With its convenience, ease, and variety of offerings, more and more people continue to do their shopping online. And with Google’s current algorithms, good guys really do finish first. So experts like Dale Bertrand are here to teach you the importance of creating an e-commerce site that will build trust, authority, and rank high with Google. And for that to happen, you should be focusing on things link building, reputation, content, and how you’re setting up your category and collection pages.
Rich: Today’s guest runs Fire & Spark, an e-commerce marketing agency in Kendall Square, Cambridge. His clients include Citizen Watch, Ministry of Supply, MakerBot, Raymond Weil, and Bulova. He has two decades of experience applying his graduate school work in artificial intelligence to digital marketing.
He started his career building high performance computing systems for the National Security Agency. Now he’s a specialist in search engine marketing, online advertising, and analytics. In his spare time he enjoys tennis, skiing, and urban adventures with his two kids. I’m very pleased to have with us today, Dale Bertrand. Dale, welcome to the show.
Dale: Awesome, Rich. Thank you for having me.
Rich: So what’s it like working at the NSA? Is there a secret handshake?
Dale: So I didn’t work at the NSA, what we did was we built a $6 million machine that we were building at a startup here in the Boston area, and we sold it to the government. The fun thing is when we delivered it we dropped it off in a parking lot in Northern Virginia. So the machine, the manuals, and the spare parts. And then heard absolutely nothing in terms of how it was being used.
Rich: It was a $6 million machine. Was it like “Code Name: Steve Rogers” or something like that?
Rich: That would have been awesome.
Dale: We had some internal nicknames for it, but because we were kicking it off during development.
Rich: So this show is not about your history at the NSA. Let’s talk a little bit about e-commerce, I know that you really like e-commerce and SEO. What are some of the biggest challenges when it comes to optimizing an e-commerce site for search?
Dale: Lots of challenges. A lot of it depends in what type of site we’re talking about. But you might be a brand trying to build authority, trying to build content, trying to make sure that your technical platform is optimized for search engines to crawl and index your content. And all of that has challenges that are especially tough for e-commerce.
It’s hard as an e-commerce site to get links. We all know that, and listeners out there that have been working on an e-commerce site know that it’s really hard to get authoritative publications to write about you and to your website. So that’s one of the biggest challenges.
But we also have challenges with sites that are aggregating multiple brands. The issue there is these products might be sold on multiple sites, and if you’re using the manufacturer’s description, you’ve got duplicate content. And to be honest, Google might not need your product pages and your website in its index at all, and that can be a bit challenging.
Rich: Yeah. Alright, so that was a lot to unpack right there. First of all I guess we’re talking about a couple of different types of e-commerce sites. And I never really thought of it like this, a least two types of e-commerce sites. One is like a brand website, and by that I think we’re talking about whether it’s a big or a small company and you’re selling all your own products. And this may be the only place on the internet you can buy it, or maybe there’s other places.
But then we’re also talking about a re-seller website where I might be getting products from a bunch of different vendors. And like you said, those products could be available on 100 other websites, including Amazon.
So let’s break that down a little bit more. We’re talking about a brand e-commerce site. Which up here in Maine we have a lot of people who just started manufacturing their own products – whether it’s honey, or mudpacks, or whatever it is – everything they sell on their website is a thing that they’ve created. You talked about building authority, walk me through that. What does that look like, and why is it important to build authority for a site like that?
Dale: So if you’re an emerging brand – and there’s different types – one of our clients is Citizen Watch and they’ve been around for a while, they have a ton of authority built up. But if you’re more of an emerging brand, you want to make sure that you’re getting your brand traffic.
So if somebody is looking for one of your products using your brand and name in the search term, you want that traffic to go directly to your site, not to a retailer or not to some other site that might be selling your brand. So when it comes to authority, we want Google to know that you are the authority for your brand.
Authority with Google, since it was started, it’s really been based on links. So if you have a link to your website from a third party site – maybe it’s the New York Times or an influencer that you’re working with that’s written about you – Google looks at those links as votes of confidence, like endorsements of what you’re doing. So the more links you have from external websites, the better you’re going to do in terms of authority. And that’s really been the basis of Google’s algorithm for a long time.
