Here at Porsud we develop business plans for all kinds of startups, including e-Commerce businesses. While we are not a SEO organisation, we have a great deal of experience in defining the requirements for a well-ranked website that can generate revenue.
In March of 2018 one of our previous clients reached out to us because her search traffic had dropped overnight. Her e-commerce revenue dropped parallel to her traffic. This was caused by a change in Google’s search algorithm.
Google has indicated that the algorithm change in March was primarily around the topic of “relevance”. Relevance, to us here at Porsud, means the following:
- strong backlinks,
- company listed on Google businesses with positive reviews and
- telephone number, address and E-mail listed clearly on the website.
We encouraged our client to work on these three aspects of her website, while we reviewed other technical parts.
We learned that in December of 2017 our client had enabled SSL on her website and conducted some visual improvements, to make the site more appealing on mobile phones. These “improvements” led to structural errors, which likely contributed to her ranking drop. The following is a series of lessons that we would like to share with other startups who have experienced similar slumps.
We understand that when your revenue is tightly correlated to Google ranking, an occasion like this can
put you out of business real quick. Modifying a website to improve rankings can take a few months. Ideally, you have some patience and some savings to not only implement the recommended changes, but to also get you through tough sales months.
We have since helped our client identify the issues that caused her e-commerce rankings to drop. We have worked with our team of developers to get her business back up; her website traffic and click-through rate are now at the highest level ever.
How to recover e-commerce ranking and revenue
The following items are common issues that can have a negative impact on rankings. There are easy ways to test these items using web tools. Some are paid services and others are free. We are not affiliated with any of the tools we mention below.
Successfully implementing these features can have a significant positive impact on rankings and click-through rate.
SSL pages linking to non SSL pages
As mentioned, our client had enabled SSL in December of 2017 with the hope that it would improve rankings.
We highly recommend SSL for e-commerce websites.
Yes, it is a bit pricier than simple hosting, but it is a small price to pay. Consider it very cheap rent for conducting business in a safe neighborhood. Your customers will thank you for it.
That said, the transition to SSL causes issues for many websites. Our client uses Prestashop and a template she purchased online. Her template could not switch to SSL fully, as a result many internal links on her website were still going to non SSL pages. For example, links in the footer of the page linked to http://www.domain.com/data-protection instead of https://www.domain.com/data-protection. This might seem minor, but the footer is repeated throughout the website, meaning each page will erroneously link to a non SSL page, which cause a 301 reroute.
Breadcrumbs on her website were also linking to non SSL pages. In crawling her website, Google and other crawlers would see 301s reroutes on every page, multiple times.
True, 301s officially do not hurt rankings. At the same time, we don’t believe they help rankings either.
We recommend using ahrefs to conduct a full site audit to find all the pages that are linking to non SSL pages.
International Targeting – Hreflang Meta Tags
Many websites allow visitors to easily switch between languages. On Prestashop, the website admin can write unique content for each language, thereby ensuring the website is fully multilingual. What many website admins do not consider is Google’s interpretation of the languages.
<link rel=”alternate” href=”https://www.domain.com/en/” hreflang=”en”>
<link rel=”alternate” href=”https://www.domain.com/de/” hreflang=”de”>
<link rel=”alternate” href=”https://www.domain.com/de/” hreflang=”x-default”>
The three lines above tell Google important information: the first item tells Google that the current page is https://www.domain.com/en/, which is written in English. An alternate language of this page exists in DE (German) under the link https://www.domain.com/de/. The x-default hreflang attribute value signals that this page targets German visitors and should be used as the default language, when no other language is well suited.
Using a site audit with ahrefs, you will be able to test whether Hreflang tags are setup correctly on your website. Another tool you can use to test individual pages (for free) is http://hrefbuilder.com/hreflang-checker-validation-too.
Duplicate Products Eliminated with Canonical Tag
Underneath the Hreflang tags is another powerful meta tag called “canonical”. You see websites like Medium.com using the tag succesfully and correctly. Here is an example: https://medium.com/@SepiPorsud/buying-a-house-in-germany-three-things-you-need-to-know-before-committing-8f45e6d0c19
Reviewing the meta tags on this page, you will find: <link rel=”canonical” href=”http://www.porsud.com/buying-a-house-in-germany/”>.
