As we mentioned in our introduction to ecommerce SEO, in the early days of the Internet, search engine crawlers relied on keywords to index pages. The underlying rationale was that the more times a particular term occurs on a page, the more likely the page is about that term.
In other words, if the word apple shows up 50 times, the odds are we’re reading about apples.
The only problem with this approach is that it was easy to exploit. If we wanted our page to rank for apple, pretty much all we had to do was use the word with a greater frequency than competing sites. This led to low-value sites where the web designer would paste the word apple and related synonyms (e.g. Macintosh, Granny Smith) repeatedly into massive blocks of content.
This is a recurring theme throughout the evolution of search engine algorithms. (Algorithms are the “formulas,” or rule sets, that search engines use to evaluate the pages they crawl.) The algorithms try to reward pages optimized for human readers. But the goal of ecommerce SEO is to optimize pages for the algorithms. In this case, it led to high-ranking content that no human reader would engage with.
As a result, search engine developers realized they needed something more than keywords. So instead of only looking at what a website says about itself, they began building algorithms that looked at what other websites said about it.
In other words, they started looking at links.
Inbound and Outbound Links
Inbound links, or backlinks, are one of the ecommerce SEO terms we talked about last time. These are links to your website from other websites. When someone links to your website, they are telling the search engines that your page is a reliable source of information for a specific search term.
Outbound links, then, are links going out from your website. There are two types of these: external and internal. External links go to other sites, while internal links go to other pages within your own site. The link just above, to our previous ecommerce SEO post, is an example of an internal link.
So linking, in general, tells the search engines that a page is relevant. But relevant to what? If I link to a page about apple pie, how does the search engine know that this page is a recipe rather than a page about apples or baking?
Keywords still play an important role here, and we’ll talk more about the best ways to use them next time. But when it comes to links, the link text is one of the search engine’s biggest cues. We’ve just used it. By anchoring the link’s URL in the phrase link text, we’re telling the search engines that the page we’re linking to is actually about “link text.”
At the same time, if you look, this phrase appears in the URL itself. So already, the search engine has two pieces of information indicating what the page is about. And the fact that we’re linking to this page in the first place tells the search engine that the page is a good source of information on this topic.
Contextual, Navigational, and Dynamic Links
This type of link is called a contextual link. These most often appear in articles and other forms of content where the text provides an easy, relevant anchor for the link.
In your web store, navigational links are also very important. These are internal links built into navigational elements like your header and footer.
Dynamic links are a third type. These are links that the platform adds to the page, often based on tags or back-end configurations. Examples include popular and related posts on a blog. For ecommerce SEO, they would include product recommendations, previously viewed items, and bestsellers.
So when it comes to optimizing your site, internal links with relevant (keyword-rich) link text and URLs are important for reinforcing the search engine’s assessment of your site. Of course, these links do not provide the same kind of “boost” you get from inbound links.
For that, you need link building.
As the name implies, link building is the process of building up quality links that direct back to your site.
What do we mean by quality links?
As we mentioned previously, a link’s value depends on the quality of the site it’s coming from. This, in turn, depends on how well the linking page ranks with the search engine.
This is easy to understand when you consider that anyone can set up a series of one-off blog sites linking back to the domain they’re trying to rank. Logically, these links have much less value than a link from, say, Wikipedia. So the search engines treat them accordingly.
This comes back to the search engines emphasizing value for human readers.
Low-value links can ultimately hurt a site’s ranking in the same way that good links can help it. This is nothing to worry about as far as the occasional link coming from a poorly-ranked site. Rather, it serves as a deterrent for link manipulation tactics like the one described above.
Ecommerce SEO Link Strategies
Link building with reputable sites, by contrast, is one of the best ways to improve your organic ecommerce SEO. If you’re well-established, particularly as a thought leader, then the odds are other sites are already linking back to you.
But if you’re just starting out, creating sharable, high-value content is overall the most effective way to get links. For example, if you write an informative or entertaining blog post and other people in your industry share it, you will very quickly acquire a number of quality backlinks. This has the added benefit of helping you to establish your industry expertise.
Providing outbound links to other site owners’ content is another very simple way to develop your link building relationships. While this doesn’t improve your site’s SEO directly, it does provide quality content for your readers and helps the SEO of the site you’re linking to. Site owners are very appreciative of quality links (who wouldn’t be?), and will often reciprocate by linking back to you.
To get started, here’s a great free tool that gives you an overview of all the backlinks currently pointing to your site. Try it… you might be amazed at who’s already linking to you. We’ll have more free ecommerce SEO tools for you to check out in a future post.