Case Study – A Small Business Beats Big Brands in SEO on Shopify

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how to optimize a shopify website for Google SEO

In this case study you will learn some of the common SEO issues that come with a Shopify store and how we addressed them to help our client rank.  It is full of actionable items with some massive bonus tips.

The client in the screen shots below is a smaller brand without many backlinks and has a two person marketing team with no developer.

The company is in a highly competitive retail niche and competing for big brand terms (think phrases like “t-shirt” or “clothing” where you’re up against Macy’s, Calvin Klein and Hanes).  Unlike tshirt, the terms here have lower search volumes.  This makes it even more competitive.

Here’s how we helped them beat the big brands.

Note: This is year two on the project and I’m comparing year two to year 1.  SEO is not a quick one and done or lets fix it and hope it sticks channel.  

How to do SEO for Shopify sites:

  1. Fix the Shopify SEO issues
  2. Add content
    1. PDP
    2. Categories
    3. Internal links
  3.  Find ambassadors
  4. Tech SEO

shopify SEO strategy and optimization

Fix the Shopify SEO Issues

Shopify is currently my recommended shopping cart for ecommerce stores.  The app store makes it affordable to have the whistles and bells of big brands without the big budget.

When combined with the reasonably good checkout process and excessive amount of affordable developers, you can build an awesome store as a small or mid-size company with ease.

But just because it is a good shopping cart platform does not mean it is marketing or SEO friendly.  The good news is the majority of Shopify SEO issues are known and can be remedied.

The biggest issue is that you don’t get access to your own code base making it really hard to speed up your site and optimize it. But don’t let that deter you, having Shopify host your ecommerce store has benefits like accessing their security systems and having them watch so that your servers and your store stays online.

Here are the big known Shopify SEO issues:

  • Code bloated templates – strip them down and make them faster.
  • Lack of site structure – you need to build a way for search engines (and customers) to find your important pages which can be remedied by:
    • Wording in navigation
      • main menu, side bar, blog, and footer
    • Breadcrumbs
    • Sitemaps
    • Internal links
  • Bad CMS for blogging – you can optimize using it, but you will be limited.
    • Schema can be added with ease using SchemaApp.
    • WordPress is a good alternative but you need to use it on a subdomain or separate domain.
  • Duplicate pages.
  • No way to reference official and original pages by default.
  • No server access.

To get through the Shopify SEO issues I crawled their site and picked 3 samples of each type of page at random.

  1. PDP (product display page)
  2. Category (also known as collections)
  3. Blog post

From there I ran them through my tool sets and hand checked each to find issues that occurred in at least two of the three pages. If the issue occurs on at least 2 of the three pages in the sample then it is likely in the template or being deployed by the database and can be fixed at scale.

Next I created the list of items to fix and prioritized them as High, Medium and Low with the label:

  • Will move the needle
  • Won’t move the needle on its own
  • Would be nice but doesn’t need done now
  • Takes lots of time to fix
  • Quick and easy fix

Now we interviewed IT consultants, found one that worked, and sent them the task lists.

Add Content to Relevant Pages

Ecommerce stores need copy to stand out. Copy sells why the visitor on your page should turn into a customer and it feeds the search engines information about the page.

Ecommerce store copy includes H tags, paragraphs, FAQs, product specs and descriptions.

H1 tags tell both search engines and end users what the page topic is and what they will find if they engage with the page. Paragraphs below the H1 explain how to use the page or that the products provide solutions to specific needs. FAQs answer questions specific to the products on the page like compatibility, sizing and usage, but should not be general (with a few exceptions).

Without adding copy and keeping it above the fold, you are hurting your chances at building SEO traffic and increasing your conversions.

Note: They actually had product copy on a bunch of product pages and some category copy before bringing me on.  I worked with the team to modify existing copy and help with best practices for new copy.

How We Added Ecommerce Copy

We started by picking the products and categories we wanted to have rank and filled them up with copy. Next we filled the remaining product pages because they are what answer questions for the potential customer.  Now we went in and built out copy for category pages.

While doing the above we also outlined a few months worth of blog posts and began writing them out.

When creating the outlines we were very specific that some pieces need to have internal links, but they must also occur naturally and provide value.  Basically we don’t want to stuff they keyword phrase “blue widget” in just to have the internal link off of it.  We always ask ourselves if the person benefit if they click on the words “blue widget” to go to the blue widget PDP or category page.

Pro tip – Once traffic and customers started coming through we recorded the questions they asked in live chat about categories and products. Once it became recurring we incorporated the questions into the copy.

Pro tip 2 – We built infographics and other pieces of content that can build backlinks.  But that was after everything else had launched and we had a reasonable amount of blog posts.

Pro tip 3 – To add copy into your store without damaging branding, here are some templates for adding copy to ecommerce stores.