The canonical meta tag tells Google the original source of the content. The canonical tag tells Google: “hey – this content was originally published on a different site. We’re just using it for informational purpose here (either in part or complete)”. This avoid the classification of duplicate content.
Why is this important for an e-commerce website?
There are two cases where this can be effective:
- Many e-commerce websites have products listed under multiple categories. The use of canonical tag can inform Google which category/product combination to consider to be the authoritative page. Google does not see the product as a duplicate, if each occurence of the product correctly sets the canonical link to the authoritative page.
- When a product category page offers sorting, the URL is frequently appended with attributes, like the following: https://www.domain.com/en/95-shoes?orderby=name&orderway=asc. These attributes indicate that the viewer is sorting the products by name in ascending order. In this case, the content of the page has not changed from the orignal page https://www.domain.com/en/95-shoes. So, the canonical meta tag should still remain: <link rel=”canonical” href=”https://www.domain.com/en/95-shoes”>. In the case of our client, this was erroneously set as https://www.domain.com/en/95-shoes?orderby=name&orderway=asc.
Previously, on our clients page, Google had found tons of (duplicate) content and indexed each one.
With the implementation of canonical tags, Google now identifies the main content faster and can give higher ranking to the pages that actually matter.
In our client’s case, this was a huge plus since Google had found lots of duplicate content before and eliminated them from the index after canonical tags were setup.
Erroneous or hidden structured data
Google’s structured data elements are an effective tool to offer relevant information to potential customers, before they even come on your site. Here are some examples.
We ran a search for men’s shirts on Google and found the following results.
Amazon offers Continental Men’s Long T-Shirts, which have been reviewed by 15 people. It has received a 4-star review. Sounds like a fancy T-Shirt, doesn’t it?
Here is another example. Searching for food color brought up the following search result. One e-commerce page offers the Wilton Food Color set for 36,50 CHF AND the ecommerce site has it in stock now. Wow! If you were looking for food color or T-Shirts, it’s very likely you’d click on these results.
Done correctly, structured data can substantially increase click-through rate for a website.
Unfortunately, some websites misuse this. In the case of our client, she had a module that showed a 5-star product ranking on multiple products, yet there was no place for visitors to actually review the product. The structured data was not visible to viewers, only to Google via code.
Google can and will penalize this kind of misbehavior. We encouraged our client to either implement a real review system, or eliminate that code from her site. Our client chose to eliminate those lines of code.
Another issue we come across frequently is that clients setup structured data incorrectly. A simple test can help determine, if structured data is setup correctly on a site.
This is a free testing tool provided by Google: https://search.google.com/structured-data/testing-tool/.
Our client lives in Europe. In May/June she setup some modules to ensure compliance with new EU data protection regulations. She implemented a cookie banner that notified visitors of cookie use on her website. Unfortunately, the module was implemented in specific folders of her website that were blocked by the robots.txt file.
Most websites have a robots.txt file stored on their server. The robots.txt file tells Google which pages to avoid crawling or indexing.
Since the cookie banner was visible on every page of her website, Google was blocked from crawling every page of her site. On Google search console, our client saw a sudden spike in blocked resources. This issue was caught and mediated early enough. Our client simply added one line of code to the robots file, allowing Google crawl the EU cookie banner module folder.
Of all the issues mentioned so far, mobile usability had the greatest immediate downward impact on our client’s search rankings. This was a challenging aspect to recover from, because her website tested mobile friendly on all tools.
Yet, every few days some new pages would be deemed as not mobile friendly on search console, then disappear again after a few days.
Can you think of what caused this?
Due to occasionally slow server response times, Google could not load all elements on our client’s page. Occasionally, Google’s mobile test could not load the site’s CSS stylesheet.
The stylesheet defines the visual layout of a website and ensures the page is mobile friendly.
Is your site is mobile friendly, if the stylesheet is not loaded?
In our client’s case, the plain html version of the site had overlapping images and text. It was very much not mobile-friendly.
Simple modifications to the html code ensured that our client’s website was mobile friendly with and without a stylesheet. We also added a viewport code on some html pages on her site.
What is interesting about Google’s Mobile Useability stats on search console, is that it lists results from old crawls. We noticed in June, for example, that a page was suddenly marked as not mobile friendly with a page crawl date of March. We knew that the page was mobile friendly by running it through Fetch & Render as a mobile smartphone. We had also tested it on Google Chrome and disabled all CSS stylesheets.
