How to Deal with Discontinued or Out of Stock Product Pages Without Hurting Your Rankings
by Ron Dod
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Traffic is swelling. Sales are booming. Products are flying off the digital shelves. This is the ideal situation for every eCommerce site owner.
However, what happens when items are out of stock or discontinued? Should you leave the page up, merely denoting its new status? Should you display a 404? Should you redirect users to a comparable item? What are the SEO ramifications of your potential decisions?
These are all quandaries that digital retailers must deal with at one point or another as products often go out of stock or are permanently discontinued.
Despite how common of an event it is, it can be challenging to know what to do with product pages for which you don’t have any product to sell. After all, it’s not as easy as leaving a page untouched or simply deleting it. Unfortunately, merchants need to proactively deal with the situation to preserve their eCommerce site’s SEO.
If retailers leave out of stock pages stagnant, they 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.
If a merchant deletes a page, they could potentially lose incredibly valuable link equity. On the other hand, merely redirecting a page to a site’s homepage will retain some equity, but it could result in a frustrating user experience that could ultimately cost a store a prospective customer.
The best practices for dealing with discontinued or out of stock pages doesn’t have one singular correct answer. Applying an advantageous solution 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
While employing the proper methodology is crucial to a site’s overall health, a myriad of merchants don’t have any strategy in place for when such an event comes to pass.
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 Handle Out of Stock Pages
When addressing pages where the product is out of stock, it is best to keep the page live if the item will eventually become available again. However, merchants should make some modifications to the page to let shoppers know that the article is currently unavailable.
This suggestion comes directly from a recent Webmaster Hangout session with Webmaster Trends Analyst John Mueller in which he states that the page should remain largely the same, with newly implemented structured data to reflect the item’s status.
Furthermore, to avoid a poor user experience, the product page should inform visitors that the merchandise is out of stock. It is also wise for retailers to include a timeframe of when the item might be back in stock. To avert any possible confusion, be sure to disable the “add to cart” button for this page.
Since the item is out of stock, it is important for site owners to know that the bounce rate for this page will likely increase; however, there are a few strategies to help mitigate this outcome.
Firstly, merchants can display a selection 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.
Furthermore, retailers can decrease bounce rates by providing consumers with 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 various email marketing campaigns and then drive that elusive second purchase when the item becomes available again. Additionally, this “back in stock” email provides merchants with the opportunity to show off complementary products and gain a deeper understanding of a customer’s preferences for future personalization efforts.
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 four years 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 customer’s 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.
However, 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.
With that said, let’s assess how eCommerce retailers can protect valuable backlinks that exist on extinct product pages.
When to Implement a 301 Redirect
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.
When to Avoid a Redirect
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’s 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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