What’s changed recently is that reputation also matters. And by reputation for an e-commerce site, what I mean is that what your customers think of you. Are they giving you positive reviews, are they talking positively about you on the web? That also matters for authority.
What Google has just started doing, and they’ve really turned it up over the last year, is looking at e-commerce sites and trying to understand how risky is it for somebody to do business with you. Are you going to scam them, are you going to send them the product you promised, are you going to take their money and they never hear from you again? So there’s a lot of shady e-commerce sites out there, and people listening to this podcast are obviously legitimate businesses that want to do the right thing. But you still need to worry about building up your authority and your reputation so that Google knows that you’re a business that’s trying to do the right thing.
Rich: Alright, so even within that there’s a lot of things I want to talk about. I definitely want to get to reputation and why reputation matters. But I’m still interested in this whole link building thing.
Rich: Because as you mentioned, it is tough for e-commerce sites to get links. So what are some of the tactics that you’ve seen work that ultimately will improve the SEO for any e-commerce site?
Dale: So link building has changed a lot over the years. I’ve been running some experiments recently with some of our clients. We’re doing things like sending out products to influencers and asking for honest reviews. And then link reclamation is another tactic where you’re looking for mentions of your brand. So it might be anybody who’s written about you but they didn’t link to you.
So if there isn’t a clickable link in a write-up or some article about you, then you can reach out and ask them for it. And that’s a great way to do link building because you already have some affinity with them.
The other thing to think about is any relationships that you already have, at the end of the day link building is relationship building. So if you already have relationships with vendors or some of your customers or partners that you’re working with, you can ask them – if they already have an affiliate page on their website – to put your logo, and to you that will help you.
The other thing is that sometimes they don’t have an obvious place to put a link on their site. So what you would do is offer to write an article and send that to them, and that will include a byline with a link to your site, or it will link directly to the article in your site, so that’s more a guest posting type of strategy with people that you know.
There’s a little bit of an old school tactic, which was broken link building. Find people in your space that are writing about companies like yours, find broken links on their website and then tell them, “Hey, link to me instead, or you can link to this piece of content hat I wrote that’s similar to what you were linking to before.” We’ve been doing some experiments on that just in the last couple weeks and it actually still works.
Rich: It does, because I get those all the time and I just hit ‘delete’, so I’m glad it’s working for you.
Dale: Yeah, well it’s working for somebody. I had done some of that a while back and it worked. And I did a broken link campaign that didn’t work. But just in the last couple weeks it’s actually working for us. So that tactic is not completely dead.
The number one way for any website – even e-commerce – to create links is to build awesome content. And you really need to think about what that means in your space. So I have a bunch of clients in the jewelry space, and what link building means for them is information about the materials, the cut of diamonds, and workmanship that customers would care about. Having somebody on your team who’s an expert in your industry write articles like that, that really are informative and best in class in your industry, that’s always going to be the best way to get links.
People are looking for a shortcut, that’s why we talk about things like broken link building, and link reclamation. But the truth is, the number one strategy has always been creating awesome content. And just one more thing using the jewelry example, with my clients in the jewelry space I asked them what could they do on their website to replicate the experience of going to a jeweler. So when I go to the jeweler – I just went with my Citizen watch to get the bracelet resized – he was telling me how to set the watch, he was telling me how it’s powered, he was telling me about alternative straps I could get if I wanted a leather strap. I learned a ton just talking to my jeweler going in there to get my watch bracelet resized. So how could we replicate that experience for your e-commerce site in your industry with awesome content that’s going to get links?
Rich: And that’s great. And so that’s actually something obvious that works both in lead gen type websites as well as e-commerce. You should always be creating the best content you possibly can.
You mentioned the influencer marketing piece. I’m just wondering, when your clients are sending out product, are you paying these influencers, or is it just sending out the product and saying, “We have a product I think you’ll love”, how exactly are you doing that outreach?