After each successful “fetch and render”, we request the page to be reindexed. We were able to eliminate 8 – 50 pages per day from the Mobile Usability issues list on search console.
The final drop to 0 page issues on mobile usability correlated with an immediate spike in rankings, page impressions and click-through rate within 24 – 48 hours.
Website speed is still a fairly important part of a website. Google recommends that a website has time to first byte (TTFB) load that is less than 500ms. Top ranked websites have even faster load times. Still, that does not mean that a website with 0 content and lots of erroneous code will rank number 1, just because it is fast.
Our clients website was very slow initially. Our developer team implemented the following items on her website to make her page lighting fast.
- Browser side caching
- Minimize CSS / HTML / JS
- Enable compression
- Optimized images
- Prioritized visible content
- Eliminated backend stats
- Eliminated unnecessary Level 3 Category links
- Upgraded from PHP 5.6 to 7
Items 1 – 6 are done easily on Prestashop and WordPress with plugins and modules. Item 7 required manual coding and 8 required troubleshooting. Image resizing was fine tuned along the way.
Every one of these tasks helped make small steps into the right direction. No single item contributed to a significant improvement in speed on its own.
We do no believe that speed alone has helped our client’s website rank better. However, we believe that fast load times contribute to smaller bounce rates and more page views, which are factors that do impact rankings. Therefore, page speed has an indirect benefit to ranking.
We used a variety of tests to determine improvements in website speed. Here are the tools we use, in order of preference:
- Chrome Lighthouse
Search Engine Optimization – Content Improvement
We encourage all of our clients to develop businesses and websites that contain valuable information for their customers. This means:
- At least once a month develop lengthy (1,500+ words), valuable blogs on industry changes, news, etc. These articles should be so informative that readers will want to bookmark the content and return to it. Alternatively, they should be compelled to share it with friends, family or other like-minded individuals.
- All pages should have unique meta data including a description and title.
- Each page should have a relevant h1 title and ideally multiple h2 and h3 title tags.
- Images should always have alt text, so that Google understands the content of the image. The alt text should be relevant to the product or h1 title. It should not be something like image232.jpg.
- Product pages should have unique content, relevant to potential customers. Explain product size, material, colors, ingredients, calories, targeted season, targeted age range… anything that relates to the product.
- Keep page URLs short, relevant and unique.
Clean Code (HTML and CSS Validation)
Ensure your website code is clean. This item does not have a direct impact on search engine ranking . Yet, errors in html or css could disable Google from fully crawling your website.
We use the following website to test for html code errors: https://validator.w3.org/nu/
And the following website for css code errors: http://jigsaw.w3.org/css-validator/
Building backlinks and disavowing links
Backlink building is a SEO topic which we have covered above, but it deserves special attention.
To grow rankings long term, your website should be linked to from authoritative websites (in your industry).
Ahrefs is a very powerful tool that can inform you which websites link to your competitors. Many of those sites may be interested to link to you as well! Determine what content those sites find relevant, write authoritative articles on those topics and ask those websites to link to you, with a DOfollow link.
What’s a dofollow link?
To you, the reader, all links are clickable and take you to some website. Yet, in the code of those links, some are classified as rel=”dofollow” and some as rel=”nofollow”. Authoritative websites that link to you with a “dofollow” link, pass some of their authoritative link juice to you. If authoritative websites link to you with a “nofollow” tag, then they pass only traffic, but no link juice to you. Link juice is SEO money and helps improve ranking.
Unfortunately, dofollow links may also harm you. If many spammy websites link to you with a dofollow tag, then effectively, you’re spammy by association. In these cases, you have three choices:
- do nothing, or
- ask those websites to remove the links to your website, or
- use Google’s disavow tool to classify those links to you as nofollow links.
This turned out to be a much longer article than anticipated! To help you tackle all of these important items, we’ve created a free, printable pamphlet to help you improve your e-commerce ranking and revenue. You can find that below.
Our developer team helped our client address and improve all of these tasks. As a result, her impressions, click-through rate, and website visitors have increased to the highest historical levels. Her site has fully recovered from the slump she faced in March / April of 2018.
As Google’s algorithm changes and technology evolves, some of these items may become less relevant while new topics may arise. We hope you found this article helpful. Let us know by commenting below!