16 AdWords (Google Ads) eCommerce Strategies to Maximize ROAS

Discover our favorite strategies for improving AdWords (Google Ads) eCommerce performance covering Google Shopping Ads and more. Find out the exact strategy used to maximize ROAS for our clients.

In this piece we’re going to take a systematic look at how we optimize Google Ads (formerly known as AdWords) eCommerce campaigns to find the best performing strategies.

We’ll be covering a total of 16 different strategies that apply for Google Shopping ads and Smart Shopping Campaigns, Dynamic Remarketing, Search Ads, In-Market Audiences and finally Dynamic Search Ads.

For each Google Ad type, we’ll be covering:

  • The core strategies we use to get the best return on ad spend (ROAS)
  • Use-case scenarios where we’ve seen good results from implementing these strategies.
  • Some of the newest features and product offerings — and how to make the most of them.

Because these strategies all fall inside two of Google’s main product offerings, we’ve split this guide up into two parts:

Part 1: Google Shopping ads

We’ll walk you through 7 different strategies that bring the best ROAS for eCommerce companies. We’ve gone into a lot of depth explaining how you should be building out and optimizing your shopping ads from scratch.

Part 2: Google Search ads

Here we cover 9 of our favorite internal strategies for maximizing ROAS from search ads. We’ll also answer the question: does my company need to run search ads in tandem with Shopping Ads?

  1. Google Shopping Campaigns (or Product Listing Ads/PLA’s)
  2. Google Search ads

First we’ll start with a quick review of the different Google Ads platforms and their use cases. If you know these already, feel free to skip ahead using the links above to get straight to the strategies of choice.

(Who We Are: At Inflow, we work with dozens of eCommerce companies to increase traffic, conversions, and sales. You can talk to one of our Google Ads specialists to see how we can help you increase ROAS. Get started now.)

What’s the Best Google Ads Platform for Selling My Products?

You’re probably already using Google Ads (formerly known as Google AdWords) to sell your products, but if you’re not, it’s important to have a bit of background info on the Google Ads ecosystem.

Google Shopping ads (also known as Google Product Listing Ads, or PLA’s) are probably the best fit if you’re a B2C selling products online.

eCommerce Ads Strategy: Google Shopping ads are useful if you're a B2C selling products online.

All you need to participate here is a product feed and an eCommerce website.

Google Search ads is perhaps the most well-known of the Ads products due to its longevity and it’s where your text ads are displayed when they match keywords you specify.

Search Ads is different to Shopping Ads because of the way the platform operates. Search Ads gives you more control over keywords, and in turn, shows text ads within your Google search results.

Google Search ads give more control over keywords and are displayed with text ads.

Shopping Ads, on the other hand, are based upon your Product Feed — which needs careful optimization to target the right searches. The product feed contains all the necessary information relating to your product: brands, quantities, sizes, colors, and so on.

This renders a shopping-product ad within the Google SERPS, as well as the relevant pricing and review information.

If you’re a big online retailer, you’ll probably be investing most of your paid ad spend on a mixture of Google Shopping ads and Google Search ads. Participating in both platforms often leads to enhanced product visibility across the customer buyer’s entire journey, from research through to purchase.

This is key when you consider how the customer’s research and purchase journey spans across multiple devices and is made up of many micro-moments — even if you’re only running search ads to cover branded queries.

Our Tried-and-Tested Google Shopping Strategies for Maximizing ROAS

Here at Inflow, we’ve helped hundreds of online retailers from all kinds of industries to maximize their return on ad-spend (ROAS). This is the number one goal afterall.

What follows are 8 of the strategies that have worked best for us on Google Shopping ads over the years.

Note: Do You Trust the Reliability of Your Google Analytics Data?

It goes without saying that you need to be 100% sure of the accuracy of any analytics data before you start investing in Google Ads — or in any other kind of marketing activity.

We always spend time digging into Google Analytics, or whichever reporting tool is being used, to ensure the historic data looks clean and there are no nasty surprises.

If we can’t measure performance to a good degree of certainty, we can’t measure the growth we’re about to deliver. (Then we can’t create case studies like this one.)

Having a reporting tool is not a prerequisite, but we love it when a client comes to us with at least 6 months historic data to delve through. (A full 12 months of data is even better when you’re in a seasonal industry.)

1 – Our 3 Tiered PLA Structure: To Bid More Aggressively on Specific Search Phrases to Maximize ROAS

This is by far our favorite way to achieve the best ROAS from a PLA campaign.

In a nutshell, the 3-tiered campaign structure allows you to focus your spend on the search phrases that drive your sales — something which isn’t as easy as it sounds.

There’s no point wasting spend on non-performers: you want to focus on Search Queries that drive the highest ROAS.

Below we’ve listed the 3 step approach we take when building out campaigns using the “Negative Keyword Waterfall” approach:

Step 1: Review Your Historic Search Volume to Find the Search Terms That Drive Your Revenue  

You need to find the search query themes that generate the most transactions for your company.  

The goal here is to create two groups; one that has the high converting search terms, and another with the low – medium converting search terms.

The best performing search queries group will likely contain several branded terms, with specific model names, SKU codes, part numbers, and other searches that show a high purchase intent.

Step 2: Begin with 3 Shopping Campaigns — Tiers 1, 2 & 3 with the Required Priority Levels

We will setup these 3 campaigns with a shared budget, and each with a different priority level.

(Note: When learning this strategy, remember that in this context, priority setting doesn’t reflect the group’s priority, it’s just the order in which Google will cycle-through the campaigns).

Tier 1 will have the highest campaign priority setting, which indicates to Google that search queries should start here.

This tier, like all the others, contains every product available on the site but with many negative search phrases applied (which we’ll come to shortly).

In tier 2 (or campaign 2), we’ll adjust the priority setting to medium and this is where the average to medium performing search terms live.

In tier 3 (or campaign 3), we’ll adjust the priority setting to “low” and this is where the best converting search terms exist.

There are 3 tiers: tier one (high priority, low bid), tier 2 (medium priority, medium bid), and tier 3 (low priority, high bid).

Step 3: Build and Apply the Negative Keyword Lists

In tier 1, we will be applying negative keywords based on the search queries we want active in tier 2 and 3.

By adding these negative keywords to tier 1, it prevents them from landing in tier 1 and pushes them to the next tier in the funnel — Tier 2.

At tier 2, we again add negative keywords but this time only the best performing search terms.

At tier 3, we don’t need any negative keywords applied as any of those lower value search phrases should have been filtered out already from tier 1 or 2. This was the ultimate goal —  to be able to exclude those lesser converting searches and to bid more aggressively on all searches making it to tier 3.

(Note: We’ve seen some agencies get a little zealous with the amount of tiers they create and it becomes very difficult to maintain — the smallest change in any campaign can completely wreck the entire system. For that reason, we typically keep it to a 3 tier setup).

2 – Identify Your Store’s Best Sellers So You Know Where to Prioritize Your Budget

One of the easiest ways to grow your ROAS is to do a deep audit of your Google Ad campaign to identify historic best sellers — then bid higher accordingly.

You can combine this strategy with the tiered approach outlined above in strategy #1, where you bid your best sellers up on the product or product group level.

Take a look at your historic data (if it’s available) and identify those top selling products.

You can also use the likes of Google Analytics to find best sellers and eCommerce conversion rates, plus the relevant ROAS/ROI metrics.

3 – Regularly Audit and Optimize Your Google Product Feed for Better Overall Performance

If you take away just one thing from this piece, it should be this: your Google Product Feed is essential for succeeding with Google Shopping ads.

Auditing your feed is one of the first things we do when working with a client. This is a vital part of the campaign as it’s a vital cog in the Shopping ads algorithm, so it deserves a lot of attention.

We recently wrote a more detailed piece on how to optimize your Google Product Feed that explains exactly why and how you should be optimizing your feed and covers how to setup and execute your campaigns.

In short, you need to ensure your feed contains all the required product information. If not, you risk a) not showing up when people are searching for your products, and b) being charged a higher CPC to show your ads.

Be sure to keep your product title names relevant without keyword-stuffing.

It’s also vital to keep product titles relevant without keyword-stuffing. This not only helps to enhance visibility for those high intent searches, but it also helps to boost CTR from the ads.

4 – Our Mobile-Optimized Strategy for Improved eCommerce ROAS

Our own research has confirmed that mobile shoppers behave differently than desktop shoppers — no surprises there. The actual queries that convert on mobile aren’t necessarily the same ones people use from desktop.

But many eCommerce teams don’t have a specific approach when it comes to mobile users, aside from reducing mobile bids — which can be a wasteful approach.

eCommerce Ads Strategy: Segment mobile customers

We repeat the search query analysis as mentioned in strategy #1 to segment mobile customers so we can determine a historic mobile-only ROAS.

If we find a gap here, we setup our own tiers with the appropriate negative keywords for mobile users. In the end, we may have 6 tiers setup for a client; 3 for desktop and 3 for mobile.

This beats simply adjusting bids on mobile or desktop. It’s a more holistic and strategic approach to optimising for the customer’s device at that moment, and for the entirety of the customer’s journey.

We find it pays to go into much depth with this.

5 – Seasonality Is Often an Untapped Opportunity (Find Those Crucial Periods for Your Client & Bid Aggressively)

If our client’s in a very seasonal industry, it’s crucial to keep time of year in mind and bid on products/product groups within the tiered structure accordingly.

For example, you should bid higher on flip flops in the summer and snow boots in the winter—but the tiers will remain the same.

By bidding higher on the best converting products in summer, you can maximize ROAS during these peak months when there’s a bigger search demand.

And during those quieter periods in winter, we’ll reduce bids but ensure we’ve still got a good presence — so we often find ourselves bidding differently depending on the time of year.

Take one of our wholesale retailers as an example. They operate in the back to school vertical, so understandably they get peak traffic ahead of the new school year. Search behavior changes in the lead up to these months.

We want to ensure we’re visible during periods of high search activity, whilst ensuring budget for the year isn’t exhausted.

We’ve seen this work across a range of seasonal verticals, and it isn’t something that we’ve noticed many other agencies or in-house teams doing.

(Note: It’s important to fully understand the 3 tiered approach before diving into this strategy or the mobile specific one. The inventory listed will need to be the same across tiers, otherwise you may experience leakage!)

6 – Let Google Optimize (With Supervision!) When There’s No Obvious Tiered Structure or Search Query Tiers

Smart Shopping Campaigns utilize a mix of your product feed and Google’s machine learning to take care of campaigns on your behalf.

We like to bundle any products into a Smart Shopping campaign when they don’t necessarily belong to another tier as explained in strategy #1 above.

These are the smaller products, maybe those lower-priced accessories, which can be left for Google to deal with. Google will then optimize for best-fit based on transaction history: but it doesn’t always mean Google will do the best possible job.

We’ve witnessed occasions where there wasn’t much transaction data for Google to use. Then when we saw a couple of mobile transactions occur Google went very aggressive on mobile — and caused ROAS to plummet.

In this case it would’ve been best to wait until there was more significant transaction data available before leaving it in the hands of them to automate.

7 – Using Dynamic Retargeting to Boost Your PLA’s eCommerce ROAS

As annoying as some people might find them, retargeting ads do convert, and extremely well.

Over time they’ve been shown to have a great ROI so they really work well to supplement your search marketing strategy.

The dynamic retargeting feature from Google Shopping enables you to automatically show ads to people who came to your site without completing a purchase.

It makes use of your product feed to determine the products they display and can intelligently group these together based on what’s likely to convert best.

Using dynamic remarketing is a fairly straightforward strategy to skyrocket eCommerce performance — it’s a must for any online retailer.

eCommerce Ads Strategy: Setup dynamic retargeting ads to close the deal
An example of a dynamic retargeting ad

The Best eCommerce Strategies for Google Search Ads

We’ve covered 7 Google Shopping Campaign strategies above in quite some depth.

But whilst it’s easy to forget, running Google Search ads in tandem with Shopping Ads is a good strategy to cover all your bases.

Here are 9 more essential strategies we use to maximize eCommerce brands ROAS from search ads:

8 – How to Best Structure Your Google Ads Account for More Granular Control (And a Better ROAS!)

