SEO 101 for Shopify

There has been much written about SEO (Search Engine Optimization), so much so that you would think by now everyone would be an expert!  The sad truth is that SEO is shrouded in a haze of misinformation and depicted as some arcane black magic, only mastered by a few.

The truth is that Google (essentially the main target of any SEO) is upfront and specific about what works and what doesn’t.   Small business owners under the impression that they need “expert” advice, often turn to market companies promising to raise their visibility in Google to the front page of search results.  Sadly most any SEO service available to a small business owner on a budget is likely to be snake oil. 

The good news is that decent SEO is easily within reach with a little work and attention to detail.

My approach is a reflection of my opinion.  If you don’t have an approach use mine until you develop your own SEO intuition - having something in place is preferable to emptiness.

A few words about Google tools:  By now you should have both a Google Webmaster account and a Google Analytics account.  If you do not, sign up for both of these free services now.

Google philosophy

Google refines their search algorithm on an ongoing basis but releases major and minor refinements periodically with little to no warning.  You may have heard of ‘Panda release’ or ‘Penguin release.’  Google names each fundamental release after a bird.  Immediately after a release you’ll find dozens of SEO bloggers writing, experimenting, and reporting on the effects.  Google never confirms or denies the exact content of a release and an entire cottage industry has sprung up for bloggers and researchers to figure out the latest and give advice.  It’s good to read these but you don’t have to respond to each and every release by reworking your entire site’s SEO; take note of what folks are saying, examine your own practices, and refine gradually. 

And don’t try to outsmart Google - Google is smarter than you.  Check out this industry article on a Google algorithm update.  See what I mean?

There are some strict no-nos with Google and coming from Etsy it’s good to note and change how you market your products. 

  • Don’t keyword spam
Etsy has trained folks to repeat keywords in various permutations throughout the listing title and description.  DO NOT DO THIS for your website.
For example on Etsy you might have a title like this:
Green and blue handspun yarn, knitting yarn, green yarn, blue yarn, handmade yarn, handcrafted yarn, mohair yarn, silk yarn, silk and mohair yarn
Holy smokes that sounds bad, doesn’t it?  Google would treat this phrase as spammy and downgrade whatever product it is associated with.
A better title for a product would be:
Beautifully handcrafted, handspun silk yarn with mohair in lovely shades of green and blue
One takeaway from this is that the second example title reads like English, gives pertinent information, does not repeat the information and trusts Google to know that handcrafted and handmade are the same thing.
The next thing to note is that my main keyword, ‘handspun silk yarn’, is not diluted; if my tests in Google Adwords (more on this later), show that the phrase ‘handcrafted mohair yarn’ ranks higher than ‘handspun silk yarn’ then that is the main phrase that I would use.
  • Don’t repeat, repeat, repeat, or Google likes uniqueness
Akin to keyword spamming is repeating content across pages.  Somewhere in the Google brain is the notion that unique words == quality words == higher ranking.  If you have two nearly identical products this is not such a big deal but if you have one hundred nearly identical products, Google may start thinking you’re trying to scam the system.
What to do? 
  • You can write a completely unique description for each of the one hundred products
  • You can try to make some of these products into variations (and live with any limitations this has)
  • You can use HTML tags (more on this later) to exclude the parts that need to be duplicated from Google search
  • You can put the duplicated information once at the description level of the Collection these products are in and omit from the individual product listings
  • Or some combination of these
  • Don’t backlink spam. You may have heard of bloggers that have “linky parties” where they post small nonsense articles with links to their friends’ shops.  Or maybe you’ve heard of websites that are only a series of links.  Google doesn’t like this and will downgrade your site if it thinks the backlinks to your shop are not authentic.  In other words links that appear on someone else’s website affect your ranking in a Google search.
    • A good backlink is worth it’s weight in gold (as far as Google is concerned) and you should cultivate these
An example would be a blogger writing an article on, say, a new sweater pattern and adding a note about how a wonderful shop, yourshop.com, provided the yarn used in the photos.
  • Google hates emptiness, missing pages, missing SEO, missing content
  • Google loves unique, written like English content, even for mundane product descriptions
  • Google loves authentic backlinks
  • Google loves longetivity (meaning how long your .com has been alive on the web)
  • Google loves folks visiting your website and hanging around

    This last one is probably the most pertinent in terms of garnering future traffic and ranking higher in searches provided you don’t do the don’ts.  The more folks that visit your website the higher you’ll rank.  The longer they stay the higher you’ll rank.

     

    How a Shopify Shop Appears to Google and Revisiting your Product Import CSV

    It’s helpful to know that your Shopify store appears to Google as a series of pages.  Each Product is a page, each Collection is a page, each Blog Post (Online Store->Blog Post) is a page, each Page (Online Store->Pages) is a page.   Near the bottom of each of these is an SEO section including a ‘Page Title,’ ‘Meta Description,’ and ‘URL and handle.’  These along with the main Title, Description, and Images, are what Google looks at when deciding whether or not to show your product to someone doing a Google search.

    Google indexes the entire internet; over and over again.  When someone does a Google search, Google looks into it’s index and returns the pages it found that match the search.  SEO is your way of telling Google what your pages are about.

