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The SEO Guide For Building Successful E- Commerce Websites

An Interview with Duff Ferguson

Welcome to E-Coffee with Experts, an interview series where we discuss all things online marketing with the best minds in the business.

In this episode, Dawood speaks with Duff Ferguson about SEO and it’s importance in building ecommerce websites. He gives a detailed account of planning the site structure of an ecommerce website, conducting a site audit and more. 

Read this insightful conversation and stay tuned for the next steaming cup of E-coffee.

If you think about your product and service fulfilling a need that nobody else can, there’s got to be some element of search and advertising that you should be able to dominate almost from the beginning. Because you’re going to serve the needs of that specific niche so well that nobody’s going to outrank you with a more general kind of approach.

Partner and Founder at Amplitude Digital
SEO
Hello, everyone. Welcome to a brand new episode of E-coffee with experts. Today, we have with us Duff Ferguson, Partner and Founder at Amplitude Digital. Duff, before we dive deep into discussing marketing and SEO, it would be great if you could introduce yourself and your company for our viewers.

Well, we’re a digital marketing agency. We grow sales for e commerce companies, mostly and B2B brands. We do it through high growth, pay per click, SEO, and social media campaigns.

 

We have a 16 year history. We were founded in 2004 and we have about 30 people here in Los Angeles. They’re data driven strategists, media buyers, search marketers, creative people, like writers, visual designers, developers. We all work together to help these companies grow sales and build their customer acquisition, customer sales funnels, over time. Clients like both large and small, like Billabong, Toyota, The Smithsonian, Popcornopolis, Spafinder, a lot of different  brands.

 

So for all that history, you have a lot of collected ideas and different strategies that companies have used, because every company is different. There’s always kind of a customized effort, and that is basically what we do.

Well, you recently acquired Fang marketing, how did that happen?

Well, Fang is a company we’ve been aware of and worked collaboratively over several years.Their founder, Jeff Ferguson, who’s actually no relation to me, but just shares the same name, we’d brought in on a couple of different campaigns, some very high profile things we’re working on. We just really needed an extra level of expertise.

 

He’s one of those kinds of Pay Per Click Gurus. He actually teaches digital marketing at UCLA.  It’s just a great asset anytime we need for a high level client presentation or some really high level research.

 

As we entered the end of last year, we began to see a lot of synergies in the clients and the things we’re doing together. We just figure why not bring these great companies together? So he brought a number of people with him that were specialists and folks that we didn’t have before. Those were the people that really bolstered our search marketing team. He also brought with him his expertise in really running search marketing, across both Pay Per Click and SEO, kind of combined power and how to use them together.

 

That really added something really powerful to the group of partners we already have at our company.  We also acquired really fantastic clients along with that as well. They’re just right in line with the sort of places we’ve worked with before like Be Aveda, Stila Cosmetics, and health, beauty wellness places that can definitely benefit from search marketing and growing sales through advertising.

You work with a lot of e-com websites. So one question I want to ask is, what do you think Amazon Ads versus Google Ads?

Well, there’s no softball questions.  Actually, the answer is pretty much both.

 

I’ve gone every year to this conference, it’s called the Natural Products Expo West. It has about 3000 companies that are all ecommercing and manufacturing and producing and part of the e-commerce train around all natural products.

 

So think about it like a lip balm that might have CBD oil in it or something. That person might start on Amazon and sell through Amazon and do a good business through Amazon. But they can’t really grow their brand and grow their customer base beyond a certain point while they’re staying within the Amazon universe.

 

So eventually, if not from the very beginning, a company has to develop their own presence online, their own buying system, their own branding system, and their own way of attracting clients outside of Amazon, may be complementary to it in a way that attracts clients both ways. Because with Amazon, you’re losing control of your customer, their customer data, their buying history.

 

When it comes to your website, even if they never buy anything, that click they put through your website, that visit is really valuable information.  Developing that system is vital if a company is really going to be a serious contender, if they’re going to start launching their football products and that sort of thing. So we do work on both sides and we work on systems that require different sorts of optimizations and different sorts of bidding, sorts of ads, but it is successful.

