11 popular online shop SEO myths: truth or conjecture?

When it comes to online shops, good marketing tips are hard to come by, as the field is really quite complex. There are, however, some persistent SEO wisdoms that promise more search engine visibility and therefore more sales.

We thought we might ask someone, who actually knows what he is talking about: Björn Tantau, Online Marketing Specialist and Inbound Marketer for Testroom GmbH, best known for his regular SEO column in t3n and numerous high-visibility interviews (including with German TV news Die Tagesschau), agreed to talk to us about fact and conjecture when it comes to online shop optimizations.

Myth No. 1: You should never delete product pages of obsolete items, and should instead use 301 redirect to link to another, similar product or to the relevant product category. Is that right or wrong?

It really depends on the product. As a rule, it never makes sense to get rid of product pages if the pages have a good ranking. Deleted product pages will generate no traffic – but on the other hand: you could quickly frustrate users looking for a specific product on that page only to find out it is unavailable. A 301 redirect will definitely make sense if the obsolete product page had good SEO values, or if it had excellent backlinks. Redirecting may also make sense for the user, provided the redirect target is a very similar product.

It could also be the case that there is still strong demand for a product despite the fact that its manufacture has been discontinued. In my opinion it would initially not be a good idea to delete the page or to redirect it. Instead, visitors should be informed of the fact that the product is simply not available anymore. There should not be any changes made to the actual product page outside of that clearly visible notification, and of course an updated availability and delivery time (as these would in actual fact be nil). Links to other, similar products would make a lot more sense. “Sorry, this item is no longer available, but you might like one of these products instead” could be a good notification text for the page.

Amazon shop recommendations
Amazon does some intensive work with product referrals. We can definitely learn from them.

You could also offer a reminder if you want to boost your emailing list. Customers will be asked to enter their email address for a notification when the out of stock item is available again.

That kills two birds with one stone, and helps to effectively build mailing lists. You should furthermore closely monitor the traffic on these “defunct” pages. It will be time for a 301 redirect when traffic begins to trickle out.
Myth No. 2: Product reviews in text form and other user-generated content are particularly highly ranked by Google.

The main purpose of product rankings is for potential customers to have independent product information available. It is of course beneficial if these reviews are visualized in text form and – more importantly – come directly from actual product users. It is, however, completely illogical to assume that Google would rate this type of content as “particularly valuable”. Fact is that Google will see content that is easily recognizable as user-generated in a different light than any other content. After all: the shop operator could easily write reviews himself and make them out to be “from users”.

Truly high-quality product reviews will in any case ensure that a potential buyer will remain on the relevant landing page in the shop for a longer time, will read the page content more thoroughly, and will be less likely to leave quickly. All these are (positive) ranking factors Google will take into consideration. In that respect, product reviews are important if they are of good quality, offer a benefit for the user, transport added value, and increase the time users remain on the page. Plus – aside from the Google ranking benefit – product reviews will in all likelihood ensure that product sales increase.
Myth No. 3: Google Authorship and Author Rank don’t work for online shops and individual products. And: The method has become useless ever since author images are no longer displayed in search results.

The removal of the actual images does not mean that the AuthorShip Markup no longer functions. Quite the opposite is true: AuthorShip Markup still ensures that specific content is uniquely connected with their relevant authors. It makes it a lot easier for Google to recognize individuals responsible for quality content on the internet.

There is not just an AuthorRank, but also a BrandRank. Both of these elements are not immediately apparent, but most definitely are part of the ranking factors used by Google. Just like all other ranking factors, their actual impact is debatable. It currently suffices to have a Google+ business page that is linked with the shop.
Myth No. 4: Rich Snippets – like rating and product information – will ensure a real SEO boost.

They create awareness, and they can also help to stand out from the masses of search results. Rich snippets are generated when Google is provided with additional structured data (a propos “schema.org”). Google does show appreciation if you make its work easier.

Product snippets
Example for a product rich snippet

The high-exposure, very noticeable depiction of these entries in search results leads to higher numbers of clicks, increasing the so-called “click-through rate” (CTR). And of course also increasing traffic. That will positively impact your Google ranking as well, provided you have a high-quality landing page that converts visits to purchases. I don’t, however, want to stick my neck out and talk about an actual SEO boost.
Myth No. 5: An online shop should operate with as few product categories as possible, as they all compete against each other.