Often the best way to setup your client’s account is to actually just mimic their own navigation menu.

They’ve gone through the effort to build it out the way they have — so it’s probably been made that way for good reason.

eCommerce Ads Strategy: Structure your Google ads account in a similar way to how they setup their own website navigation.

If they’ve got a top-level page that contains a category of products (eg shoes) and then sub-categories that contain brands (adidas, nike) then it probably makes sense to have a shoe category, and individual brand-specific ad groups within your Google Ads account.

Setting up in the way above saves a bit of time when it comes to structuring the account, and will make budget control easy too.

With this approach you can also get as granular as you like when it comes to ad group and keyword grouping.

It will also help when other people on your team need to dive in to manage the account, as well as keeping things clean for the reporting team later.

9 – Deep Link to Best-Sellers Within Text Ads & Make It Easier for Your Customers to Checkout

Often within your store’s categories, there will be a handful of outstanding, top selling products.

Instead of directing customers to an individual category page it will often make sense to take them direct to the best selling product page instead — that’s usually where they end up anyway.

You could easily have a few text ads setup on rotate which deep-link to a handful of the top-selling products, and simply monitor which ads bring in the most conversions.

You can run A/B tests on this in the background and keep a close eye on the products that really push the needle on your ROI.

This makes the path-to-purchase cleaner for the customer, and helps to improve your Google Quality Score, too.

In this instance, the keyword/search intent, ad text, and landing page experience is all well aligned and optimized.

In the cases where there is no clear best-seller, it would make good sense to direct the customer to the most relevant category page instead. This approach is often used when bidding on the less specific, short-tail keywords.

10 – Have an Industry-Specific (But Agile!) eCommerce Approach and Test Everything

The strategy we use at Inflow for running Google Search Ads will ultimately depend on the industry the client operates in, and of course the eCommerce platform they use.

We’re forced to tailor our approach to suit our clients (and more pertinent: their shoppers) so when it comes to strategy we’re always flexible to changing our tactics to suit what works best.

It’s important to have an agile approach when it comes to eCommerce marketing since things change quickly and the search landscape is constantly evolving. You need to always be open to new opportunities and test everything!

We like to use Google Experiments within Google Ads to test how variations of campaign setups perform versus our original campaign, helping to shape our ongoing strategies.

11 – Don’t Neglect Any Google Ad Extensions, Especially Price Extensions

We always ensure that every possible extension has been built out when a campaign goes live. Setting up all eligible extensions will give you a better Quality Score on your account and enhances your chances of taking up more valuable real estate within the SERPs.

The obvious choice when it comes to eCommerce clients has to be the Price Extension. This will highlight the product price within the text ad when someone’s shopping for your product.

eCommerce Ads Strategy: Be sure to utilize the 'price' extension because it adds more value to your site.

Ensure your account has the following extensions active and optimised:

  • Callout extensions
  • Structured Snippets
  • Promotion Snippets (essential for Black Friday and other sales)
  • Sitelink Extensions

12 – Product SKU’s, Part-Numbers, and Model Numbers Are a PPC Specialist’s Dream

When running search ads, you’ll want to bid heavily on product SKU and other identifier codes, model numbers, replacement part keywords, and so on.

Whilst these might not have a huge search volume when compared to some other non-brand search queries, they’re going to have a super high conversion rate.

Someone entering a search query for “washing machine” or even “best washing machine” is probably going to be fairly high in the purchase process. They’re probably still shopping around and trying to come to a decision about the particular model they want.

But what about someone searching for a specific washing machine model, like “Samsung WW70K5413UX”? You should be throwing your money at Google for that type of search query.

We often scrape our clients product feeds to get a list of these numbers or SKU’s before using Dynamic Insertion within the Headline of the text ad and the Display URL to help boost CTR, as well as using keyword level Final URLs to send the user to the exact product they are searching for.  

13 – Ongoing Scheduled Maintenance and Optimization Is a Must for All Google Ad Campaigns

Let’s say your ROAS is ticking over nicely at 300% each month. While that’s great, it’s not to say it’s bringing in the most possible revenue.

You shouldn’t neglect campaigns even if they’ve got a great ROAS (that 300% could all be based on a few branded search terms and nothing else that’s going to drive your sales).

Ongoing scheduled maintenance and optimization is vital to ensuring your search strategy doesn’t get left to stagnate.

From regularly reviewing the ‘Search Insights’ report and checking in on the ‘Search Impression Share’, while verifying that rogue searches aren’t eating up your budget — there’s always plenty to do.

eCommerce Ads Strategy: Regularly review your reports for accurate information on how your ads are running.

This goes back to strategies #4 and #5: mobile search behavior is different than desktop search, and seasonality is an important factor to consider too.

Checking how those two variants might affect your search campaigns on an ongoing basis wouldn’t go amiss — especially if you’ve got an old account that has gone a bit stale.

14 – In-Market Audiences Offers Keyword Flexibility (And More Aggressive Bidding Strategies)

In-market audiences can be used within your Search Campaigns to ensure your ads are being seen by a wider audience than normal with a different matching criteria applied.

The in-market audiences to choose from can be viewed from this downloadable Google resource and consists of groups of people who are supposedly in the market for a particular product or service.

Let’s take an example of an online retailer of car wheels and accessories. If somebody searches for a product that is similar to one that the car retailer sells, Google will place them in a particular audience group.

Be sure to target a specific audience with your ads.

As an advertiser, you can then choose to target that particular audience group with your own search ads.

It sometimes makes sense to adjust bids according to your audiences, upping them when they match a particular, high-intent group.

It can also give you flexibility when it comes to your keyword strategy — you don’t need to be quite as granular, because you know this person is (in theory) already interested in what you’re selling.

15 – Dynamic Search Ads Suit Clients with a Huge Product Inventory or No Accessible Product Feed

Dynamic Search Ads are perfect for those who have a lot of inventory but not a lot of time to list everything.

The penultimate Google Ads type we’ll share is our strategy for is Dynamic Search Ads.

This is Google’s offering for those with a massive inventory of products to sell, perhaps without the time required to list individual ads for each product.

Using this method, Google’s ad crawler will scan your entire website and create ads automatically based upon what it finds.

That might be a bit too much control for some, but for others it can be a real time-saver.

For us, we love to use it as a tool to create keyword lists in the unlikely case we may have missed some good search terms during our own keyword discovery phase.

(Note: If you do opt to make use of a Dynamic Search Campaign, you’ll want to ensure you’ve added your normal search keywords as negatives to ensure there’s no overlap.)

Ultimately, Dynamic Ads can be a good low-budget and minimal fuss campaign set to run in the background with low ongoing maintenance required.

16 – Single Keyword Ad Groups (SKAG’s) Can Reduce CPC and Grow ROAS

Last but not least, Single Keyword Ad Groups (SKAG’s) can be a really simple but incredibly effective way to push out the ROAS.

Using historic conversion data, you can quite quickly identify the few keywords which are bringing in most of your revenue (see the 80/20 rule).

These keywords should be listed in their own individual ad groups (1 keyword per group often gives the best results here) with exact match targeting enabled.

Ad texts are then optimised to match that specific keyword, which helps give a great quality score to Google, and hopefully generates a good CTR too.

In your other Ad groups, you’ll want to ensure exact match negative keywords are applied for the terms above to ensure there’s no overlap which may lead to bidding against yourself in the Ads Auction.

Often by making use of the SKAG strategy, you will see a reduction in CPC, and over time you can push more and more spend into the campaign; you’ll want to cover as much of the search demand as you can.

As with all of the strategies listed here, you’ll want to play around and test the above before you jump right in and make any drastic, lasting changes.

Google Shopping Product Feed Optimization: How to Optimize Your Data Feed for Better Ad Performance

Our guide to optimizing your eCommerce product or data feed for Google Shopping ads to get the lowest costs per click and highest ROAS. We’ve curated these lessons from working on hundreds of eCommerce shopping ad campaigns.

When most people think about optimizing their Google Shopping ads, they focus on optimizing their campaigns, bid strategy, and execution.

While this is important, we’d argue that the more significant wins come from optimizing your data feed.

Your data feed is a subset of all of your products. It’s a digital product catalog that contains attributes like product title, description, GTIN, category, etc. This is what’s used to determine how often and for what keywords you show up for.

Google Shopping consists of two products – Google Ads (formerly AdWords) and Google Merchant Center. Google Merchant Center is where your data feed lives and Google Ads is where you can optimize your campaigns, set your budget and adjust your bid strategy.

We’ve divided this guide into two parts:

Part 1: Data Feed Optimization: Getting your data feed optimized is the foundation of successful Google Shopping Ad campaigns for eCommerce companies. Most guides on this topic don’t cover this in-depth but we’ve dedicated an entire part to this step. We’ll outline our experience in how to properly manage Google Shopping ads for hundreds of eCommerce companies.

Part 2: Campaign Setup and Execution: Here we’ll teach you the nuts and bolts of setting up, optimizing, and executing your Google Shopping ads campaigns. (Note, this will be published soon, and then we’ll link to it here.)

In this post, we’ll walk you through these four steps for how to optimize your data feed:

  1. Optimize These Five Attributes (At a Minimum)  
  2. Monitor Google Merchant Center Regularly
  3. Update Your Feed Regularly
  4. Analyze and Cross-Reference Ad Performance Data

Why Does Data Feed Optimization Matter?

The more information that you have in your data feed, the more relevant you are for people’s searches. In turn, Google will reward you by showing your ads more frequently and for less money.

Optimizing your data feed is like building a house. The data feed is the foundation on where you build all of your Google Shopping campaigns. If the foundation is off or your data is bad,  you will have a hard time performing well on Google Shopping.

Here are a few things that happen when your feed isn’t optimized.

  • You won’t show up for certain searches.
  • It will cost you more money for your ads to show
  • Your competitors will take up more space than you.
  • You won’t get correct visibility which could lead to overspend.

For example, say you sell Nike shoes. If your titles only contained basic information such as, “Nike red shoes” and didn’t contain size information, color information, or model information in your product title, then you would not show up for some of the highest intent searches.

If you did end up showing up, you would be spending a lot more for that ad than competitors who implement a feed optimization strategy.

Instead of "Nike red shoes", being more specific is better in the long-run.

Optimize These Five Most Important Attributes

GTIN

The GTIN is the UPC of the online world. When you’re a reseller or a manufacturer of goods, you use that information to track your products across Google’s Surfaces and to keep an eye on MAP pricing through the Manufacturer Center.

The only time that you don’t need a GTIN is if you’re selling one-off goods—meaning you sell one-off antique furniture, used products, or when you’re selling things as a bundle. When you have the GTIN, it’s important to include it because of all the information it provides.

Product Titles

One of the biggest mistakes that we see brands making is keyword stuffing their titles—and it ends up backfiring. Google will penalize you for long titles (i.e., anything over 75 characters). If your title is over 150 characters, they won’t approve your ad.

Product titles are important because Google Shopping is all broad match. There’s no phrase or exact match. The algorithm uses the title to identify what the person is actually searching for and matches those keywords with the feed.

The key is to be precise and include the most relevant information in your titles. However, it is important not to keyword stuff your titles. Your title should reflect how your customers or prospects are already talking about your product.  

Data feed optimization: Instead of "men's jeans" you're better off getting more specific like "Men's Levi’s Boss Jeans Size 34"

For example, if you sell jeans, you need to include all of the main keywords in the titles, such as: ‘Men’s Levi’s Boss Jeans Size 34’. The more relevant information that the user includes in their searches, the more likely they are to buy.

If your product title is only “men’s jeans” you’ll appear on all of the general searches, but you’ll miss out on the higher-intent searches that are the most likely to result in a purchase.

This can happen when you directly import the titles from your Shopify store directly into Google Shopping without optimizing them.  

If you are having issues optimizing your feed or just want a second pair of expert eyes on it, you can reach out to us and one of our Google Shopping experts will help you out.

Product Type

In our experience, Google is increasingly putting more relevance to the product types. They contribute to the overall “quality score” of your data feed.

