Mar 32009

SEO Tips for Large Ecommerce Sites

The following post is based on a presentation I did recently at SMX West (here it is on SlideShare). The topic was SEO for ecommerce sites, and I used my experiences working with Zappos to create a short (but hopefully useful) set of tips. Overall, my presentation was less focused on practical tips and more on the overall advantages and challenges large ecommerce sites face. (Here's a review of my panel at MarketingPilgrim: Ecommerce Search Marketing Tactics.)

With that in mind, I thought it would be helpful to give some practical tips here on the blog. Search engine optimization is most certainly different depending on the site and industry you're working on and in, and ecommerce is no exception. The large etailer, who I've worked with since 2001, is the world's greatest customer service company that happens to sell shoes, and clothing, and handbags, and lots of other stuff (yeah even Wii's!). I work alongside one of the leading ecommerce SEOs in the world, Aaron Shear, who has taught this seasoned SEO plenty of nifty tricks.


First, a quick intro to the search marketing landscape within Zappos.

In 2008, Zappos did over $1,000,000,000 in sales. In addition to strong customer loyalty and an increasingly strong brand, the company has a robust and sophisticated paid search program in place (led by Darrin Shamo).

The Zappos Search Team

While SEO has always been a part of the plan at Zappos, it's become increasingly important over the last couple of years. During the early part of 2009, we've been working on creating synergies between paid search and SEO - from developing a feedback loop on keyword data, to strengthening ROI by supporting high-cost terms with increased organic performance. There is a lot to be gained when the SEO team works closely with the PPC team, in any business.

What to Look for with Large Sites?

The most important issues when dealing with ecommerce sites (and for that matter, any large site), is really two-fold:

1. First, look for scale. What optimizations can be implemented which have the longest reach, and require the least amount of internal resources?

2. Secondly, look to leverage what's there. Do you have several hundred thousand pages indexed in the search engines? Do you have several million backlinks? Taking advantage of these existing strengths should be a top priority.

A third point, which I'll keep on its own, is to approach SEO with a user-centric point of view. A large ecommerce site is made up of a great many customers. These are not blank faces - empty people with full wallets - they are your company's lifeblood and the advocates (or deterrents) of your brand. Additionally, keeping the focus on your users will pay rewards down the road in search marketing. What are links, for example, if not votes that search algorithms score? As Bob Massa precisely states,

“Search engines follow users.”

What are the Goals?

What exactly are the goals of SEO for ecommerce sites? Well, obviously sales! Revenue is the bottom line. But what tactics and strategies lead to sales? And what is the overall goal of those tactics and strategies? Briefly, the goal is SERP domination (relevant, user-centric domination of course).

At Zappos one of our aims is to populate search results with a diverse set of listings. The following screenshot shows an example with the query women's shoes in Google:

Google SERP penetration

There are 6 listings for Zappos and (a site owned by Zappos) above the fold, including product feeds from Google Base, paid, and organic listings.

What are the Main Factors?

On big sites it boils down to one thing: muscle. Large sites can attract a large amount of links, and can get large amounts of pages indexed in the engines. On-page SEO becomes paramount; it's not about what others are doing so much. Acquiring backlinks matters less when you have a few million. With a lot of internal PageRank to push around, URLs, content and internal linking are the major factors at work. This is especially true as Google, for example, begins to reward brand strength with increased search visibility.

Lots of external links

Here's a screenshot with backlink info (and much more) from Aaron Wall's essential SEO toolbar. If you're not using it already, I highly recommend the install.

Once you have 6mil backlinks and nearly 1mil pages indexed, the game changes. There is more muscle to push around. In situations like this, we ask ourselves: what can we do that will have the biggest impact, with the smallest resource investment?

A few of the main criteria we look for include:

      • URLs:

    Search engines like pretty, user-friendly URLs without excessive duplication (one URL per page please). They improve the experience in search results, they add context and relevance, and make the search engines a better place to search. Keywords in domain names trump pretty much everything (but not sub-domains anymore, so much).

