SEO: What to do with discontinued and deleted product pages on my eCommerce store
Every online store will encounter situations with products where the distributor or manufacture deletes them from their catalogue (discontinued or EOL – end of life), they’re not available any more or have been updated to a newer model, ie an iPhone 5 cover to iPhone 6 cover. For whatever reason old products that are no longer available need to give way and usher in the new products, but how does that effect your store’s SEO.
Over time your new product pages will be crawled by the search engine bots, listed in their database, and ranked according to the relevance of the content and the complex search engine algorithms. When this happens your product pages are available for the entire world to see. Now as you can imagine, if you have cool content and products, other websites will want to link to product pages, and send their visitors to those pages. But what happens when those linked products are remove from your catalogue? Well the person visiting that link will receive a 404 error page because that content is no longer there. This is bad for business for a couple of reasons:
- The visitor to your website, met with a 404 error page, now has to make the decision to find a similar product or leave the website completely. More often than not they’ll bounce. This effects the perception of the visitor negatively for both sites, and generally is frowned upon by the major search engines.
- That page will then be listed as a 404 error page (or broken links page) in Google Webmasters Tools.
Now Google’s official stance on broken links or Not found errors (404) hints at it not being a major problem and won’t affect your ranking, but over time this can lead to a serious number of broken links for your website which will lead to a poor user experience, and high bounce rates which the major search engines aren’t too keen on.
Fixing 404 and Broken Links
Fixing the broken links is a simple as finding the broken link and sending it to the correct page. This can all be done from within the backend of your ecommerce store. Find the culprit and update the URL to that of the one found in the broken links list. Once the broken URL fetches correctly you can “mark as fixed” from within GWT (Google Webmasters Tools). Simply enough, but when products have been long removed it becomes a little trickier and you need to look at redirecting to a new product or another page.
Redirecting from one product page to another page
There are 2 major types of HTTP headers: one that says your content has been moved permanently (301 redirect) and the other is temporary (302 redirect). These headers will be the 1st thing a SE bot will read before loading anything else from the page. Here’s some further info on redirecting products pages
When redirecting you want to ideally send visitors (and crawling bots) to the same page, but that’s not always possible so you can redirect to another similar product or the product category. Try and get them to the closest possible, relevant content available. Sometimes even if you do keep up old product pages up (see below for advice on old product pages) and mention in the description that it’s no longer available, this although informative and a sound practice is not exactly going to leave the warm fuzzy feeling with your visitor. So redirect to another similar page or a category that’s as specific as possible to the old product. Methods to redirect are:
- .htaccess – this is quite a technical method for redirecting but can be done in bulk with a spreadsheet and your .htacces file if you’re on a Apache based server. Essentially this is the file sitting on your server that issues server commands (like SEO, rewriting conditions, naming conventions, variables etc) when a visitor is browsing your website. Your .htaccess file will simply list the old url and where it should redirect to, ie “redirect 301 /product-a.html /product-b.html “ or to the category page. While effective for a small number of key pages that need redirection, having a reams of redirects is going to slow down your website because the server will need to scan that list to see if a redirect exists and deliver the correct page.
- Manual product pages – sometime adding manual pages is a low tech yet effective way to create a redirect. Essentially with this method you would create an .html or .htm page (the same as the broken link page) without any info and just the link it’s redirecting to. And example can be found here: http://pastebin.com/2qmfUZMk
- Install a Redirect plugin or addon – most good ecommerce stores will have a marketplace for addons and plugins. Installing redirect plugin for your store is probably going to be the most effective way to deal with 404 error pages and broken links. The good ones will also capture the broken links as they occur on your site, so you can always be in the loop.
Once you know which pages are giving the 404 errors and where you’d like to redirect to.You have a couple of options with redirects.
Should I leave old products pages up?
This is dependent on what value that page has. Some pages might bring in a bit of traffic and are worth keeping up. You’d just need to inform visitors that although that product is no longer available there are some alternatives, and then list them. Think of it as a landing page for those sorts of products that can then list alternatives as well as drive the visitors to other parts of your website with similar products, like a subcategory for the product for example. So in short, it’s a case of looking at the value of that page to your website. If it’s worth keeping up then find a way to make it more useful than it was before as just a product page. If it has next to no value and no backlinks from other websites then you can probably ignore it and delist or delete. Just bear in mind that this will have a ripple effect for shopping comparison sites, affiliate networks, and other partner websites that utilise a feed from yours, and will mean that they’re links will die too.
Tips for naming product pages
If you’re not planning to painstakingly fix all the broken links, identify the most critical ones and the ones that seem to be pulling in the most traffic or have some sort of link and SEO value and fix those. Then for all new products, formulate a strategy that means you’re going to have fewer broken links in the future.
For very generic products that are going to change semi-often, think about using a generic name for the SEO page name like, lifeproof-fre-cover.html versus lifeproof-iphone6-fre-cover.html as this could mean that with each major iPhone update you will always have a product that’s compatible with the latest version and the page never needs to change, only the product specs, images and other relevant info.
With frequently updated pages that will list similar products, look at using the product ID or a generic code for the URL. Like 6657855.html or P54644.html. This will mean that although the product’s page description will change the URL listed on the SE’s wont. The downside to this is not having any keywords in the URL.