We recommend you follow the structure/breadcrumbs on your website. This is the best way to get proper visibility over all your products.

Product Category

The product category is how Google categorizes products inside Google Shopping itself.

Because there are over 6,000 default categories, we recommend you get as granular as possible. Some of these categories can go down five tiers or more. You will want to use a categorization tool to help you with this. Here is a full list of categories to help with this process.

For example, if you sell reading glasses and you haven’t optimized your product categories, your products might be showing up under drinking glasses instead of reading glasses.

Product Description

The description carries less weight than the other four attributes above because it takes about two clicks to see (as opposed to the title, price, and brand, that show up immediately in the shopping results—without any additional clicks from the user). However, this is still worth optimizing because of its use of added relevancy.

Here are a few tips for optimizing your description:

  • Put your product title at the end of your description.
  • Add high relevance keywords into your description
  • Identify added HTML that was not removed. There are many times that these pieces of code will get caught in the description.

Understanding Google Merchant Center

With text ads, you can see a quality score, such as an 8 out of 10. However, with Google Shopping campaigns, you don’t get a numerical score. Instead, you have the Google Merchant Center.

The Merchant Center acts as a QA source to make sure your data is clean and accurate. When you upload your data feed into Google Merchant Center, you’ll see errors, warnings, and disapprovals.

While Google will still show your ads for certain searches, it will end up costing you more money than your competitors who have optimized feeds. So, when you start seeing these errors come in, you want to clean them up ASAP.

There are three different levels of issues in the Merchant Center—by account item, feed, and account level (with account level being the worst).

Account Level Warnings

Account level warnings can lead to larger issues such as Google shutting down your Merchant Center. If you get an Account Level Warning, such as a verification issue, you should fix it immediately so that you can keep your ads running.

Feed Level Warnings

There’s also a feed check, where they’ll go through your data feed and make sure it’s delimiting correctly, and all the files are set up and readable.

Item Level Warnings

SKU or item level warnings are at the product level, meaning that they’ll go through all of your products. They’ll let you know if you are not including specific attributes, and give you a warning or a recommendation. This is where most issues are found and will need to be fixed in the data feed.

Update Your Data Feed Regularly

To improve your campaigns, get in the habit of updating your feed anytime your product prices, availability, or inventory levels change.

For example, if you sold 500 products last month and now you are only selling 350, you need to update your data feed. Otherwise, you’re paying to market 150 products that you aren’t currently selling. Worse, they’ll 404 in the Merchant Center and bring down the quality of your feed.

In addition, when working with our clients, we ask for a dynamic file meaning that we pull in your new file of all your products every single day. We optimize those products through a custom tool and then upload it in Google Merchant Center.

This should be done by someone who has feed optimization experience because many times when you try to do this on your own (or use one of the $50/per month automated app optimization platforms), you won’t have an analyst looking over the feed. This results in random keywords being added into your titles with inaccurate attributes. You’ll end up with a feed that isn’t fully optimized, and it could cost you more money in the long run.

At Inflow, we do all of these optimizations in-house, which means that we don’t make cookie cutter optimizations like most of the tools out there.

Analyze Ad Performance Data

You should also cross-reference Google Shopping data with search volume and other ad data sources. Some key things to look at are conversions, search volume, and negative keywords for your Shopping ads.

This is a great place to start looking for additional optimizations to add back into the feed. By analyzing the feed and campaigns from this level, it should help you steadily increase performance over a longer period of time.

Conclusion

Optimizing your data feed is a powerful way to improve Google Shopping ads performance, lower cost per click, and generate more sales.

We’ll be sharing more details on Campaign Setup and Execution in Part 2 of our guide—stay tuned!  

An SEO’s Perspective: How to Scale Quality Content Production

A professional SEO consultant on how to scale content production (in particular for eCommerce websites) while still maintaining quality standards and complying with Google’s E-A-T.

For eCommerce companies looking to increase organic traffic, “scaling” content production, that is, building systems to produce a higher volume of content is usually a strategy that is on their radar. We hear this often from clients: “We’re looking to scale content production”, or “In the past, we tried scaling content production, then this happened”, etc.

The logic is simple: more content for Google to index should lead to more organic traffic.

Loosely speaking, that logic is sound.

But Google continues to update their algorithm to emphasize content quality above all else, hoping to keep giving searchers better and better results for their queries.

So, eCommerce companies looking to “scale” content production volume need to do so carefully. If that scale in content creation comes with a reduction in quality, in Google’s eyes, then it can either (a) render your content marketing efforts fruitless or, worse, (b) actively hurt rankings.

We see these mistakes made often. For example a company “scales” by hiring a bunch of junior copywriters (and maybe junior SEO team members) generally resulting in:

  • A lot of low-quality content with little authority and inaccurate information
  • A lack of brand authenticity or connection
  • A traffic spike without the accompanying conversions and new customers

In other words, lots of time, effort and marketing spend with little to show for it.

But there is a better way.

In this guide, we want to lay out an operational plan to scale content production while maintaining high-quality content, so you can reap the most SEO benefits possible.

Specifically, we’ll cover how to:

Content Strategy: Maintaining Quality While Scaling Volume

A great content strategy is important for all brands looking to scale content since it helps you think through your needs, define and track your goals, and reduce the chance of spending foolishly on content promotion (or, the wrong hire!).

However, content strategies—and how to put them together—are covered a million different ways around the web, to varying success. This doesn’t make this less important (it’s critical, in fact) but I don’t want to spend all our time on this vs. the operational game plan since that element is largely forgotten.

So when it comes to content strategies, follow the great advice you’ve already seen out there, and:

  1. Ensure you think through & define all the items that are applicable to you on this list.
  2. Plan for how you want to display E-A-T on your site.

Google and other search engines are placing a greater emphasis on “E-A-T”, or “Expertise, Authority, and Trustworthiness” for all websites, broadly speaking. Specifically, to a greater degree, to all YMYL Sites (Your Money or Your Life) sites—websites covering content related to finances, medical advice, legal information, etc.—as well as anyone accepting & processing private data (aka: all eCommerce cart pages due to credit card processing!).

Whether or not your site has E-A-T (spoiler alert: it should,) you should think through how well you show your E-A-T to your customers—and Google—on your website.

Quick example: if you are a YMYL site selling medical devices, you wouldn’t want some junior copywriter doing research on the internet, regurgitating three different articles, changing some copy around, and then creating a new post. That’s a recipe for inaccurate information and low authority. (And just because it might be accurate doesn’t inherently make it authoritative.)

You need to look at your website as a whole—including each piece of content and all pages—and objectively ask, “Is this supporting the goal of my website? Is this helping or hurting my E-A-T?”

  • Always showcase E-A-T through your Homepage and About page. Clearly explain how long you have been in business, along with the relevant degrees, certifications, and awards that are applicable to your industry. Also, ensure that security and trust seals and badges are present & functional.
  • When creating strategic content, showcase E-A-T on all of your writer and/or editor pages. These pages should highlight the expertise, industry experience, etc. of the specific writer/editor in question—as it pertains to the subject matter they cover.

Try to remember that showing your expertise, authority, and trust isn’t just about Google and growing your organic search traffic—it’s about actually being an expert, having authority, and developing trust with your customers/consumers.

Here is a checklist we put together to help.

After all, if you don’t have E-A-T, why should they trust you enough to buy anything from you or work with you? Improve your E-A-T to better connect with your customers, increase sales/leads, and grow your business.

Scaling Your Content Operations: Building the Right Team

When it comes to building content teams, people often focus on the ‘what’ and forget the ‘how’. They approach it by hiring a bunch of writers, who don’t have contextual expertise in what the business does, nor real content marketing strategy experience. This creates challenges in building a high quality and scalable content marketing system.

Start with Content Responsibilities

You need to define the team structure to execute against your content strategy in a way that works for your business—considering the job functions, roles and ownership you already have—and what gaps you need to fill.

Start by defining your content team’s RASCI:

  • Who’s Responsible: who is owning the various critical project elements?
  • Who’s Approving: who needs to approve the plan and work?
  • Who’s Supporting: who is executing the various project elements? And who’s responsible for what pieces?
  • Who’s Consulted: which stakeholders have needs that must be defined and met as a part of the project?
    • Make sure you don’t forget your SEO, social media & email channel owners as stakeholders.
  • Who’s Informed: who do you need to keep looped in?

Don’t just plan based on who you already have hiredplan for what you know you’ll need to execute your strategy.

The primary responsibilities of any content team include:

  • Ideation
  • Planning
  • Copywriting
  • Researching
  • Editing (i.e. brand and copyediting)  
  • Optimizing (i.e. SEO, conversions, readability, etc.)
  • Distribution
  • Analysis
  • Expertise (i.e. Depending on the team, this is usually either the writers or editors.)

You’ll also want to think through:

  • Who or what team is ultimately responsible for the expertise, authority & trust (or E-A-T) of your content?
  • Which responsibilities will be owned by what roles in your content team?
    • With training & involved stakeholders that evaluate performance & provide feedback loops, consider that some responsibilities (say, copy editing, social sharing, on-page SEO and content ideation) can be carried out by trained team members.)
  • Whether you want to hire full-time, part-time or externally for each role.
  • Where and when will everyone work?
    • Not everyone needs to be in the office 24/7.
  • All the tools, resources and processes needed to help the team do those jobs.

The way you structure your marketing team will vary based on the needs of your business, your brand, and your strategy/goals.

Here are three “outside the box” team structures we’ve seen work well:

1) Invest in Editors Internally; Outsource to SME Copywriters

Are there content marketers in your subject matter already out there blogging and making a name for themselves—that you can hire as freelancers?

Then focus on building an editorial team to help own ideation, brand/tone/style execution, SEO on-page execution and copy-editing, and outsource the copywriting. The SME copywriters will bring their existing audience & authority in association with your brand.

For example, if you sell gardening equipment, you can reach out to bloggers or content creators in the gardening space who already have an expertise and a following. You can hire them to write the content, and have your editors edit it so that it’s on brand.

2) Hire SME Internally; Outsource to a Content Agency

When you’ve already hired subject experts internally, but they are too busy to write strategic content as often as you’d like, a content/inbound agency might be a good fit.

In this scenario, anyone can submit content ideas, the content agency writes and edits it, and the internal SME reviews & signs off on it prior to publication.

3) Hire SME Editors & Specialized Ghostwriters

When expertise is expensive or highly specialized—like when you need to create medical content, but can’t afford to hire a bunch of doctors to write it—consider hiring a smaller team of SME editors with expertise that are willing to read, edit, approve, and put their name/reputation onyour strategic content.

Then seek out specialized ghostwriters that you can hire internally to write & research content, ensuring accuracy & minimizing the time investment on the part of the Senior editorial team.

In each of these scenarios, the key is to ensure that there is someone (or some team) who is in charge of subject matter expertise. They should bring the authority of their expertise to the content. Then you build a team around them that executes on the tasks they cannot support on, thus reducing your costs and increasing your scale.

Plan for Content Production Processes & Tools

After you have your roles & responsibilities defined, it’s time to think through the processes & tools they’ll need to make your workflow actually flow according to plan. We’re talking about processes that will affect content strategy and result in high quality content, not just a “style guide” that most companies already have.

Start with defining those things that multiple people or teams will touch, so you can clarify things like handoff timing & expectations of what’s included in that handoff. Examples may include:

  • Content ideation
  • “Claiming” a topic to write about
  • Turning in content for review
  • Content approval & publication

Ensure your teams are organized and have methods for easily sharing insights required by other teams.

One such example here is a tool called a Content Matrix: a visual representation (or mapping) of all of your strategic content & the pages on your site you want to drive traffic to (usually services you provide or stuff you sell) along with their corresponding target keywords, personas, customer funnel stages, calls to action, etc… the sky is the limit!

A Content Matrix efficiently maps your content and what you want to do with it, enabling things like:

  • Visibility into what content has already been created (or could be improved)
  • Visibility into what SEO targets an existing piece of content is targeting
  • Prioritization of what content you want links built to
  • What gaps you might have in content (or goods) for a particular persona, or in a particular stage of the customer funnel for a key persona
  • Clarity on what CTAs might be meaningful on a specific piece of content (based on the persona + customer funnel stage that persona is in & where you want them to be)

Sidenote: Here is a downloadable content matrix template that our team created.   

