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SEO 101: A Beginner's Guide to Optimizing Your E-Commerce Website for Search Engines

Written by
Lacey Rasmussen

This article was written by Lacey Rasmussen, e-commerce SEO expert and consultant. To learn more about Lacey and work with her for your brand’s SEO needs, sign up for an account with The Starters.

In this article, she'll cover everything you need to know to get started with SEO, from the basics to the latest trends and predictions for the future. By implementing these SEO strategies, you'll set the foundation to drive more organic traffic to your website, increase brand awareness, and ultimately drive more revenue. 

What is SEO and How Does it Work?

SEO is the practice of optimizing your website so that it ranks higher in search engine results pages (SERPs) for relevant keywords and phrases. It's is made up of several different components, including:

  • Keyword research
  • Content creation
  • Backlinks
  • Technical optimization 

At a high level, the goal of SEO is to make your website more visible and appealing to both search engines and users. This involves both on-page optimization (i.e. optimizing the content and structure of your website) and off-page optimization (i.e. building links and social signals that point to your site).

One key benefit of SEO is that it is a cost-effective way to drive traffic to your website. Unlike paid search ads, which require ongoing investment to maintain visibility, the effects of SEO can be longer-lasting and more sustainable over time. Additionally, SEO can help you build brand authority and trust, as higher rankings in search results can signal to users that your website is credible.

SEO has evolved significantly over the years as search engines have become more sophisticated in their ability to understand and interpret website content. Some of the key changes that have occurred include the rise of mobile-first indexing (i.e. prioritizing websites that are optimized for mobile devices) and the growing influence of machine learning algorithms that can analyze and rank websites based on a wider range of factors.

How E-commerce Brands Can Use SEO

If you run an e-commerce store, SEO can be a powerful tool for driving traffic and sales. Some of the key tactics that e-commerce brands can use to optimize their website for search engines include:

  • Conducting keyword research to identify the most relevant and high-value keywords to target
  • Creating high-quality product descriptions and category pages that are optimized for search engines
  • Building backlinks from reputable websites in your industry or niche
  • Implementing technical SEO optimizations, such as improving site speed and mobile responsiveness
  • Monitoring and optimizing for user engagement metrics, such as bounce rate and time on site

3 Brands That Do SEO Well (They Understood the Assignment)

There are many eCommerce brands that have successfully leveraged SEO to drive traffic and sales. These businesses have websites that are technically sound and keyword-optimized. What really sets the best apart is their unique ability to execute against an SEO strategy that is specific to their target audience. In short, each of these brands creates exceptional customer experiences.

Wayfair: Content Haven

Wayfair's unique SEO strategy revolves around creating engaging and informative content that helps its customers solve problems related to home décor and furniture. One of the ways they do this is by publishing in-depth buying guides, like this Desk Buying Guide. High-quality images, detailed product descriptions, and educational content (desk size, budget, etc.) are just a few tricks up Wayfair's sleeve.  

Wayfair's SEO Strategy

They also use long-tail keywords to target specific niche audiences, optimize their images with relevant alt tags and file names, and use schema markup to provide search engines with additional information about their products and content.

Chewy: Let's Get Personal

One of Chewy's unique SEO tactics is creating content that appeals to pet owners on a personal level, such as blog posts, videos, and social media campaigns that showcase adorable pets and offer helpful tips on pet care. Pet owners (myself included) want their animals to live as long as possible. Chewy knows this and uses it strategically. A title like "How Long Do Cats Live? (Plus, Tips for Maximizing Their Lifespan)" is relevant and clickable.

Chewy's Blog

Beyond building a strong connection with users, Chewy has also turned their BeChewy blog homepage into a shoppable experience, allowing customers to navigate away from the blog subdomain to shop by pet.

Chewy's Shoppable Blog Page

Ulta Beauty: Creating a Self-Guided Beauty Journey

Ulta Beauty doesn't create content just for the sake of creating content. They create high-quality content that educates and inspires its target audience, which includes makeup enthusiasts, skincare aficionados, and beauty novices alike. This content serves as a key driver of traffic to the Ulta Beauty website, while also helping to build brand awareness and loyalty.

Ulta Beauty has an entire section of their website devoted to successful top-of-funnel content. They have keyword-optimized beauty guides, video tutorials, and expert tips and advice that users actually want to read.

Content from Ulta Beauty

By engaging with users in the early stages of their beauty journey, Ulta has become a brand that their target audience trusts to help guide them towards the right products and services.

How to Execute an SEO Strategy in 5 Steps

If you're new to SEO, getting started can feel overwhelming. However, by breaking down the process into smaller steps, you can make it more manageable and achievable. Here's a step-by-step guide to executing an SEO strategy:

1. Create a Keyword Universe

A keyword universe includes all the words and phrases (aka "keywords")  that people might use when searching for something online that is related to your business or website. This includes both broad, general terms as well as more specific, long-tail keywords. 

