Unsurprisingly, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought about big changes in the way we shop, with many of us turning increasingly to ecommerce for everything from groceries to fashion. The aggregate effect of this change in consumer behaviour is that overall UK online retail sales in June 2020 were up 33.9% year-on-year and 3.5% month-on-month (a new 12-year high).
Whether your business has brick and mortar stores or operates solely online, it’s more important than ever to develop an effective ecommerce digital marketing strategy. Beginning with your top-level ecommerce strategy, this guide explains the best practices for SEO, PPC, and channel integration, providing actionable recommendations throughout.
What is an ecommerce strategy?
An ecommerce strategy outlines a company’s objectives for selling online and how it aims to achieve them. It should include detailed plans for each digital marketing channel, as well as an explanation of how these channels will work together to achieve common goals.
A firm’s website is usually at the centre of its ecommerce strategy. Activity across the majority of channels should drive relevant traffic towards this important digital asset and encourage users to convert once they get there. Some firms supplement this with third-party channels like Amazon, but a sustainable business model should focus primarily on sales via owned assets like your site.
As well as highlighting each channel’s contribution to the bottom line, an ecommerce strategy should plan out the customer touchpoints involved at every stage of the conversion funnel. Without effective campaigns across your blog, socials, and PR activity, you’ll miss out on top-of-the-funnel users and reduce your potential audience.
Creating an ecommerce digital marketing strategy
This section explains how to create a top-level ecommerce strategy, from choosing your channels through to planning and implementation. If you already have a clear picture of how this looks for your ecommerce site, feel free to skip ahead to the specific SEO, PPC, and integration sections below.
Choosing your digital marketing channels
When discussing ecommerce digital marketing channels, we tend to talk about paid, owned, and earned media. The diagram below shows a range of channels that are commonly used in ecommerce, highlighting where they sit within this framework:
The first step towards creating an ecommerce strategy is to decide which of these channels to leverage. Aside from a website, most online retailers use social media, email marketing, and a range of paid media. When choosing channels, research what your competitors are doing with online advertising and check which digital assets they own.
You don’t need to cover all bases with your channel selection. Think carefully about the benefits that each option would provide in your particular business context: for example, as an established retailer, you’ll find it easier to rank for other keywords than less well-known companies by virtue of your brand’s authority, freeing up budget for more innovative tactics like remarketing.
Search engines see new ecommerce sites and challenger brands as less authoritative than big-name brands, meaning that SEO is typically more of a challenge for newcomers. For some of our smaller ecommerce clients, low site authority can act as a barrier to organic ranking improvements, so we often combine on-page optimisation, link building, and paid media bursts to get things off the ground.
Planning and setting SMART objectives
Once you’ve decided on your digital marketing channels, it’s time to start thinking about objectives. The metrics you pick as your main KPIs should be SMART:
If you’re running an ecommerce site, then your overarching aim is to increase online revenue. To turn this into a SMART objective, decide on a specific percentage increase goal within a certain time frame – and make sure that the figure you choose is achievable.
For example, you could set the objective of consistently hitting 2.2% month-on-month increases in online revenue across all channels (alternatively, you could adopt quarterly or yearly review cycles). The key is to aim for incremental improvement, setting the bar at a level that’s above your current performance but not so high that it becomes unrealistic.
Each department will also have its own set of individual objectives, which should all contribute to the firm’s overall online revenue target in some way. For example:
- The SEO team might set an objective to achieve page-one rankings for an agreed set of focus keywords within a six-month period;
- Digital PR could be looking to land a specified number of backlinks from sources with a Domain Rating of 60+ within a certain timeframe;
- PPC could be aiming to improve ROAS by a predetermined amount each month;
- Social and email teams could set short-term engagement objectives (e.g. increase average click-through rate by 1% each month) backed up by long-term financial aims such as increasing channel revenue contribution by a figure that’s set each year.
Implementation and adjustment
The final and most important phase involves implementing your plans and monitoring the results. Before you can do this, you’ll need tracking and analytics platforms in place.
