Shopify has created a really low barrier to entry in the e-commerce space in the past few years. An influx of new blood in this industry has created a vacuum for marketing insights and strategies that only experienced professionals can implement in such businesses. This is why most new Shopify store owners start off with the most obvious marketing channels when looking for customers, such as Facebook ads.
But not everyone has the budget, patience or persistence to make ads work. Worse yet, a failure in this channel equates to lost money you’ll never be getting back. Most of these would-be Shopify entrepreneurs quit the game at this point instead of testing other less-obvious channels, such as SEO.
Indeed, SEO is an enigma to most Shopify store owners. It involves everything that is daunting to them: Investing in content, hedging bets on long term ROI and, most importantly, manual hard work.
But the benefits of SEO, for those who learn and persist through its processes, are obvious. Search engine visitors tend to have a higher conversion rate, especially on “intent” keywords (for e.g. “buy leather jackets online”). After seeing numerous queries in Shopify communities on Facebook like these… :
So we reached out to SEO expert Steve Brownlie to help shed some light on everything you need to know about ecommerce SEO. Here’s our Q&A in full:
Ecommerce SEO Q&A With Steve Brownlie
Harris: Tell us a bit about yourself and what your exposure has been in the e-commerce industry.
Steve: I run a rapidly expanding link building, outreach and influencer marketing agency – Reach Creator – which supplies those SEO-related services on a white label basis to agencies as well as directly to ecommerce businesses, brands and small businesses.
I was lucky to initially discover this industry. Prior to the Credit Crunch I worked as a freelance commercial mortgage broker. One of the brokerages that had me in for a day a week to handle their commercial cases was printing business at a rate I’d never seen anywhere else. Further investigation revealed this was a slick combination of online leads and a skilled call center booking the appointments.
As a salesman I was confident I could replicate the closing appointments part of the process (I’d worked as a commercial account manager at a bank for years before leaving to branch out on my own) but unfortunately LeadBay didn’t sell commercial leads at the time. I quickly did some digging into how their partners were generating and supplying the leads.
It turned out to be a mix of lead generation pages, pay per click and SEO. Quickly I was able to scale up my own sites generating leads for my brokerage in the niche commercial category where I was unable to buy leads from anyone else.
The Credit Crunch came but I was able to quickly pivot into the Poker Affiliate industry and that led to connections in the online marketing world which allowed me to build from being a freelancer into founding one of the leading suppliers of links, and outreach for SEO purposes, to agencies, heads of SEO and businesses
Harris: Shopify has been the go-to platform for a lot of e-commerce newcomers recently, but they usually are at a loss when it comes to having any SEO strategy and mostly rely on Facebook ads for traffic. What would be a good strategy for them to get started for organic traffic?
Steve: The first thing to decide when planning whether to get into SEO as a traffic source is the amount of patience you have as a business owner. It will take longer – you don’t just ‘switch on SEO’ the same way as you switch on ads. If you’re in a competitive niche you may be years from dominating in search. Even in a smaller niche you may have to work at it for months.
Of course I would strongly recommend against anyone building their entire future on Facebook ads remaining underpriced, as they still are now relative to say PPC ads. Competition is constantly growing, and prices are tending to trend upwards so if your margins are tight now, you could well be out of business in two years. Diversifying is important – whether SEO is your chosen diversification or not.
Alternatives include influencer marketing, other ad platforms, building a pervasive presence online through guest appearances/co-promotion of your products on other people’s lists, YouTube shows and podcasts etc.
If SEO is one of your chosen diversification strategies, then understanding how far behind you are is the first step I’d take. Knowing whether you’re fighting it out with a chance of winning within a year or if you’re in for a longer, more challenging battle is essential at the outset otherwise you risk just burning valuable cash barely moving the needle. And in some cases people give up just as they were about to break through.
Audit carefully the top sites that show up for keywords in your niche. Both their content (how far ahead they are as a body of content/authority) in your niche and their links (how far ahead they are as an authority in the eyes of search engines by virtue of having been cited by more websites). I wrote extensively about how to audit the links part here.
Harris: e-commerce websites aren’t usually heavy on content. What are the strengths that such websites can harness to boost search engine visibility and rankings?
Steve: As an ecommerce store, being light on content in the first place is a mistake.
Google’s mission (in search anyway) is to deliver the best result for their customer (the searchers). Delivering search results that please people, and keep them coming back, allows them to keep showing their ads and stay ahead of other search engines.
If your site is light on content you aren’t really giving yourself much chance to show up, except for the easiest product terms or exact matches for your brand.
Even then, for many ecommerce queries both Google and consumers prefer comparison sites to individual manufacturers. Here in the UK, for example, if I search for “Best organic bed” the only manufacturer/direct seller shows up on page 1 at the bottom – a small organic mattress manufacturer from Wales – all the rest are news and review sites covering multiple products.
So what I’d recommend is digging into content initially that can help you win on social and longer term through ranking on search engines. Gary Vaynerchuk is right when he says that these days “every company is a media company”. For those of you who’ve read ‘Jab Jab Jab, Right Hook’, you’ll remember that many of the successful social campaigns were content campaigns as much as ‘just ads’.
Sometimes softer campaigns can convert better from your ads too as you’ll be getting more likes and engagements which will drive conversions beyond your initial spend.
I don’t design ads but just to illustrate the kind of thing I’m talking about. Imagine owning an ecommerce store selling accessories for dog owners.