 

I’ll give you an example. I recently bought a vacuum cleaner. That’s a typical sort of thing.  It’s not like my car or anything that you spent on something, wait around and think about it. It cost like 100 bucks or something. So you just don’t want to spend that without thinking about it. So you go to Amazon and see what’s available there because it’s just a great shopping experience. I know you’re gonna get free shipping and good stuff.

 

But when you see these brands and start researching the brands at their websites. You start seeing their offers that might be different from what they might get from Amazon. They have to be good because through Amazon, I get free shipping. It’s gonna probably going to be at the door tomorrow. It’s great, I  can send it right back, so simple.

 

But in this case, the brand is Dyson. They had all these interesting things you could get if you bought it directly from them. The price was great, they had some stuff on sale that I liked. They also gave you these offers about shipping, signed up for a free warranty,  and gave you all this extra stuff to vacuum out your car. So I don’t know how much that stuff actually cost them to provide me, but it made me buy it at their place instead of Amazon for basically something that probably didn’t cost them much economically different.

 

But now they own all of my information. They know where I live, they know they can sell me their vacuum cleaner in two years. They didn’t get a referral bonus. So anyway, answer to  your question, it’s both.

How important is SEO for an e-commerce website?

It’s absolutely vital. But it is something that frequently kind of gets overlooked as far as a budgetary item because it’s easy to cut. It feels like if you’ve cut it, nothing will happen, at least temporarily. That’s really not true.

 

What we commonly find is, the companies we talked to are ones that have reached the end of the first and second level of e-commerce strength. Their website reached a certain level, their ads reach a certain level, their optimizations reach a certain level. They’re just bumping against the ceiling, like we can’t grow. We spend more money on ads and it gets more expensive.We invest money in content for our website, nobody visits it. Nobody is buying when they go through a website, they only buy from Amazon sort of thing.

 

So the SEO is something that you want to be thinking about from the very beginning, particularly with your website. Whether it’s a technical thing or a content thing or anything. It’s like you’re investing in something that can’t easily be changed around done later.  You don’t necessarily need to spend a ton of money on SEO in the beginning to get a little bit of benefit. But you need to be thinking about SEO from the very beginning, so you don’t stack good stuff on top of bad and build like a brick cabin on top of a sand that’s about to wash away in a tsunami or something.

 

That’s what we tell clients to grow into it. We also tell them to think about their pay per click as a means of supplying them data about what to invest in for SEO. Should they invest in content? Should they invest in trying to upgrade the speed of their website? Should we try to fix the checkout system? Those are expensive things to consider and they help your SEO a ton. So we can talk more about what makes good SEO? But the answer is yes. You can spend big and spend smart. I think you definitely need to spend on SEO to be successful.

So what are the most important things that you look at first, when you're doing an audit of an e-commerce site?

Well, the things are sort of from the top to the very top down. The four things we look at would begin with, through the technical factors of the website. Can Google see this website is essentially the question there.

 

A good example would be a website we work with that had been converted from a magazine. It had like 10,000 pages and only a couple hundred of them were visible to Google. They had set up a page with an endless scroll kind of situation that Google algorithm couldn’t understand. So most of the website was completely unavailable.

 

There’s no point in trying to send more web traffic to your website if Google can’t even see it.  Things like the website speed, how the pages set up the information architecture, the relevance, and the content also stretches into some of those factors.

 

The metadata, the H1, H2 tags, the image tags, how the content is organized on the website, and what it says the mixture of keywords and all those things. Once you have that in good order, then you can start thinking about how you want to get more backlinks pointing back to that good content.

 

So like we were talking about earlier, what are means of getting good, high domain authority websites linking back to your websites, you seem to be in a good neighborhood by Google.

 

And lastly, what are some missing engagement factors and things that make people think? Like I don’t want to be on this website, it’s slow. People seem to be bouncing off of it because they just can’t find the Back button or the Buy button or the Checkout, there’s all kinds of factors.

 

We look at it in the context of their biggest competitors. So maybe two or three competitors, they might name or we just find through data. Because sometimes you probably look at the data, what the data thinks the biggest competitors, they’re not even competitors. Because their websites are so gobbly look that even Google can’t tell what business they’re in.