As a minimum, you need to have Google Analytics set up with ecommerce tracking enabled. It’s also essential to set up Google Search Console (pictured below) so you can track ranking changes and work out which queries are driving the most organic traffic.
For a step-by-step explanation of how to set up your Google Analytics tracking and obtain the data you need to make informed adjustments to your ecommerce strategy, take a look at our Advanced Google Analytics Audit Guide.
Beyond this, the tools you use to track your progress will vary depending on which channels you’re leveraging and what your objectives are. For example, SEO and digital PR would both benefit from backlink analysis software, which would enable you to assess the quality of new links as they come in and audit your existing backlinks.
Ecommerce SEO strategies
As a channel that drives more than 50% of trackable web traffic globally, SEO should be the foundation of your ecommerce strategy. Sites that see a high proportion of their traffic from organic sources are in an excellent position from an ROI perspective, opening up the option to re-invest budget in other forms of online advertising or elsewhere in the business entirely.
In many ways, SEO is a natural precursor to other types of digital marketing that you might go on to use in ecommerce. Enhancing the content on your site can deliver excellent results across other channels:
- The conversion rates of your PPC campaigns will increase as you improve your landing pages, helping to boost ROAS.
- Users who arrive at your site from paid social media campaigns will be more likely to convert if the quality of your landing pages is in line with your social ads.
- Your email marketing efforts will see more conversions if you have high-quality blogs and product pages to drive users to.
Committing to SEO is a strategic investment: your company’s site will grow in value as you build links towards it and gain rankings for a wider cross-section of keywords, becoming a valuable asset for the future. That said, there’s no denying that it’s a long-term game – if your team has never done SEO work before, it’s likely to be a month or two before you see any gains worth shouting about.
The holistic approach to ecommerce SEO
At Impression, we adopt a holistic approach when it comes to ecommerce SEO strategies. We tend to orient our plans around the three pillars of SEO: technical, content, and off-page. When optimising an ecommerce site, it’s often best to begin with a thorough technical health check.
Technical SEO health check
Technical aspects of your ecommerce site such as its speed and mobile friendliness are closely linked to its capacity to rank in organic search. As part of your technical SEO strategy, you should initially look to investigate whether all of the pages on your site are:
- Mobile friendly
- Crawlable and indexable
- Loading fast enough
- Accessible to all users
If you’ve already covered these areas as part of your ecommerce strategy, feel free to jump ahead to the content section.
Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test allows you to test the visibility and usability of individual pages when viewed on a mobile device. When auditing your ecommerce site for mobile friendliness, you’re primarily looking to see whether tap targets are appropriately sized for mobile users and if the content adjusts to the size of the screen.
During your initial technical audit, it’s important to test the mobile friendliness of all the pages on your site (not just the homepage). To achieve this, you’ll need to:
- Compile a list of every URL on your site using web crawling software like Screaming Frog’s SEO Spider or DeepCrawl.
- Copy and paste this list into a bulk testing tool such as TechnicalSEO.com’s Mobile-Friendly Test to work out if any pages have mobile-friendliness issues.
- Keep a spreadsheet of the affected pages along with details of the page elements that need fixing.
The final output from your bulk mobile-friendly test should be a table that looks something like this:
Crawlability and indexability
Once you’ve ironed out any mobile-friendliness issues with your web development agency or in-house team, it’s time to focus on crawlability and indexability. The setup and architecture of your ecommerce site need to allow search engines to crawl all of its important pages and add them to the index so that they can be served to users in the search results.
Firstly, make sure that you haven’t accidentally no-indexed any pages. Ecommerce sites commonly use these methods to have specific URLs excluded from the search results. For example, it’s best practice for checkout pages to be no-indexed. Before putting your ecommerce strategy together, you should check that you haven’t excluded any pages that you want users to be able to find.
To achieve this, use the Index Coverage report in Google Search Console to access a visual representation of the URLs that have and haven’t made it into Google’s index:
The Index Coverage report also explains the reasons why your pages haven’t made it into the index:
In cases where a URL is marked ‘noindex,’ you’ll need to check whether the page has a no-index robots meta tag applied. If it does, then either delete the code yourself or ask your developers to help. When Google next crawls the page, it should be added to the index and start to appear in organic search. You can validate your fix in Search Console.