      • Internal linking:

    Internal linking isn't just about spiders, of course, but it sure helps them get around. A good information architecture should be the foundation of any ecommerce site. Above and beyond that, related product and category links (relevant, targeted, and limited in quantity) are very effective for users and SEO.

      • Content:

    Everyone knows people want content. Because people want content, search engines want it too. Therefore, make content that people want to read, and share, and tweet, and bookmark, and make it easy for bots to find.

      • Internal linking:

    It's important! So I listed it again.

      • Backlink acquisition:

    As was already pointed out, backlinks become less of a dependence issue as they grow in quantity. Where backlinks continue to be important, however, is when a company wishes to branch out and extend their brand into new product or category verticals.

      • Internal linking

    Yup, listed it again. It's that important.

    SEO isn't Only About SEO

    You read that right - SEO isn't just about search engine optimization. It's also (dare I say mostly) about people. Getting buy-in on projects can be very difficult in a large organization, where development resources are spread thin. What's the solution? Create projects that aren't about SEO, but have valuable search benefits. Projects that build on interesting or creative ideas, but also have SEO value baked in, can be very effective for taking shortcuts around typical company 'sell and deploy' time cycles.

    The Product Smackdown! at Zappos

    Using language beyond just "getting some links" or "encouraging crawling" (things we care a lot about as SEOs) gives you more credibility and implies a wider potential impact that other teams will appreciate. It's also easier to push a project from idea to implementation. By making it less about SEO and more about the site's visitors, and by providing enough inherent value that it will spread well on its own (or at least have a good chance), we can shortcut SEO into particular lifecycles of the company.

    Why is this a good thing? In short, user-centric projects:

    • Are sometimes easier to get buy-in
    • Take the focus off SEO for essential departments like dev and UX
    • Keep the focus on providing value (the end goal, right?)

    The Big Picture

    Aside from the benefits and challenges in working with large ecommerce sites, there are political factors at work. Bottom line: you have to know where your place is in the overall processes of a large organization. SEO isn't everything, and your team is just another team with their own particular needs, goals, and priorities.

    Is it good for the company?

    Resources are a constant hindrance to success in SEO at any large company. The dev team is already taxed and limited with time, and the last thing they want to hear about is your SEO needs. There are also difficulties getting SEO 'believed in' among development and UX teams (and if they're anything like Zappos, they're going to be incredibly bright and sharp folks). They code the sites, create the user experience, and we're the consultants recommending tweaks and fixes (as well as new initiatives). I've found the best way to fit into such a professional hierarchy is with sincere respect, and a knowledge of my own place in the picture.

    At the end of the day, we are all working towards the same thing: growing revenues. It's not about you, it's about the company's bottom line. Put your ego aside, provide value, and make it happen!


