Did you know there are over 1.13 Billion websites online right now? While only 200 million are active, that's still a lot of content. Especially when you consider that each of those websites will have any number of individual web pages - some will have just one or two, but others may have hundreds.
With so much content online, how do search engines decide which pages are worth ranking? And how do they determine which should rank higher than others?
In SEO, we're always thinking about how to climb the rankings on search results pages. Optimizations all focus on this, whether technical, like speed, or content focused, like images and keywords. We want to ensure our target audience finds our pages, so they'll discover our products and become loyal customers. We make those optimizations based on what we know about search engine ranking factors.
What are the ranking factors?
Google's bots and systems sort through hundreds of thousands of web pages to find the most relevant content for a query and present those results to the user. To do this, search engines use criteria that they benchmark pages and other content against. This criteria is what's known as ranking factors. Ranking factors are pieces of information that search engines like Google use to determine how suitable a page is for a search query. Each page is measured against these factors, which decide the order in which pages appear in search results.
The tricky thing is that no one knows all of Google's ranking factors. Google keeps its algorithm a closely guarded secret, and they're constantly tweaking it along with ranking factors to ensure they provide the best results for users. At the moment, best guesses estimate there are over 200 ranking factors.
You read that right - over 200 ranking factors.
With so many factors and Google's secrecy around their algorithm, how is anyone supposed to truly optimize their site? Well, it's all about prioritizing the factors that will make a real impact that we know for certain Google cares about.
10 ranking factors ecommerce merchants want to optimize for
#1 - Page Speed AKA Core Web Vitals
Let's start with one of the most high-priority ranking factors you need to optimize for - page speed. Speed is big for search engines, and that's because it's an indicator of the quality of a page's user experience. After all, your site could have the best content out there, but users will only see it if it loads quickly enough. In 2021, Google introduced Core Web Vitals to its page experience ranking signals. These factors focused on page speed in different areas - time to interactivity, time taken for a page's primary content to load, and the amount of unexpected shifts in a page's layout.
Users want to get content quickly - according to Google, the probability of bounce increases 32% as page load time goes from 1 to 3 seconds. Google maintains its popularity with users by providing useful, relevant content from sites that offer a great user experience. However, slow load times make for a poor experience. Therefore the faster your site is, the better it will perform in search rankings.
Start by analyzing your key landing pages using tools like PageSpeed Insights to improve page speed. This will give you a good starting point and suggestions for improving that page's load time. That might be as simple as reducing image file sizes or minifying code. You should also review apps you have installed in your Shopify store. Apps you may have uninstalled can still leave leftover code, which can be removed. There may also be apps that you have installed and used but cause slow load times. In this case, you may want to review the app's value versus its impact on speed and explore other better-optimized options.
#2 - High-Quality Content
It may go without saying that Google values high-quality content. Users will consume this, so you need to pair an amazing user experience with equally amazing content. And there's a lot to creating high-quality content, especially in ecommerce when working with product pages.
According to the search giant themselves, they want to show their users helpful, reliable, people-first content. Google maintains its position as the leading search engine by showing users content that will be highly relevant to their query from authoritative sites which focus on valuable content. The "people-first" element means that you should create original content with a target audience in mind and provide them with some kind of insight or purpose. In other words, the opposite of search engine-first content, which is focused primarily on attracting search engine bots and artificially increasing rankings.
Content length and ecommerce
The importance of content length often comes up when discussing SEO and content. Many argue that longer is always better, but that isn't always the case if you view content length through the lens of ecommerce. Product pages, for example, will typically have a lower word count than an in-depth blog or news article. This doesn't mean they will be ranked lower, as the user's search query also influences ranking. If their search intent is transactional or they're researching products, they'll likely want to see product pages. They'll also want product pages that are quick to scan, summarize the information they need, and present that information in an easily navigable way. Page layout, keyword placement, and the actual information you present, therefore, are far more important than trying to bulk out the word count of that page.
Whether it's a blog article or a product page, focus on delivering the information the user finds most valuable. This will go towards fulfilling the people-first, useful content Google prefers to rank.
#3 - Mobile Friendliness
Did you know it's predicted that mobile will account for just under half of all ecommerce sales by the end of 2024? Mobile optimization is a highly valuable task for your store's growth and improving its ranking in SERPs. Mobile-friendliness is one of the user experience signals mentioned earlier, along with page speed, so it's very important to Google. And if it's important to Google, it's essential to our SEO strategy!