Keyword Targeting: How to Choose the Right Keywords for Your Business

If you're a company that sells beanies made with sustainable materials, and are just starting SEO, here are some keyword examples:

Keyword Examples

Luckily, there's a lot of free resources and tools available for conducting keyword research. Some of my personal favorites include:

  • Keywords Everywhere. This is a free browser extension for Chrome & Firefox that adds a widget to your Google searches so you can see keywords that are related to every search query you enter.
  • SEMrush or aHrefs. The free version of either of these tools is great for building a keyword universe. They'll tell you the estimated monthly search volume for each keyword, as well as the estimated keyword difficulty (or how hard it is to rank for a given keyword). 
  • Google Search Console. This is the most accurate way to see which keywords and search terms are driving the most traffic to your specific website.

If you want a more comprehensive list, aHrefs has put together a list of 29 free SEO tools, many of which can help you identify all the keywords relevant to your business.

2. Find & Fix What's Broken (Technical SEO)

Technical SEO is the foundation for all successful SEO efforts. Technical SEO refers to the optimization of the technical aspects of a website. Here are a few examples of what technical SEO encompasses:

  • Site structure
  • URL structure
  • Crawlability & indexability
  • Schema markup
  • Response codes (broken links/redirects/page timeouts)
  • Website speed
  • Mobile responsiveness

If there are technical SEO errors and issues on your website, search engines may have difficulty crawling and indexing your pages, which can negatively impact your search engine rankings. This can make it difficult for your website to rank high in search results, even if you have great content.

If you address technical SEO errors and issues first, you can ensure that search engines can crawl and index your website effectively. Once the technical SEO is optimized, you can then focus on optimizing on-page content. 

3. Optimize Your On-Page Content

The next step is to optimize your on-page content, including your website copy, PDP & PLP descriptions, blog posts, titles, headings, and meta descriptions. This involves incorporating your target keywords into your content in a natural and meaningful way, without keyword stuffing. 

Blog posts are one of the easiest ways to create content that directly relates to your target audience, especially if you have a smaller product catalog where copy on transactional pages doesn't get updated as frequently.

Already have some published blog posts? Start there. It's almost always easier to optimize existing content to be more SEO-friendly than it is to write new content from scratch.

Finally, make sure to keep up with Google's on-page copy requirements and best practices. SEO journals like Search Engine Journal do a great job keeping everyone in the know. 

4. Build Backlinks

Backlinks are important for SEO because they signal to search engines that other websites consider your content to be valuable and relevant. When a website links to your website, it's like a vote of confidence, indicating to search engines that your content is worth recommending to others.

It's important to note that not all backlinks are created equal. Backlinks from low-quality, spammy websites can actually have a negative impact on your SEO, while high-quality backlinks from authoritative websites can help to improve it.

The best long-term strategy for building a strong backlink portfolio is to create high-quality content that's worth sharing. "If you build it, they will come."

5. Monitor Your Results & Measure Success

Once you've implemented your SEO strategy, it's important to monitor your results to see how your website is performing in search engine rankings. You can use free tools like Google Analytics and Google Search Console to track your traffic, engagement metrics, and keyword rankings. 

How often to measure results:

  • Daily - keep an eye out for any major fluctuations in organic traffic and performance. For example, a bounce rate of 90% to a popular product page could mean that a link is broken.
  • Weekly - Critical KPIs like organic traffic & revenue (daily is usually too often to see trends over time)
  • Monthly - Take an inventory of keyword rankings every 30 days. The tools used to measure average keyword rankings can fluctuate day to day, so it's more reliable to monitor these on a monthly basis.

How Much Time an SEO Strategy Needs to Make an Impact

In the SEO world, when someone asks this question we like to use our collectively-and-silently-agreed-upon catchphrase: "It depends."

In general, it can take anywhere from a few weeks to several months to see significant improvements in search engine rankings after implementing an SEO strategy. The time it takes to see results can vary depending on a number of factors, such as the competitiveness of your target keywords, the quality of your website content, the strength of your backlink profile, and your domain authority.

Websites that have been around longer often have a higher domain authority and can rank more quickly for keywords than a startup can. For example, REI is going to rank a lot more quickly for an article with the title "everything you need for a 3-day weekend camping trip" than a blog post from a rustic lodging company that just launched their website last week.

That doesn't mean the lodging company shouldn't go after this topic. It just means the content quality is going to have to be of the highest caliber.

