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SEO for E Commerce- All That You Need to Know

An Interview with John Morabito

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 and John Morabito discuss everything SEO for ecommerce websites. John takes us through his SEO process and talks about his journey from graphic designing to SEO professional. He also talks about COVID 19 and how it has impacted searches. 

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

PageSpeed can really impact the way that Google experiences the website, let alone ranking benefits. The longer a page takes to load, the more data you have to load from the page, the more expensive it is for Google. So a faster web is a cheaper web for Google.

Director of SEO, Stella Rising
SEO
Hello everyone, how's it going? Today we have with us John Morabito, SEO director at Stella Rising. Thank you for taking the time. John, it would be great if you could introduce yourself and your company.

My name is John Morabito. I’m the director of SEO at Stella Rising, the agency for rising stars. We are focused on fast growth, emerging brands. We are also focused on direct to consumer brands. Some of our brands have been around a little bit longer and maybe not necessarily in that emerging category anymore, but have gone mainstream. For instance, First Aid Beauty came to us very early on, and now it’s been acquired by Johnson and Johnson. So, we take those emerging brands, raise them, and help them move toward the acquisition or greater heights.

John, we would like to know more about your journey from being a graphic designer to an SEO expert. Tell us, how did that happen?

Like many people in SEO, I didn’t study SEO in school. I studied Fine Art Photography, and realized that in this field, you’re probably only gonna make money once you were dead if any. So, I started looking for stuff and found myself doing this job that wasn’t even so much like graphic designing, as much it was like Photoshop editing, to start with, and then some graphic design where I would put teeth in a photo of a person for a dentist. I worked for a dental consultant, and I was doing dental imaging, putting nice teeth in people’s faces. 

 

It was sort of serendipitous that it’s this weird dental thing that I’m doing, but the guy that I work for happened to be a genius marketer. Also, he was a consultant. His business was sitting on the phone and consulting people.

 

In his home office, I used to sit three feet away from him, listen to him deliver every bit of insight to these people who are paying him $50,000 a year to be part of this program. He used to divulge everything he knows about marketing, running a business, and running a practice, and I was impressed. I did that for two years. Then, I went off and started working at another place as a graphic designer. At this point, we were literally making flyers to pass out to people walking around the street, updating the website, and other stuff like that. And he was like, “Hey, it’s a camera shop. Can you make a website of all the headphones that we have? Direct to consumer is going to be more of a thing. I think we should think about Amazon more.” This was in 2014 or 2015 or more earlier than that, maybe around 2012, when cameras were just starting to die as an industry and camera shops were starting to go away. This was a guy who didn’t really have any formal marketing education. I don’t think he ever really worked as a marketer, but he ran a shop in midtown Manhattan. He was a really good marketer. He knew what he was talking about. He was sort of a visionary in that sense and told me to build a website. So I built the website, and then he was like, “Can you get people to come to the website?” I figured out how to get people to come to the website, and sort of went from there. That’s where I started my journey in SEO as a graphic designer who built a website and then tried to get people there.

You and your team have had over 20 nominations over the last three years, including a win from Search Engine Land Awards for Best SEO agency in 2018. What is your secret sauce, man?

It’s not all me. But we’ve been really lucky to have some great clients who are really supportive of us entering these awards. So that’s critical. Also, we’ve been blessed to be brought into situations that serve the right moment for a brand. There was a video that Google had about how to hire an SEO where they say a good SEO can promote or accelerate the work that your brand is already doing or something to that effect. So if it wasn’t for the fact that we get to work with brands that have something cool to offer genuinely, and are good, then it’d be tougher for us. But, aside from that, awards are like anything, it takes practice, not only to get those types of results, but also to get the attention of judges. If it’s something that you put time and effort into, and you’re really passionate about doing, you can find that success.

How do you see the COVID-19 affect search?

I wrote an article on Search Engine Watch about some of the different search trends. At this point, we’re all aware of the sourdough recipe, right? Sourdough recipe or yeast is a search trend but in a more tactical/ meaningful sense. In some cases, we see a demand for certain products that have been in flow with the news. Everything is kind of trending in the right direction; cases are down; people are spending; Florida is heading back up. 

 

Even though people are miles away from Florida, there’s uneasiness from an economic sense that tends to ebb and flow and come over the nation in these waves. With everything that’s going on, whether it’s COVID or the social unrest and uprisings that occurred, it’s been a very turbulent year. So, search trends have been doing weird things. Some of our unity clients are getting more conversions and revenue out of their websites than they have ever before. Some of the traffic isn’t what it used to be, so people were looking at tutorials, maybe less than before, but they’re still buying things like foundations and certain color cosmetics. It’s been pretty wacky. Industry by industry, there’s definitely a lot of change happening.