Don’t forget about ongoing training & feedback loops.

Let’s say you’ve decided not to hire a huge SEO team internally, and instead, you are outsourcing to an inbound agency (might I point out—we’re pretty good at this!)

On smaller projects, it’s pretty easy to hand the logical tasks (like in the following list) to this team:

  • Who’s going to own on-page optimization?
  • Keyword research?
  • SEO topic ideation?
  • Hub page strategy & organization?

Then you want to scale your content, but you don’t have a huge budget to also scale up your SEO.

This is where training and feedback processes can help.  

For example, you can document your processes, tools, and SOPs to train team members on lower-level tasks & ask SEOs to have a consistent process for evaluating their work to create an ongoing feedback loop. You can create similar processes for social media and improving conversions. This also makes it easier to onboard and ramp up new hires.

Evaluate Your Results

Because your content strategy, team structure, and goals aren’t static, you need to build in a process for re-evaluating them at a set cadence.

You should regularly check your KPIs and evaluate your performance against them, taking time to note which content pieces (and types of content) are moving you further towards or away from those goals.

When something works in unexpected ways (e.g. viral growth,) you want to lean into that, but this can also end up distracting you from the end goals, which may or may not be a good thing. Having this process in place ensures you make these changes intentionally instead of chasing shiny objects.

Conclusion

In sum, this is how you can build an authoritative operation plan that supports your content strategy to maximize SEO traffic and conversions.

Edge SEO for eCommerce: How to Spend Less for Faster SEO Implementation

Learn how to use Edge SEO to implement SEO changes without coding or requiring developers to change your backend.

eCommerce companies trying to improve their SEO often run into a host of bottlenecks that get in the way.

These bottlenecks can occur for a few reasons:

  • Long development queues, meaning that even quality SEO recommendations could take months to incorporate;
  • Unavailable, cost prohibitive or otherwise uncooperative developers;
  • Limits to functionality, such as a hosted platform not allowing you to edit your own Robots.txt file, or the inability to host a WordPress blog on the same subdomain as your store.

These boil down to two problems: either your eCommerce platform won’t let you make these SEO changes, or development logistics, costs, and personalities get in the way.

Each of these problems point to the same potential solution. In this article, we’ll be discussing a unique strategy currently gaining steam in SEO circles. It’s one we think many eCommerce could use: Edge SEO.

Edge SEO, originally coined by Dan Taylor of SALT.agency, can make implementing some SEO modifications quick and inexpensive with simple tools we’ll highlight here. In this article, we’ll discuss what Edge SEO is, how it works, and outline some specific use cases for your eCommerce site that make it easy for even non-developers to implement several specific SEO changes in a hurry.

Note: You can talk to one of our SEO experts about how we can help you implement SEO changes faster with Edge SEO, as well as do an overall eCommerce SEO audit, by reaching out here.

What is Edge SEO?

Let’s start with a simple explanation of Edge SEO. Edge SEO is a process or method where code modifications (in this case for SEO purposes) that you would generally make in your main codebase, are implemented instead “at the edge” of a CDN (Content Delivery Network).  

As requests and responses are sent between a user of your website and your main web server/host these requests can be “captured” and “modified” at the Edge—allowing modifications to be made to the HTTP response and accompanying HTML, CSS, and JS code (and effectively “implementing” SEO at the edge).

Users and bots like Googlebot only see/crawl the modified code thereby making it appear as if these changes were made on your main codebase.  

A graphic depicting how Edge SEO works with the server directly in the center, surrounded by the CDN and then finally the user.

With the proper tools in place in your “middle layer”—the CDN—you can implement changes with a few clicks and work around the limitations of your eCommerce platform and your development queue.

How Edge SEO Lets Marketers Implement Site Changes (No Coding Required)

Here is the flow of how to “do” Edge SEO compared to traditional methods of implementing SEO advice.

Your SEO agency, consultant, or in house employee, delivers a set of recommendations. Let’s say they involve things like making changes to robots.txt, setting up a bunch of redirects, and more.

We’ll call these “site changes”.

Normally, you’d have to ask your development team to implement these changes, and that’s subject to the obstacles we mentioned at the top of this article.

With the Edge SEO process, the marketing team instead would use some sort of cloud network or CDN platform. One of the most well-suited ones out today is Cloudflare, so for the purposes of this article, we’ll use them as an example.

So in the Edge SEO process, instead of going to developers to do your redirects, you’d go directly inside Cloudflare and make them there:

Cloudflare lets you make redirect changes directly.

Note: no coding or server-side programming is required to do this.

Out of the box, Cloudflare lets you make certain site changes that often fall in the bucket of “SEO tactics”, including:

  • Auto Minify HTML, CSS, and JS
  • Image Compression
  • Redirects, including 301/302 redirects
  • Managing your DNS (to verify domain properties in Google Search Console)
  • Implementing HTTPS and other security layers
Manage speed performance settings within Cloudflare too.

But what about additional site changes that SEOs often recommend (and we often recommend for our client’s when optimizing their sites), such as:

  • Editing large amounts of title tags and meta tags for product pages
  • Making changes to the robots.txt file which can be limited by some hosted platforms
  • Adding image alt attributes across a large set of product pages
  • Hosting a blog in a subdirectory, as opposed to an additional subdomain
  • Uploading a list of redirects in bulk
  • Implementing Hreflang tags
  • A/B testing your SEO

Fortunately, Cloudflare has a feature that lets you essentially make any site change using Javascript code called Cloudflare “Workers” (an additional $5/month).

Normally this would require another bottleneck: more work from your developers. Fortunately, there are now tools that integrate with the Cloudflare Workers feature—so you can circumvent developers or limitations of your eCommerce platform to implement these changes as well:

  • Spark is a “meta CMS for SEO teams,” currently in the alpha testing phase. We have early access to this and have found it’s especially powerful for additional features like setting up A/B tests. If you’re interested in experimenting with Edge SEO, consider registering with them.
The Spark interface
  • Sloth.cloud is currently in version 1.1, and gives you more robust features for using Cloudflare’s Workers feature. That includes A/B testing as well as modifying or overriding your Robots.txt file.
The Sloth interface

Armed with tools like Spark and Sloth, any non-developer with access to Cloudflare Workers can implement advanced Edge SEO changes. These tools, integrated with Cloudflare Workers, will fill in the missing gaps of Cloudflare’s “out of the box” solutions and let marketers quickly and easily implement site changes that can improve organic rankings as per their SEO experts’ recommendations.

Next, let’s look one by one to a series of typical site changes that—in our decade of experience doing eCommerce SEO—many eCommerce sites may need to make at some point.

Use Cases: Solving Specific eCommerce SEO Problems with Edge SEO

Handling ‘Out of Stock’ Products

A product that’s gone out of stock still leaves a product page behind. This can get tricky with SEO depending on what you plan to do with the page. Edge SEO makes it easy to incorporate one common choice: redirecting a product page to a category page or even 404ing the discontinued product page if it makes sense to do so.

For further reading on what choices you’ll have to make, refer to our post on How to Manage Out of Stock Products for SEO. You’ll find Sloth.cloud’s Redirect Manager/Implementation tool to be convenient for implementing redirects. This can also be done directly in Cloudflare’s interface with Page Rules.

Mass Adding Image Alt Attributes to Product Images

You can mass add image alt attributes with Spark. For example, you can configure Spark to use the “variables” scraped from within a product page to automatically create image alt attributes. It only requires a one-time setup from your end. This is critical for any team with thousands of products requiring on-page SEO improvements like alt attributes for images.

Using a Blog Directory Instead of an Additional Subdomain

If you run a blog hosted on a different subdomain than your store, putting that blog on a subdirectory on your main subdomain (recommended for SEO benefits) has required complex workarounds like installing and configuring a reverse proxy with unique configuration code to link www.yoursite.com/blog to the hosted blog.

For many, the easier strategy is simply to use a subdomain, blog.yoursite.com, instead. This is, in turn, less effective for SEO.

Luckily, there is now a new and much easier way to serve your blog on your main subdomain using Cloudflare Workers directly as neither Sloth or Spark support this feature yet.

Collecting and Accessing Your Log Files

Hosted eCommerce platforms are notoriously stingy about providing easy access to your log files. You can collect these logs yourself using Edge SEO through a platform like Cloudflare. Here is a resource for one way to set this up manually; you can also use a tool like Sloth to help configure the implementation.

Refer to our guide on basic Log File Analysis to find everything you can accomplish with these logs, especially to identify what the Google Bot is or isn’t crawling on your site.

Editing robots.txt and Proper Canonical and Meta Robots Tags

Robots.txt

Very few systems will limit your ability to edit Robots.txt—but when it’s a problem, it’s a big problem. Edge SEO makes it possible to work around this with a simple interface.

For example, using Sloth allows you to log in, make simple edits to your Robots.txt, save those edits, and go about your day.

Canonical and Meta Tags

You won’t have a lot of access to these edits when using a hosted platform that limits. Edge SEO can make an effective workaround.

Since even Googlebot will view your SEO implementations as though they’re native to the code on your server, you can handle your canonical and meta robots tags in the same way. The changes will have the same SEO effect as if you changed your underlying server’s code—only you’ve done it from a simple interface.

Implementing Redirects

Implementing redirects isn’t always a challenge, but many eCommerce platforms will limit what you can do.

Using a platform like Cloudflare along with an Edge SEO helper tool like Sloth makes it possible for you to easily setup one-off redirects or upload a list of redirects in bulk.

With some self-hosted platforms, implementing these redirects would require you to install a plugin. This can throw a wrench into your overall site performance and security. You avoid the downside by implementing redirects via Edge SEO and skipping the plugins altogether.

Improving Site Speed

Many site speed improvements can be quickly implemented directly in Cloudflare. For example, Cloudflare offers an “Auto Minify Javascript/CSS/HTML” feature which removes all unnecessary white space from your code, speeding up download times to the user. To activate this feature, you simply log in to Cloudflare and check the appropriate box. Be sure to test your results, as sometimes auto-minifying can cause bugs to appear.

For more background on minifying Javascript and improving Site Speed, visit our post on maximizing speed in eCommerce.

Implementing Hreflang Tags

Since Hreflang tag management is central to good international SEO, and using the Hreflang tags properly can result in an influx of international traffic, it makes sense to get it right.

Hreflang tags are notorious for creating problems for the teams in charge of implementing them. For example, which team at your company is responsible for managing these tags? With multiple markets making changes, you might run into issues with controlling your site versions.

Implementing and maintaining Hreflang tags on your site is another limitation of hosted eCommerce, but you can get around this via Edge SEO and implementing your Hreflang strategy using Sloth.io and Cloudflare Workers.

DNS-Level Verification

It’s important to verify your site as a domain property in Google Search Console so you can access all of your data—across every subdomain—in one GSC profile.

You can use Cloudflare to manage your DNS as well, helping ensure you get verified as a domain property.

This feature is native to Cloudflare, which means you can use it right “out of the box” even before you sign up for Workers or implement tools like Spark or Sloth.

A/B Testing Changes in Your SEO

A/B testing SEO changes on your own without some sort of tool in place is extremely difficult. You’ll also be responsible for custom-building your own tests.

But because an Edge SEO platform can function much like a meta-Content Management System, you can use a tool like Spark to build and execute an A/B SEO test, and run them at scale. There’s no need to run expensive tools or run them regularly at a much larger scale with substantial dev investment for each custom test.

Conclusion

Edge SEO is here, and it’s easier than ever. Today, the available tools make it simpler to circumvent your eCommerce SEO limits and optimize your site on your terms—all without relying on your developers for every SEO related modification.

Note: You can talk to one of our SEO experts about how we can help you implement SEO changes faster with Edge SEO, as well as do an overall eCommerce SEO audit, by reaching out here.

Are eCommerce companies too reliant on paid marketing? Our take from working with hundreds of companies.

Are eCommerce companies too reliant on paid ads? Will they saturate their market? Our paid marketing team weighs in on these questions.

