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  • Top 10 Retail SEO Mistakes UK Brands Are Still Making

    Last week I asked on Twitter to see what common SEO mistakes were still being made by retail websites. This received a great response, so I thought I’d share the top replies with our readers.

    I’ve picked some UK high street retail examples to help display the issues raised, but please note that we have no connection with any of these websites – so this is an outside perspective. There may be logical reasons for the examples which we are unaware of, but these have been used in order to highlight where SEO mistakes are commonly made.

    Non-descriptive URL structure

    Ideally you want to keep your URLs concise and keyword descriptive. So automatically generated, ID-based URLs aren’t going to help your SEO, unless you’re aiming to rank for g474502s2 - in which case Next.co.uk have dominated market share!

    Next SEO


    Long and messy URLs generated by CMS

    Some content management systems really make a mess of URLs. From an SEO perspective you want to have full control over re-writing category-level URLs such as this one on Argos:

    Argos SEO

    Linking to multiple homepage URLs

    This is a common mistake – which is getting better across many sites, but if you click the logo or homepage link on some sites, you’ll find that rather than getting sent back to the root domain, you’re taken to a duplicate copy of the page on a new URL. See this example on House of Fraser:

    House of Fraser SEO

    Poor title tags/meta descriptions

    I’ve worked with a CMS before that didn’t allow you to edit title tags at all – that was a bit of a problem! Hopefully your site won’t be quite that bad, but too often people just think about SEO for generating rankings – what about click through rates and conversions though?

    Crafting an enticing title tag and meta description should be as important as writing a high CTR, converting AdWords ad – notice the difference between these two listings for Marks and Spencer – surely M&S would prefer you click on the natural free listing given the choice!

    Marks and Spencer SEO

    No user-generated content/reviews

    For conversion rates alone, having reviews and user-generated content is an excellent way to boost your site’s performance. See this case study on how onlineshoes.com increased sales by 119% due to user reviews. But it’s also a great way of adding extra content to your products – giving the search engines that extra 200-300 words of unique and what should be well-optimised copy (because it’s about the product) could well be enough to make a significant increase in search rankings.

    It could certainly be worth testing at the very least for a lot of brands, for example Ted Baker:

    Ted Baker SEO

    Forgetting about branded product search

    One of the first things I check with our e-commerce and retail clients is branded search results. It’s often just taken for granted that you will be ranking for your branded keywords, so it’s assumed that non-branded search and first-time visitors is the main target. However, this isn’t always the case and it definitely shouldn’t just be assumed – these are almost certainly going to be your top converting keywords, so a small amount of effort here can easily pay off to ensure that you’re generating the majority of traffic – which let’s face it you deserve, it’s your product after all!

    It’s amazing how many brands don’t rank for their own products though – check out these results for Sony W510 12MP which are dominated by Argos and Amazon:

    Sony SEO

    Lack of static on-page content

    Many websites struggle when it comes to having good, optimised content deeper in the site. For example, product pages which have very little descriptive text written about them could be much better optimised for search. See this example from Monsoon, which showcases the product reasonably well, but does little towards telling users and the search engines about it:

    Monsoon SEO

    Pulling search results in as category pages

    As above, sometimes category pages are very weak on content and often these are just search results which are being pulled into a page. Yes it may do a job for the user – but surely a bit more text here would help to give the search engines a bit more to go on. It doesn’t even have to be too detailed – a quick description underneath “Mens Hats, Gloves & Scarves” on the Debenhams site here would be a big improvement to optimise for the phrase “Mens Hats”, which they currently bid on using PPC, yet fail to rank in the top 50 positions in Google organically for:

    Debenhams SEO

    Webpages & content too image-based

    From the websites I’ve reviewed today, I’ve actually been quite impressed that most of these have now moved away from having content which is too image or flash-based. This is a clear SEO issue to avoid, as you want your site’s content to be as well optimised as possible – which means it should be text-rich. Topman is an example of a site which hasn’t quite got there yet – the only text currently on their homepage is navigational:

    Topman SEO

    Duplicate content – same product, multiple categories

    I’ve seen several retail sites in the past where they have caused duplicate content issues by having category-level subfolders within the product URL. Here’s one example from Blacks, where they have a product which is listed under two different categories, so they’ve ended up with two URLs for what is exactly the same product:

    Blacks SEO
    Blacks duplicate content

    Because they sit under both categories, the URLs are duplicated – so ideally it’s normally best to avoid using category-level subfolders in product pages – see Amazon for an example of this. Also, canonical tags are there to help get around this issue if it exists – but ideally you’ll want to have each product page in a single location. Hope that makes sense, but Dan’s written a much more detailed post on product URLs causing duplicate content issues – so you should read that one if it doesn’t!

