How to SEO for Large Retail Web Sites : Best Practices from Amanda Watlington

Amanda WatlingtonHonestly, i know very few Ph.D’s who also happen to be leading Search Engine Optimizers. One of them is a long-time industry expert and founder of Searching for Profit, Amanda Watlington. Amanda has been a regular speaker at Search Marketing conferences for many number of years and one of her area of expertise is optimizing big brand and retail sites. As some of you would know, the larger the size of the site (read retail) the higher the number of complexities in terms of SEO. So, we were lucky to get this opportunity to speak with Amanda and quiz her on some of the challenges she faces when optimizing retail web sites and few of her best practices when working with large retail web sites.

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Bob Tripathi: Hello and welcome.  We’ve got one of the leading experts called Amanda Watlington.  I’m so pleased to have you here with me.

Amanda Watlington: Thank you very much.

Bob Tripathi: Thank you, Amanda, for doing this.  I mean, you are one of the experts in the industry.

Amanda Watlington: Thank you.

Bob Tripathi: And a lot of people really look up to your advice.  One of the areas that I’ve seen you talk a lot about is SEO:  search engine optimization for retail sites.

Amanda Watlington:  Absolutely.

Bob Tripathi:  Can you tell me how different- I know it is different, but how different is it doing SEO for a retail site versus a regular site?

Amanda Watlington: It’s very different, actually.  Part of it is the size of the sites.  You figure even a small retail site will have hundreds of pages.  Most of them are set up where every product has its own page.  Therein rests to me, both the biggest challenge and the biggest opportunity for SEO.

Many product retailers do not have adequate content or even have optimized their product pages.  They’re happy if they can pull specs that are the same specs that you’d find on any other retailer carrying that product.  One of the things we focus on, and it has yielded excellent results for my clients, has been building up content strategies for product pages; for product and category level pages.

Very large retail sites also have serious indexing challenges.  Here at SES yesterday, I spoke about site maps and how to use them and how to solve some of the indexing challenges, particularly seeing them in large-niche retailers.  You will have limited numbers of searches, the packages that they are using, and a limited amount of traffic compared to the huge site.  You have a 160,000 page site that is drawing well less than a million visitors a month.  That’s not a lot of traffic given the size of the site.  So you’re looking at what I call a “great, trackless dessert” of unvisited pages.  But those pages will never sell if they’re not in the index.  So what do you do with it, and how to you conquer those problems?  A lot of it can be conquered through creative use of category-level pages where you drive deeper into the site of the category, but those pages have to be optimized.  And sometimes there are problems with the way retail packages are designed; particularly the off-the-shelf retailing packages may not be flexible enough to let you make that kind of customization.

Where I’ve seen it most effective is where there’s the most amount of flexibility and a commitment, frankly.  A commitment to creating unique content for every page; keyword-rich content and just managing the volume of keywords for that size of-for those sites.  I’ve recently started using Wordstream just to manage the large volume of keywords and the large volume of keywords we’re using on a retail site, and we’ve seen surprising, amazing traffic results in organic search.

Bob Tripathi: You bring up a very good point because most of the folks that I’ve talked to or I know, one of the main problem is, “you know what? We’ve got 5,000 pages, but only 1,000 of them are showing up on Google” which is known as indexing problem, right?

Amanda Watlington: You’re not kidding.

Bob Tripathi: Which is I think the retailer’s worst nightmare or worst challenge, right?

Amanda Watlington: Absolutely.  Absolutely.

Bob Tripathi: Can you throw- if you don’t mind taking out of your secret bag- what are the three things or what are the things they should do to solve the indexing problem?

Amanda Watlington: Solving the indexing problem.  One of them is very simple and I said it yesterday in the session.  I told them not to use site maps like a big blunt cudgel; to use them strategically.  To feed pages, to ping pages using the technology and then checking, “Oh good, we got it.”  And then another set, “Oh good, we got it.”  And to keep adding pages in, particularly pages that have lots of content and lots of link structure coming off of them: category-level pages.  So that then, they’ve built more that can be discovered, and they’ve actually got pages that a user can then track off and discover the dessert if you will- the large dessert.  That’s to me the single biggest thing, and IT departments that say “Oh good, we’ll just ping this big…“, and they spin out these enormous site maps and then wonder why nobody’s done anything with them.  Why they’ve still got an indexing challenge.  They need to carve the problem up into usable chunks.  Chunk it up, and then make sure they get success against it.