Should you find that this fix doesn’t work in your case, it’s likely that another method of no-indexing has been used. Check the site settings in your CMS – here, you might find that part of your site has been set as ‘not discoverable in search’ (note that the phrasing will vary depending on your CMS).
After you’ve finished this initial task, validate your fixes in Search Console. Remember to log back in to this tool every now and again to check up on your index coverage, ensuring that new pages are indexed as and when you add them to the site.
PageSpeed and Core Web Vitals
In April 2010, PageSpeed became a ranking factor in the algorithm that determined Google’s desktop search results. Eight years later, as more and more users began to access the search engine via mobile devices, Google extended this rule to apply to mobile search results as well.
The speed with which pages load on your ecommerce site has implications both for SEO and the user experience (UX) it can offer. When you look at the data, it’s easy enough to understand why search engines would place so much emphasis on these aspects of a site:
Here, the term ‘bounce’ describes a situation in which a user lands on your site and then leaves without visiting any other pages (not what you want to see as a site owner!) To avoid this, you need to prioritise PageSpeed and UX as vital areas of focus in your technical SEO strategy.
Core Web Vitals are a type of page experience signal that Google will be added to its ranking algorithm in 2021. The following metrics are included under the umbrella of Core Web Vitals:
- Largest Contentful Paint (LCP) – The time taken for the largest content element on a page to become visible.
- First Input Delay (FID) – Measures a page’s responsiveness during load. It focuses on interaction events like clicks, taps and key inputs.
- Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS) – Indicates the extent to which a page’s elements move unexpectedly whilst its content is still loading.
If you’re looking to establish a really technically sound ecommerce site that ranks well in organic search, you need to address any issues with these three metrics before they become part of the ranking process in May 2021. Use the Core Web Vitals tab under ‘enhancements’ in Google Search Console to help identify and fix issues (although you’ll also need the help of your web developers).
Accessibility is another important element of your ecommerce strategy. The main objective here is to ensure that everyone who visits the site can access and get the most out of its content. For example, some users may be partially sighted and using screen readers, so it’s important that your content can be read by assistive technologies.
As part of you the technical SEO strategy you plan out, you should at least focus on the following accessibility considerations:
- The use of descriptive image alt text across all pages on the site (read our guide to the use of photography in ecommerce to learn more).
- Ensuring that there is enough contrast between background colours and copy on every page so that partially sighted people can read the text.
- Using headers to structure your content in hierarchical format: only use one h1 on each page, then nest subsequent sections and subsections within each other using h2s, h3s, and h4s.
There may also be some value in working on accessibility purely from an SEO standpoint: in a recent research paper published by Impression, we found a strong correlation between the average Accessibility score of 100 leading ecommerce sites and their ability to rank highly in organic search (you can check your own site’s Accessibility score by using Google Chrome DevTools).
It’s worth noting here that correlation doesn’t imply causation, but it definitely can’t hurt to make your site more accessible to all types of users and potentially improve your rankings in the process.
From a technical standpoint, the final major component of your ecommerce strategy is the security and trustworthiness of your site (as you might imagine, search engines place a lot of weight on these factors when deciding which brands and retailers to show to users).
Google has stated that HTTPS is a ranking signal. Sites with ‘https://’ before the domain name instead of just ‘http://’ tend to rank higher in organic search, and this is particularly true in the YMYL sector, which includes all ecommerce sites. You may also have noticed that HTTPS sites appear with a lock symbol in Google Chrome’s search bar, indicating a trusted site. To get one of these, you need to obtain an SSL Certificate.
If you’re thinking of expanding to become an enterprise-level ecommerce site in the future, you should also consider investing in an Extended Validation SSL Certificate (EVSC), which is the next step up in security certificates. Take a look at the comparison below to see the visual difference between EVSCs and HTTPS sites in Google Chrome:
As you can see, New Balance has an EVSC, so the site appears with the lock symbol and the brand name (rather than just the lock, as in Ralph Lauren’s case). Whilst a standard SSL is easy to get hold of, brands must go through a more rigorous offline audit to establish their legitimacy and trustworthiness before they can obtain an EVSC.