 

That’s the sort of stuff that we need iron out sweet. We look at those factors in general and in order of importance, here’s the things we recommend you do. We usually find that people have done some reasonable work in some of these matters. We usually find what I would call black hat, or grey hat kind of SEO stuff that is old and maybe still there that needs to be carved out.

 

Everything we want to do is, future forward. So we don’t want anything that’s eventually going to become a greater blackhat. It’s got to be optimized for whether Google will be now and in the future. We’d patch that into sort of an idea of like a monthly flow that we think will make an impact within say, three to six months. We use that to create a budget to work against that. That  we’re going to spend this much on development, this much on developing pillar content, this much fix your metadata and that goes on and on. That’s what we would look at.

How do you plan the site structure for an e-commerce site?

It’s an interesting question. I think it really is customized to the experience and the needs of each funnel.  In general, what I would recommend is kind of out of the mouth of Google itself, John Mueller, his thought is just that, you don’t want the customer to hit the back button, ever. You really want to think about the user experience, first and foremost. It seems simplistic and I know you’re operating at a much higher level of understanding this, than many of our clients do. Most of them really don’t understand anything like information architecture.

 

There’s the pyramid, which is the typical classic way of organizing a site and that’s still according to Google probably the most friendly way of doing it. There’s been some experimentation like flat websites. But if the person looking at the website can’t understand the hierarchy of what’s the importance of information, how to drill into it, they’re not going to find what they want, they’re going to leave. They’re going to find it confusing and not pleasurable.

 

There’s a few reasons why that it might not be a good user experience. Sometimes it’s just trying to be too many things to too many people.

When we try to think about the user experience we’re trying to favor here is one that gives your product more credibility, a sense of reliability, a sense of having good value of fulfilling whatever the pain point of the need is really, really well. We want to look good, sound good and whatever it might be. If it’s something that has some kind of payoff, whether it is making you feel better, making your driving experience better, or make you look better, it’s got to show you right away why this website is the number one place to look for that kind of stuff.

 

So all the architecture is built from that idea of how to go through increasing depth and detail.  As a final note on that, we often build what it’s called pillar content sections for clients  that need essential for heavily research because you don’t want to pay a lot of money for a writer to write really nice content if it’s not going to be really good to and specific Google, otherwise, it’s really a waste.

 

So you really want to make sure that it’s a section that really allows a person to browse around, go between pages, learn a lot and answer a specific question that we know we really want to dominate in search.

 

There’s a site that we worked on, they’re selling gold and silver bars, literally just physical gold and silver. It’s a great business. So, we built a section for them that’s all about gold and silver in your IRA, which is a difficult concept to understand. But it has some definite financial benefits for a very specific kind of person.

 

So this section is all about answering that question. Is this gold right for my IRA?  Can I put gold in my IRA?  It allows us to really go and satisfy that answer. But that was thousands of dollars of writing to get all those pages, FAQs, glossaries, educational pieces, and influencer content, all that kind of stuff. So it’s like, “Wow, These guys really care about me and help me make a great decision.” That’s the sort of thing that makes for great architecture. It makes for great site experience and makes for great Google rankings.

Also, one more thing which helps is having a look at your competition. Similar sites ranking well, because at the end of the day you don't want to complicate it for the Googlebot. I think that's something which always has worked well for us to have a look at competition. There are so many tools available, Screaming Frog is one of them, which actually goes to the detail, if you want to audit a very big website and try to plan an architecture from there. You don't want to hide your important page or your pillar page in a place where it's just not readable at all.

It’s true. One final point is that where people first come to the website is not the homepage. So the homepage is so important and a key feature of the website for so many reasons. Typically, we find that category pages or product pages are the most common pages, which means that you kind of want to feed that beast.

 

So if you’re selling aprons, we have a client that sells very expensive like $75 aprons. The category page for aprons you want to make sure is just as powerful as your homepage in terms of letting people know at a glance. When they’ve arrived at that page, there’s no better place to go for a nice, high quality, luxury apron. It’s not just a thing that says at the top aprons with a bunch of pictures because that could be anywhere. You want people to realize they’ve arrived at the final destination and so much can come off of that.