John, what does your SEO process look like?

I do all the same things that everyone else does. But coming from a little bit of a scrappy background and having “we need to make money now” kind of climate in my more formative years. I work to maximize the low hanging fruit first, and that’s kind of my thing. So sometimes agencies will come in, they’ll want to execute a big technical audit, pull out all the wires and tell you where all the problems are and say, we need to very methodically make a plan—a plan for how we’re going to prioritize and attack all of this work. We need to understand where all of the issues are before we pull any levers. It’s like the comparison of a traditional versus agile development process.I believe more in the Agile SEO. For us, it’s about identifying low hanging fruit, implementing changes, getting some data back, understanding what direction we’re heading, and then trying to build upon that. So, I do a lot of weird stuff sometimes, like change a bunch of title tags based on gut. I don’t know if I need to take the time to do the keyword research to tell you that you need the town in your location pages. And so, maybe the first week, I’m going to jump into your website, put the time in, and then later, we’re going to do the keyword research to determine, does the town go first and then the service or the service first? What order do we want the services? So, sometimes it’s about getting something on the page the same way that we might when we try to write. I could get something down on the page, start to see some improvements or to see some movement. That’s kind of how I approach things in the early phase. Then from there, I think strategically. I am technically oriented. Very often, I will be dealing with sites that have big technical challenges. And, once I make those sort of basic low hanging fruit implementations, I try to start attacking things, like a technical audit or start going through Google coverage in Search Console reports. Work on pages that are indexed, pages that are not. Pages that have been discovered and have been indexed. Why is that?

 

I believe that even if you have all that nasty stuff going on — you’ve got horrible things and your coverage reports, if Google can at least crawl and get to the page, you see your page in the index, you’re probably going to get more benefit out of doing something like initial past the title tag and meta, or getting some good copy onto the pages that were previously missing, then pumping the brakes, looking at every issue, trying to figure out what’s going on, solving those challenges, and then sort of making your optimizations. So I like to sort of do things in that order.

A lot of agencies suffer in the case of low hanging fruits. They might have got a page, or a keyword from the hundreds to maybe the 15th position or 11th position. Right at the edge of the top 10 on the first page, and then suddenly they reach a plateau where the keyword or that page doesn't improve in rankings. So, at that stage, how do you look at the on-page elements or the content of that page? Apart from the link building, how would you work on the page?

The first thing that I would probably do in that case is look at the intent of the query and make sure that the intent of our page actually aligns with the intent of what we think searchers want for that query. I usually do that by looking at the types of search results that are there. So I’ll give an example, I wanted to create a page about red lipstick for one of our clients. So, if you were just to look at the query and think what type of page do I want from my arsenal of pages, it would be a collection page with all of your red lipsticks. However, when you search that term, you see that people are mostly talking about when to wear red lipstick, shades of red lipstick, and how to look sexy in red lipstick. So, it is more of a who, what, when, where type question, even though it’s not a question. It’s inferred that someone actually is asking for information, more so than they’re asking to purchase red lipstick. And so this in that case if I had gone and optimized the page. If I had not done that research first, and I created that page. I see it ranking, but I’m just not seeing it push. Further, I would do that analysis, and see if this even the right intent. In that case, I might need to create a hybrid. Because I also want to sell stuff. So I would add content to that category page such that I give Google enough information on that page that they think it is worthy of being with those other articles that are about when you should wear red lipstick and how to look good in red lipstick, etc. So I would incorporate those types of questions and answers right on to the category page in that particular case.

Absolutely. It has definitely worked for us as well. Now, it has become easier with so many tools out there, which actually help you analyze the top 10 pages ranking for that keyword. So you can very easily see the intent, content used, or the headings used. This has helped us a lot in planning the content of these pages. It's very important to see where Google is ranking for that term, rather than just going on your gut in that case. Moving on to the next question, John, what are your thoughts on the latest core web vital report introduced by Google?

It’s interesting because I feel like only one part of it is new news. We always sort of knew that PageSpeed was important. It’s nice that we have some more clarity about what exactly they’re looking for.

 

So you run a page through Google PageSpeed test lab results, PageSpeed Insights, or the average load time for users  you get to know, which factors they are really concerned with? What makes up the ranking factor? It’s what users are actually experiencing. So 75% of your users need to experience these pages below these different barrier thresholds that they’ve identified for each of the core five vitals. 