Are eCommerce brands too dependent on paid advertising?

This is an assertion that has been floating around in marketing and startup circles lately. In particular, we’re seeing a slew of new venture-backed eCommerce startups emerge with a glut of investor cash available to spend aggressively on advertising.

This was also the central premise of an article from Andrew Chen, who is a general partner at Andreessen Horowitz, a Silicon Valley venture capital firm. He argues that many companies die from their over-reliance and addiction to paid marketing channels.

He writes, “The key insight here is that paid marketing is tricky to grow, at scale, as the primary channel. It’s highly dependent on both external forces – competition and platform – as well as the leadership team’s psychology when things get unsustainable.”

Is paid marketing a dubious channel for eCommerce companies? This is an important question to ask.

Since we’ve helped hundreds of eCommerce brands over the last decade grow via paid and non-paid channels, we have a unique perspective to share with the eCommerce community.

This article answers this “overreliance” question by looking at a few core pieces of any eCommerce company’s marketing strategy including:

  • Attribution: Ensuring you have accurate measures of cost of acquisition by channel
  • Scale effects: Our thoughts on how paid channels diminish or don’t in efficacy with scale
  • Saturation: Most brands are at risk of “saturating” a market with paid ads

In short, while we agree with Andrew on a couple of smaller points, based on our experience,  we feel that most eCommerce brands shouldn’t worry about an overreliance on paid marketing as long as attribution is properly accounted for and return on ad spend (ROAS) is monitored.

Let’s get into the details.

Understanding True Customer Acquisition Costs

A key component of this “overreliance on paid marketing” argument is that a company needs to have an accurate measure of each channel’s Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC) and that simply monitoring “blended” Customer Acquisition Costs (CAC) is dangerous, as it can lead companies to waste thousands — if not millions of dollars — on unprofitable ad spend.

We agree.

While Blended CAC means slightly different things to different people, in general, it refers to just tracking a single number for acquisition cost that is total sales divided by total marketing costs.

Obviously, this leads to the danger of profitable channels obscuring the existence of unprofitable channels.

For example, if a company was losing money on Facebook ads in a given month, but had their product picked up by Good Morning America and got a bunch of sales that way, their overall company CAC could look good. It would hide the fact that Facebook ads were not profitable (or not as profitable) as they think.

But, this problem isn’t an issue as long as you’re looking at CAC by channel. And in our experience, the vast majority of eCommerce companies today do this already.

For our clients, we look at CAC, and more importantly, return on ad spend (ROAS) at a far more granular level than just channel. We look at CAC and ROAS:

  • At the platform level (Adwords, Google shopping, Facebook, Instagram)
  • At the campaign level
  • At the ad group level
  • For specific keywords, products, terms, creative, and more

So we have an extremely detailed understanding of ROAS along all paid acquisition programs down to specific ads and attributes.

We recommend all eCommerce companies think of CAC and ROAS at this granular of a level.

Because this depth of understanding lets you do things like lower cost per acquisition (CPA) from $47 to $9 in a Google Shopping program and develop best practices for how to compose adwords ads for the highest ROAS.

So, while blended CAC isn’t an issue, there is another attribution problem that many eCommerce brands fall victim to that we’ll explore in the next section.  

Analyzing Last-Click v. Multi-Touch Attribution Models

One mistake we do see eCommerce companies make, however, is just looking at last-click attribution in Google Analytics. This is the default attribution for Google Analytics.

In our view, this can really handicap a company’s understanding of

  • The true ROI of paid ads
  • The role that paid ads take in a customer’s entire journey with your brand.
Last Click Attribution Model example

Last-click attribution makes it seem like your customer acquisition is linear, takes place on a single device, and then gives all the credit to the last touch point. A customer sees an ad. Then, clicks the link and buys from there. If they buy immediately, the ad gets credit. If they later come in via the homepage or organic search and buy, then the ad would get no credit under the last click attribution model.

Obviously, this framework is extremely limited.

In today’s market, most customers will have multiple touchpoints with your brand before they buy. The average customer may click on your ad, read a few of your tweets, check out some product reviews and then Google their way to a blog post (Note: We’ve shared multiple case studies on eCommerce blogging and content such as buying guides helping with sales) – all before they ever make a purchase. When you look at it from the lens of last-click attribution, the blog post will get credited with the sale. The reality is your paid advertising, social media and content all assisted with that sale.

A flowchart showing how sales work. Generally, consumers don't immediately purchase during the same visit.

One way to improve your view of the role these multiple touchpoints play in “assisting” with the ultimate conversion event is by analyzing sales via one of several multi-touch attribution models. Multi-touch attribution is not perfect, as it still doesn’t account for cross-device touches (i.e. if someone click an ad on their phone then later buys on their computer, you won’t know it was the same person and that the ad contributed to this sale), but it’s a clear step up from last click attribution.

For example you can use a few GA reports to look into this. For example, using their built in “model comparison tool” you can evaluate sales via last interactions (simple last click attribution) or other models, such as “position based”, where first and last are given more weight and the middle interactions less:

Google Analytics attribution model sample

Here is Google’s explanation of their different attribution models.

Scale Effects Don’t Have To Work Against You With Paid Marketing

Even after properly calculating acquisition costs, understanding attribution, and ensuring that each paid platform, ad campaign, or even each ad is profitable and meets your company’s target ROAs, the “over-reliance on paid marketing” theory argues that eventually, as you try to scale paid channels, your ad costs will grow.

In the Andrew Chen article we cited at the beginning, he argues:

“Saturation is also a thing. As you buy up your core demographic, the extra volume comes from non-core, who are less responsive.”

We think this worry, that you may “saturate” your market, should not be a big concern for the vast majority of eCommerce companies.

Here’s why.

First, many eCommerce companies are selling products that have a steady and consistent demand from new customers. For products like this, you can use paid marketing to consistently get in front of new waves of consumers looking to purchase your products.

For example, let’s assume you manufacture and sell furniture. Furniture has been in consistent demand for centuries. You will always have a steady influx of new potential customers looking to buy furniture. So we think this view that there is some “core demographic” of customers who, once you show them enough ads, will tire of them, and you have to move on to less profitable demographics is faulty because:

  • There are paid channels like search, where you can serve ads on extremely high intent keywords: “Black 3 seater leather sofa”
  • The people searching for that next month are likely different from those searching this month, thus you aren’t wearing out a single group from over exposure

Second, as we mentioned above, there are so many digital touchpoints today (versus when Dropbox was testing paid ads 10 years ago, as in Andrew Chen’s article), that viewing paid marketing simply as a direct, last click acquisition channel and nothing more is not sound.

In many industries, consumers need to see and build trust with brands before deciding to purchase. They want to compare brands. They want to educate themselves about products. They want to read reviews and see social proof. All of these touchpoints can be aided with paid marketing.

Thus, we feel that a holistic paid marketing strategy for any eCommerce company will involve getting in front of the consumers in all of these situations.

As you spend more and more, are there diminishing returns from a ROAS perspective? No doubt. But will most brands really saturate all paid channels and not be able to find as profitable channels to spend more capital? We think this is highly unlikely. Of course anything is possible.

If you truly have enormous amounts of investor capital waiting to be spent, perhaps you’ll reach saturation. But even after working with hundreds of eCommerce companies for over a decade, we haven’t run into it.

Conclusion

We argue that for the vast majority of eCommerce brands, you are unlikely to hit 100% saturation levels. Instead of pondering it, focus on improving ROAS. This includes attribution modeling and understanding all of the assisted conversion touchpoints that your customers have before they buy from you.

Want a custom in-depth assessment of your paid marketing performance? Contact us to get started.

Best eCommerce Platform for SEO: Don’t Just Choose a Platform, Make Sure It Fits Around Your Strategy

We discuss all the factors you should consider in choosing an eCommerce platform from the perspective of SEO. This advice is based on experience optimizing SEO for hundreds of eCommerce companies.

Would you switch to a new eCommerce platform if you knew it would throw off your entire fulfillment operation?

That’s a rhetorical question; of course you wouldn’t.

But in our experience in optimizing SEO for hundreds of eCommerce brands over the past 11 years, we’ve noticed some similarly poor habits when it comes to selecting an eCommerce platform.

Too often, companies are happy to migrate to a hosted eCommerce platform without any clue how it will affect the SEO strategy they’ve been using for years.

This results in a decision process that becomes upside down. Companies that don’t weigh SEO functionality end up choosing the wrong platform for their SEO goals.

This article is meant to help you mitigate or avoid this mistake.

Rather than finding the platform you like, crossing your fingers, and hoping for the best for your SEO, you can use the information below to try to understand the potential SEO functionality of hosted and self-hosted eCommerce platforms first.

To do that, you’ll have to know the variables you most need to focus on, and how they relate to your decision. Here are some of the essentials:

What an eCommerce Platform Gives You (Or Doesn’t Give You)

The methodology behind this list is simple: There are a variety of different knobs you can turn on within your site to improve SEO performance, such as setting the canonical URL of a specific product page. Whether an eCommerce platform lets you control each of these features will affect your ability to make changes that can improve organic search rankings.

The list here is based on our experience turning these knobs and improving SEO performance from multiple approaches for many clients over the years.

Below, we discuss each site control feature, why it’s important for SEO, and how hosted versus self-hosted eCommerce platforms differ in your ability to control the features.

What are hosted and self-hosted eCommerce platforms?

The key distinction that often separates one eCommerce platform from another is whether it’s hosted or self-hosted.

  • Hosted platforms are essentially “turnkey” solutions intended to provide a straightforward infrastructure for your eCommerce.
    • Advantages include ease of use, site stability, and speed of implementation.
    • Disadvantages tend to result from limited control over individual SEO variables like Robots.txt.
    • Examples include BigCommerce; Shopify; Salesforce DemandWare/Commerce Cloud.
  • Self-hosted platforms, which include many popular open source platforms, are more freeing (and challenging) because you’ll have more control.
    • While controlling the development yourself makes it more difficult to get a shop up and running, you’ll have more SEO advantages such as access to log files (depending on which platform you’re using; WordPress may not give you access to log files), easier batch uploading, and control over elements like canonical tags.
    • Examples include WordPress with a WooCommerce plugin; Magento; SpreeCommerce; and of course home built eCommerce systems.

Here is how the different styles of platforms stack up with some common eCommerce SEO concerns:

Site Speed

A customer’s bounce probability increases 32% for a page that takes 3 seconds to load over a page that takes just one second to load. But it’s not just about bounce rates anymore. When Google announced that Page Speed would factor in search results, the speed of your site became a major SEO factor.

To accomplish goals like achieving a 100/100 Page Speed score with Google, you need the ability to control many aspects of your site. For example, we’ve experimented with embedding CSS in-line rather than in HTML and loading external scripts asynchronously.

Platforms like Shopify and BigCommerce tend to give you middle-of-the-road site speed; not bad, but not great, either. If you have a smaller store and speed is a chief SEO advantage, you might want to consider that self-hosted SEO gives you much more control through the following variables:

  • Leveraging browser caching to incorporate visuals without sacrificing load time. If you’re working on a hosted platform, you generally won’t control this.
  • Optimizing your image sizes to minimize load time. Here, almost all platforms will give you that control.
  • Scaling images for separate mobile and desktop experiences. Hosted platforms generally don’t give you this ability.

If you’re obsessed with site speed and beating the competition, a hosted platform simply won’t give you the functionality you need.

The trade-off in controlling your own site speed: that you’re also responsible for handling more bandwidth. If your store was suddenly featured on “The Ellen Show,” would you be able to handle the influx of traffic? On a platform like Shopify or BigCommerce, you probably could, and more importantly, getting the infrastructure in place to handle spikes like that is the host’s problem, not yours. (Although you may still need to work with your hosted platforms to ensure you can handle the traffic, it’s generally easier to handle with hosted systems when you do).  If your store is self-hosted, you likely need additional preparation time before going viral.

Batch Uploading

If you ever find yourself with a large swath of redirect, meta data, or product page problems, batch uploading may be the only way to fix each individual page in one fell swoop.

