Product Variations & B2B SEO for Ecommerce Websites – POLARIS
How to Build and Structure Product Variations for Ecommerce Websites
SEO teaches us that consolidated URL structure is superior. This is not true for ecommerce product listings. How can we explain the contradiction? Within this post, we hope to define the best ecommerce website structure in terms of how products are listed. We will shine a particular lens on B2B ecommerce structure.
Common SEO Theory
The practices which are best for ecommerce website structure, diverge from common SEO theory. Common SEO theory teaches us that consolidated, detailed addresses achieve more. One consolidated product listing can amalgamate SEO authority (from backlinks) more efficiently.
If product variations are grouped together, a backlink will hit one on-site address instead of multiple. One higher ranking URL will achieve more than 5-10 averagely ranking URLs.
Whilst this tried and tested SEO-theory is undoubtedly correct, it doesn't work very well for ecommerce sites (especially for B2B). Why? To understand more, we first need to visualise common SEO theory.
Common SEO Theory: Split Variant Pages
Common SEO Theory: Consolidated Pages
Within the above diagrams; the green fill inside of each webpage's blue box, represents SEO authority earned via backlinks.
Common SEO theory holds that consolidated pages are usually better for SEO. If you have multiple split-variant pages for a product, backlinks (from other sites, which yield SEO authority) will be diffused.
By contrast, if you utilise consolidated pages (where all the variants are available on one URL), backlinks and SEO authority are compounded. In pure SEO theory, this would lead to one webpage which ranks well, rather than multiple pages which rank averagely or poorly. One decent ranking position almost always trumps multiple poor ranking positions, in terms of traffic yielded.
From the above, you would be forgiven for assuming that this means consolidated page design is always better for SEO. However, you would be wrong in this assumption.
Ranking Factors for Ecommerce Products
Backlinks and SEO authority are not the only ranking factors for ecommerce product pages. In fact, especially for B2B ecommerce SEO, external metrics are in the minority (in terms of ranking effectiveness).
For B2B ecommerce sites, most of these backlinks:
... are entirely fictitious. B2B ecommerce sites tend to sell things like vehicle parts, construction supplies, stationery, office furniture etc. Such products are relatively unexciting. In addition to this, most B2B orders will come via parts number or through staff members whom already know, exactly what they are buying (or being told to buy).
Due to the above factors, product-level links for B2B ecommerce sites are extremely uncommon. Where they do occur, it's because someone has found (and shared) the best price on a common item. Only a select few ecommerce stores will have such strong price-based USPs, so that situation isn't 'the norm'.
It is true that some ecommerce sites perform better with consolidated product pages. But those ecommerce sites have something exciting or fashionable to sell, where gaining product-level links is normal. A site which sells designer t-shirts or fashion accessories may fit into this category. Health and beauty products which are extremely popular may fit here too. Obviously sought-after technology products like the latest iPhone also fit into this category.
For most B2B ecommerce SEO strategies though, this is fundamentally untrue. Most B2B ecommerce stores will be retailed (or drop-shipping, via API), products which are not 'shareable'. Things people need, yet things which people don't particularly care to shout about.
From the ground which we have covered so far, we now know that common SEO theory (which states that consolidated product listings are superior) is somewhat moot for most B2B ecommerce sites. Since no one is really linking at the product level anyway, why bother with consolidated link architecture? But what can we replace this with, and how will it benefit B2B ecommerce SEO platforms?
SEO Footprint Expansion
The answer is to expand your B2B ecommerce SEO footprint. This means having more URLs per product, rather than fewer. Although this flies in the face of common SEO theory, it is actually the best approach for most.
We need to compare each product structure (split-variant vs composite) in terms of footprint reach and granularity:
Above you can see that with a consolidated structure, only one slightly weaker keyword ("blue short sleeved shirt") really connects. The keywords "blue shirt" and "shirt" are more relevant for a consolidated product listing; however, the product page lacks the raw SEO ranking power to ascertain these terms (which will instead be scooped up by the likes of Amazon through filtered category pages).
Other keywords (such as "red long sleeve buttoned shirt" and "green sleeveless shirt") are also missed, but for a different reason. Since these product page use composite architecture (all variants listed on one page) – the page can only 'reveal' one variation at a time (until users make other selections). This means that some variants start 'hidden', and are thus de-valued (either wholly or in part) by Google.
By now you should be beginning to see why this architecture is seldom useful for ecommerce sites, especially those with a B2B focus.
Above you can see the split-variant structure. This structure also suffers from a lack of SEO authority at the product URL-level. That being said, such a lack of SEO authority is common for B2B ecommerce sites at the product level. Really there's no getting around that!
With that in mind, this structure brings an increased ranking footprint to the table. More granular keywords are picked up by separate pages. For long-tail SEO and niche keywords, this architecture does the trick. Product variants are not hidden on-load, which gives them a greater chance of ranking for smaller keywords.
URL Structure for Ecommerce Websites
In terms of URL structure for ecommerce websites, there are some common pitfalls. The most common is a combination of reflecting product categories within product listing URLs, whilst simultaneously allowing products to be placed within multiple categories.
In most instances, this will result in duplicate product listings, with slightly different category-based URL-nesting. Often canonical tags are then applied as a band-aid fix. Whilst this does help to mitigate direct content duplication issues, it doesn't stop Google from chewing up more crawl allowance on the same pages.
Google still has to crawl a non-canonical page, to find the canonical tag (which points to the canonical address). As such, even though such an architecture can avoid content duplication issues; the specified architecture will often result in crawling and indexation problems.
Either run a flat architecture where category names are not present in product listing URLs, or ensure that each product sits inside of a single category. Usually, products end up within multiple categories through laziness, where no one has bothered to define and understand the site's products properly.
Basic ecommerce website structure relies upon a cohesive and non-contradictory architecture. This includes signals from URL structure, indexation files (sitemap.xml, robots.txt), indexation directives (Meta no-index) and more.
The Best Structure for B2B Ecommerce Product Variations
B2B ecommerce website organisation structure, can take a very different shape when compared with B2C website structure. In the end, although it seems very unusual (and contradicts 'common' SEO theory); the best way to structure an ecommerce website is to utilise split-variant products. This is especially true for B2B ecommerce sites. Remember to factor elements of the ecommerce website base structure, such as the URL architecture. It's easy to end up with thousands of duplicate product-level URLs, if you aren't careful.
There are of course, exceptions to these rules. If your ecommerce sales come from a few very popular, highly boutique products (like Gucci bags or an iPhone) – maybe your products will accrue backlinks (at the product level). If this is the case, things aren't so cut and dry. It may be possible that in such a situation (mostly for B2C), consolidated product architecture would be better.
That being said; if you are in B2B ecommerce, or if your B2C ecommerce products are not widely known (and do not generate their own Digital PR) - it is almost certain that a split-variant product structure will work best for your site.