Bonus Tip – One of the best action items we took was getting rid of the giant rotating hero images from the homepage and category pages. We replaced them with visual navigation with crawlable links.  This helps customers and search engines immediately find important products, categories and pages.

Find Ambassadors

Normally when copy is almost complete I start to plan building “link worthy” content.  But when all of your competitors are established, big brands with hundreds of thousands of links, then you cannot compete with backlinks.  So we went with ambassadors.

It is true that ambassadors do not drive SEO value. But it is also true that Google and other search engines can crawl Twitter, Pinterest and other social networks.  When they find the shares and follow the link, it brings them right to our site and they start crawling our store again.

Note: Some search engines can also detect that these “influential” people are talking about the brand and potentially detect the sentiment involved.  I think this will play a role in ranking pages and building website trust in the future, similar to how it does with social media algorithms.

When identifying ambassadors we went one extra step by looking to make sure each person has an actual following with people that shop. I  also checked if they get media pickups and mentions.

If there are journalists, bloggers, or industry and trade publications that love them it builds brand recognition for when we pitch a story to the editor that follows them.

Once the ambassador begins sharing the brand’s posts, we begin pitching the publications that follow them. We also made a massive discovery with our ambassador campaigns.

Mega Bonus Tip!

As we launched new product or new versions of products (if you sell phone cases for example you are likely going to launch version two or three as the next generation phone comes out) we pushed it to our ambassadors.

When specific groups of ambassadors launch their content we started to see a few hundred searches for “brand + product” appearing in Google research tools.

This was one that surprised all of us because it didn’t disappear after the campaign ended. By finding the right mix of ambassadors and content partners, then matching them to products, we created enough buzz that there are measurable search volumes for the brand and the specific product.  This is something we tried again and were able to replicate.

It caught all of us off guard.  I remember sitting on a call with them when we found it and all of our mouths dropped.  As an added bonus I believe the brand + product searches also signal to Google that there is trust here and to take the brand seriously.

Tech SEO

Once that was completed we had to address the rest of the core Shopify SEO issues.  Many times I like to do this on step one, but these had to get moved back because of the client’s situation with dev work and priorities.

There are two core technical issues that I find when doing Shopify SEO.

  1. Duplicate pages
  2. No way to say what the official version of a page is

Then we added schema.

Duplicate Pages

When you add a product on Shopify and place it in two categories (the themed category and a sale category for example), Shopify assigns the same product to both pages giving you exact replicas of each. This does not impact the end user at all, they only see the product and they can shop. It does impact the search engines though.

Search engines only want to find one version of a product page. If they find the exact same or a similar experience, instead of showing either of them they normally choose another website (unless it is a branded term).

Another example is if you have a tshirt in two colors. If you keep the same product copy because the only thing that changes is the color of the shirt, then you have two products with almost the same experience.

This is confusing for a search engine spider.

Search engines only want to find one version of a product page. If they find the exact same or a similar experience, instead of showing either of them they normally choose another website (unless it is a branded term).

You may have done everything right by building authority and internal links, but if the search engine cannot decide which is the right version of a page, and a competitor of yours declares an official version, your competitor will likely get the search traffic instead of you. That brings us to the next step.

How to Say What the Official Version of the Page Is

This is where canonical links come in.

A canonical link is a simple tag that specifies if the page the search engine spider is on is the official one or if it is a duplicate version.

All you have to do is add a canonical link to all duplicate versions of a page and have it link to the official version.  The official version should have a canonical link that points to itself.

Once our duplication issues were fixed, I applied schema across the site including organizational, areas served, product and FAQ where needed.

Bonus tip – If you have internal links with parameters, it does not matter if your canonical links are correct. You are sending a mixed signal to Google. Remove the parameters on all internal links and use a proper way to track user interaction on your website. But this only applies if SEO traffic is important to you.

And that is it.

Each year this client is growing and scaling by just sticking to the basics.  We’re not trying to game the system, we just create the best possible experience for our customers which in turn also creates a great experience for search engine spiders.  And as an added bonus our agency is finally growing and ready to take on new business.

If you have an SEO, affiliate marketing, CRO or other digital marketing project and you’re looking for help.  Contact me.  I’d love to learn about your needs and see if I can help you reach your goals.

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2 thoughts on “Case Study – A Small Business Beats Big Brands in SEO on Shopify”

    1. Good question…the canonical tags get set up differently in each installation. The actual implementation however can and does change. I don’t want to give an answer without seeing your specific situation.

      For example, if you have a product with 30 color variations and 5 sizes your issue is going to be different than one product with no variants and it is simply going into 3 or 4 categories.

      Feel free to write me if you want me to take a look. Contact forms are available through the top nav and footer.

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