Batch uploading helps fix sweeping problems such as problematic redirect pages or broad swaths of meta tags that need changing. If you can’t batch upload SEO solutions like these without interfering with your site’s functionality, you’re in for some headaches.

For batch uploading on hosted platforms, you’re at the mercy of your plugins. Failing that, a hosted platform will require you to upload each individual file using a web interface. We want to avoid that for obvious reasons.

Before you conclude that a plugin is a simple thing, remember that you have to weigh price and the risk of unintended consequences before you acquire a plugin.

I’ve personally come across a plugin that promises to handle everything from batch uploads to redirect analytics. Sounds great, right? More analytics means more insight into your site.

The problem with that plugin was that it would conduct redirect analytics by running traffic through their URL – creating redirect hops through another domain – which is less than ideal for your SEO. I wanted batch uploading; the plugin promised that and a whole bunch of negative SEO consequences I didn’t want.

If you plan to incorporate a lot of sweeping changes that require batch uploading, make sure that your hosted platform has an effective plugin available before you make the switch.

In a self-hosted eCommerce solution, batch uploading will require having a developer on hand who can give you a solution specific to your uploading needs.

Canonical Tags

Canonical tags help you tell Google which page on your site is the original source of information, or the “master copy” of your page.

Essentially, Google allows you to consolidate duplicate URLs by designating your “canonical URL.” This results in a consolidated site with targeted pages to which you want to direct SEO attention.

Your inability to control canonical tags means you could end up with a large number of pages that Google essentially sees as “canonicalized to themselves” – even if/when they aren’t true canonicals.

You can use canonical tags to essentially tell Google, “yes, this individual page is duplicate content, and the original source of the content can be found over here. But we need this duplicate content to help the customer experience—so don’t punish us with a lower ranking.”

When You Need to Control Canonical Tags

Let’s imagine you run an eCommerce site selling furniture. A customer browses your products and filters out a specific category like “round tables”:

Furniture -> Tables -> Round Tables

This lands the customer on a unique product listing page like /alltables?shape=round.

That’s fine for the customer. But if that page has the same essential content as the /round-tables category page, you risk diluting the content when it comes to Google’s priorities.

In that use case, we would want to canonicalize the “/alltables?shape=round” to the /round-tables category page so the /round-tables continues to garner positive attention from Google.

Keep in mind that with hosted platforms like Shopify, you generally won’t have this control. You may be able to employ fancy workarounds with the help of a senior developer. Failing that, the existing plugins for hosted solutions are lacking, which is why you would need a developer to handle complicated changes.

If you’re a small company, these use cases can be complex and you won’t always have to worry about them. But the more sophisticated your SEO needs are, the more you’ll need this type of control in the future.

Robots.txt

Most in SEO are familiar with what control over Robots.txt means, and we’ve previously addressed whether to index internal site search URLs. This is another essential avenue of control for eCommerce, allowing you to guide search engine bots as they crawl your site. The most important function is usually telling search engines where not to crawl, which helps preserve precious crawl budget, and avoid consequences as a result of duplicate content.

Self-hosted platforms tend to give you more control here, allowing direct editing of your own Robots.txt. Platforms like WordPress, Craft Commerce, and BigCommerce will allow you to edit Robots.txt, while Shopify limits your access. If you host your own site, you can expect as much control as you’d like.

Sitemap Generation

Your sitemap is a simple document that you use to show search engines. It’s a literal map of your site the search engines can use for reference.

There are generally two types of sitemaps: HTML and XML versions:

  • The HTML version is typically for the user, a list of links (hopefully with an intuitive visual display) to guide them around your site.
  • An XML sitemap is essentially the same thing, but formatted specifically for search engines.

Simple enough, right? The wrinkle: you don’t want an eCommerce platform to automatically generate a sitemap that simply includes every possible URL on the site. This might result in a sitemap with the wrong pages, including non-canonical pages, non-indexable pages or pages that are non-functional (e.g. 404 & 500 errors.) We’ve found it important to present a consistent front to Google regarding whether you do or don’t want content crawled and indexed.

Regardless of platform type, the XML sitemap may be implemented by default or may require a plugin.

There are cases for each in each direction; WordPress needs a plugin but it’s a default in Shopify. However, you may need a Shopify plugin to alter functionality since all pages are included by default.

As with hosted eCommerce platforms, you’ll find that the sitemaps can vary wildly in functionality depending on the quality of these plugins. The key is to test this functionality to ensure that only functional, canonical, & indexable URLs are included.

Log File Access

Think of log files as the screens of green code out of “The Matrix.”

Except rather than using this code to watch Keanu Reeves learn Kung Fu, you’re watching every single interaction—bot or human—that happens at your website.

As you might imagine, this data can be essential to SEO. Access to your log files lets you uncover 404 errors, discover where Google’s robots are spending the most time on your site, and retrieve the information you need to edit your sitemaps, your Robots.txt, and your other directives.

There’s a stark difference between hosted and self-hosted eCommerce SEO when it comes to log files. You’ll generally have full access when you host yourself (with the exception of WordPress, which may not give you access depending on how you host); with hosted platforms, you’ll generally have either zero or limited access to log files.

In fact, it’s sometimes so hard to get access to your log files that BigCommerce once told us we needed a legal order to have log file access. That’s not a joke.

Pagination

How you break up your individual product pages will have a major impact on your SEO.

Failure to properly paginate your category pages can result in PageRank dilution. This means that you may spread valuable authority across multiple pages when you’d prefer to keep it focused on one important page. To fix this,  you’ll need control over your SEO pagination practices:

Ideally you’ll want to use SEO best practices like rel=”next” and rel=”prev” to show bots what’s happening. Regardless of the type of solution you have (self-hosted vs. hosted platform), getting the details right here can be complicated, especially when plugins are involved. Make sure you test your functionality prior to going live and fix any issues you come across.

For example, one common plugin—an infinite scroll plugin—can be great for the user, but can interfere with your pagination. Be wary about implementing an “Infinite scroll” feature on an eCommerce platform until you’re sure how it might affect your SEO and conversion rate.

If you need to implement custom pagination solutions to optimize your SEO, you’ll find that you might need more control.

Content Marketing and Blogging

There’s good news here for anyone who doesn’t already do a lot of blogging: you can use platforms like Shopify and BigCommerce for limited blogging needs and you likely won’t run into many problems.

The bad news: if you have a huge amount of content to migrate or plan on making blogging a major part of your ongoing strategy, and especially if you like to customize your blog and content significantly (certain pop-ups, certain styles, etc.), you’re probably going to want to use WordPress.

Why is this a problem? If you’re using a hosted eCommerce platform already, it may require you putting your blog on a subdomain, which would dilute the effectiveness of your content (and the pages they link to) for SEO. This is a real challenge for those with a robust content program that want to move to Shopify and BigCommerce, where the subdomain workaround is the only real solution available.

After all, what’s the purpose of content marketing? If you receive a lot of links, you want that viral “win” to give your page a lot of search engine authority. Spreading this authority too thinly across your primary domain and subdomain can decrease the returns from all your hard work.

Stage Environment

Software breaks. Sometimes, it breaks in unexpected ways. That’s the nature of software.

A stage environment lets you make changes in a “safe” environment, running QA tests to ensure that any changes you made work as expected without breaking anything else on your site. This way, you won’t introduce new issues on the live site where both your site visitors and Google might see them. It’s a lot more work to fix these issues when they’ve gone live than if you identify them beforehand.

Setting up a stage site is possible with any type of site you have. But it can be somewhat more challenging depending on your platform or host. Sometimes, it can also be more costly. With some fancy footwork, you can set up Shopify for a stage environment. For BigCommerce, the costs and complications tend to be high enough to make it infeasible.

With self-hosting, more control over the stage environment can sometimes reduce costs over platforms like BigCommerce and give you more control.

How to Choose an eCommerce Platform

Here’s a brief rundown on a few of the questions you’ll need to ask before migrating:

  • Control: How much do you need and how much do you want? Controlling your canonicals, your pagination, and your Robots.txt can have a dramatic impact on your SEO.

On the other hand, having more control can mean more opportunities to make big SEO mistakes if you don’t know what you are doing.

In other words: “with great power comes great responsibility.”

Self-hosted platforms are easy & stable and do most of what you need, while limiting your ability to shoot yourself in the foot.

But that’s the tradeoff: “can’t shoot yourself in the foot” also means you can’t really be excellent. And if you—or someone you work with, like Inflow—knows what they are doing, this can be limiting / frustrating (like a life on training wheels).

  • Your infrastructure: Do you have the development team that can give you workarounds that support faulty plugins? Do you need regular access to your log files? If so, you might want to think about self-hosting.
  • Your strategy: Where do you most anticipate receiving organic search traffic? Be honest with your priorities. For example, if you don’t have definite plans for ambitious content marketing strategies, you may get away with using the blog functionality of Shopify or another hosted platform.

The key takeaway: ask these and other similar questions first.

Don’t decide on a platform just yet. Decide what you want. If you know your priorities, you’ll save yourself constant SEO headaches in the future.

Note: Do you want to get clarity on the best SEO solutions for you? We can help you make these key decisions. Contact us here.

Link Building Is Not Always the Best Way to Boost Rankings in eCommerce

In some situations, additional backlinks won’t do much for your rankings. Here’s how to know if backlink building is the right move — and other tactics to use when it’s not.

Typically, when eCommerce marketing teams strategize about improving Google rankings and growing SEO traffic, a lot of the conversation inevitably focuses on link building.

Link building is important, but, we’ve found from helping hundreds of eCommerce sites with their SEO, that for many sites with good domain authority and a solid foundation of existing backlinks, there are other tactics that can often move the needle better or faster than link building.

In fact, for some websites, we recommend not spending time just building general backlinks. When we’ve worked with companies like these, we’ve instead spent time on other, non-link building SEO tactics and have generated nice results.

In this article, we discuss how to determine when to focus on link building vs. when not to. Then, we outline the other tactics besides link building that we often deploy on eCommerce sites that have yielded good results.

Note: If you’d like to talk to our SEO experts about whether they’d recommend link building or other SEO tactics on your eCommerce store, contact us here.

When Backlinks Matter

First of all, it’s important to remember that acquiring many high-quality backlinks is still foundational to achieving a high SERP ranking.

For newer sites, building up high-quality backlinks should be one of the very first things you focus on. To rank on the front page of Google, you usually need at least one high-quality backlink.

But at some point, aggressive link building could yield diminishing returns because the site may already be attracting links to quality content passively.

That’s not to say there’s no place for ongoing creation of new content that also continues to attract links. But investing resources in additional aggressive link building may not be the best use of their time and some of the alternative SEO tactics discussed below may yield a higher business ROI for the company.

Let’s explore why.

What It Looks like to Have a ‘Strong’ Backlink Profile

To find out if link building is worth the effort for your site, you’ll want to open up a tool like Ahrefs and check your site for the following signs:

A High Domain Authority/Domain Ranking

Domain Rating (DR) in Ahrefs is an estimate of your site’s reputation in the eyes of Google’s search algorithm. It’s not a perfect measure, but it will give you a sense of the strength of your backlink profile. The same is true of similar metrics such as Moz’s Domain Authority (DA).

Generally speaking, the higher your DR or DA, the more high-quality backlinks, and linking root domains you have.

For the purposes of this article, it’s actually quite telling to look at the distribution of sites in different DR ranges and how many referring domains (links from unique domains) that sites in each range have, on average.

In the following table by Ahrefs, you can see this distribution:

Generally, the higher your DR or DA, the more high-quality backlinks you have, as shown here. 

