Most people know that search engine optimization (SEO) is a process for improving the ranking of a website in a list of hits from an Internet search. A high ranking increases the likelihood that the searcher will visit the site, since most people click only on results from the first few pages of results. But exactly how to optimize can be something of a mystery.
One essential ingredient is a good taxonomy. The taxonomy needs to match the way that users search, and also match the way Google indexes websites. It may seem obvious, but if a company is selling T-shirts, there should be a category of that name, rather than one that is broader, such as “shirts.” Ideally there should be a category for both “shirts” and “T-shirts,” which would look something like this:
Home > Shirts > T-Shirts
Not Like this:
Home > Shirts
Home > T-Shirts
In the first example, a search will get a match on both “shirts” and “T-shirts.” If only one category or another is used, the ranking will be high for exact matches, but lower for a partial match. For example if a search is conducted for T-shirts, but there is not a T-Shirts category, the ranking it will match on “hirts.” Since that term is not an exact match for the search term, then ranking will be lower. Having both categories increases SEO ranking for both terms.
In addition, the category name needs to be presented on the website in a way that Google can recognize and crawl. Sometimes the search terms do appear on the page of a website, but just as a word on the page. If the term is not presented on the site as a category name that matches the search term, the search engine may still find the page, but the ranking of the site will be lower.
So general search terms, such as “shirt,” or “sofa,” are more commonly used and therefore will account for a lot of traffic per term. Search terms, and by extension, category names that contain one or terms represent 20% of unique searches, but 80% of the volume. To maximize conversions, site developers need to anticipate how potential purchasers will be looking for their company’s products, and then create a matching taxonomy. Optimizing categories that match one or two search terms is the best short-term strategy to maximize SEO entries that lead to higher conversion rates.
Long-tail keyword searches use more words in the search string so they are more specific. In aggregate, they account for the majority of unique searches, but only represent 20% of the volume. Even though each one is used less frequently than one-word search terms, the searches are more targeted. It is important for optimize long tail portions of the taxonomy to account for these targeted searches to increase conversion rates. Otherwise, the seller could miss out on a lead that does’t get much volume. (The “long tail” refers to the appearance of the frequency graph of search terms as shown in the diagram below.)
SEO is more critical for smaller merchandisers than it is for large ones. Target and Amazon do not have to depend on SEO as much as they derive a lot of their traffic from branded searches, which are searches that have the name of the retailer in the query. For a smaller retailer with only regional name recognition for example, non-branded SEO can be an equalizer. With good taxonomy SEO, users do not need to know the brand to find what they want. As long as your categories are optimized for your vertical space, you will appear in search results based on the categories. Which in turn, increases your brand recognition over time.
For one online guitar company, redoing their website with SEO in mind produced a 30% lift in SEO traffic. The site defined product categories so precisely that no other merchandiser showed up at the top of the search result page. The fact that the shopper did not have to navigate on the site to reach the product improved the user experience, meaning less clicks to conversion.
Smaller companies should not give up on the idea of competing effectively with large retailers. What shoppers want is to be able to find products quickly and easily. Even though big companies can draw in the traffic, once a shopper goes there, finding the right product can be frustrating because of poor taxonomy. In that case, shoppers are likely to abandon their search. Smaller companies can compete if their non-branded SEO is in good shape and they have defined their categories well in a robust hierarchical taxonomy.