There is more to search engine optimization than keywords, titles, meta descriptions, and H1s. In this post, I’ll address three valuable, and often overlooked, SEO opportunities for ecommerce sites: PDFs, store locators, and product images.
PDFs and PDF Viewers
Many ecommerce sites host a decent number of PDFs. You might not think that there is SEO value in them, or even know where to start if you wanted to optimize them. But, you’d be wrong to ignore them. Let me show you.
PDF is the typical digital format for product information sheets, user manuals, and catalogs.
You can find how many PDFs Google has indexed for any site by searching with:
These PDFs accumulate valuable links like any other web page, and could help the SEO of the site if optimized correctly.
For example, a PDF guide from Home Depot for a smoke and carbon monoxide alarm has eight backlinks, according to Ahrefs, a backlink checking tool.
Sadly, like most PDFs, it doesn’t have any links back to the site. The backlinks help the PDF get indexed and ranked, but they don’t benefit the rest of the site. When users find the guide in the search results, those visits won’t be tracked in analytics. There won’t be a way for them to navigate to the rest of the site and potentially order other products.
The best way to optimize the PDFs to benefit overall site traffic is to use an HTTP canonical headerand choose one of two options:
- If the PDF is a duplicate of information already available on the site, for example a product information sheet, set the PDF’s HTTP header canonical to the page that it is duplicating.
- If the PDF has no HTML equivalent, add a PDF viewer and canonicalize the page to it.
The choice of canonicalizing to a PDF viewer requires a bit more explanation.
The main advantage of a PDF viewer is that you can add your site navigation and analytics tags, and enable users (and search engines) to follow links and navigate your site. The HTTP header canonical effectively replaces the PDFs on the search results and replaces them with the canonical URLs.
Make sure your vendor supports cross-domain HTTP canonical headers so you can get the SEO value out of your PDFs. Scene7 explains this in, ironically, a PDF. It addresses adding canonicals to images, which Google does not support, but the instructions apply to PDFs.
Store locators are another opportunity to drive nearby mobile users. But traveling around the country and pulling out your phone to see if the store locator is working correctly is very unpractical (and expensive). Fortunately, you can use Google Chrome’s powerful emulation features, to virtually travel anywhere in the world.
Let me explain the steps to use this fascinating feature.
First, I’ll review the store locator from a mobile user’s point of view, and then also check if the stores are ranking high in Google Maps.
You can access Google Chrome Developer Tools under View > Developer > Developer Tools.
Next, I’ll pretend to be in San Francisco by clicking the three vertical dots, and then More tools > Sensors and setting my location to the coordinates of San Francisco.
You can simulate being anywhere in the world as long as you know the coordinates, or you can select one of the predefined ones.
Next, I’ll obtain a list of the Bed Bath & Beyond stores in San Francisco from that company’s website.
The closest San Francisco store is on 555 9th Street. Now, let’s see how the store ranks in Google Maps. The branded searches are the easiest to rank.
I searched for “bed bath and beyond near me.” Google provided the closest store as listed by the store locator. Having Google My Business listings for each store should be enough to rank for navigational searches like these.
But what if I perform a non-branded search, such as “kitchenware near me”?
Bed Bath & Beyond products show up as sponsored listings, but no locations show up in the organic results, not even if the results are sorted by distance, where Bed Bath & Beyond is clearly closer than the competitors.
That’s because Google is prioritizing keyword relevance over proximity, for stores that include “kitchen” in the label. If I search for “bedding near me,” I do see Bed Bath & Beyond ranking third — two competitors have closer stores.
To improve your local store rankings, follow these tips, which many of the top-ranking stores use.
- Provide a web page for every store using a hierarchy of /country/city/store. Googlebot should be able to crawl every store by following links, starting from the home page.
- Make each store profile unique and valuable. List all relevant information, such as hours of operation, phone numbers, map of the location, and reviews.
- Annotate each store profile with rich snippet markup. This will help you get a nice Knowledge Graph panel, like the one from Bed Bath & Beyond shown above.
- Verify all your stores in Google My Business using the bulk upload feature. Download the sample template, and make sure to provide all the required info.