Impression’s recent research into ecommerce ranking factors found that, out of 100 fashion ecommerce sites, those with EVSCs had twice as many organic keywords in the top ten on average than those that only had regular HTTPS, so it might be worth splashing out on one if that’s an option (but bear in mind that correlation does not equal causation).
Content for ecommerce sites
The importance of great content for ecommerce sites is often underestimated. It’s true that lots of brands perform well with little more than occasional on-page work like minor tweaks to h1s, copy, and metadata. In many cases, though, these companies succeed naturally because they can rely on the authority of their site to improve rankings (more on this in the off-page section below).
That said, it’s still possible to stand out in organic search as a new entrant or challenger brand, but it does require much more effort from a content perspective. Putting together an effective ecommerce content strategy takes time, effort, and the right tools. The sections below explore how you can use your content to attract users to your site and encourage them to convert.
On-page SEO fundamentals for ecommerce
To get things off the ground, you should allow time in the first few months of your content strategy for the following tasks:
- Putting together a keyword targeting map.
- Adjusting the meta descriptions and title tags of your category, subcategory, and product pages.
- Adding shipping, returns, and payment info to your product pages.
- Implementing on-page customer reviews.
1. A keyword targeting map is just a list of the pages on your site with their URLs, the keywords they should target, and the average monthly search volumes of these keywords. In some cases, we take this one step further for our clients by adding in the metadata (i.e. meta descriptions and title tags) that each page will use.
2. Title tags are the blue titles that appear under the URL in a search listing; meta descriptions are the short sections of black descriptive text that appear underneath title tags (see below). You should use the target keywords for each page in its title tag and meta description, but be careful not to go overboard with this as keyword stuffing can have a negative effect on your rankings.
Use title tags to help search engines and users differentiate between your category, subcategory, and product pages:
- Category title tags should target general keywords (e.g. ‘jeans’);
- Subcategory title tags should be more specific (e.g. ‘skinny jeans’);
- Product pages should target the actual name of the product (e.g. ‘LEVI’S® 519® Black Skinny Hi-Ball Jeans’). In some cases, SEOs will add terms like ‘buy’ or ‘order’ to product page title tags in an effort to provide an even clearer signal of what the page is about.
3. Shipping, returns, and payment info should all be featured on your product pages – you wouldn’t buy from an ecommerce site without having access to these details beforehand, so why should your customers?
4. On-page customer reviews will help to encourage conversions and they also offer some SEO benefits, helping to improve your rankings in organic search. John Lewis does reviews really well using a dedicated module at the bottom of each of its product pages:
Long-tail content strategies
Ecommerce SEOs frequently overlook the value of effective long-tail content strategies. Our recent research found that only 26 out of 100 top fashion ecommerce brands regularly update the blog, news, or press section of their site. Interestingly, the sites that added fresh content at least once a month saw much more organic traffic (277% more on average).
Explaining the fundamentals of an ecommerce content strategy is far beyond the remit of this post, but luckily there’s already a really useful resource for this on the Impression site. If you’re interested in tapping into a new source of customers and diversifying your traffic through long-tail content, check out our guide to creating content strategies for ecommerce.
Off-page SEO: auditing and link building
As the name suggests, off-page SEO refers to all of the work that’s carried out away from the website itself. The primary objective is to build high-quality backlinks from relevant publications to your ecommerce site, thereby improving its authority, boosting rankings, driving referral traffic, and increasing wider brand awareness. Often, this type of work will be carried out by digital PRs.
We always recommend that brands focus on getting their on-page SEO right before moving on to off-page: without effective keyword targeting in place, your site won’t rank even if it has lots of backlinks from relevant, authoritative sources. Equally, there’s little point spending money on digital PR campaigns if your site isn’t in a fit shape to convert users once they arrive.