 

It’s more clear information than what we’ve had previously about what they’re looking for from us for PageSpeed. It’s data points too. Like, focus on the three things. So, we just focus on those metrics. I like it in that regard. 

 

We’ve been encouraging clients that PageSpeed is important since 2015 or maybe even earlier. We start working on some of these JavaScript websites. You can physically try to crawl it yourself. It takes two days to crawl the website. So PageSpeed can really impact the way that Google experiences the website, let alone ranking benefits. Not to get off on a tangent here, but you have to think about why Google wants people to do things. Yes, they want a good user experience. But the longer a page takes to load, the more data you have to load from the page, the more expensive it is for Google. So a faster web is a cheaper web for Google. 

 

The last thing I’ll say about it is the cumulative layout shift. It’s a cool step in the right direction. Speaking specifically about what we’ve always known that Google wants a positive user experience. But in terms of what it looks like, I think we’re getting some more explicit information than we previously had.

Does it make sense for every business to spend time on branded search?

Yeah, I think every business. 

 

Even the really small ones. Going back to that little headphone shop, I distinctly remember starting to work on brand search back then, and making sure to check what happens when I search audio 46 contact or what happens when I search audio 46 return policy. Am I seeing the right page? Does the page have a good title tag? Good meta description? 

 

Honestly, in my early days of SEO, 6-7 years ago, I wasn’t really thinking about that. So I don’t know if my contact page had a good title tag or a good meta description. It was probably just like the contact bar brand. And then maybe the meta didn’t say anything about our address or phone number. We could argue about whether or not you actually want the click, but in that particular case, someone wants to contact you. So, it makes sense to put the phone number in the meta description; make it easy for them to contact you. So, I think even if you’re a little mom and pop shop, think about Google search results as part of an extension of your website’s user experience. And that people very often will use it to navigate your website. So they’re not gonna go to your URL and be like, “Oh, yeah that website.” Go to the homepage, and be like. “Where do they keep that information about that thing?” And then, “Is it under this?”

 

No. They’re gonna hit their browser bar, brand name, what do I want. So, you have to look at that even if you’re a small brand.

How important is the website platform for an ecommerce website from an SEO point of view?

It’s an interesting question. 

 

The eCommerce website’s platform doesn’t matter. What matters is its flexibility.

 

I’ve met clients with extraordinarily flexible, homegrown CMS platforms where we can throw requests at them; they get implemented in a timely manner, the website looks great, the website functions great. These are in the minority. We do not see these very often. So predominantly, for a client to be able to implement the majority of our changes or for things to get through the pipeline as fast as we’d like to see them, they have to kind of be on some type of CMS that enables control over basic things. But at this point, most CMS’s offer that. 

 

We can get in there much like you guys. WordPress, Magento, Shopify. Many of those present no issues with implementing many of the recommendations that we have.  I’m starting to like Shopify more. I’ve got a lot of issues with it in particular. They’re moving toward the whole gray cloud thing, and we can start doing reverse proxy, funky stuff like edge SEO. I’m using them, and that’s new, but you got to pay for it a lot. It’s very expensive. I think you have to be at a higher level. The fact that you can’t control your robots.txt is clearly a disadvantage. But, for what it’s worth, I have also been working on web and tech long enough. It’s not any good if no one uses it. The end client, the brand, has to use the website. So, if they’re miserable using Demandware, which is not that friendly, but very flexible. And they want to go to Shopify or some homegrown CMS; I tend to not fight them on that. It’s all situational, all third case dependent. There are some places where Shopify does sort of handcuffs you, and it’s a little bit unfortunate. But the move towards the adaptation of Shopify is like an undeniable wave. I’m not necessarily trying to convince anyone to stay away from Shopify these days. I prepare them like, “Okay, we’re gonna have to control indexing at the page level.” We have no way of doing this at a directory level, so to speak via robots.txt. We can’t control crawling at all, because we don’t have access to robots. txt. 