DR 0–5: 146,455,043 domains (1 d.ref.domains)

DR 6–10: 10,322,431 domains (30 d.ref.domains)

DR 11–15: 5,171,577 domains (44 d.ref.domains)

DR 16–20: 3,085,066 domains (57 d.ref.domains)

DR 21–25: 2,499,437 domains (85 d.ref.domains)

DR 26–30: 2,493,952 domains (137 d.ref.domains)

DR 31–35: 1,377,630 domains (547 d.ref.domains)

DR 36–40: 861,493 domains (314 d.ref.domains)

DR 41–45: 494,599 domains (263 d.ref.domains)

DR 46–50: 313,324 domains (352 d.ref.domains)

DR 51–55: 268,988 domains (444 d.ref.domains)

DR 56–60: 152,985 domains (708 d.ref.domains)

DR 61–65: 93,021 domains (956 d.ref.domains)

DR 66–70: 64,713 domains (1,374 d.ref.domains)

DR 71–75: 64,898 domains (2,789 d.ref.domains)

DR 76–80: 21,209 domains (6,761 d.ref.domains)

DR 81–85: 7,368 domains (16,425 d.ref.domains)

DR 86–90: 3,175 domains (36,811 d.ref.domains)

DR 91–95: 967 domains (637,650 d.ref.domains)

DR 96–100: 22 domains (8,891,919 d.ref.domains)

The most important thing is the number of referring domains you must acquire to continue improving your DR, which is the number in parenthesis in each line (the “N domains” next to the DR is the number of domains that Ahrefs has indexed that have a DR in that range).

You can see that as DR increases, the number of additional referring domains you need to move to the next tier of DR grows exponentially. For example, sites with DR 6 – 10 have on average 30 referring domains, and the tier just above it (DR 11 – 15) have on average 44 referring domains. That’s a difference of 14 linking root domains.

But that difference keeps growing as you go up in DR.

Look at the difference between DR 86 – 90 and DR 91 – 95. Sites between those two DR ranges have, on average, a difference of 600,000 referring domains!

So, this begs the question: if you already have a large mass of high quality backlinks from a variety of linking root domains, is an SEO strategy that can be summarized as “Let’s just keep building more links” really the best use of resources?

It may not be. SEO is complex, so of course there are certain situations that call for more link building, but in this article, we want to challenge eCommerce marketers, directors, and founders to think beyond the view of “link building is always most important”.

As we explain below, you can often find lower hanging fruit by thinking more strategically about how to deploy SEO resources. To be fair, you may end up deciding that building additional backlinks to certain pages is the best use of time, but even if so, that is a far more strategic approach than just focusing on link building as the be all end all of your SEO strategy.

An Example of a Naturally Large Amount of Backlinks

Knowing the above concept of diminishing returns, we first check to see how many backlinks and referring domains an eCommerce site we start working with has.

What we’ve found is that many established online stores with high-performing content often already have organically attracted plenty of backlinks, so spending our time doing manual link building for them likely isn’t the best way to increase organic traffic.

For example, Moving.com has done a lot of great blogging and therefore has a variety of foundational and strategic content designed to optimize their SEO.

Using Ahrefs, we can see how their content strategy has helped them acquire nearly 10 million backlinks from 10,400 referring domains with 91% of them coming from dofollow links, giving them an Ahrefs DR of 83.

Moving.com's content strategy has helped them acquire nearly 10 million backlinks from 10,400 referring domains.

As we see from the table above, with a DR of 83, sites in the higher DR tiers have, on average, tens of thousands (or for even higher tiers, hundreds of thousands) more backlinks than Moving.com.

So, in situations like these, you should ask two questions:

  1. How is our link profile and site quality (DR, DA) relative to our competitors?
  2. How much effort would it take to build the amount of backlinks necessary to equal or outperform competitors by moving up to higher DR ranges?

In the example above, anyone who has done link building knows that tens of thousands of backlinks is non-trivial. So this would be a good situation to explore other SEO tactics and site optimizations that could boost SEO results, and give us a greater ROI on time and resources spent.

As a final note, make sure to check where your backlinks are coming from. One very easy way to optimize your SEO is to see if you have any broken referral (incoming) links and if there are any significant clusters of links originating from the same IP range.

Fixing these small issues can greatly enhance the SEO of your eCommerce site. Again, if you want us to look for you, feel free to reach out.

3 Ways to Improve SEO without Building More Backlinks

At Inflow, once we’ve identified that an eCommerce site may not see huge returns from additional link building, we’ll explore the following 3 SEO tactics:

1. Create or Improve Strategic Content

At Inflow, we often refer to two types of content types on eCommerce sites: foundational and strategic.

  • Foundational content refers to key pages in your store—like product and category pages.
  • Strategic content, however, are pages where you’re strategically targeting mid to long tail keywords that aren’t best represented by a foundational page in your store.

This content can come in a variety of forms: blog posts, buying guides, infographics, videos, resource sections — whatever fits your audience and brand the best. Good strategic content resonates with your target audience(s), educates them, and builds trust in your brand.

The key is that the content is strategically designed to rank for certain mid to long tail keywords that your foundational content (product and category pages) are not or cannot rank for (because including those keywords on product and category pages, for example, may not make sense).

At Inflow, we often look for keyword gaps as opportunities to create strategic content. One way to find keyword gaps is by conducting keyword research on your competitors to see what keywords they rank for that you either don’t rank for at all or don’t rank as highly.

While these keywords will typically have a lower search volume, they will let you rank for terms that your target customers are searching for but your foundational content would not otherwise rank for.

Think about a yoga store wanting to rank for “how to do sun salutations” — their yoga mats, yoga clothing, or yoga accessories product or category pages are likely not going to rank for that, but a blog post could.

So while just general, active link building may increase the overall rankings of all keywords you rank for, often strategically creating content to go after new, specific keywords that your target customers are likely searching for could give you better ROI on your SEO efforts.

Finally, these new strategic content pieces can often be crafted to attract natural links – e.g. data-based or resource-based blog posts on a keyword gap you identify. These types of content pieces often attract links naturally over time, without you having to spend time proactively finding link building opportunities.

2. Remove, Improve, or Consolidate Pages

One of the very first things we do at Inflow during our content audit process is to locate and weed out any low-performing pages that may be lowering the overall “quality” of the website.

While Google continues to remain secretive about what variables affect a site’s search engine ranking, we know that having a significant number of low-quality pages will damage your SEO.

Often, we’ll have new clients come to us with thousands of pages that generate little to no organic search traffic and in many cases have little to no value to users. This is content that does nothing but damage their search rankings.

Using the Cruft Finder Tool we found that one of our eCommerce clients had over 38,000 useless pages on their site — 90% of which we ended up removing entirely.

Sometimes, the answer isn’t as easy as removing the page from your site. If the page in question is strategic content or vital to your online store, we’ll either “improve” or “consolidate” it.

Improving a page can be as simple as republishing that piece of content or increasing the number and variety of the targeted keywords. If there are multiple pieces of content on the same or similar topics, we will consolidate them into one big authoritative post.

3. Improve Internal Linking

Finally, we often look to see if we can improve the internal linking architecture of an eCommerce client’s site to strategically improve the rankings of high converting pages which also have an opportunity to drive more organic search traffic.

Here are a few reasons you might undertake an internal linking strategy for your site.

  1. Improve your site’s architecture; ensure good link equity is being fairly spread across important pages to the site.
  2. Increase the number of links to high priority pages – in general, the more internal links a page has, the higher its relative value to Google. This could include product pages, category pages, Page 2 Opportunities (see below), high revenue pages or new pages being launched.
  3. You have page(s) that receive a lot of organic search traffic and/or attract external links, but the page(s) have little conversion value. By strategically placing internal links from these pages to relevant “money” pages, you can create more value from those pages as well as funnel some of the “link juice” to these pages as well.
  4. You want to remove internal links because pages (typically in the header and/or footer) are sending internal link juice in too many directions. Wayfair recently reduced the number of internal links on certain page types and it resulted in a 10% increase in Organic traffic.

At Inflow, we’ll often use this for client pages that are ranking at the bottom of page 1 or near the top of page 2. We call these “Page 2 Opportunities”. In those cases, if strategic internal linking can move the page in question up a few spots, that can exponentially increase the amount of click throughs it’s getting – in particular if it makes to the top half of page 1 (where the vast majorities of clicks go).

How does this work?

Well, internal links can carry value, similar to how external links can carry value. In particular, we’ve found that keyword rich anchor text can send a very clear signal to a crawler about what it can expect when it goes from page A to page B (but don’t overdo it). We’ve found his can often boost rankings of page B.

(This effect is similar to best practices in paid search: having the ad copy include the search keyword and have the landing page also have that keyword so all 3 steps align around the same keyword.)

We’ve found that sending those keyword rich signals with a handful of internal links can often be enough to boost a certain page up the rankings a few spots, without building any external links.

Another way to apply this tactic and give certain pages a boost is by having those links come from your best-performing pages. Although, do keep in mind that this tactic can only be used a handful of times as the more links you add, the more diluted their effect becomes.

Revamp Site Architecture to Scale Internal Link Building

Finally, in addition to using internal link building strategically to improve the rankings of certain pages, there are times where we have revamped the entire site architecture to improve internal linking on a site-wide basis.

This is, one could say, a way to do internal link building “at scale”. We only do this in certain situations where we think the resource investment in fixing this will pay off. If you’ve curious if your site could use this, contact us, and we’ll give you our honest opinion.

Conclusion

Link building is still a very important aspect of SEO for eCommerce brands. However, in our experience, after a good foundation of backlinks have been built, opportunities arise to get a higher ROI on your time and resources by deploying other SEO tactics besides link building.

Where this cutoff happens is dependent on each specific site and how much other “low hanging fruit” they have in terms of under performing pages, strategic content opportunities and more. But we encourage all eCommerce marketing teams to take a hard look at other factors that can improve SEO results besides backlinks.

You may find many opportunities you otherwise could have missed.

Note: Want a custom in-depth assessment of your search ranking performance? Contact us to get started.

BigCommerce SEO Case Study: How to Improve SEO When Moving to BigCommerce

Home Science Tools migrated from Magento to BigCommerce. Here’s what happened to their SEO after the migration, and how they’ve improved it tremendously since.

Late in 2017, one of our clients, Home Science Tools moved its website from Magento to BigCommerce.

The move went well in almost every area.

“We’re able to have better granularity and understanding of who our customers are,” said Brandy Hansen, Director of Marketing for the company, whom we spoke with recently.

This new functionality — the ability to better track who’s visiting the website and what they’re looking for — has been critical to the company’s efforts to better personalize the customer experience on the site.

“We’re able to get a certain level of understanding from what products they’re buying, the frequency, or the time of the year that they’re purchasing,” Brandy told us.

The SEO impact, however, was unexpectedly negative immediately after the migration.

“We did have some hiccups with SEO though, which we’ve been addressing.”

In this article, we’ll share with you what happened from an SEO perspective: why they had those hiccups, and how they’ve turned things around in a big way in the time since.

Note: We’ve worked with dozens of eCommerce companies to increase conversions based on organic traffic. We can create a custom SEO strategy for your business. Contact us here.

BigCommerce Blog and SEO Challenges

In general, hosted eCommerce platforms such as BigCommerce (also, Shopify) are not great places to host content like blog posts or educational resources. They all have out-of-the-box blog solutions, but the blogging tools that come with the platforms are extremely limited compared to the most robust blogging software ever: WordPress.

Thus, our recommendation to eCommerce brands for setting up your blog is to decide how much you will invest in it:

  • If you plan to have only a few posts, it will be easiest to just use the built-in, out-of-the-box blogging solution from BigCommerce, Shopify or whatever your hosted eCommerce platform is.
  • But if you plan to have, or already have, a lot of content (like Home Science Tools did) or if you want to customize lots of details about your blog (exact look and feel, social share plugins, email capture, pop-ups, etc.) then you’ll want to use WordPress.

Having a WordPress hosted blog with a store on BigCommerce has never been easy.

In fact, in mid-2018, BigCommerce came out with a new WordPress integration to address this exact issue. We don’t view the new integration to be a robust solution, but it does show that BigCommerce is aware this isn’t a strength for its platform.

In 2017, that integration wasn’t an option.

That was a problem for Home Science Tools, which had a large database of content (its “Learning Center”), which generated thousands of pageviews a month in traffic.

Its best choice was to move the learning center to a WordPress powered subdomain.

If you look at the site today, that’s the setup you’ll see.

The main eCommerce pages (built on BigCommerce) are on: homesciencetools.com.

BigCommerce SEO:  A view of Home Science Tools main eCommerce pages.

The Learning Center (built on WordPress) is on: learning-center.homesciencetools.com/blog/

BigCommerce SEO: The Learning Center is hosted on another URL.