Arguably the trickiest part of off-page SEO is acquiring the backlinks in the first place. There are plenty of different avenues for you to explore in this department, including:
Particularly in ecommerce, high-quality creative content earns links. A helpful blog post or video on your site can be used as a linkable asset for outreach. Equally, resources on niche topics within your industry will often pick up backlinks naturally once they’ve been shared online, so plugging your campaigns on social media can complement your wider link-building efforts.
A balanced link building strategy is key to backlink acquisition for SEO: it’s important to supplement your large campaigns with smaller thought leadership, newsjacking, and reactive comment pieces to ensure maximum coverage. For example, you could leverage your position as an authority in your niche by reaching out to journalists with your perspective on a particular topical issue.
Fixing broken backlinks
As well as building new links to your site, schedule in some time in your ecommerce strategy to identify and fix broken backlinks. We describe a backlink as ‘broken’ if the recipient page on your site is serving a 404 status code. There are plenty of online platforms that let you check for broken links, including paid-for tools like Ahrefs and free, basic alternatives such as SmallSEOTools’ Broken Backlink Checker.
If you find that there are broken backlinks pointed towards pages on your site, the solution is to 301 redirect them to a suitable alternative (check out our guide to redirection for more information). In most cases, the best option is to implement a redirect to the most relevant category page on your site or the homepage if you can’t find a suitable alternative.
Disavowing low-quality links
Not all links are made equal. In some cases, you may find that you’ve picked up links from low-quality sites that are full of spam and serve no real purpose. For example, if you come across a backlink from a site that describes itself as a ‘link directory,’ it’s important to distance yourself from the site in question by adding it to your disavow file before it has a negative effect on your rankings.
Search engines use backlinks to determine how authoritative your website is – as a result, they’ll sometimes view links from disreputable sites as a negative signal and, in the worst cases, Google may even issue a manual action (a penalty that reduces your rankings in an effort to dissuade you from building links to your site through unnatural means).
To avoid this, you should consider adding any low-quality linking domains to your disavow file. We always recommend that you carefully follow Google’s step-by-step instructions on how to prepare and submit a disavow file because any mistakes could have a noticeable negative impact on your rankings in organic search.
Amending your disavow file is not something you need to do routinely as part of your ecommerce strategy – the vast majority of your off-page work should be focussed on building new links towards your site from authoritative sources and fixing broken backlinks when required.
PPC strategies for ecommerce
Search Engine Marketing
Whether you call it SEM, PPC or something else entirely, paid search advertising should definitely form some part of your ecommerce strategy this year.
Unlike SEO, pay-per-click (PPC) advertising gives you the ability to choose exactly which keywords you want your website to show up for and allows you to put yourself in front of your potential customers instantly.
Once you’ve chosen the price you’re willing to pay for the traffic, you’re entered into an ad auction with other advertisers to determine your position in the search engine results pages (SERPs).
Since one of ecommerce’s main challenges is getting in front of prospective customers at the time they’re looking to make a decision, it doesn’t get much easier than advertising to prospects who are actively searching for products or services that you offer.
Everything from your maximum bid to the relevance of your landing page to the keyword can determine which position your ad shows in. That means that optimising a landing page to rank for particular keywords to improve your organic presence can actually lead to a reduction in advertising costs.
Paid search is particularly useful for advertisers who want to attract sales quickly, showing your ads only to users who are actively seeking the products that you offer.
High-intent search keywords
PPC gives you the ability to target users based on what they search for on Google. However, do it in the wrong way and you’ll quickly find yourself out of budget.
Rather than just advertising on any words or phrases that prospective customers might associate with your products, niche down in order to qualify your leads early on.
Let’s say you’re advertising shoes. Instead of spending your budget on those higher up the buying journey who are simply looking for “trainers”, you can get super specific and target the most qualified traffic out there looking for “buy red stilettos online”.
Intent is one of the most important aspects of search marketing. When someone searches for “trainers” are they looking for footwear or fitness experts? Paid search allows you to focus on the subset of high-internet searches that drive results.