In fact, it's so important that Google will index the mobile version of your site first. That means if your desktop experience is amazing, but your mobile experience falls behind, Google will still base your search ranking on your mobile site. So to give Google what it wants, you need to think of your store experience as mobile-first. That likely means separating your desktop experience from your mobile one and developing them separately.
After all, users on each will have different needs. Using a desktop means the actual screen is bigger and therefore has more space for content, but a mobile screen is much smaller and needs to pack in the same information. Focus on making your mobile store easy to use and navigate. That may mean you need to rethink the product page layout, the buttons' size, the text's color and contrast, and the page elements you need. Review your primary navigation on mobile to make it easier for customers to reach certain pages in the least number of clicks possible.
#4 - Safety/Security
Another user experience factor you'll want to consider is security. This is an increasingly important issue for search users; 84% of Americans are at least somewhat concerned about the safety of the personal data they provide online. 89% say that security is also very important when shopping online. Google, of course, takes security seriously, as it's important to its users.
What this usually means is ensuring that your site is using HTTPS - this is a secure version of HTTP. This will appear before your store’s URL, i.e., “https://storename.co/.” The difference between HTTP and HTTPS is that the latter adds an extra layer of encryption, authentication, and integrity.
The good news is that if you’re a Shopify merchant, all stores are PCI compliant and are issued with an SSL/TLS certificate - this is done automatically in many cases.
#5 - Intrusive Interstitials AKA Pop-ups
We’re likely all pretty familiar with pop-ups on websites by now, otherwise known as intrusive interstitials. They’re commonplace, especially on ecommerce sites, usually with some kind of offer, such as 10% off in exchange for an email sign-up. However, care should be taken with how you use them, or it could harm your SEO, as in 2016, Google made intrusive interstitials a negative ranking factor.
So what counts as an intrusive interstitial? Essentially, it’s any pop-up that blocks a page’s content, thereby preventing the user from actually consuming the content they want to view. These are especially damaging if the interstitial blocks the entire page. This can obviously cause frustration for the user and make them more likely to leave the page. They came for the content of that page, not the content of a pop-up.
There are some exceptions to this rule, however. The primary one is age gating - if you sell an age-restricted product, then a pop-up asking the user to confirm their age won’t affect your ranking. If you do want to use a pop-up to promote a deal, email list, etc., then consider instead having it appear after a certain amount of time spent on the page rather than right away. Or even better, an exit pop-up when the user is going to leave the page. This allows the user to read your content and still benefit from your pop-up content.
#6 - Site Architecture
Your site’s architecture can have an impact on user experience and your store’s SEO. Site architecture or navigation refers to how your pages are organized and linked up. As an ecommerce site, your pages will likely be organized based on product category, your homepage, subcategories, and other individual pages.
Keeping a simple site architecture will make it easy for both customers and search engine crawlers to navigate your site. For customers, it means they won’t have to look too hard to find the pages they want, as the way your site is organized will make sense. This is better for both conversions, as well as your user experience, which, as we’ve established, is great for ranking. For search engines, a simple site architecture means their crawlers can very quickly and easily go through your content, understand it and how it relates to other pages, and then index that content. Make it as easy as possible for customers and crawlers to reach any page on your site in 4 clicks or less - this is what’s referred to as a flat architecture.
Luckily if you’re a Shopify merchant, the platform makes it easy by default to maintain a really good site architecture. Pages are organized into categories, subcategories, and individual pages, and it’s easy to add links to your sitemap for even easier navigation.
#7 - Internal Linking
Speaking of how your pages relate to each other, internal linking is another factor that can help your store’s search ranking. As it sounds, internal linking is when you link to another page on your own site—for example, linking from a product page to another recommended product.
As with site architecture, internal linking helps search engines to understand better how the pages on your site relate to each other. The architecture shows how the site is organized, and internal linking can help show how pages from different categories or areas of your site may be related, even if they aren’t directly linked. An example of this would be linking to your shipping and delivery information from a product page.
The best way to grow your internal linking strategy is to think of the customer or user first and foremost. What links will help them the most on each page? How can you include links that will improve their experience as they move through your site? Also, consider how your use of internal links may drive conversions - for example, if one product isn’t quite right for a customer, then linking to recommended products may drive that conversion instead. This will also be better for your SEO.
