How to Deal with Out of Stock Product Pages Without Hurting Your SEO Rankings
by Ron Dod
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Traffic is soaring, sales are booming. Your products are flying off of the digital shelf. This is an ideal situation for eCommerce brands.
However, what happens when your product flies off the shelf and you can’t supply anymore? You’re out of stock, but what should you do with that product page? Do you leave it up and denote the new out of stock status? Should you display a 404? Do you redirect users to a comparable item? And what are the SEO ramifications of those options?
These are issues that all online retailers are going to deal with at one point or another as products tend to go out of stock or are discontinued.
Despite the commonness of this, it’s still challenging for retailers to know what to do with a product page for which you don’t have any product to sell. It’s not as simple as just leaving it up or deleting it all together.
If retailers leave the page as is, it could frustrate a potential customer to the point of exiting your site. If they thought they were going to be able to buy something, just to be later denied, you not only lose that sale, but could potentially lose their business forever.
In addition, if pages are left stagnant, it could result in indexation bloat issues. Since Google only provides each site with a specific crawl budget, webmasters should be careful not to let this go to waste on inconsequential pages as bots could end up skipping some of a site’s most important destinations.
However, if a retailers were to just delete the out of stock product page, they could potentially lose incredibly valuable link equity. If you later get more supply of the product, you’ve lost all the equity and have to start over for that product page.
Merchants need to proactively deal with the situation to preserve their eCommerce site’s SEO. The best practices for dealing with out of stock pages don’t have a single correct answer. You have to understand that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach here. Applying an advantageous solutions depends on several factors, including:
If the product is permanently discontinued or temporarily sold out
If the page has valuable backlinks
If the page receives substantial organic traffic
To begin developing a proper plan of action, let’s first have a look at some online store tips for dealing with products that are out of stock.
How to Effectively Handle Out of Stock Pages
Step 1: Leave the Page Up
When addressing out of stock product pages, it is best to keep the page live if the item will eventually become available again. However, merchants should make modifications to the page to effectively communicate to shoppers that the product is currently unavailable.
This suggestion comes directly from Webmaster Trends Analyst John Mueller in a Webmaster Hangout session. He states that the page should remain largely the same, with newly implemented structured data to reflect the items status
Step 2: Add Information
In addition to letting visitors know that the product is out of stock, retailers should add other valuable pieces of information to help increase the user experience.
If applicable, retailers should include a timeframe of when the item might be back in stock. If that’s not an option, you could give them the option to join a waitlist.
In the same vein, retailers can also give visitors the option to be notified via email when the item is back in stock. This strategy is a great way to grow your email list and potentially get visitors to continue shopping for other products. That way, your store might still gain a sale, acquire an email address to enter into your email campaigns, and then drive the elusive second purchase when the item becomes available again.
It’s also beneficial to disable the “add to cart” button for this page to avoid any possible confusion.
Step 3: Add Comparable Products
Since the item is out of stock and visitors can’t purchase it, retailers need to realize that the bounce rate is likely to increase for this page. However, merchants can display a section of closely related product alternatives that might suit the user’s needs.
When choosing which items to present, consider how your customers shop your site (By category? By color? By brand? etc.) and align your offerings with that method. You can also consider items that consumers frequently purchase with the out of stock item.
However, do be aware that providing too many options could result in the paradox of choice – a phenomenon that actually discourages people from making a decision.
Now that we understand how to manage out of stock product pages, let’s dive into the online store tips for managing discontinued item destinations.
Dealing with Discontinued Product Pages
When addressing products that your store will never carry again, there are a few potential routes merchants might elect. The first is to just display a 404-error page in place of the product destination.
While it has been some time since initially stated, this is the advice that Matt Cutts gave in a 2014 video. Despite this being a bit old, it still makes sense to serve visitors a 404 page for discontinued products as it can be disappointing for consumers to land on a page, only to find out that they cannot buy the item. To mitigate such frustrations and provide the best user experience possible, 404 pages could be the right call.
However, if you opt to use this strategy, be sure to create a custom 404 page that holds the potential for pulling customers back into your site by recommending related products, utilizing a prominent call-to-action or by getting on their good side with an irresistible joke.
Before you cement your decision to implement a 404 page in a long-gone product’s place, it is worth considering the cons to this strategy.
The use of a 404 page should partially be dependent on how many your site already has employed within its structure. As mentioned before, websites have a finite crawl budget. Allowing 404 pages to mount poses the threat of wasting your budget on pages that don’t even exist anymore.
Moreover, when deciding if the use of 404 is the right call, it is essential to consider if the product page still receives organic traffic or if it possesses high-quality backlinks. If you serve a 404 for pages that tout either of these elements, your site will be losing out on qualified traffic and valuable link equity. Seeing as these factors are crucial to scaling an eCommerce business with SEO, you should focus on figuring out how to preserve these assets.
When dealing with a vital product page for an item that has been discontinued – meaning that it has valuable backlinks or significant volumes of organic traffic – a 301 redirect is likely the best option for retaining the benefits provided from the defunct destination.
To conclusively establish if a page is, in fact, worth saving, it is wise to utilize a tool like Ahrefs to determine if the URL receives quality backlinks.
If the page is worth keeping, leverage a 301 redirect to point toward the most comparable or relevant product in your store. Be careful to select a page that is not likely to be removed in the future as this can potentially result in a redirect chain. If this happens, it can negatively impact your site’s usability, crawlability, and SEO as a whole.
If you cannot find a suitable option for the 301 to point towards, it may be best to merely redirect consumers to the subcategory page to which the discontinued product formerly lived, as this is almost certainly a permanent fixture of your site.
Finally, if your site needs to employ a 301 redirect, don’t leave customers in the dark. Create a dynamically generated message that informs them that the item has been discontinued, and they are being sent to a comparable product page.
Doing this will enhance the user experience by minimizing potential confusion and frustration.
However, while a 301 redirect is a great option for preserving valuable assets, it is not always the best option.
Alternative Site Destinations
There are specific – albeit somewhat rare–instances where valuable pages should not redirect to alternative site destinations. This will largely depend on the nature of the products sold through a store. But if a page contains any information that customers might still find valuable, like product specifications, user manuals, etc., it might be a good idea to keep the page live so that consumers can still access the info.
However, should it be in your best interest to go this unusual route, be sure to disable the “add to cart” button and implement prominent messaging to reflect that the item is no longer in production?
As you can see, managing out of stock or discontinued product pages isn’t as straightforward as it seems on the surface. To adequately protect your eCommerce store’s SEO efforts, be sure to use these online store tips for dealing with these occurrences.
Failure to handle out of stock or discontinued product pages advantageously could result in significant SEO damage. If you are still unsure of how to manage your specific scenario, you might want to consult with an eCommerce SEO expert to ensure your site remains healthy and profitable.
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Ronald Dod is the Chief Marketing Officer and Co-founder of Visiture, an end-to-end eCommerce marketing agency focused on helping online merchants acquire more customers through the use of search engines, social media platforms, marketplaces, and their online storefronts. His passion is helping leading brands use data to make more effective decisions in order to drive new traffic and conversions.
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