Dale: So we are obviously making a list of influencers. Then from there we’re emailing them and saying, “Hey, we have this product we think you’d be interested in”, based on something they’ve written about, so we want to personalize it enough so we’re able to reference something that they’ve written about recently. So you can say, “Hey, I saw this post. When I looked at it I thought of this product we have that I’d love to send you”. And that’s it.
Because outreach, when you’re sending emails for LinkedIn or for anything, should be like handing somebody a $100. If I handed you a $100 bill you’d say ‘thanks’. So you really don’t want to have a quid pro quo in that first email. Then usually I would say half of them respond back and say, “Yes!” And then you email them a little more information, which is like, “Awesome, I’m glad you’re excited about the product. Here’s some more information about why we think you will love it. And if we send it to you, we would love your honest review on your site.” And then some of them will respond to that and agree to write a review. And usually it ends up being 20% of the people that we emailed ended up saying ‘yes’ to the 2nd email. Then we sent them the product and we do a whole other follow up. And then most of the people that we send the product to, we get some sort of mention on their website.
Rich: That’s great. And obviously that taps into a lot of things, like the law of reciprocity, as well as consistency. So once we people say they’re interested in trying that, then of course the next thing is, yes I’ll also tell people whether it’s good or not. So that makes a lot of sense.
We spent a lot of time talking about the branded e-commerce sites. Let’s just shift for a moment and talk about the seller e-commerce sites where you’ve got a lot of different products that you didn’t necessarily make, and might be being sold at competitor’s websites. What are some of the challenges and how do you overcome those types of issues?
Dale: The biggest challenge there is really duplicate content, and competition. So you’re not the only one selling this product. So when somebody is searching for it online it’s on maybe thousands of sites. So the question is, why would people show the product on your website.
One thing that’s important is that if you’re using the manufacturer’s description that appears everywhere else on the web for that particular product, then it’s going to be duplicate content. And you can imagine there’s hundreds of pages that have that same exact description, Google does not need all of them, so you’re really at a disadvantage.
The first thing is that you want to write your own custom description of the product. And the thing to be careful with there is obviously we work with some gift sites. One site has 20,000 products on it, so it’s quite time consuming but it’s really worthwhile. When you’re writing product descriptions – whether you’re a brand or you’re a re-seller – we always think about product details obviously, since you want to have them on there, and you want to use as many descriptive words and synonyms as possible, because that’s going to give you keywords that these products are ranking for.
And then we really want to think about the problem it solves. And I’ll give a quick example, and then we want to think about use cases. So one quick example on the re-seller side is this gift site we worked for that sold a chair called the “ERGA”. So it obviously was an ergonomic chair, but the word “ergonomic” didn’t appear anywhere on the product page. And this is a product that had been sold on many other websites on the web.
So what we did is we optimized the copy. Just like I was saying before, what are the descriptive words, and then what problems does it solve. So when you start thinking of an ergonomic chair, it’s solving back pain, neck pain, and you want to make sure that’s on the page. Because then you’re going to get traffic not only from the name which is the “ERGA”, but you’re also going to get it when people are typing in “ergonomic chair”, or “chair for back pan”, or “chair for neck pain”, something like that. And then I think about use cases. So it might be “home office ergonomic chair” or something like that.
You really want, on a product by product basis, do the deep dive into all the different descriptive words that we should have on the page to really expand the number of keywords that we’re getting traffic for.
Rich: I think that’s great because so many of the e-commerce sites that I see out there have very poor descriptions, if any at all, when it comes to the individual products. And maybe a really poorly written title tag as well. It seems like you really need to invest some time in creating descriptive product pages. And I love the way you come at it from a bunch of different approaches.
So we’ve talked about the product pages, talk to me a little bit about category pages. They feel like the bastard children in Game of Thrones.
Rich: In that they are ignored, yet they are critically important to the whole thing. So what should we be doing on category pages?
Dale: So quickly I’m going to go into more detail. Number one, we need to make them more useful, so that they can attract links like we were talking about earlier. But also so that Google sees metrics that give us better rankings. So when Google sees a high click-through rate and low bounce rate on these collection pages, they’ll rank higher. So that’s one thing in terms of making them useful.