#8 - Backlinks
It isn’t just your site that Google uses to decide if your content should rank! Backlinks are links from external sites that point to your site; for example, if a gift guide on a review site links to your product page. Earning backlinks from high authority sites can indicate to Google that your site is worthwhile recommending to search users. They act as a sort of “seal of approval” from sites that Google has already deemed rank worthy.
Backlinks are part of off-page optimization, i.e., external factors that influence your store’s ranking. This means it’s inherently challenging, as you can’t control external factors the same you can use those on your site. It requires employing a link-building strategy - researching authoritative sites you’d like to earn backlinks from, and finding ways to engage with those sites. The key, though, is the quality of the backlink. Having lots of backlinks sounds like a good thing, but if they come from low-authority sites, it won’t mean as much. Especially if these sites are simply link farms. Having just a few backlinks from high-authority sites will be more beneficial for your SEO.
#9 - On-page optimization
As we’ve just mentioned off-page SEO, it’s time to talk about on-page optimization. As it sounds, this deals with anything that happens on your site that can impact SEO. We want to take advantage of every opportunity to improve search rankings, and some of these seemingly small behind-the-scenes details are ones which Google really pays attention to. They can make your content easier to understand, as well as improve how your links actually appear in search results.
Here are four on-page elements that you can optimize that will help your store’s ranking:
The meta title and description for a page is what will be displayed in search results. This can be controlled and changed easily in your store’s admin. On Shopify, it’s at the bottom of the page editor, and it will display a preview of what it will look like on SERPs.
Meta titles should provide the search user with a concise summary of the page, no more than 55 to 70 characters long. In the case of ecommerce, that would be the product name, what the product is, and the brand name. The meta description should expand on the meta title and be at most 150 to 160 characters in length. Both should contain primary target keywords for that page.
Tip: You can automate your metadata using a tool such as SEO Manager.
Header tags give a page structure, which is useful for both user experience and search engine crawlers. H1 is the title of the page, i.e., the product name or blog title, with H2 denoting subheadings within that page, i.e., a section of the product page or blog. H3 and H4 follow a similar pattern.
This makes your content scannable for the reader, so they can quickly glean the information contained on that page and decide if it’s what they’re looking for. Google’s bots can also more easily crawl the page, using the header tags to determine the page contents.
Structured Markup (Schema)
Want to take up more space on SERPs? Then you should consider implementing structured markup or data. This is extra bits of code called schema contained in your page’s HTML that tell search engines more about that page. In ecommerce, this will likely refer to product price, availability, and ratings. It isn’t always guaranteed that this information will appear in SERPs, but having schema implemented will give you the best chance of getting those featured snippets.
This can be implemented by a developer with understanding of JSON-LD, or it can be added to pages automatically using SEO Manager for Shopify.
We’ve covered internal linking in more detail already, but it’s worth noting again here that it’s an important on-page optimization you can make.
#10 - Accessibility
If you’re an ambitious ecommerce merchant, then accessibility should be something that makes sense for your growing business. After all, by improving your store’s accessibility, you make it easier for even more potential customers to use your site and buy your products. It’s also a key ranking factor for Google.
As with many ranking factors, accessibility is about user experience. If a search user lands on your site and they find it difficult to use, then that’s a poor experience. That applies to difficulties which may arise due to a disability or impairment. Taking steps to improve your store’s accessibility will result in the best possible experience for the broadest range of people possible.
Here are some ways in which you can improve your site’s accessibility:
- Keep your site architecture simple, with clear, easily understood terminology.
- Employ proper use of header tags - these will be useful to those using assistive technology to browse your site.
- Review font size, color, and contrast across your site.
- Test the “tapability” of any buttons or interactive elements on your site, ensuring they’re large enough to tap easily.
- Provide image alt text for any visual content on a given page - especially important for product pages.
- Use descriptive anchor text for links - either actions or clear context. For example, “Click here” is vague, but “Click here to view our range of products” is clear.
The bonus here is that many of the tasks you can do to improve accessibility will have a positive impact on other optimizations for your store.
It’s likely that no one will ever truly solve the mystery of Google’s algorithm, and no one site will ever be able to really optimize for every single ranking factor. However, by prioritizing the ones we know about that are important for ecommerce, you can focus your efforts and start climbing those rankings.