An Initial Drop in Organic Traffic

Initially, the move to the subdomain caused a dip in organic traffic to both the main site and the learning center — a dip that alarmed everyone at Home Science Tools for a while.

It has not stayed that way, however.

In the past year, our team has worked with Home Science Tools to make steady improvement in the site’s SEO performance.

“We’ve been very judicious in how we approached SEO over the past six months, and we’ve seen some incredible results in that area,” Brandy told us.

What, specifically, has worked to turn things around?

As it turns out, the platform doesn’t matter nearly as much as you might think.

Regardless of whether your site is on Magento, BigCommerce, WordPress (WooCommerce), or something else, what matters for SEO is getting the fundamentals right.

Where the platforms do make a difference is the ease in which you can make the changes to follow the fundamentals mentioned below.

Here are two of the key “fundamentals” that have been leading to results for Home Science Tools. If you’re also looking to switch eCommerce platforms or simply improve the SEO performance on your current platform, they should hopefully be useful to you as well:

1. Getting Redirects Set Up Correctly

Home Science Tools has thousands of product pages and hundreds of content pages across its main domain and the learning center.

Unfortunately, BigCommerce doesn’t have a “smart” way of managing redirects built into its platform (like some other systems do).

Making the process more complicated, years ago, Home Science Tools was called Home Training Tools, with the URL: http://www.hometrainingtools.com.

That meant there were already thousands of existing redirects from the old domain to the new one — all of which needed to be managed as part of the migration.

Moving the learning center to a subdomain meant a lot more redirects needed to be created as well.

Combined, that left a list of many thousands of redirects to manually create, making it impractical to build every redirect that needed to be built pre-migration.

As a result, some the “link juice” from some of Home Science Tools’ backlinks got lost in the migration.

Solving this was a straightforward — if painstaking — process. In partnership with our team at Inflow, Brandy and her team identified the redirects that most needed to be built to improve organic traffic. They prioritized them, then sent them to the development team to be processed.

By doing so, we recapture a little bit of that lost link juice with every redirect we correct.

2. Removing Low-Performing Content

A relatively new tactic in SEO is the process of removing low-performing content from a website. It’s one we recommended for Home Science Tools and from which we’ve seen a very positive impact.

In the learning center, specifically, there were pages of content that had been created years ago, weren’t optimized for SEO, and weren’t getting pageviews of any kind.

For any page that met that criteria, we recommended either:

  1. Removing the content
  2. Improving it
  3. Deindexing it from Google

Anything outdated was removed or deindexed. For pages that had content that just hadn’t been updated in a while, these lower-quality pages could often be combined, creating one quality page from two or three pages that hadn’t been performing.

“We had this enormity of content,” Brandy told us. “It had been years since we’d intentionally pruned, removed lower-performing articles, or repurposed and republished pages. We started with our 16 top performing articles, improved them, and then we went down the list from there. It’s work that continues to this day.”

This aligns Home Science Tools with Google’s broader push to reward quality content for eCommerce brands, a trend that all SEO experts expect to continue.

Home Science Tools is Poised for the Best Year in Organic Traffic

Home Science Tools didn’t make the move from Magento to BigCommerce with SEO as its primary consideration.

But the move did expose a number of areas where SEO improvements could be made.

By addressing SEO fundamentals in a systematic, organized way, Home Science Tools is trending toward its highest year ever for organic traffic.

One additional SEO tactic that we have yet to implement is to move their library from a subdomain to a subfolder. Despite Google repeatedly announcing that it makes no difference, our experience — and that of many other SEOs — is that it usually does. It is possible such a move could further improve organic traffic.

Unfortunately, hosted eCommerce platforms such as BigCommerce don’t make putting a WordPress-powered blog in a subfolder straightforward. There are tactics to make it happen, which we are exploring.

Nonetheless, even if we do move the library to a subfolder and see an increase in organic traffic, it will still be the execution of the fundamentals (e.g. quality content, proper redirects, on-page optimization, etc.) that will be responsible for the majority of their SEO success.

Note: Want a custom in-depth assessment of your search ranking performance? Contact us to get started.

We Used Ahrefs to Analyze 25 Highly Competitive eCommerce Search Terms. Here’s What We Found

How can you rank your eCommerce product pages for competitive terms? What page elements help product pages rank well for trending and profitable keywords? Is building as many backlinks as possible really the key to ranking well? (Hint: nope) To help answer these questions, we identified 25 competitive eCommerce terms that have been trending upward

How can you rank your eCommerce product pages for competitive terms? What page elements help product pages rank well for trending and profitable keywords?

Is building as many backlinks as possible really the key to ranking well? (Hint: nope)

To help answer these questions, we identified 25 competitive eCommerce terms that have been trending upward in search volume in the past year (according to data from Google Trends and Shopify).

We used Ahrefs to analyze the top ten results for each keyword, then looked for trends among the results.

Some of our key findings:

  • Site authority and page authority helps product pages rank in the top 10—but they are not enough to get the top spots on their own.
  • For high authority sites, a few quality backlinks gave a strong boost to rankings.
  • Ranking in the first organic position was not a guarantee that a site would receive the most traffic.

Note: We’ve worked with dozens of eCommerce companies to increase conversions based on organic traffic. We can create a custom SEO strategy for your business. Contact us here.

It’s Difficult to Rank in the Top 10 with a Low Domain Rating

Ahrefs Domain Rating (DR) is a measure of the strength of a site’s backlink profile and overall authority.

DR is measured on a scale from 0-100. Sites with a DR over 90 tend to be household names like Amazon and eBay. Sites with a DR over 60 are often more niche sites—but ones that have a strong backlink profile.

Here’s the distribution of DR for every page that ranked in the top 10 organic results on Google from the results of our 25 keywords:

eCommerce product pages: Ahrefs Domain Rating of Sites Ranking in First 10 Positions on Google

Most sites that rank for these competitive keywords have thousands of backlinks.

If you don’t have that many backlinks, don’t worry. We’ll talk more about ranking product pages on sites with lower domain authority scores.

Site Authority Helps You Get into the Top 10—but Not to Advance into the Top Spots

How important is your site authority to ranking for the first position of Google? We looked at the median DR of sites by ranking to find out more:

eCommerce product pages: Median Ahrefs Domain Rating by Google Ranking

From the previous graph, we know that having site authority is important to ranking in the top 10. This graph shows that once you’re in the top ten, more authority won’t necessarily push you to the top.

If there was a strong correlation between ranking in the top of the first ten results and overall authority, you would expect the median Domain Rating of the top spots to be better than the lower spots.

Page Authority Matters to a Certain Extent

Ahrefs has another metric to estimate the ranking power of a single page called URL Rating (UR). You can think of it as an estimation of how Google rates the page authority of a single URL.

Like Domain Rating, URL Rating is also based on a 0-100 scale. Here’s the median UR at each position for our eCommerce keywords list:

eCommerce product pages: Median Ahrefs URL Rating by Google Ranking

Like Domain Rating, increasing the authority of an individual page seems to have a point of diminishing returns.

That doesn’t mean that aiming for a higher UR is a bad choice. It may very well contribute to you outranking some of the bigger sites like Amazon. Consider the current rankings for “yoga mats”:

A sample of what's displayed in a google search for "yoga mats". Proving that some outrank bigger sites like Amazon when they have a higher UR.

The top three results are product pages from smaller eCommerce sites that are outranking the product page from Amazon.

The smaller sites’ product pages all have a better backlink profile and UR than the product page. That doesn’t mean that page authority is the only reason they outrank Amazon, but it definitely helps.

One of your advantages against a big company like Amazon is that you’re willing to spend more time ranking a particular product page. Amazon isn’t going to do as much link building or optimizing for a single product page.

While site authority and page authority do seem to be necessary to rank for these competitive terms, Ahrefs’ DR and UR are not perfect estimates of how Google decides how to rank pages.

Consider this screenshot of the current rankings for “tank tops.” The second-to-last result has a lower DR and UR than the last result:

A sample of what's displayed in a google search for "tank tops". Proving that the second-to-last result has a lower DR and UR than the last result.

DR and UR are useful concepts, but take them with a grain of salt. Better scores in a tool like Ahrefs does not always mean you’ll get better rankings in Google.

The Quality of Backlinks Seems to Matter as Much (Or More) as the Overall Number of Backlinks

If you want to rank a product page, how many backlinks do you need to build? We analyzed the median number of referring domains by position to find out.

eCommerce product pages: Median Number of Referring Domains by Google Ranking

We can see a slight correlation between the number of referring domains to a page and its Google ranking.

At first glance, this seems to contradict the previous graph in which UR stopped mattering after a certain point. After all, UR is a measure of the backlink profile of a single URL.

How we reconcile this difference is to remember that Ahrefs UR takes into account the quality of a backlink. Our guess is that sites that rank in the higher position are more likely to have some low-quality backlinks. That means more referring domains but no meaningful change in UR.

All of this points to the importance of just building high-quality backlinks. We saw in our data clear examples of product pages ranking without a huge number of backlinks.

Here’s a screenshot for what comes up first in Google for “yoga leggings.”

A sample of what's displayed in a google search for "yoga leggings". Proving that product pages rank without a huge number of backlinks.

Yoga leggings a relatively competitive term with clear buyer intent. Yet, the first domain ranking only has one backlink (we checked, and it is from an authoritative site). The next two results have many more backlinks, but that hasn’t earned them a higher ranking. Take note that all have a DR above 50.

The rest of the pages ranking for “yoga leggings” have a UR between 11 and 20 and a DR above 40. This reinforces our earlier conclusions that building backlinks to a site and a page only work to a certain point.

Ranking First Doesn’t Guarantee the Most Search Traffic

Conventional wisdom says that the higher you rank, the more traffic you will get. This is almost certainly true for a single search as people mostly click the top results. But, pages that rank for competitive keywords also tend to rank for other long-tail phrases.

This means that it’s possible that a page that doesn’t rank at the top for a competitive keyword still gets more overall search traffic than the top ranking site.

For example, look at the top 3 results for “heat vests”:

A sample of what's displayed in a google search for "heat vest". Proving that it's possible that even if you aren't ranked at the top, you can still get quality search traffic.

The third result receives more overall search traffic than the first result. To be clear, this is not a measurement of traffic from this search alone. Instead, it’s a measurement of all search traffic when looking at all the keywords this page ranks for.

To see how often a page that doesn’t rank first for a head term gets more overall search traffic than the first ranking page, we looked at the position with the most traffic for each of our 25 eCommerce keywords:

eCommerce product pages: Position with the Most Traffic by Keyword

In only 10 out of 25 keywords did the top ranking site have the most SEO traffic overall. In the other 15 cases, a site that didn’t rank in the first position received the most SEO traffic.

So how important is it to rank at the top of a competitive keyword? We looked at how overall traffic is distributed amongst the sites ranking in the top 10:

eCommerce product pages: Median Overall Search Traffic by Google Ranking

The product pages we analyzed that ranked first did receive the most overall search traffic, but it’s not as disproportionate as is often portrayed.

You may have read that long-tail keywords are responsible for 70% of all SEO traffic. This graph shows why focusing on the long-tail is a much easier path to getting SEO traffic.

Instead of relying on just one search which fluctuates based on the ever-changing Google algorithms, ranking for hundreds or thousands of long-tail keywords can make your product page more resilient against Google’s changes.

Small Relationship Between Ranking and Total Keywords

We also investigated whether a page that ranks higher will rank for have more keywords:

eCommerce product pages: Median Number of Total Keywords by Google Ranking

The minor correlation between position and keywords reinforces how nebulous the long tail is. Still, there are general principles you can follow to maximize long tail rankings (as we’ve described here).

In Closing…

  • Increasing your site and page authority with a robust backlink profile can give you the chance to rank for keywords that you otherwise would have almost no chance of ranking for.
  • A handful of quality backlinks can help your product page break into the top 10 and even outrank some of the biggest eCommerce sites.
  • Instead of focusing on ranking for a singular term, try to rank for many long tail keywords.

Note: Want a custom in-depth assessment of your search ranking performance? Contact us to get started.