And then the second angle on that is really to create more of them. So you could imagine these collection pages for holiday keywords, gift keywords, and keywords by recipient, things like that. So usually when I’m working with an e-commerce site there’s a ton of opportunity to create collection pages that rank for specific keywords that we love to get traffic for. And one of the reasons why I love creating these collection pages, it’s because it’s a lot easier than writing blog articles.
A collection page at the end of the day is a curated collection of products that fit a theme for some keywords that we care about. That’s a lot easier than writing an article.
Rich: So here’s what I know the pushback is going to be. Its like, “Yeah, when people get to my category page I want all my images to be right at the top of the page, I don’t want a lot of copy there.” How do you find that balance between putting enough copy on that category page – or ‘collection page’, whatever you like to call it – and showing the product as well? Is there a way to find that balance?
Dale: Yeah! So you want to do both, obviously, like you need the imagery for conversion rate. And then you also want there to be some copy for the search engines. So the way we usually balance it is to put one line of text at the top of the collection page, and then we’ll have our products – maybe it’s a grid of 10 products or whatever makes sense on your site – and then below it we want more useful information.
And I’m going to give you an example from the travel space, just because I love this example. There’s a category page on hometogo.com. My family and I went to San Juan over the February break, when I was searching for a hotel this page came up. And at the top it had a few hotels, then it had hotels for families, then it had hotels with pools, then it had hotels that accepted dogs, and then it had fishing trips. The crazy thing is that’s what I care about, I don’t know how they nailed it for me, but it was a super useful category page. It wasn’t just a grid that was listing a bunch of hotels. And then to make it even better, when I scrolled down the page on this particular category page, there was the weather by the time of the year, and then there was also pricing by the time of the year.
So when I landed on this page and I found it so useful I thought why are we not doing this in the e-commerce space. Why are we not making our collection pages and category pages so useful that people don’t bounce? And then when I looked into their metrics, they have an 8% bounce rate on their pages. And these are collection pages. When I look at collection pages on e-commerce sites I see 50%, 60%, 70% bounce rates. So the reward for making your collection pages more useful is you retain your customers and conversion rate goes up. Revenue is generated from this exercise.
Rich: Is there a difference between category pages and collection pages, or are we just using different words for the same thing?
Dale: I mean, it is a little different. So when you start talking about category pages, you’re talking about internal linking and the structure of your site.
Rich: So like watches, scarves, handbags.
Dale: Yeah. So that gets more technical into the taxonomy of your e-commerce website. So when I have a product that’s going to live in a category and a sub category, and that’s important. Nobody is looking at that. Because if I have a product that lives in scarves and then the category is “women’s” or “women’s apparel”, I think Google knows that this product is related to those categories and all the keywords that implies. So that’s a category page, so the category page is related to your taxonomy.
A collection page as I think about it is really off to the side of your taxonomy. So that’s really in addition to the categories that this collection is in. It’s also in my “holiday gift guide”, or my “groomsmen gifts” collection page, and now it’s giving us additional keywords that his product will be relevant for to Google.
Rich: I see. And so you can have categories, or almost vertical collections, are almost horizontal in this way. You’re just grabbing things that may be nautical theme, and then it could be everything from paper plates with an anchor on it to some piece of clothing. If you had a big enough store that were selling both paper plates and clothing.
So there’s a lot of different ways then that you can organize this information. But those collection pages and those category pages really need to be valuable. They probably have to have a certain amount of content on them for Google to sit up and take notice.
Dale: Yeah. Google is a tech-based search engine, it always has been. So the easiest way for us to get a page to rank for specific keywords is to have that copy somewhere on the page, and in the title tag, the title tag is super important. But text is necessary.
Rich: Alright. And I’m assuming that something could appear in multiple categories and multiple collections. Became something might appear in both “gifts for mom” and also “blouses”, and that’s not going to hurt us in terms of duplicate content because there’s only 1 page for “mom’s blouse”. Correct?