    In your CSV file there are several columns that affect SEO

    Remember when I said, “Don’t import all your products right away?”  You need to be aware of how the SEO on your pages affects your Google ranking.  In your Product Import CSV file are some easy to get at places to seed the Product page SEO.  Now that you’ve got a basic understanding of SEO you can revisit importing your products and adding good SEO to your CSV file for your real product import.

    • Handle - the Handle eventually becomes part of the URL to the product, needs to be unique yet descriptive.

    The URL to your product counts as part of your SEO.  For example a URL like myshop.com/blue-silk-yarn will rank better than the URL myshop.com/yarn-566-blue

    • Title - the Title is essentially the title to the Product’s page.
    • Body (HTML) - this is the description of your product and is read by Google unless you tell it otherwise. This is where you put your most unique and worthy text.  Google looks closely at this.  Be cautious about deflecting Google’s attempts to read your content but if you must hide use the <!--googleoff: all--> <!--googleon: all--> family of HTML tags.  Do some research on this to choose the appropriate usage (or just send me a quick note for a simple example).
    • Image Alt Text - this is the short, descriptive phrase you use to describe your photo. Don’t overthink this, just put something readable and appropriate.  An example for a yarn photo might be, “Malabrigo silk and mohair yarn, color 566, shades of blue and green.”  This text will show up when someone hovers over your image, users that have voice assist, and if the image is slow to load or fails to load.
    • SEO Title - is equivalent to the ‘Page Title’ mentioned above within a Page. If you’re used to HTML this is the Meta Title at the head of your web page and read by Google.
    • SEO Description - is equivalent to the ‘Meta Description’ mentioned above within a Page.
    • Taken together the Meta Title and Meta Description should be used to present your product’s data (or any Page in your Shopify store) in a nutshell. Keep these short and to the point.

    Whoa, that’s a lot to put on every product!  But again, don’t overthink this.  A quick shortcut to seeding your product’s SEO Title and SEO Description (Meta Title and Meta Description) is to copy the Title into each of these slots.  Remember what I said about getting something in place?  Do what you can in a reasonable amount of time and get your store setup.  Then go back and start refining your product SEO in manageable pieces.

    Leave the Image Alt Text blank for now and use one of the free image optimizer apps to do this automatically (I use SEO Image Optimizer by Booster Apps).  We’ll talk about apps in a future post. 

    Regarding Page SEO

    Start thinking about your store’s SEO as pages; your Products are pages to Google; Collections are pages to Google; your Pages (like an About Page you may create) are pages to Google.  Once you get this concept you will start seeing other opportunities for creative SEO with the other parts of your store that appear as pages.  Your blog (on Shopify or not) is a series of pages.  Treat each page as a place for SEO.

    Each Collection (Products->Collections) that you make has the Meta Title and Meta Description areas.  There is a Title and a Description too and a spot for an image.  Don’t just write these up as a descriptor for your product grouping, rather treat these areas as SEO opportunities and take some care in crafting non-spammy unique wording.

    • Collections do not have to be displayed as a menu item
      • Use Collections to group your products for both menu navigation and presenting in other areas. For example, I will often make a new Collection to highlight a group of products to my newsletter readers - the Collection never appears as a menu, only as a link inside my newsletter.
      • Perhaps you’re running a promotional ad on a third party blog and you wish to highlight products the blog readers are interested in. Make a Collection to fit.
      • Add in the SEO so that Google can find the page
      • Don’t delete Collections that Google has indexed
        • When Google has indexed a page and then cannot find it, the internet sends Google an error code (usually “404 not found”)
        • A site with many “not found” pages gets downgraded by Google
        • If you need to remove a page, add a redirect to keep Google, and your customers happy. Remember that Google does not like emptiness.
      • After you’ve created a batch of pages, either Products or Collections or a Page, give Google a head start in indexing and submit a sitemap.xml to your Google Webmaster account
        • All pages get indexed by Google eventually
        • Submitting a sitemap gives your new content a head start and tells Google about the structure of your website
        • You can submit a sitemap anytime you update your pages and you should
        • In Shopify, the sitemap.xml file is generated automatically - you do not have to create this
        • In Shopify, the sitemap.xml is located at yourshop.com/sitemap.xml, where yourshop.com is the top level URL of your website.
        • Log into your Google Webmaster account and visit the dashboard.
          • You’ll see an area called “Sitemaps” and double arrows >>
          • Click on these arrows and then the red button Add/Test Sitemap
          • type in sitemap.xml and click Test or Submit
          • That’s it!
          • Revisit the Google Webmaster account in a day or so and check to see that there are not any errors or issues
            • Always resolve any issues that Google Webmaster is complaining about, even if you don’t understand them
            • Do internet research and be persistent. If Google has a problem then you’re not getting found or your website is being downgraded in search
      • Google Webmaster should have a record of all permutations of your website name
      Meaning, make sure to add the http and https versions and the www and not-www versions of your website name; this means a minimum of four permutations
        • http://www.yourwebsite.com
        • https://www.yourwebsite.com
        • http://yourwebsite.com
        • https://yourwebsite.com