 

We crawl our clients websites constantly and we look for places where traffic is falling off or errors are happening. We find pages that are really seeing some life, we go in and try to fire that up even more just put gasoline on that fire.

How do you suggest to best leverage schema markup in e commerce SEO? Because I know that's an important thing which can be used very well for e-commerce websites.

I’m not a technical person in terms of schema, but I can tell you we will meet the client wherever they are, because some of these clients are working off legacy websites are hand built. There’s somebody very important to the organization who built that code and doesn’t want to do it any other way. And in other cases, there are companies that are just saying we’re setting up our website for the first time where we are completely rebuilding a new platform. What is the best way to do this?

 

Google has come out pretty loudly in favor of Jason and Markup is the way to go. That’s where we recommend people move to. But it really can be all different ways. However, we would say that it is key and important.

 

A lot of our clients that come to us with problems and things like Google Shopping, and places where they are feeding product catalogs like that, they usually have problems with their Markup. If it’s not that, it may be a problem with the specific things they’re putting in where Google can see them how it’s being assigned.

 

So we look at each area of the product page and what is actually being fed, and what’s the priority of those things, what keywords are being used. We also look at specifically how it’s being fed from the website. Because sometimes a hand built way is not that useful. You might be okay when you have 10 products, but when you’ve got 500 products next year, this is really going to be unmanageable.

 

So you really want to feed automation and correct, feed automatically as best you can. So that’s  maybe a broad answer but , I’d say I wouldn’t argue with Google on this front.

My next question might sound very simple to a lot of people doing ecom, but it's still a tricky question. For some people who don't do or work a lot of ecom websites, how do you handle product description from manufacturers?

That’s a very simple question, but a complex answer. That kind of depends on the mix of where the stuff might be appearing and how it might be appearing.

 

Google could understand pretty clearly the difference between a manufacturer or company website and something that’s a listing like an Amazon. Service is being separate and distinct, even if they have very similar names at the same time it is ranking them based upon that rank.

 

The things that we look at generally, as far as just trying to improve optimization would be just in terms of the title, like how things are ordered in, where the brand goes first, the product type, kind of attributes might be listed along with that, sort of seasonal type of thing. It might be more about occasion or a product type.

 

Those are sort of things that definitely can be changed platform by platform or thing by thing. That is probably beyond my paygrade. That’s the sort of thing we would pull an expert for.

 

If you’re listing across a lot of things that could become more of an issue. It is also an issue when you have clients that have distributors, they’re worried about outranking or appearing next to you. It gets complex. I can tell you data and research will answer that question.

You're right. Google does understand if you're putting it in the right places on the website. As far as the descriptions are concerned, what we would do is the descriptions and the specifications would be the same. But you can always play with FAQs or you can also have reviews for your clients that have that product on the side. Those things add value or help. But, if it is under an OEM category and under particular categories, then I don't think it is that bigger problem.

I just got to think that you have to aspire as a company to be the best ranking place for your own product on your own website. That doesn’t mean you want to handicap Amazon, you still want to make Amazon as powerful as it can possibly be to attract people within the system outside the system. But beyond that, you should be able to outrank them.

 

If your system isn’t properly searching for your product, they can still choose to go to Amazon, but their first choice is likely to be at least a path through your website and give you a shot at them before they hit Amazon the next day.

Well, which is your benchmark site from an e-commerce point of view?

Oh! that’s interesting. Usually, it’s in terms of the moment nearest competitor, whatever client we’re talking to. As you mentioned before, looking at a competitor’s stuff, try and think how can we just do one step better than anything else we observe out there. That can be an intimidating topic if you’re dealing with a company, that’s a new entrant in this space and they’re trying to outrank Apple or something, which, of course is not going to happen.

 

But if you think about your product and service fulfilling a need that nobody else can, there’s got to be some element of search and advertising that you should be able to dominate almost from the beginning. Because you’re going to serve the needs of that specific niche so well that nobody’s going to outrank you with a more general kind of approach. So that’s what really where we would start.

 

I’ve talked last week to a company that is selling very high quality skincare products for people that have allergies. It’s like super clean, medically approved, really super clean stuff. 

