SEO

SEO Solutions for eCommerce Duplicate Content Issues

Got an eCommerce site? If you do, I’m willing to bet you sell more than a few products. If you’re anything like the hundreds of eCom operations I’ve had the pleasure of working with over the years, you likely have some products that are pretty similar to each other. Depending on how similar those products are you could be setting yourself back in organic search. So, I’d like to take the time to show you how to avoid being hamstrung by duplicate content on eCommerce sites.

Duplicate content can be beautiful, yet still troublesome

Defining eCommerce Duplicate Product Content

First, let’s flesh out what could make a set of products seem similar, duplicate, or identical to search engines.

  • Sizes: Say you sell shirts, or shoes, or hats, or pants. You could consider those each to be a specific product. After all, you have different quantities of each for fulfilling orders. However, aside from the size, the product is virtually identical. If you had a unique page (with a unique URL) for each size, you’d have a lot of duplicate content on your hands.
  • Colors: Pretty similar to above. Each product may or may not come in different colors. Visually it’s different, but everything else about the product is the same. This is more common than the above and if each color variant has it’s own page, you’ll probably have duplicate content.
  • Designs: This is like the next level of color. A product could have a slightly different design or pattern, noticeably different but not different enough to actually label it as a completely unique product. This one can be kind of tricky and is the most often overlooked.

Why Duplicate Product Content on eCommerce Sites is an Issue

Search engines frown on duplicate content because it typically correlates with lower quality sites and spam. Having a ton of pages that all have the same content makes it look like you haven’t taken the time to put together a good site that users are going to get value from. Alternatively, it might just make you look oblivious to how your site works, which probably doesn’t bode well for your users either. Also, search engines need to be on the watch for when content is scraped or stolen from other sources, making it appear on multiple pages throughout the web; don’t risk getting caught in any kind of automatic duplicate content detection if you can help it.

All of that aside, having duplicate content on your eCommerce product pages makes your SEO much less effective due to the dilution of link equity. What happens when three users each link to and share a different version of the same product? That equity and value that once product should be earning is now split among three copies, making all of them less effective. If duplicate content is a systemic issue on your website, that’s a huge problem.

I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.

How to Avoid and Clean Up Duplicate Content

When you are presenting these different products to search engines (and shoppers), you need to be careful. Don’t overwhelm visitors (human or bot) with mountains of product choices and display every size, color, and design variation, as its own unique product. I mean, come on, you don’t want to have your visitors landing on a category page that displays the same shirt ten different ways.

They key is to condense as much as possible. When’s the last time you actually saw a website that had unique product pages for every available size of a pair of pants?

That’s right: never.

The pair of pants has one “canonical” page, a single representative destination, with a dropdown selection for size. For usability, that makes a lot more sense, but let’s think about if from the SEO perspective as well. If we had 10 pages for 10 available sizes of a single style of pants, we’d end up with 10 unique pages that all have the same name (H1 heading), product description, price (probably), reviews, and shipping information. Maybe the product image would be different on each version, but through the eyes of a search engines, you’ve just created about 10 duplicate pages.

The engines then have the choice to:

  • Let the 10 duplicate versions compete against each other for ranking
  • Pick one and drop the rest of them
  • Do something drastic like send your website to Panda jail.

…and just in case you need help visualizing the issue, take a look at this side-by-side screenshot.

It's just like one of those Spot the Difference image games
These are two real pages out on the web. It’s just like one of those Spot the Difference image games. Click for the answer!

 

So how do we avoid all of these things? Condense as much as possible. Use dropdown selects for size and color. If it makes sense, condense different design variations, too. Unless you’re crafting completely unique product descriptions and renaming each product with its own unique title, you’re opening yourself up to issues in search.

This is the ideal handling; the holy grail of duplicate product content prevention for eCommerce SEO. But what if you have an existing site that you can’t make systemic changes to? Here’s your guide to cleaning up duplicate content issue for eCommerce:

Sites with Unique Pages for Product Sizes and/or Colors

Honestly, this doesn’t really happen for the vast majority of apparel eCommerce sites. Where you may see it more often is with sites that sell parts: incredibly similar products that have unique part numbers and are designed to fit a specific model of vehicle, computer, or other product.