The shop should, of course, contain as many product categories as necessary – the actual number will depend on your product portfolio. It makes no sense to become too intricate in terms of categories: different sizes of jeans definitely do not warrant individual categories. Let’s say the shop offers jumpers and sweaters. These “types” should definitely be categorized, but the category pages would have to be relevantly mocked up to ensure that they include high-quality content that represents added value for the user (not for Google!).
Myth No. 6: Google regards too many and too one-sided keywords in link texts with growing skepticism. That premise also applies for shop-internal links.

Björn Tantau
Björn Tantau (© Michael Dunker)
Links should always be natural – or failing that – appear natural. Hard link texts are not recommended for external links, and it is definitely advisable to add a bit of variety, extensions or expansions of the link text for internal links.

In internal links, this problem is not as critical as in external ones. It will, however, be quite noticeable if a shop operator keeps using the exact same texts all over his internal links. The same rule applies for links as for content in general: they are only meaningful and useful if they offer users an actual benefit. Links without any apparent purpose are superfluous and should be removed.
Myth No. 7: The most important keywords for the homepage and most important subpages should be “hidden” in a non-descript footer as part of a bit of flow text.

This is a method that has become very popular in shops. An expert will immediately recognize the handiwork of an SEO colleague. Text sections like these only make sense if they hold some sort of added value, benefit, or solution for the (potential) customer – because that should be the main focus for every aspect of the shop. Google will quickly come on to the fact that you are simply producing a text that only regurgitates previously used content and otherwise offers nothing new. Much worse than that: Users will recognize that ploy as well, which could – specifically for smaller online shops – become a big problem. Texts like these can appear quite unprofessional if they aren’t really well done. And who wants to put their trust in or buy from a shop that appears unprofessional?
Myth No. 8: Duplicate content in the shop – e.g. in duplicate product descriptions – are not a problem, provided the canonical tag is religiously used.

You should always try and avoid duplicate content. Careful avoidance of duplicate content sends a message that you have the technical capability to program a meaningful website or high quality shop. If there is absolutely no way around duplicate content, then the canonical tag is an absolute must. It represents the only option of letting Google know exactly where the original content is located.
Myth No. 9: The more relevant or similar items are interlink on a product page, the better.

This method has worked extremely well for Amazon for years, but then Amazon is quite unique in terms of online shops. Using that same approach for “regular” shops is advisable only if these links create meaningful and appropriate suggestions. Shops like Amazon or even Zalando have the advantage of being very popular. Their users will not be overly upset about one or two not so meaningful links, because they know that the rest of the shop is very high quality. This same strategy could be a shot in the foot for a smaller online shop, because unknown portals don’t have the benefit of the doubt in their favor. Detrimental would also be the fact that too many links would soon make the shop a nightmare to navigate.
Myth No. 10: Breadcrumb navigation can be particularly helpful – for visitors and also for Google & Co.

Shop visitors like it because it helps orientation and also allows them to “find their way back”. The risk of visitors “getting lost” off-site is therefore a lot smaller. For Google & Co., breadcrumb navigation is a great idea, because additional information and even internal links can be included, which will appear far at the top of the HTML source text. Breadcrumb navigation should, however, not be implemented purely for reasons of SEO. Here – just like in all other elements – we have to ask ourselves first as to the actual added value for users.

Breadcrumb navigation
Example of breadcrumb navigation (in the middle)

Myth No. 11: The name of the shop must appear in the page title or in the title tag. Even before the keywords.

That is not correct. The shop name – if it is to be mentioned as a brand or trademark – should always com at the end. Relevant keywords in the title must always have priority, and must be as much as possible at the top. Google will always place more importance on content further up in the code. The same, by the way, also applies for the actual page content: The higher up important elements are anchored in the HTML source code, the better.

Our thanks for the interview go to Björn Tantau. What experiences with regards to shop SEO have you had with the above points? Do you have any other good advice you would like to share? Or maybe you have some question about any of the points discussed with Björn? We would be happy to receive your feedback.

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Editor at MarketPress. Passionate blogger, corporate blog expert and book author (e.g. "Blog Boosting"). Co-organizer of WP Camp Berlin.

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