Hey folks, Scott Austin here.
In this episode, I'm going to talk about maintaining SEO continuity in your Shopify store.
When I talk about search and SEO, I usually just mean Google. I use the Google tools and metrics to optimize a Shopify store for search. I trust that if things are working well for Google, then things will also be good on the smaller search engines.
Now I titled this episode SEO continuity which is the work we do to ensure that Google understands how the structure of our Shopify store evolves and changes over time. It's also extremely important when doing a migration from one platform, say Magento, to Shopify. I'm constantly doing platform migrations for clients from many different legacy platforms. And each time I do, the store does not see a decrease in traffic from SEO. In fact, many of them see an immediate increase due these efforts towards SEO continuity and the fact that a Shopify store made today is more SEO friendly than any old ecommerce platform.
And SEO continuity is also important for existing Shopify stores. As the site evolves over time, you'll want to make sure that you keep Google notified of the changes and that the store also provides a consistent user experience.
So let's start with a little background. Google indexes the pages of your site. Usually, we get Google to crawl our store by using Google Search Console, which I covered in the last podcast episode. Google builds a list of all the pages in your store that it can find. It's actually not building a list of pages but of unique URLs because a single page can exist under multiple URLs. But not all pages that Google finds get indexed for Search. Some pages are duplicates, others are deemed unimportant by Google, while others we can tell Google not to index. The result is that at any given time Google has a pretty good understanding of the content in your store and is using that information to render results for search queries. But it can take a bit of time for Google to build that understanding of your store. Technically, Google can index your whole store in just a few moments. But its keeping track of every page on every website out there and it can't do that immediately for all sites. So Google's understanding of your content can lag behind the changes you make, sometimes by weeks or months.
And this is why as we make changes to the store, we want to keep Google informed of the changes as best as possible. This also ensures the customer experience is accurate and doesn't lead the customer down any dead-ends.
There are 3 main tools that I'm going to discuss for maintaining SEO continuity. They are:
Let's dig into redirects a bit. You've properly heard the terms 404 and 301s. In case you don't already know, here's what they mean.
A 404 is a server error that occurs when a web browser asks for a URL or page that does not exist in the website. Shopify creates what is called a friendly 404 page when this happens. To see your store's friendly 404 page, just type any random text after your URL. For example, I'll type https://jadepuma.com/chihuahua. Once you do this for your store, you'll see your friendly 404 page. It properly says Page Not Found and has your site header and footer. You can edit this page to provide a better customer experience, but the goal is to not have people end up on this page.
And that's where 301s come in. A 301 is a permanent server-side redirect. A redirect tells the browser that the page has moved and redirects the browser to the new home of the page. And because this is a permanent redirect, Google will change the URL of the page in its index. This way Google and the customer do not end up seeing the 404 error page. Instead, they see a smooth, consistent user experience. And in the case of Google, the 301s allow Google to apply any inbound links to the old page to the new page instead. Inbound links are super important to getting ranked so keeping them factored into your SEO is super important. Imagine the scenario of migrating from Magento to Shopify. The file structure of the two platforms are different. So every Magento page will have a different URL on Shopify. Without 301s, the Shopify store would lose the benefit of all the legacy inbound links to the Magento URLs.
Shopify provides stores with a tool for creating and managing redirects. In your Shopify Admin, its located under Online Store > Navigation. Then there's a 'URL Redirects' link in the upper right. This allows you to see, add, edit and delete redirects for your store.
And here's a pro tip, you can use the Shopify redirect tool to create redirects for you to use for marketing or affiliates. For example, my JadePuma store has a redirect for /podcast that redirects to the longer path for the blog that I use for this podcast. That way, in marketing materials, I can use the shorter https://jadepuma.com/podcast and my customers will end up on the podcast blog. You can even redirect to other domains if desired. This can be useful for affiliate links or linking to a calendar or some other 3rd party service that you use.
So, our main goal here is to use 301 redirects to eliminate customers from getting 404 errors. The cause for a bulk of the 404 errors is old links to pages where the URL has changed. Those links can come from the Google index, which will update itself over time. Or from other sites linking to you. It would be hard for you to get all these other websites to update their links to your store. And another source of 404s is from your own internal links whether on your website or in emails.
Now I use Google Analytics to find pages that need to be redirected, proactively and reactively. By proactively, I mean determining ahead of time what redirects will be needed. This is very important for platform migrations. Here I use the Landing Pages report in Google analytics. Its found under Behavior > Site Content > Landing Pages. It shows every page that has started a session for your store. I usually set the time frame to the past 90 days. Then I export this report to Excel where I edit the information. So this gets you the list of pages to redirect from. You'll still need to determine where to redirect to. More on that in a moment.
For the reactive side of things, this means seeing where 404s are happening in your live store. I created a Google Analytics dashboard for this that you can easily add to your Google Analytics account. I've included a link to it in the show notes. When I first launch a Shopify store as part of a migration project, I'll have this report emailed to me every day for the first 30 days. That way, I am reactively catching all the inbound links that didn't get covered in the proactive process. And for ongoing stores, I recommend you have the dashboard emailed to you once it week. If a given week's report shows no 404s then you can move on to other tasks. But if there are any 404s, you can put 301s in place.
Now there's two different ways to add 301s to your Shopify store. One is to add them one at time through the Shopify Admin interface. You should use this method when there's only a couple of redirects to be added.
But the Shopify Admin interface doesn't allow you to add 301s in bulk. For some store migrations, I need to add thousands and thousands of redirects. It would take days using the Shopify admin. Instead I do it in bulk using the Shopify Bulk 301 Chrome Extension which I will link to in the show notes. This extension works super well and has saved me countless hours of work.
So now let's talk about what URL or page to redirect to. Of course, there's no one rule, but here are a few guidelines:
Once last thing about redirects. Shopify will automatically create them for you in the Shopify admin. One example is when you are changing the handle of a product or page. As you make that change, Shopify will show you what the redirect will look like. You should allow those redirects to get made.
Let's move onto sitemaps.
For an existing store, you should already have told Google where your sitemap is through the Search Console tool. I'll add a link in the Show Notes to the podcast episode where I cover Search Console.
If you are doing a store migration, you'll want to change the sitemap in Search Console at the same time you change the DNS from the old platform to Shopify. That will prompt Google to re-index the store using all of the Shopify URLs. Doing this along with the redirects will mean little or no disruption to your SEO traffic.
Don't Delete Content
And that brings me to the last tactic which is to not delete content. I'm not recommending that you never delete a page or product from your store. But here are a couple of situations where I recommend you keep the content in place.
So, a customer can't, for example, find parts anymore for a 2012 product. My client keeps those products live in the store. That way the customer can find the page and learn that the part is no longer available.
In both of these situations, a new product template is used. The template does not have an Add to Cart button. It also clearly messages the archival nature of the product listing and redirects the customer back into the active product catalog. And these archival products are not included in the live shopping collections for the store. The stores have archival or past gallery collections that are not included in the main shopping experience for these historical products.
So that's my advice on how to maintain SEO continuity in your Shopify store. This will ensure that the Google index is up to date and that you get full credit for all of your inbound links. It will also provide the best user experience for your customers.
Thanks for listening.