  • Option 1: Create a unique product description for each part number.
    Make no mistake; this is going to take some investment of time and effort. Try this technique: start by reading through the existing product copy, then clear it out, and then rewrite it from memory. Use the name of the specific product that this part goes to. Include the part number in the actual copy. Also, update the product title to contain that part number or “{part} for {product x}”.
  • Option 2: Canonicalize all variations of the product to the best selling version.
    Use the canonical tag to tell search engines that you’re aware that these similar products are using the same descriptions, headings, and so forth. This option allows you keep everything same for users (they can still find all the variations through the same internal navigation paths), it allows you to not have to rewrite product copy, and it allows you to avoid getting dinged by search engines. Use Google Analytics to figure out the best selling product variation and then create a canonical tag that uses that URL in it. Drop this same tag into all of the products in the set, including the best seller itself (canonical tags can be self referential without causing an issue).
<link rel="canonical" content="http://www.yourwebsite.com/products/32g-ipod" />

Sites with Unique Pages for Design Variations

This is what I see most often: sites that have a group of similar PDPs (product display pages) with one unique page for each design variation. Sometimes it’s a different pattern. Sometimes it’s the same product with a new design inspired by a unique artist. If the only thing that’s changing on each page is the image, you’re going to have a problem.

  • Option 1: Create unique product copy.
    This is hands down the best option. If the design is unique enough to be worth mentioning, you can and should use the product copy to highlight it. Talk about the unique colors and patterns in the design. Include a brief bio on the designer or artist. Talk about who this specific design appeals to. Invest the time to make the product page for each design just as unique as the design is.
  • Option 2: Canonicalize and cross link.
    This is similar to the part number solution discussed in the previous section. We want to pick one “most popular” version to canonicalize to and we’ll use the same tag on all the pages in the set.
<link rel="canonical" content="http://www.yourwebsite.com/products/32g-ipod" />

However, since we still have unique designs that we wants customers to be able to discover, we need to use cross linking on these pages. By linking to the other variations, we can call attention to the fact that there are other designs people can check out while still avoiding duplicate content issues in search. Even though people landing on the best selling product through organic search will always land on that single canonical version, the can easily click through to the other versions.

The End…for now

If you have duplicate content on your eCommerce site or are developing a new site, this keep your SEO sorted out nicely. Now, duplicate content in general and eCommerce SEO are both huge topics that extend far beyond what I was able to cover here.  It there’s a duplicate content issue that wasn’t covered here or if you have any other question about eCom SEO, comment here and let me know. You might get an answer with the next blog post. Happy optimizing!

Mike Arnesen

Mike Arnesen - Director of Analytics & Optimization

A diehard SEO and web analytics geek, Mike is the Director of Analytics & Optimization at SwellPath. He is also a board member at SEMpdx. Mike's fascination for search experience optimization, structured data and semantic markup, and web technology knows no bounds. Beyond geeking out with SEO and analytics, Mike is also a prolific blogger, speaker (MozCon, SemTechBiz, SEMpdx, SMX, State of Search Conference, etc.), and company culture advocate. When not in the office, Mike is spending time with his wife, enjoying the outdoors, or keeping up with inbound marketing news via mobile; most of the time, it's all three simultaneously.

Watch Mike talk about his role and life at SwellPath

5 Responses to “SEO Solutions for eCommerce Duplicate Content Issues”

  1. Ryan

    I have a quick question. We have an E-commerce site and on each product page we show a list of available sizes the product comes in. The sizes are listed in a table format (Visable on page load). You recommend putting the sizes in a dropdown. Would moving from listing sizes in a table format to dropdown help with our duplicate content problem?

    Thanks!

    Reply
  2. Perry Bernard

    Hi Mike, great post. Sadly, we see all too many eCommerce sites using some kind of proprietary system that doesn’t allow the site admin to set many features, and they’re stuck with having to build sites that have product variations on separate pages, no ability to set a canonical tag either. The only choice remains to create unique content, and for many business owners this is an (almost) impossible task. Solution: Get a better CMS that offers more flexibility like this.

    Reply
  3. Sophie

    Hi Mike, great post! Thanks so much :)
    I’ve got a question about duplicate content being produced from tabs on the product pages. I’ve got a global tab (shipping) and custom tab (why buy from us) on each product page as it helps with conversions. However, the content is the same on each of these tabs for each product. Will this count as duplicate content? And if so, is there any workaround to avoid this? Thanks!

    Reply
  4. Marcy

    Hi Mike,
    Quick Question: I own several different catalog businesses selling very similar products. Some identical products make it into more than one of my catalogs and subsequently onto their corresponding website. If I’m correct this means I am creating duplicate content and cannibalizing my keywords by listing them on separate websites. Is this correct and would you have a solution to this problem outside of only listing the product on 1 site?

    Reply
  5. Scott Phommachanh

    Mike:
    Say I am selling a tune up kit for 3 different makes and 6 different models. Would it be best to create content for each model or consolidate them on one page to reduce duplicate content?

    Reply

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