought a new prominence to the role of site merchandiser.

In this post, part four of a four-part series on the future of site merchandising, we look at the career path and potential for a position that is gaining in importance and influence in the world of e-commerce and retail in general.

Those who are trained or have experience in digital merchandising have a particular value to an e-commerce operation, Last says. Their perspective is both broad and deep.

“Those site merchandisers are the potential leaders of your e-commerce efforts going forward, because they are so grounded in all aspects,” he says. “They’re working with marketing. They’re working with merchandising. They understand analytics, which is so critical, and the levers to pull from a financial standpoint. They really understand how to profitably grow the business.”

And the jobs are out there. Not only can the 160 or so students in the North Texas digital retail program feel confident about finding work, Last says, it would be reasonable for a college graduate in the Dallas area to expect to land an assistant merchandising job paying $50,000 or slightly more a year. And job site Glassdoor lists site merchandiser annual salaries ranging from $38,000 to nearly $90,000.

Now, as proud as Last is of his students, he’s not suggesting a graduate right out of school is ready to be the savior of a struggling e-commerce enterprise. (Though, who knows?) As with most jobs, there is a general progression, but it is that very progression that enables site merchandisers to so clearly understand the challenges and opportunities of digital commerce.

A recent graduate might sign on with a digital retail operation as an assistant site merchandiser, a person who makes sure the site’s products are all properly set up in the database; that prices and images are right, including alternate images, color-changes and zoom images etc.

Those responsibilities would expand into putting business priorities into practice: Revenue looks good, but gross profit is falling short? Time to promote high-margin products by creating a landing page, suggesting an email campaign or moving them up the page.

Given a retailer’s focus on conversion, Last says, a merchandiser’s responsibilities would move into analytics: Looking at the relationships between product views and conversion and digging into why some highly view products were not selling well, for instance, or why some items were hot sellers even though they were attracting relatively few views.

Are products with high page views, but low conversions priced right? Is the image confusing or the description unclear? Are products with high conversions, but low visits in the right place on the page?

“There could be any number of factors,” Last says of counter-intuitive findings, adding that the question is, “and could those be corrected?”

Site merchandisers’ view into such puzzles has been enhanced greatly by data tools that help them see in real-time what is happening on the site and how consumers are behaving in terms of searches, product views, adding items to their carts and buying.

Roxanna

Roxanna Holley, a merchandising manager at a business-to-business labeling and packaging company, learned retail from the ground up — starting out working as a cashier at a Texas Sears store.  

She studied retail marketing in college and soaked up every bit of wisdom she could working at a series of retailers during and after college. Her career trajectory was meteoric — clerk, sales, department manager, assistant store manager. And then a jump from brick-and-mortar to e-commerce, where she worked on site merchandising and immersed herself in data.

And now Holley, 28, is in a position where she will be leading a fledgling e-commerce effort for a global business-to-business enterprise with $6 billion in annual sales.

Yes, brick-and-mortar experience informed Holley’s e-commerce success, but it was her e-commerce work that contributed to her landing her current job.

“They didn’t hire me because I had a retail background,” she says, “they hired me because I had an e-commerce background.”

Like Last, Holley says site merchandisers are in a prime position for advancement because of the breadth of work they do and experience they gain.

“I call us the utility players,” Holley says of site merchandisers. “We are responsible for so much and there are other things that you wouldn’t say are necessarily part of our job description that we do. It’s really learning all aspects of the business. Being a good project manager, understanding design, understanding copyright, understanding IT and development and how all those different roles play into what you do.”

The opportunity to peer into most aspects of e-commerce puts even a beginning site merchandisers in a strong position to move up, Last says. An assistant site merchandiser, for instance, might become the merchandiser for a small category of products and then a bigger category, then an entire  site. Next stop: a director-level position overseeing merchandising or maybe a vice president title.

After that? Why not the C-suite, including CEO?

In fact, Scott Silverman, a retail consultant with a vast network and deep experience, has said that retail organizations will look to e-commerce for the next generation of executive leadership.

“I think we’re seeing the importance of a data-driven mindset in retail overall, and not just e-commerce,” he told me at the Shop.org Digital Summit in October, “and we’re seeing the value that that can bring to the entire organization.”

And so the future for site merchandisers looks bright, though Last offers one caveat: Some retailers are actually de-emphasizing the role, arguing that the types of decisions site merchandisers make can be all-but-completely automated.

It’s not a path he recommends for most retailers. In fact, with the rise of mobile, social commerce and powerful tools to provide insights based on data, the human element — the ability to act on intuition and understand fellow humans — is more important than ever.

And that’s not just his hunch. Last, after all, is the one watching those North Texas students march off into the e-commerce world and all that holds.

Photo of the fast track by MissionMotors published under Creative Commons license. Photo of Roxanna Holley courtesy of Roxanna Holley.

Mike Cassidy is BloomReach’s storyteller. Contact him at mike.cassidy@bloomreach.com; follow him on Twitter at @mikecassidy.