The shift toward a digital-first economy has accelerated since the beginning of the pandemic – and shows no signs of slowing down. According to a study carried out by Retail Economics and NatWest, nearly a third (32%) of consumers believe that their shopping habits have changed on a permanent basis due to the pandemic. The same study found that 46% of UK consumers have purchased products online that they would have previously purchased in-store, showing just how aggressively the customer journey has shifted to digital platforms.
This isn’t to say that brick-and-mortar stores are a thing of the past. Rather, the role of physical stores will need to evolve. Some retailers will join forces to create concept stores that combine cultural experiences, food and shopping in one space to create a buzz and entice customers out of their homes. Other retailers will look to blend the physical and digital together by reorganizing their spaces to showcase more products while allowing a customer to request an item from the stockroom to try on or purchase. Omnichannel strategies will be key to this, as businesses strive to create a seamless experience from in-store to online.
Nevertheless, brands must prioritize their e-commerce presence to not fall behind in what is already becoming a crowded market. The shift to online shopping has seen legacy e-commerce stores go head-to-head with new players, whether it be traditional retail stores or new direct-to-consumer (D2C) brands. This increased competition has already driven up the cost of digital advertising.
There are a plethora of marketing channels to drive traffic in 2021, including paid shopping campaigns, paid social advertising and digital PR product stunts, to name a few. The two most crucial e-commerce elements to get right, however, are search engine optimization (SEO) and user experience (UX).
Why are SEO and UX so important for e-commerce in 2021?
To be successful in e-commerce, a website must be quick to load, easy to navigate and awash with high-quality content that answers user intent at every stage of the conversion funnel. Many of the considerations you’ll need to make when optimizing your e-commerce experience fall under the purview of SEO and UX simultaneously, as the needs of the user and the demands of search engines align more frequently than ever. Below are a number of practical areas to begin refining your digital experience for long-term success.
Increase your site speed
Page load time is not only a ranking factor in Google’s algorithm, but also often the deciding factor between a user leaving the site or making a purchase. A study carried out by Akamai found that two seconds before rendering is the threshold for acceptability for e-commerce web pages, while a study by Portent found that conversion rates dropped by an average of 4.42% for each additional second of load time.
Increasing site speed can therefore make a tangible difference to a business’ bottom line. Audit your site using tools like PageSpeed Insights and Webpage Test to identify which elements on the page might be causing loading issues, whether it be uncompressed images or slow server response times. Always work with a developer to implement the correct fixes and track progress over time.
Optimize site search
On-site search can impact both SEO and UX. Poor on-site search functionality can create hundreds, if not thousands, of unnecessary pages in Google’s index that can then cannibalize and decrease the ranking potential of key pages. From a UX perspective, poor site search can affect a user’s ability to find categories and products, thereby increasing the likelihood of them bouncing from the site.
Many e-commerce platforms offer on-site search as standard, although the best options are often available through plugins or bespoke builds. Brands should work with SEO and UX specialists to perfect their site search offering, ensuring that the key considerations are met.
Carry out keyword research and optimize pages accordingly
With more people searching for products online than ever before, ranking in Google’s organic listings has never been more lucrative (and competitive). To rank, businesses must work with an SEO to research the keywords used to find products in their industry and how often they are searched each month.
This research should then tie into a keyword targeting map, where each keyword group is attached to a certain page on the site. According to Google, every page on an e-commerce site should have a unique focus and/or primary goal to avoid ‘cannibalization’ between pages. Once the keywords have been mapped to existing or new pages, brands should work with an SEO to optimize the metadata, content and visual assets on the page for its target keyword. This should be done on a priority basis, choosing to work on the pages with the most potential for driving organic traffic first and making sure to balance transactional and informational pages.
Create informational content to guide customers down the conversion funnel
An area that can be overlooked in some e-commerce strategies is not producing content that answers the informational intent of users. The majority of users landing on a site will still be at the consideration stage of the purchasing funnel and could benefit from high-quality, informative content to help them in their buying decision.
Businesses should therefore build out buying guides, inspiration hubs and case studies to encourage the user further down the purchasing journey. Informational content can also drive users to the site at the start of their journey, adding valuable traffic to the site that can lead to sales in the future.
Topps Tiles, for example, has built out a comprehensive content hub with keyword-targeted buying guides and gallery pages, which then links to relevant products and categories. Likewise, Weber has built a recipe hub to educate users about the types of meals they can cook on their BBQs, thereby encouraging them to make a purchase.
Clean up the website structure
A logical website hierarchy carries numerous benefits, from improved user navigation, simpler URL structures and an overall improved content flow. Poor website structure can stop some pages being discovered, potentially leading to a lack of sales, while a good site hierarchy can increase ranking performance and sales. E-commerce sites should plan out how many categories and subcategories to have based on stock and keyword search volume, and ensure that they are linked appropriately across the site.
Google also recommends keeping a clean URL structure to help users decide whether to click a link. This URL structure should follow the site hierarchy and include the target keyword for the page to support SEO. Finally, implement comprehensive navigation tools, such as faceted search and filtering, to reduce the number of clicks it takes a user to reach key category and product pages, as this will have a considerable impact on the site’s average conversion rate.
E-commerce will continue to grow in popularity and claim a larger proportion of market share with each year that passes. It is therefore essential that brands invest appropriately into their online channels, with SEO and UX at the forefront. These strategies will need to constantly evolve to keep up with changing customer behavior, and the brands who are most proactive in doing this will be the most likely to succeed.
For more on the reinvention of retail, check out The Drum’s Retail hub, where we explore everything from livestreaming e-commerce to AR shopping and conscious consumerism.
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