    So those are the top SEO mistakes we’ve found retail websites are still making – a big thanks to Malcolm SladeRishi LakhaniPaul RogersStuart TurnerAshley HaywardDaniel BianchiniIan Galpin and Edwin Hayward who contributed via Twitter. And if you have any questions or comments on what you’ve found to be the biggest challenges, it would be great to hear about this in the comments.


    22 Responses to “Top 10 Retail SEO Mistakes UK Brands Are Still Making”

    1. Matt Ridout says:

      Good post – I think we have to realise that for some big brands out there “simple” SEO changes may not be so straight forward.

      In an ideal world everything would be setup, ready to go for SEO but the reality is that this is rarely the case – I’d be willing to bet most of these problems stem from legacy issues of their CMS’s.

      p.s. the House of Fraser issue is solved with the canonical tag which is on the site.

    2. Matt – completely agree. Resourcing is normally the biggest issue over awareness of the issue. But the opportunity cost of inaction can be very high potentially.

      As I commented on Twitter, I think we are seeing a shift in client mindset in terms of justifying & measuring SEO in a similar way to how PPC is budgeted currently. So it’s worth pushing for these changes if you can show the value in doing so.

      Also agree that a lot of these issues will be caused by poor CMS’s, making it far more complicated than it should be to fix. Good spot with the House of Fraser canonical tag too!

    3. James Webb says:

      Nice post, but one thing I slightly disagree on which so many SEOs still push hard on is this insistence on humanly readable URLs.
      Yes, they make for a much better user experience sense wherever possible, but if you’re a retailer you’ll quickly run into trouble describing overlapping concepts. I’d opt for permanent urls over keyword rich urls any day (assuming my ducks were all in a row in all other on-page aspects).

    4. James – I think the best compromise in this situation is to use both a unique ID, alongside a keyword descriptive URL.

      Amazon is a great example of how to do this:

    5. Adam Tudor says:

      As has been said, unfortunately in these cases despite being very aware of the problems there are significant barriers due to technology and processes. Two of the clients listed here I have worked with on these very issues and despite being fully aware of both the problems and solutions, it can take upwards of 6 – 8 months at least to get these addressed.

      What I would say is in any large organisation, to get changes through such as those listed here the key is to always support the development team, work with them, and where possible always put forward a business case for the changes required. Going in ‘armed’ as it were to address issues such as these can make a large difference in how effectively things are both interpreted and implemented across the business.

    6. Ben Greenwood says:

      Don’t you find though, that retail clients are unbelievably reluctant to make what can be just small changes due to cost, not seeing the benefit in actual sales they would provide.

      Even for big changes to CMS or front end redesigns, they’ll pay for themselves very quickly if done well. But no, it’s all very short term thinking.

      Frustrating for us SEOs.

    7. Thanks Adam – interesting to see that you’ve worked with a couple of these brands. We’ve had similar situations too, where recommended changes have taken around 6-8 months to implement.

      And we’ve also found putting a business case forward really helps with this to get the clients attention by speaking their language. If you can show the opportunity cost in terms of lost revenue then it always helps to push this up the priority list a bit more than predicted rankings or traffic numbers ever could.

    8. Ben, I agree that still is too often the case – but as I mentioned above – I think as SEOs we have responsibly too and need to improve our arguments for prioritising implementation – e.g. more detailed SEO forecasting, business cases etc.

      Plus the market is still evolving and clients are becoming more aware of how investing the majority of their online budgets into paid search doesn’t offer the long-term returns you get from SEO.

      There’s an excellent article here which looks at owned, paid and earned media concepts – this is definitely the way things seem to be going and we’ve certainly seen more urgency from our clients as we’ve improved our approach and looked to educate them a bit along the way.