 

We’re looking at who would compete in this super clean space and what is the intent of people that might be looking for it? They say, “Oh, well, this is good for stuff, people have eczema, or an itch. They have skin that breaks out when they use it in the summer.” So let’s start building these back into queries, and start putting these in and see who’s ranking for these and why. That research begins to come up with some kind of categorical master searches that are really important and vital to your specific brand. That becomes your list of who your benchmark sights are.

 

Because if somebody else is ranking for like ‘what is the best oil-free allergy-free sunscreen on the market?’ You’re going to have a page and a content pillar system that talks about the differences between those various kinds of skincare and that the various kinds of pH balance differences. You’ve got anything that’s going to make it so that you rank that  because that is the core of their brand, it’s okay for them to invest in content. It’s gonna keep delivering year after year.

 

It’s not the sort of stuff gonna go out of style, it’s just going to become more and more important. It might even have medical grade advice in it that a university might link to, just depending on how aggressive they want to go at it.

 

We kind of feel like we’re here to win it. So we want to work with our clients at whatever level they’re ready to really go for it. But, if they’re limited in their budget, limited in their scope, limited in their time, we work within that. We get them the most juice as we can against the competitor that just try and make as much action as we can in that short amount of time.

When it comes to link building, how do you plan your strategy- building links to category pages versus product pages?

Well, it’s a big topic. After we’ve taught our clients that they are at a pretty good place as far as the technical look of your website and the content on it and the relevancy of it.  We want to think about what is it going to make somebody else want to link back to this page in a natural manner? In a way that makes a lot of sense to the person that’s on the other end when they clicked on the website.

 

So we think about again, satisfying queries that are really important to us from sites where people are looking for that kind of information. As you mentioned, those links can be built back to the homepage, to a category page, to a product page. We usually try to think about it holistically, and try to build stuff all across the site. We want to be as natural as possible, because if you’re trying to be completely rules worried about it making any activity reach out and build a link is in itself kind of an unnatural act. But if you’re doing in such a way that is genuinely improving quality internet, because you’re making quality content that you’ve created more available on quality websites, there’s really nothing wrong with that.

 

For the homepage, we usually think about content that has really wide appeal or industry appeal.  My personal interest in more general education kind of thing, like, what wristwatches are best? What’s the latest wristwatches? Do people wear wristwatches anymore? What’s the best way to know what time it is? The category pages are a little bit like that too. They tend to appeal for things that have to do with broader keywords and key phrases and broader search intent because you’re trying to give people a sense that they’ve arrived at a destination that will answer their question.

 

But if they don’t know much about the specific products yet that brings us back to a little bit optimization we talked about before. When they arrive on that page, what do they see? Do they just see wristwatches and a bunch of pictures, or do they see it as visual at the top that says, Duff’s wristwatches are the cheapest, the highest quality and every president of every country in the world wears one or something like that.

 

You might say, wow, I want a wristwatch. Every wristwatch on this page must be pretty much what I want. So now it’s a question of what’s the price point and the product stuff is more about really niche content. So there would be like, best 2020 wristwatches? This wristwatch is the answer,  Seven features to look forward to wristwatch? This watch is the answer. So, again, they’re answering a question that the person is looking for the best or looking for that feature. You’re the answer.

 

Then, we would look at what should be the text that that link would come from? People don’t realize that the text actually has that blue line under it is really important to Google.  People spend a lot of time thinking about those, but a lot of our clients really don’t understand that.

 

We look at things like, what is the reason to link? It’s a beauty thing? New innovations in beauty that you might want to see? It could be an article focused on a subject like ginger essential oil or something an innovation of beauty, or something very specific, like a tablet with the longest battery life. It’s just a money anchor text to go back to a product. So, that’s kind of it.

 

In general, we’re looking for sites that have more domain authority , better quality, more traffic, more power. Collect as many of those as possible, do follow links, and do in a way that doesn’t appear like you’ve paid for those links, because that eventually will be something that will back to bite you.

How do you implement CRO while doing SEO?

Well, we look at those four things we talked about before and I’d say, we look at it early in the process and also all the way through.