Even better, once you’ve identified the search terms that drive you the most sales, you can pass those over to your SEO team in order to allow them to optimise your landing pages for those keywords and reduce your cost per acquisition.
If you want to automate the progress, we have a handy Google Ads script which emails your SEO team a list of your best-performing search terms on a regular basis. Make sure to check out our Converting Search Query script once you’ve finished reading this guide.
Google Ads Smart Bidding
Google almost certainly knows more about us than we’d like to think. Not only does it know what we search for, but also what we like to watch (Google owns YouTube), where we go (Google Maps and Waze are both owned by Google) and if you have an Android phone or a Google smart speaker, the company probably also knows how many times you called your mother and listened to Ed Sheeran last year.
As scary as this all sounds, Google also knows this about your prospects. Using advanced machine learning, Google’s Smart Bidding allows you to optimise your bids based on signals from the user, including where they are, which device they’re using or even if they’ve browsed a product in a previous site visit. Even if someone visits your website via an organic search, they’ll still be placed into one of your remarketing lists, meaning that, once again, SEO can have a very positive impact on the performance of your PPC and drive you more conversions.
Naturally, Google has kept very quiet about exactly which signals and how many of them it takes into account, but lists more than 15 on its website with more coming soon. Time of day, location, device, language and operating system are all taken into account by the machine learning algorithm in order to set the right bid for the user.
In fact, Google’s Smart Bidding will even take into account similar product attributes across products, for example, increasing bids on products which are similar to others with a high chance of a sale.
Since Google is allowing you to benefit from all of their data, it makes sense to use it, especially since your competitors almost certainly will.
Google Shopping ads account for more than 85% of clicks and more than 75% of retail search ad spending on Google Ads, so if you’re selling products, this is where you need to advertise them.
Simply combine their great position on the SERPs with the incredible targeting features that you have built into Google Ads and you can very easily see how they should be a staple in any ecommerce growth strategy.
Even Google’s black box Smart Shopping offering can produce great results if you’d rather be hands-off. Regardless of how involved you want to be, if you want to sell products, Google Shopping should definitely be part of your marketing arsenal.
Now, you can even get free shopping listings too, so you have no excuse not to give it a go, if you’re not doing so already.
Affinity and in-market audiences
When it comes to upselling and cross-selling, affinity and in-market audiences could be your new best friend.
For example, if you’re selling double glazed windows and your audience are likely to be home owners, you can target those who are in-market to buy a house.
Similarly, you can target people based on their likes and interests, for example, showing ads for your vegan face mask to “women who love makeup” and “people who care about the environment”.
Combine these with discount coupons or specific promotions and you could have the perfect combination to drive more sales.
As the old adage says, “Out of sight, out of mind.” No matter how effective you may believe display advertising to be, there’s absolutely no questioning the benefits of staying top of mind amongst those browsers who are most likely to buy from you.
After all, if someone searches for something and lands on your company’s landing page, it’s highly likely they were looking for what you’re offering. If they don’t convert first time around, you can use remarketing to reach them and persuade them to return.
Google’s Display Network allows you to target these users across millions of websites. If you have a Facebook pixel on your site, then you can also advertise to them on social media too.
There’s a simple reason that advertisers continue to use remarketing ads – they work.
Picture the scene: Someone goes to the supermarket, fills up their basket with everything they want, walks up to the checkout…and then dumps their stuff and walks out of the store.
It just wouldn’t happen, would it?
However, this sort of thing happens all the time online, with some claiming that the average cart abandonment rates could be as high as 70%.
Online stores are very different to brick and mortar stores. Sometimes people will simply leave things in their cart and come back to it later when they’re ready to buy. However, to help speed things along, you can use remarketing to target these users and bring them back again.
If you’ve got the user’s email address, you could even use a cart abandonment email sequence too.
Looking for a cross-channel ecommerce marketing strategy?
We can help you develop a digital marketing strategy that will help your business dominate the world of ecommerce.
While our multi-award winning SEO and PPC teams are extremely skilled in their own right, where we really shine is when we combine our knowledge and tools to create integrated strategies that drive incredible results for our clients.