By Ian McCue, commerce and retail reporter at Grow Wire
⏰ 6-minute read
- Google now determines the search ranking of a site based on the mobile version, not the desktop version, reflecting the reality that more people search on their phones.
- More and more, the search engine is ignoring thin and duplicate pages – and many businesses don’t realize their e-commerce sites have such content.
This is the third story in a three-part series on e-commerce SEO.
Read part I, “How to Choose E-Commerce SEO Keywords That Drive Sales."
Read part II, “The Simple Guide to Technical SEO.”
The algorithms search engines use are constantly changing, and even major changes can come suddenly, in part because so much control sits in the hands of Google.
Google is by far the most widely used search engine and therefore the most important one for e-commerce companies. Over the last year, it’s made some big changes to its ranking factors, which determine where your site ranks on its results pages. Let’s walk through what those changes mean for businesses that sell online.
If you work at a company that sells via e-commerce, chances are you’ve already heard about mobile-first indexing. Essentially, this new system means the search engine will determine your site’s ranking based on your mobile site’s content rather than your desktop site. Google gradually began rolling out this change in December 2017, and it now uses mobile-first indexing across at least 90% of websites.
👉 Mobile-first indexing basically means Google now determines your site’s ranking based on its mobile version, not its desktop version.
Previously, Google would crawl the desktop version of your site and use that to assess your site’s search value. After that, the search engine would see if you had a mobile-friendly site and, if so, boost your rankings for mobile queries. But this approach doesn’t make sense today – mobile searches have outnumbered desktop searches since early 2017.
🙋♂️ What it means for you: This may be stating the obvious, but your mobile site should be the focal point of your SEO work. Some companies may have only optimized keywords, schema markup, metadata and such on their desktop site, since that was a logical approach under the old rules.
It’s also common practice to hide some content on mobile sites, like product descriptions or specs, with a “See More” button (which, of course, users can click to reveal the information). This is an effort to create a better user experience for visitors on smaller screens. However, that’s no longer a best practice with mobile-first indexing. Now, Google only considers content visible on the mobile version of a site, SEO expert Diego Gallo says. Organizations must now find the precarious balance between creating a great user experience for smartphone/tablet visitors and maintaining enough visible content to boost their SEO rankings.
Now for the good news: if you have a responsive e-commerce site, i.e. a single version of the site that adjusts to different screen sizes, mobile-first indexing is of far less concern. You may need to make a few adjustments to your formatting, since any hidden content still has minimal ranking value, but this change should not have a big impact on your SEO plan.
Google recommends a responsive site design, with the caveat that it does not prefer a certain format. Responsive design may not directly impact SEO, but all pages having a single URL minimizes issues related to duplicate content and redirects while making it easier to get backlinks.
Improve your mobile site experience to ensure a favorable ranking in Google's new system.
Mobile page speed and HTTPS
Page speed is how long it takes a certain web page to load or the time it takes for the browser to get the first bite of information from a web server (a.k.a. “time to first byte”). The speed of desktop sites has long been correlated with search rankings, because faster load times reduce bounce rates and improve other user metrics. But in recent years, it’s been a direct ranking factor and became an even stronger one when Google introduced mobile-first indexing. (Unsurprisingly, speed is even more important to mobile users than desktop ones.)
👉 The speed of desktop sites has been a direct ranking factor for years, and it became an even stronger one when Google introduced mobile-first indexing.
A website that supports HTTPS is encrypted. Anyone who uses Google Chrome has likely seen a “Not Secure” warning in the browser address bar (denoting a URL that starts with “HTTP”) or a closed lock symbol (and a corresponding URL starting with “HTTPS”) since mid-2018. Google has rewarded HTTPS sites for years, but site encryption is now a direct ranking factor.
👉 Google has rewarded HTTPS sites (vs. non-secure, HTTP ones) for years, but site encryption is now a direct ranking factor.
🙋♂️ What it means for you: Page speed is already a priority for many e-commerce brands because it can have a substantial impact on conversions and customer satisfaction. SEO is yet another reason to hasten page load times. There are a lot of different ways to speed up your site – smaller photo files, fewer plugins, no unnecessary scripts and requesting only the necessary files are a few proven methods. But it’s best to enlist someone with e-commerce expertise to take a deep look at your site and determine what’s slowing it down.
Moving to HTTPS requires getting an SSL certificate. The host of your site will often configure the SSL certificate, and after that, you must move links and 301 redirects to HTTPS. It’s well worth the time and effort, especially as shoppers become increasingly concerned about the security of their personal data.
Ensure your site is encrypted, or has an HTTPS in front of its URL, to rank highly on Google.
While quality content is not a new ranking factor, Google is increasingly committed to promoting unique, high quality content and ignoring thin and duplicate content. Google’s definition of duplicate content may be different than what you imagine – if 60% of a page’s information matches that of another page, it might be considered duplicate, according to Gallo. A product display page (PDP) lacking a distinct description or images specific to that item, for example, signals thin content to the search engine.
👉 If 60% of a page’s information matches that of another page, it might be considered duplicate.
In both cases, Google will not index these pages because it doesn’t think the pages will satisfy users’ search intention. And when Google doesn’t index your pages, they have no shot at landing anywhere near the top search results.
🙋♂️ What it means for you: In the past, it made sense to create as many individual URLs and category pages for the same product in different sizes, colors, etc. because that offered the chance to rank for as many queries as possible. But now, Google may consider those separate pages for a different size or color duplicates, so it’s best to consolidate all those options onto a single page with one URL. For sites that use URL parameters to manage colors and sizes, another option is applying canonical tags that point back to the main URL, so that only the main page gets indexed.
Furthermore, all of the pages your business wants to index should have detailed product descriptions, images, ratings, specs and other information unique to that item. While building out that content is time-consuming, it will allow more customers to find your online store.
On your site, consolidate similar product pages into one.
Google Web Rendering Service
To start addressing these issues before they become a bigger problem, check out the URL Inspection tool within Google Search Console. It will let you see a rendered page as Googlebot sees it, so you can make sure everything shows up as you would like. Google’s mobile-friendly test tool also offers feedback that will help companies debug their sites.
🌱 The bottom line
Any brand selling online needs to audit its e-commerce sites for mobile-friendliness, speed, HTTPS encryption, quality content and duplicate content. It’s the only way to keep your site rankings trending in the right direction.
This may seem like a lot of things to keep in mind, especially since it only covers some of Google’s newest ranking factors. But SEO is a delicate, ever-shifting dance, and it’s essential that e-commerce businesses not only stay up to date with major changes but respond to them.