 

The first thing we would look at and it’s part of the tactical assessment we do. “Can you buy something from a website?” It might seem a simple question and funny, but it’s really not funny when you think about how bad a lot of websites are. When you get used to something, as you see it, and if you’re an owner, you might not even visit your own webpage that much. If you’re not able to visit that much and try test payments on all the time, somebody your business needs to, because checkouts can really work poorly.

 

A lot of our customers are now building things like Shopify or big commerce that are of great checkout, so it’s not too much of an issue. With hand built systems or legacy systems, it can get ugly and security can get to be a problem. If people love your product, they’ll put up with a certain level of friction, but it will hurt your sales. Ideally, you want to speed people through your website as if they’re going down a waterslide.  You’re feeding their hunger for something they naturally want and give it to them at a price they can afford and great experiences. They’ll buy it.

 

Once that’s done, we can run our initial recommendations and things that need to be fixed. Then we’ll run a lot of traffic through the website and just have a tracking standpoint to see where people get hung up. Installed a tool like Lucky Orange, that would heatmap key pages and to see where people pop it off, where are they clicking through?

 

We also look at Google Analytics and things that track the flow through the website and show us where we can make things work better.  Then, we work on a monthly basis where we not necessarily going to fix everything today, but where’s the next lowest hanging fruit that would make sense to invest, to bring in an additional amount of flow and sales.

 

So it’s kind of that worked off,  okay, invest in this, yeah, that worked off. But it’s got to go on all the time.  As not only the platforms change, but the shopping platforms change, the Ad platforms change, Google’s algorithm changes. So, we’re constantly crawling, checking,  monitoring. That’s one of those things we tell our clients no matter what, don’t turn off your crawl in front of your monitor. Keep it going because your website will deteriorate the moment you stop working on it. It will deteriorate, you just have to maintain it.

What is the one most valuable tip for e-com SEO that our audience can apply right away and benefit from?

This is a good question. I didn’t turn a couple different ways. First, I would give the number one thing that sounds stupid, I could I tell you. 75% of the companies that we look at just come to say, Hey, we need some help. I look at their title tag and it’s just wrong.

 

I can tell within five minutes of looking at their competitors on the website, that it’s just not working for them. That might seem like a simple or stupid thing, but it is the first thing Google looks at. If you don’t get that right, it kind of indicates a whole host of problems that are probably in place behind on your website. What do customers think about your search?  Who you think is buying a product and why? What is the process internally to make your SEO better and better, better a monthly basis?

So fix your title tag, if you don’t know why it’s wrong,  a good sign to look more deeply. I would just say that think about those four pillars; Technical, Relevancy, Authority and Engagement.  As a CEO, you might not understand what each of those four things mean. But make sure to lean in on your SEO people, what are we specifically doing each for these areas and how would you do this? Rate us on a scale of 1 to 10 or an ABC on these things. You can begin to divide and conquer and work with them. That’s kind of a secret sauce, because it seems like a lot of what we do is not necessarily rocket science, but putting it together in a profitable way that actually delivers real dollars and just not waste money, time and resources. That is a really complex thing.  But if you fix your title tag, you’re 75% done.

Well, to be honest, Duff all these things sound very simple, but at the end of the day we realize that a lot of people are not doing it. Even though, sometimes we are not doing it. We have so many tools available now, tools which help us analyze the competition and the content on competition. It suggests us that this word should be there so many times, but basically all of it is already what we know. We have learned in SEO all these years, it's just that we were not applying it. Now, because of these tools, we get that data and we are applying it but at the bottom of it, the logic is still the same.

It really is. Those are very wise words.  What we tell people all along is just Google is getting smarter and smarter every day, so you really can’t fool Google. But you can definitely outwork your competitors in showing Google what it needs to see to know that you’re the best.  If you’ve got a great product, then the SEO would be really simple to perform, but it has to be done. It’s a great topic. I’m just so glad you’re delving into this and keep spreading the word, please.

Yep, I will. Well, thank you so much for your time, Duff. I'll definitely get back sometime soon and we'll talk more.

That sounds great. It’s a pleasure to meet you and best of luck. Stay safe.

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