- Research how users are searching for your business, and use that to guide your ideal title tags. For example, as noted above Bed Bath & Beyond is missing out on organic listings for “kitchenware near me.”
Google image search represents as much as 10 percent of total search visitors to many ecommerce sites. Track image search visits in Google Search Console, under Search Traffic > Search Analytics, and select Search Type: Image.
But, how valuable are image searches? Aren’t image searches typically writers, bloggers, or speakers?
This line of thinking assumes that images only rank when people search in Google images. But Google often blends images with regular web search results. Also, Google image search is easier now, from phones, using the Chrome app. Think about a consumer taking pictures of a product on your competitor’s shelf, and using Google search by image to shop around for a better deal.
Optimize your images by following Google’s comprehensive steps.
- Avoid excessive text in images. Use CSS to overlay the text, instead.
- Avoid generic image file names, such as IMG0003.JPG, and use, for example, frying-pan.jpginstead.
- Use ALT text to describe what the image contains. It is important that all product images include the name of the product as ALT text.
- The content around an image can help search engines know a lot about what is it about. Alternatively, use the optional caption attribute in your image XML sitemaps.
Some SEO insights offer incremental improvement. Others can change your life forever.
We need both. But today I want to focus on three life-changing insights.
As you can probably guess, these aren’t “tactics.” These are fundamental ways of looking at your discipline. You may even have heard some of them before. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in life, it’s that knowing is different from doing.
These are three key insights that master SEOs put in practice in their daily lives.
1. The Hustle Matters Twice As Much As The Algorithm
Understanding as much as is possible about the search engine algorithms is crucial in order to be an effective SEO.
In fact, I believe that the search industry as a whole is severely underinformed. Many SEO professionals (and agencies):
- Jump to conclusions far too swiftly from correlative studies.
- Take universal lessons from anecdotes too often.
- Ignore Google’s guidelines too frequently.
- Take industry-wide “best practice” too seriously and their own data not seriously enough.
As an industry, we need to be better skeptics, experimenters, and testers.
I’m not at all dismissing the technical side of SEO when I say that the hustle is twice as important as the algorithm.
The search engine is designed to make ranking difficult. It is built on the foundational assumption that the most cited pages are the most valuable.
You have to get noticed.
Getting noticed takes work.
If you don’t put yourself out there, your SEO strategy is doomed to failure.
I can pretty much guarantee some readers are scoffing right now. “This is supposed to be a life-changing revelation that will change my life? Get real. I already know this.”
For some of you, that may be the case. But for most of you, I think the following is much more likely: you know this is what you’re supposed to do, you’ve heard of it before, but somehow it hasn’t quite sunk in. Somehow, something is holding you back, and you’re refusing to invest in the hustle.
I know because I’ve been there.
We’ve all been there.
We get stuck in that phase of information addiction. If that’s where you are, I know what it feels like.
Deep down, you know you should be putting more of what you’ve learned to action. You know you should test that tactic you learned last Friday. You know you should build a process to ensure that all of this gets done.
But you can’t help it.
Some nagging part of you says “Just this next tactic. Just this next blog post. And then I’ll know enough to really put all of this to action.”
I’m here to tell you no, you need to hit the ground running and make it happen.
And I’m not talking about trying that one tactic one time and forgetting about it.
I’m talking about having the resolve and dedication to make it an institutionalized habit.
- Put tactics to full use.
- Make it a part of your routine.
- Measure the results.
- Adjust as needed.
This is the only way to cross the bridge from theory to practice. And I guarantee when you start making a habit out of crossing that bridge, you’re going to realize just how much of the theory you come across is a waste of time.
No reserve of knowledge is more powerful than your own history of attempts and failures.
SEO knowledge isn’t power. It’s only potential.
2. If You Don’t Build It, They Won’t Come
I’m going to let you in on a little secret.
The winners of the internet don’t “produce content.” They build things.
(Easy there. We’re marketers. You’re reading content right now. We understand the value. Hear us out.)
Are you old enough to remember when the internet first started taking off? Do you remember that hot new phrase: “interactivity?”