Many stores will just target dog owners with pictures of the products and drive them straight to the store page. Sometimes that store page won’t even have much content on so they either buy or are lost to your brand forever. You haven’t made much of an impression.
Imagine instead doing a content piece about families, kids and playing/learning as part of being a dog owner. You can include lots of shots of families + dogs wearing your accessories in the post (with subtle BUY NOW ‘pseudobuttons’ set onto the images) to drive purchases but the article itself is engaging and designed for social/shares and exposure.
As you’re planning these types of campaigns you can include topics you want to rank for. For example you might find that ‘keeping your dog fit’ or ‘weight loss for dogs’ is a topic people are searching for. You could make a pet fitness/family fitness piece that blended both objectives – driving social traffic/shares and long term rankings.
Harris: What would a high-level strategy for a general-product e-commerce store look like? How does one go about piecing it together when all they have is a product and a brand name?
Steve: Really it’s about content strategy – more information about products. More information about the category/niche you’re in, more engaging content and more user generated reviews than your competitors. Mix that with video, links to your site from other authority sites in the niche and you’re significantly ahead of most.
As an ecommerce store owner you do need to be on top of things like the rel=”canonical” tag – especially if you sell a large number of products with overlapping categories. So I’d definitely spend some time understanding that.
A lot of it is just ‘real marketing’. You need content and a way to move people through your funnels from various stages of the buying process. If you’re relying on just converting people who’ve already decided on an organic cotton dog collar for their pet, you’re missing out on the much bigger market of everyone who has a dog who hasn’t decided what type of collar to buy yet etc. This applies across all your channels – capturing these people (email, retargeting, funnels and content) is essential everywhere not just to SEO.
Harris: What are the essential tools you think anyone with a website should learn to use?
Steve: AHREFS is the best general toolbox out there now. Moz is a clear number two now to most serious SEO professionals but is fighting back under Sarah Bird’s leadership so could get themselves back in the game, or perhaps even be back ahead as we move through 2018. These tools provide you with keyword research, ranking data, link analysis – pretty much everything you need to make a start competing in the SEO game. I don’t think you’ll need much else initially if you’re a small ecommerce entrepreneur – perhaps BuzzStream if you decide to do your own link outreach and SEMRush if you want more data on your competitors and their ads as well as search presence.
Harris: There are a lot of conflicting resources for e-commerce SEO strategy out there. Where would you recommend newbies find their start if they want to learn SEO?
Steve: Most of the good complete resources (you can find good snippets here and there for free in blog posts but you’ll read a lot of fluff to get to it) require registration or a small spend. Here’s one free one and one very affordable option, both are truly comprehensive sources: Buildersociety’s digital strategy crash course.
This is a complete crash course in online marketing which covers everything from technical SEO to on-site content strategy and linkbuilding. Disclosure – I wrote one of the chapters (just one of 30 though so you won’t just be hearing from me!). – Registration may be required to view.
Distilled is a fairly large search marketing agency that organises the famous ‘Search Love’ conferences. Your membership here (just a few dollars a month) gives you complete written guides on all of the areas of SEO you’ll want to understand, as well as access to their extensive library of conference videos. You’ll learn more here than almost any other source you could use. Especially if you enjoy watching video.
Harris: Sometimes e-commerce store owners outsource their SEO work to freelancers without really knowing how to judge the quality of work they’re getting for their money. What are the essentials that everyone who is looking to hire an SEO should learn first?
Steve: I’d recommend just outsourcing specific tasks you can’t complete. Eg you might find someone who can implement the technical changes you need on-site. But you might not want that same person also coming up with your ad strategy, content and doing your off-site links. They’re totally different skill sets. Anyone who is genuinely talented at all those things isn’t available to you at $100/hour…
But you can certainly find specialists in one area for reasonable prices.
Once you decide to outsource a task make sure you have a rough idea what you expect them to do and what it will look like. Eg what an audit ought to cover/fix or what a good link actually looks like. That’ll make sure you can keep them honest and ask suitable questions when interviewing for the role or when reviewing completed work.
If you don’t feel confident in doing that then buddy up with one of your e-commerce friends who can help you vet suppliers from the community. Don’t gamble – sadly a significant portion of the SEO industry is … not good. To put it politely.
Harris: What’s the biggest challenge you’ve ever faced in your work?
Legal and economic changes – for example the Credit Crunch leading to banking/mortgage rules changing and banks going out of business ended my specialist commercial brokerage. The end of online gaming in the US meant no more players in that region looking for coaching from my online poker business.
I think as entrepreneurs we always have to be ready to pivot and change as one platform changes (eg when Facebook finally becomes too expensive for lower margin products) or even if the law moves the goalposts on us.
Harris: Lastly, any advice for all the struggling e-commerce entrepreneurs out there?
Steve: Diversification, a focus on real marketing, and building a real business is the route to succeeding. Becoming an FB ads expert might help you in the short-term but in terms of longevity for your brand you need a mailing list, you need partners to promote your site, influencers who love your stuff, links and content so you rank on search engines. It is a lot so you’ll have to be strategic about where you start and what you learn first but I’d always be reading a book or taking a course (for SEO I’ve given you two great ones that won’t cost much at all – ask for advice from experts in other areas for similar courses/opportunities – don’t go putting fifty $10,000 “guru courses” in the bank!).
Steve Brownlie is the Director of Consulting at Reach Creator, supplying outsourced Public Relations, Link Building, and Influencer Marketing to other agencies, heads of marketing and online entrepreneurs.