    33 Responses to "SEO Tips for Large Ecommerce Sites"
    Excellent documentation, thanks for posting it.
    Nico says:
    Great resource! Thank you.
    Great Post. It's good to look to the giants for tips that can help us all. I have had good luck with the keywords in the URL's as well. ~Nate
    Keonda says:
    Hi Adam, congrats for the work made on I noticed last month that many pages were indexed. Looks like they are all 301 redirected to the www subdomain now. But still have "at Zeta Zappos" in their title... It might be a detail you forgot to change?
    Adam Audette says:
    @Keonda thanks - we'll get those titles updated. Thanks to everyone for the comments as well, glad the post is helpful.
    Keonda says:
    You're welcome :) May I ask you a question? All the brands' pages are located right after the root domain ( instead of inside a "brands" subdirectory ( Is there a particular reason to do so?
    Adam Audette says:
    @Keonda typically the closer to the root domain a page is, the higher it will be weighted. Not a hard and fast rule. Also, it makes a better user experience to see instead of
    Keonda says:
    @Adam All things being equal, you'd say it is easier to get good rankings for 1000+ subfolder pages rather than 1000+ pages inside one subfolder?
    AnneHaynes says:
    Like I always say, "If it's on the Internet it better be optimized!" Really great article and Aaron Shear is the MAN!
    Liviu TaloI says:
    Nice and useful article. Thx.
    Tana says:
    Adam, *excellent* post! I work with large e-commerce sites too, and I found your advices very helpful. Thanks for sharing your experiences :) Cheers from Buenos Aires!
    Val S says:
    While the article was quite informative and well written, there is one slight problem. The exact search(using the link you provided and also done by myself while not logged into Google) shows Zappos is only in the 11th place(that is 2nd page) and 6pm comes in at 16th. What could be the cause? Geolocation, different data centers, something else? In any case, there is always room for improvent in one's search results. :)
    Adam Audette says:
    @Val - rankings fluctuate. In the example for 'women's shoes' we recently changed URLs from /womens.zhtml to /womens-shoes but are having an issue with that redirect for various reasons. We're working on it!
    Hi, Thank you for the information. Recently I decided to start using more and more the internal linking on one of my websites. I just started so I can't say that I'm already seeing the results. But I'm happy to see you pointing out the importance of internal linking. @TomaBonciu
    How can SEO and a search engine marketing campaign improve Leadsmarketer website ( position in the search engines? Our marketing and sales department invested a lot of resources in writing all the content for our web site but we just can’t seem to be ranking high enough in the engines, while our competition is on top. Do we have to re-write it all over again?
    Excellent post Adam - I've been searching for some articles like this and I'm very happy to find a credible one with some tips rather than shameless self-promotions. I've been working on the SEO at an amazing new company, As a database driven site that requires geo-targeted keyword optimization, I've had some trouble finding improvements. Your article has given me some ideas that I'm excited to investigate. @Leadsmarketer - The first thing I noticed on your website is that your sitemap is an anchor link and I believe incomplete. A solid sitemap (make sure you submit that to Google as well) will help the crawl and index rate. Also some simple improvements without a re-write would be to add anchor links on relevant links and images. You can always engage in link-building, like you are doing by adding linkbacks on your comment above. Hope that helps. Thanks again Adam, I'll be back for more I'm sure! Cheers, Kris
    Kris Scheben-Edey says:
    Edit on: Also some simple improvements without a re-write would be to add anchor links on relevant links and images. Edit: Also some simple improvements without a re-write would be to add anchor TEXT on relevant links and images. Cheers
    Thanks for sharing your experiences
    thanks for the SEO toolbar info.. looks very usefull
    What about image naming? That never seems to be considered enough. Internal linking / anchor text / alt text / meta / searchable content / backlinks... and USER EXPERIENCE, but image naming always seems to be left out. It's important. not sure why people don't mention it.
    tonicarr says:
    Thanks for this post. You have clarified for me where I should put my valuable time into developing an e-commerce presence for one of my clients. I was thinking we needed to build up the back links into the site, but now I am realizing it is more important to work on the internal linking. I knew this all along, but was really torn and I know they have many broken links that should be fixed. I am trying to take it one step at a time and not conquer everything at once.
    Great post, although my commerce site is not considered large by any means, these tips help lay the groundwork for much room to grow!!
    thanks for the SEO toolbar info.. looks very usefull
    That's really a fantastic post ! i'm optimizing an e commerce site nowadays ...Thanks for posting this. Awesome idea!
    Indonesiahai says:
    I love this post. It's open my eyes about the necessary of internal link.
    This is very useful information, especially for web designers. Thanks!
    This is extremely good advice for corporate search engine optimisation. Above all we have to focus on the user and remember SEO is just one ingredient in the mix.
    Tammy Taylor says:
    Awesome! Some really helpful information in there. Bookmarked. Excellent source.
    Pablo Canano says:
    I seen to think in the sameway. User are the focus, ando content will always be the king. And techniques only exists to serve main objects.
    Arturas says:
    Really great article, thanks for sharing your experience. One important thing I believe is image SEO optimization, when done right it can bring a lot of targeted traffic for ecommerce websites.
    Jason says:
    Adam - how does content help you rank for women's shoes? You're talking about a standard e-comm category page; respectfully, it's not much different from the dozens of similar pages that Zappos competitors offer. How does content on a page like this directly impact rankings?
    Adam Audette says:
    @Jason you mean a page like this? I'll let you figure it out.
    Craig says:
    Great Post. It’s good to look to the leaders for advice and tips that will help. Keywords in the URL’s is a great tip.

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