Ask yourself, what do you spend most of your time on the internet doing?
Are you consuming the internet, or are you using it?
If you’re like most people, you spend a pretty solid portion of your time online.
More importantly, of the time you spend using the internet, you probably use a pretty small number of sites. Know why? Because most sites are built to be consumed instead of used. Most sites take lessons from their peers at the bottom, rather than the industry leaders at the top.
Just take a look at the most linked sites on the internet.
I see an awful lot of tools and platforms here. Not so many “content producers.”
Again, this isn’t intended as some kind of anti-content marketing rallying cry. Instead, I’d like you to now think about your favorite content site.
Do you use it, or consume it?
What first put them on your radar? Did you land on a random blog post, or did you come across a massive content resource of some kind that you quickly realized you almost couldn’t live without?
Look at any developed online industry and you will find that the top players have at least one page on their site that is elevated to this level.
What I mean is this: the page crosses a threshold. It ceases to be “content” and it becomes a free product. It’s something so valuable that people actually come to use it, not just to consume it. And they will likely use it more than once or twice.
These pages aren’t always the highest converting, but they are usually the most heavily linked, second only to the homepage, and they are usually the most heavily trafficked, with the highest return rate. All of these things play a crucial role in rankings, brand reputation, and brand recognition.
If you have to choose between “producing content” and “building something,” go with the latter. A tool, a platform, a community, or an “ultimate guide” is almost always going to draw more traffic and links than your next piece of “content.”
I strongly believe that you need to produce content and build something. You need both. Most only have one.
The internet was built to be used.
3. If It’s Not For Anything Else, It’s Not For SEO Either
A masterful SEO understands the search engines and understands that they can’t rely on the search engines.
Let me explain.
First and foremost, there are two simple facts:
- The algorithm changes, and it changes constantly.
- Google warns us against manipulating the algorithm.
I want to hammer these points home, because they are often either ignored or acknowledged and then quickly treated as though the statements were never uttered.
First, the algorithm (algorithms, really) is updated about 500 times every year.
Just let that sink in. It is updated once or twice every single day.
Google’s search engine is just a massive collection of interfacing code. It is interacting with a constantly crawled and updated search index. No single engineer at Google can possibly understand fully how their own search engine works.
We’re talking about a massive collection of protocols, applications, operating systems, databases, and information retrieval processes. If you’ve ever dealt with complex code, then you know how much one small tweak can change everything else inadvertently. And I’m talking about the kinds of changes that don’t show up as “syntax error.”
So if you’ve been studying all of those “ranking factors” hoping to “reverse engineer” the algorithm, you have presented yourself with a task that is quite literally impossible. We can only hope to find statistical tendencies, and you absolutely must treat every site and every SERP as its own entity with different sorts of factors taking priority.
Second, I can’t stress enough how important this point is from Google’s guidelines:
“Avoid tricks intended to improve search engine rankings. A good rule of thumb is whether you’d feel comfortable explaining what you’ve done to a website that competes with you, or to a Google employee. Another useful test is to ask, ‘Does this help my users? Would I do this if search engines didn’t exist?’”
Don’t get me wrong. The idea that you should only do things that you would feel comfortable sharing with a competitor is laughable, and pretending search engines don’t exist today is even more impossible than it was when the guidelines were first written.
But the implications are clear. If your SEO tactics are only helpful for SEO, and do nothing else for you, you’re on uneasy ground with Google’s guidelines.
Anybody who has been doing SEO for a long time know that those “pure” algorithmic SEO tactics fade with age.
Only SEO rooted solid marketing principles continue to work for you in long term.
A masterful SEO always has two eyes open: one on the search engine, the other on marketing.
Remember, the SEO mindset is one of cumulative growth.
We are looking for lasting improvements. Each incremental improvement is intended to tack more visits, more links, and more revenue to our long-term monthly figures, not just to this month’s figures.
That means not just using tactics and strategies that the search engines will always be OK with, but using tactics and strategies that don’t strictly rely on search engines to have lasting, cumulative impacts.
Put these insights to use. You won’t regret it.