    9. Ben Greenwood says:

      I agree that it’s our responsibility to prove the business case, but I do still find that even when that is done, clearly and in a way even accountants can understand, there’s still a reluctance to SPEND.

      It is getting better. Just very, very slowly. On the plus side, there are retail clients who embrace the benefits of SEO and give you everything you need to do a great job for them. Few and far between they may be, but they do make it all worthwhile (whilst also providing positive proof for the more reluctant!).

    10. Ben – that is true and it does depend on the client and how they manage budgets etc.

      Although I think retail is one of the better ones, mainly because it’s so much easier to measure online revenue, especially if you can use this to highlight the gap between your client and their competitors. No-one likes to be second-best, so that always helps to ease the reluctance in justifying budgets!

    11. Edwin Choi says:

      Although all of this is great advice and is definitely necessary for optimizing your site for the best revenue potential, isn’t Google and the other search engines taking wide steps in ensuring CMS funky links, duplicate content & large image-based sites are still being ranked fairly and correctly?

    12. Edwin – in theory yes, but right now in practice – not really.

      I think we’ll always need to make these things as easy and straightforward for the search engines as possible. And things like messy URLs, duplicate content etc can cause serious problems with rankings – so I’d definitely recommend fixing them.

    13. absolutely agree working for a publisher in charge of seo for multiple big brand sites business cases are extremely important however having support for the seo business case in general and buy in from senior management is a must of which i do have everyone on board and the benefits of investment are clearly understood although i understand not all in house seos are as fortunate as i. what may seem a small development to agency folk in reality nine times out of ten isn’t due to numerous factors but i understand the frustration having worked agency side too. good post but some of the brands mentioned are massive brands in retail and have major high street exposure and the brand and identity is a major factor the online business is just part of the business

    14. Asaad Dookhy says:

      I’m the Search Manager at Gift Library (an online retailer!), believe me I’m very aware of these but it’s the CMS and the time taken for every change which is the problem!

    15. Karen – thanks for the comments, if you have a great team it really makes these things go a lot smoother. There can be so many potential bottle-necks towards making decisions – especially in a large organisation, so if you’ve got everyone on the same page that’s a great advantage in terms of getting things done.

      Agree that in many cases for these highstreet brands, online only plays a small part of their overall marketing. However, we’re still talking about significant levels of budgets and online revenue – so it’s definitely worth taking seriously. Especially when you see the great jobs some website’s such as John Lewis (online revenue accounting for 13.5% of total sales in 2010 – which is only likely to grow) are doing, there’s clearly plenty of room for improvement for the others where the effort should be easily justified to get these things fixed when you consider the potential rewards open to them.

    16. Asaad – this is certainly the case far too often with online retailers – and this is the major obstacle we face when trying to get SEO changes implemented.

      However, have you tried replacing your CMS? I know it sounds like a costly move up-front, but we’ve just assisted a client during a CMS and web design pitch – and if you calculate the long-term savings in terms of development and the extra potential in revenue for getting things 100% right from the start (instead of having to use workarounds), it could be a worthwhile investment.

    17. couldn’t agree more a good cms is essential kevin and yep all good points re john Lewis it is true development does take time in larger organisations keep hassling dev is what i do hehe or try anyway

    18. Asaad Dookhy says:

      I totally agree, I wish we could change our CMS but unfortunately it’s not going to happen.

    19. The BIGGEST ever SEO Mistakes In the UK Eccomerce Sector | ATMEDIA.co Digital Agency says:

      [...] similar post over at the SEO Optimise blog has spurred me on to digg a little deeper into the big SEO mistakes that massive UK retail brands [...]

    20. atmedia says:

      Great post it inspired me to digg a little deeper with a few more dodgy retail websites, done a bit of a post here http://www.atmedia.co/the-biggest-ever-seo-mistakes-in-the-uk-eccomerce-sector/

    21. Thanks for the Post. I am glad that more and more CMS can handle good URL-Structures already – still a big problem.

    22. THEM says:

      i spend a lot of time telling my ecommerce clients exactly this :)
      now i’ll just send them to this blog post ;)

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