Dale: Well you have to be, well, so yes, sort of. It really depends on how many collection pages you’re creating. So we have clients we’re working with that are literally creating thousands of collection pages, and it’s working if you have the authority to get away with it.
You can imagine if you’re a smaller site just starting, and maybe you don’t have enough products, and then if you’re creating a lot of collection pages that all have the same products on them, it really is duplicate content.
So one client I’m thinking of in the gift space, they have 20,000 products on their site, they have a ton of authority. In Google’s eye they have a ton of authority because of links and they’ve been around for a while. So when they create a collection page there’s no problem getting it indexed as long as it’s not identical to another collection page they’ve created, in terms of exactly the same products, they don’t have a problem. But if I’ve got 20 products on my site and I’m a new site and I’m creating 1,000 collection pages, I’m just not going to be able to get them indexed.
Rich: So this has been great. I do want to just talk about one more thing before I let you go, and that is reputation. So you think of reputation as a key – or kind of a new – SEO indicator. Tell me a little about how you’re thinking about that.
Dale: Sure. Google has always cared about reputation in one way or another. But just as a quick story, there’s a client that I was working with that sells phone cases in Europe. And the issue they have, they get a ton of organic traffic and that’s really driving millions of dollars of revenue for them. But the issue they’ve had with the business for a while now is that their customers don’t like them. So their customers have had the experience of not getting the product that they were promised, pricing that’s not fully transparent, and then not being able to get in touch with customer service to get these problems rectified.
So basically what happened is that Google finally caught up with them and overnight – this was in the fall around September/October timeframe – they lost 80% of their traffic when Google really turned up the knob on reputation. Because they were the posterchild of a site that was technically correct from an SEO perspective, they were doing all the SEO stuff right, they were doing link building, and they were just very well optimized. But, their customer didn’t like them.
So we don’t want to end up in that same situation. At the end of the day and the way I’m thinking about it is, Google is a happiness engine so when somebody is searching for a product, Google wants to satisfy them with an experience that they will be happy with and will specifically come back to Google the next time they’re looking to buy something. That’s how Google makes their money and keeps people on their platform.
So what Google has finally figured out how to do is stop disappointing people who are searching, by sending them to an e-commerce site that is a borderline scam. So you really want to treat your customers right, that’s the first thing. And then you want to make sure that the search engines know about it. And that’s things like reviews on your site, reviews directly in Google.
Google has recently come out with some patents around natural language processing where they can read pretty much any page on the web where somebody might be talking about your business and your e-commerce site and measure the sentiment. So, is Dale’s Shoe site a reputable site or are they ripping people off on a daily basis? And now Google is starting to get good at figuring that out. And now that Google can figure it out, it’s pretty obvious that Google is not going to want to send people to certain sites.
Rich: That makes a lot of sense. And so if we are looking to fully optimize for the search engines, part of this has to be based on our own reputation and our own customer service, is what you’re saying.
Dale: Yeah! That’s actually an emerging piece of the authority puzzle. So links are still really important, but Google is starting to really turn the knob up when it comes to reputation.
Rich: Very interesting. This has been great, Dale. I can tell how passionate and excited you are about it. If people want to learn more about you or your company, where can we send them?
Dale: So we are fireandspark.com, happy to have anybody take a look at the blog that we’ve written on all these topics. And then also reach out to me directly, I’m Dale@fireandspark.com. Happy to hear from anybody who has questions.
Rich: Awesome. Dale this has been great, I really appreciate your time and thanks for stopping by today.
Dale: Alright, Rich, thanks for having me.
Dale Bertrand has over 15 years of experience helping brands and businesses create killer e-commerce pages that consumers want to keep going back to, and that ranks high with Google’s every changing algorithms. Check his website and blog to see more of how Dale is helping businesses crush the e-commerce competition.
Rich Brooks is the President of flyte new media, a web design & digital marketing agency in Portland, Maine, and founder of the Agents of Change. He’s passionate about helping small businesses grow online and has put his 20+ years of experience into the book, The Lead Machine: The Small Business Guide to Digital Marketing.