Bob Tripathi: The other thing, the site map, which is great.  The other thing is URL rewrite.

Amanda Watlington: Oh, that is an absolute.  I’m a strong, strong advocate of URL rewriting, very much so.  If nothing else, it’s good for the user.  It’s very good for the user.  I don’t remember a bunch of percent signs and ID user… I don’t remember that.  But I do remember that I went to a site, and that when I drilled down that I went to a section that was by this name.  I will remember that, it will help me find my way back.  URL rewriting is not that hard, I’m sorry, it’s not that hard.

Bob Tripathi: Yeah, it is not hard, especially now with so much people already doing it and with sites doing it.

Amanda Watlington: And with good technology you can do it fairly easily.  A site that I’ve done a lot of work with has literally got a rewrite engine cranking in the back, because when we originally started working with this site the URL’s were absolutely monstrous.  [They were] huge, they broke in the bar they were so big.  And when we looked at the data and we looked at how are they- this was before a couple of years ago when there was still the supplemental index- all their pages were in the supplemental index!

Bob Tripathi: Now in your experience, and you might have plans that you don’t want to disclose, but what are retail sites you think is getting search engine optimization right?

Amanda Watlington: I’m really reluctant to tell you because there are some that are doing good job.  But it’s overall, to me it’s a gigantic zone of opportunity retailers need, and some are grabbing hold of it fairly well.  But there is so much opportunity to do it well and to do it better, that if I had one group that I would pinpoint and say, “Yes, SEO works for you, you need to get on this bus and start and go along”, it’s to retailers.  For awhile, and again, I’ve been in this industry for 15 years, when you look back you realize that there was a phase where it was cheap to buy the traffic.  Pay-for-traffic was cheap, so it made no sense to have to do good, solid SEO.  Now they’re better because the advertising budget will constrain their growth long term.  And I have seen the growth in client sites that have sat down and said “Okay, we’re going to get on this SEO bus, and we’re going to do it and we’re going to do it right.”

Bob Tripathi: Are there any free tools out there that you could recommend to the users?

Amanda Watlington: Oh my goodness: free tools.  I think some of the best tools are actually right between your ears: it’s your brain.  Any tool is just that, it’s a tool.  I use a real duke’s mixture of tools.  Very few of them are free.  A lot of them are subscription tools.  But the most important tool is I step back and I say, “What would I think of this site if I was a user?  How am I going to search in this site?”  I go searching and I go searching often.  I’m going to pretend, particularly if it’s retail, that I’m buying this stuff.  How easy is it for me if I was going to buy it?  How easy is it for me if I was going to find it?  What terms am I going to use?  And then I use my head.  To me, that’s the biggest tool we have as SEOs, particularly since we’re trained to look at it differently.  And that’s the clue.

Bob Tripathi: Well, I think this is great.  Thank you for your tips.  So nice to talk to you, it’s been a pleasure.

Amanda Watlington: Thank you so much.

Bob Tripathi: And thank you for being with us.  Thanks.

About Amanda Watlington:

Before setting up Searching for Profit Amanda was Director of Research for a leading Search Engine Optimization firm. She brings to Searching for Profit over twenty years of experience as a communications, sales and business strategy consultant, and ten years as a Web marketer. Amanda has developed for clients award winning print, web, training and presentation media. Visitors to searchingforprofit.com and clients can expect this site and their engagements to reflect the depth and diversity of Amanda’s experience. Amanda is the author of two books and has written feature articles for over thirty magazines and journals. Her most recent book is Business Blogs: A Practical Guide, co-authored with Bill Ives. She is currently working on a workbook to accompany this guide.

Amanda is a sought-after presenter and a recognized industry thought leader. She has appeared regularly as a speaker at Search Engine Strategies and DMA/AIM’s Net.Marketing, Annual and Multi-Channel Marketing conferences and serves on   DMA’s Search Engine Marketing Council, of which she is the past co-chair.

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