Quick Hitters: Common SEO pitfalls to avoid

1. Targeting the Wrong Keywords: one of the biggest pitfalls is targeting high-volume keywords that don't match the search intent of the target audience. It's tempting to target generic, high-volume keywords in your SEO strategy, but it can lead to poor performance. 

Example: if you're a young eCommerce brand that sells artisan paper, it'll be tough to rank for the keyword "paper", even though the monthly search volume is significant. A better strategy is to target keywords like "artisanal paper" or "handmade paper" to provide a better landing page experience for your niche market.

2. Keyword Stuffing: This is the practice of cramming as many keywords into your content as possible in an attempt to rank higher in search results. Search engines aren't fooled this easily. Focus on writing high-quality content that provides value to your audience and naturally includes relevant keywords.

3. Poor User Experiences: Search engines prioritize websites that provide a positive user experience, and poor user experience can lead to a high bounce rate and lower rankings. Make sure your website is easy to navigate, loads quickly, and provides valuable information to your audience.

4. Duplicate Content: One of the most common mistakes I see in eCommerce is brands that don't take the time to write high-quality meta titles or descriptions, so they input boilerplate data. For example, the meta title might be generated by a CMS rule like [Product Name] + "Free Shipping & Returns in the U.S." This creates duplicate or near duplicate content without adding any real value to the customer, and it could cause you to be penalized by Google. 

5. Expecting Immediate Results: High ad budgets can help secure top-ranking paid spots, and strong email promos can boost sales overnight, but SEO is a long game. Google takes time to index new content, evaluate it, and assign rankings based on various factors, such as relevance, quality, and authority. Moreover, competitors are also continuously refining their SEO tactics, so the organic environment is in a constant state of change. Building a sustainable SEO strategy that delivers value to users over time is always a better approach than targeting "quick wins."

How to Launch SEO at Your Business: FTE vs. Agency vs. Consultant

If you're trying to get your SEO program off the ground but don't know where to start, there's a few different routes you can take:

1. Hiring a Full Time Employee: This approach can foster a sense of ownership and collaboration within the company, which can lead to quicker success and in-house expertise for ongoing maintenance needs. Finding the right full-time hire, however, can take time and can be costly.

2. Working with an Agency: Working with an SEO agency can provide access to specialized tools and technologies, which may be too expensive or difficult to achieve with an in-house team. Agencies specializing in SEO have the benefit of seeing trends across a broad range of clients and can use those learnings to help your brand achieve success sooner. Working with agencies could be cost-prohibitive as they typically charge high premiums for their services and can lock you in to 12+ month contracts.

3. Hiring a Freelancer or Consultant: This is the option with the lowest overhead and least risk to an employer. Hiring a freelancer for SEO can provide benefits such as flexibility, cost-effectiveness, specialization, personalized attention, and quick results, which can be particularly useful for businesses with specific, short-term or smaller SEO needs. Finding quality freelancers can be difficult, but platforms like The Starters can help companies find pre-vetted freelance SEO talent.

Starting SEO: Freelancer vs. Agency vs. Full Time HIre

The best option will vary by company and depend on the size, budget, and level of willingness for upfront investment. Hiring a vetted SEO freelancer on The Starters can be a good, low-risk way of entering into the world of SEO.

Looking Forward: AI for SEO

Artificial intelligence (AI) has transformed many aspects of modern life, including SEO. AI can analyze vast amounts of data and provide insights that can help improve search rankings and user experience. One advantage of AI for SEO is the ability to analyze user behavior and preferences to provide personalized recommendations and search results. 

AI can also help with content creation, such as generating headlines or optimizing content for specific keywords. Additionally, AI can analyze competitor data to identify opportunities for improvement and help businesses stay ahead of the competition.

For example, the previous two paragraphs were generated exclusively with AI, and the content isn't too shabby. 

Artificial Intelligence is a revolutionary catalyst for improving and scaling content and SEO strategies in a sustainable manner. From keyword research to persona creation and search intent clarifications, the possibilities of AI for SEO are limitless.

How SEO Will Change in the Future

In addition to AI changing the landscape of SEO, we'll also likely see an evolution of the way online content is presented. Consumers will want immediate results to queries instead of being presented with dozens of lengthy articles and web pages. 

We’ve all had the experience of searching for recipes online and having to scroll through lengthy posts about irrelevant content to actually get to the recipe itself. All recipes are structured this way to optimize for SEO, but it isn’t consumer-friendly. Ultimately, we just want the recipe and don’t care about the rest of the content.

To combat this, I think Google will make the SERP more interactive. Users might be able to view a recipe directly on the SERP, without having to click through to the actual website and scroll through irrelevant information.

Content is still king, and elements like keywords and backlinks will be vital for a long time, but UX is the future of SEO.

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