 

There’s some other weird things. I will talk about one of the things that’s strange with Shopify. I’m looking for a way to do this. But most of the time, when you have breadcrumbs, those bread crumbs are sort of noted based on the product string or  URL string, and that URL string is often not the canonical. So most themes are set up with a product URL bar within the collection. They’re linking to the product URL through a collection. So most site architecture for Shopify predominantly does not link to the canonical for products anywhere in the site architecture. It’s only the canonical that’s actually in the HTML of the page and that is where the canonical is found. Clearly, this is not what Google meant when they gave us the canonical. But upon fixing that, you’d then often break the breadcrumbs because the bread crumb is informed by that element. So you go, and you can change the way that it internally links very easily in the liquid by searching for within the collection and removing within the collection. But then you break your breadcrumb. I know that there’s probably Shopify developers out there that are like, “Oh. Well, you could do this and that”. But try telling that to a client, and then someone has to code the theme to look for the default category to represent the default category in the breadcrumb. Maybe the theme didn’t come like that. Everyone’s starting from some theme, and every development shop out there is going to tell you that’s extra hours. They will be like, “Oops, sorry. We’re not doing that for free.” 

 

None of that stuff is really easy. And you kind of run into that with Shopify specifically. That’s what I’m clearly dealing with on a weekly basis. I like Magento too. We’re having fun with Magento right now with one of our clients.

We have had fun in migrating Magento. People were on the run to migrate to Magento 2. But the good thing about Magento is that a lot of things are already there. They have customized the CMS. The platform is so well that you don't need to customize or do additional coding. Obviously, in cases of big websites and big stores, you still need to do some customization. But, I am also liking Magento more business-wise, but performance-wise as well.

I like the fact that Magento 2 comes with a drag and drop builder. And you don’t have to have a plugin. So my team is creating category pages and hub pages. We found a bunch of these great categories for one of our websites. It’s a flavored lip gloss company. There’s all these fun flavor pages, but they’re just linked to in a sitemap, and they’re not linked to anywhere else in the site. So we created a hub page in Magento with the drag and drop builder and used client imagery. The client loved it. They were like, “This looks fantastic.” 

 

So having those tools enables us to do the role of a web developer sometimes.  Similarly, I feel like Shopify caught up a little bit to WordPress, where you’ve got your Elementor, Divi, and visual composer. You now have gem pages and Shogun. Shogun for listeners is a drag and drop builder. Shopify basically enables you to start doing anything that you want to create templates and landing pages. You don’t need to know liquid, and it looks pretty good. So, we’ve been creating client pages on our clients’ websites using Shogun. Again, like their developer would have. 

 

I’m a fan of a CMS that enables us to do the type of things I’m describing. They’re all gonna have limitations, but as long as we can get in there and do that type of stuff. And I’m all about it.

Talking about eCommerce sites, I have come across a question from agency owners a lot. Which is, “Does the hidden text behind the ‘read more’ button on sites have the same value compared to the text that is visible?”

I’ve thought about this one a lot. I did some studies myself. Without answering that question, I have found that particularly when dealing with a branded query, Google will show stuff that’s behind a tab in a featured snippet. So, basically think about one of your client’s FAQ pages, and everything’s behind an accordion. Can you take each of those questions about that brand? So for a tour company, what’s the cancellation policy for your tours or a nationwide chain of salons? So if you were to turn what is the brand name cancellation policy, would you get a featured snippet with that H2, or that question? Or maybe if not the H2, but probably the title tag for that page and then the answer to it directly beneath it.

 

So we tested this, and initially, it seemed like Google didn’t like to pull stuff that was from behind the tab. But upon further analysis, it seemed like it was the same. So I was able to get the featured snippets to rank from behind the tab. 

 

Are they seeing it? Yes. 

Are they treating it the same? In some instances.

Is it for different from featured snippets? Doesn’t seem so. 

However, I’ve seen enough case studies of people reorganizing their tabs, pulling stuff out of tabs and seeing traffic increases, or going back the other way, putting stuff behind the tabs and seeing declines. So, I’m pretty convinced that I don’t trust them when they say it doesn’t matter.

Thank you so much for that. John, we don't have much time. I really want to ask you a lot more questions, but I think I'll just ask a couple more before we call it a day. What are your thoughts on video blogs versus written blogs?

It’s interesting because I’m not much of a consumer of them. But, I believe in video as a channel, it’s its own kind of world. I did a lot of stuff on YouTube. You can try to find old videos of me reviewing headphones. So I’ve been a video content creator, and created video content to review headphones as much like a blog and found it to be really impactful for that business. To this day, they’re still doing that type of production. I don’t know if that’s necessarily like a video blog, but it’s much like video blogging. In fact, yesterday, I recommended that our team start taking some of our blogs and then create a video out of them. I might have seen a tweet from Tim Soulo at Ahrefs about how Ahrefs grew a massive audience of repurposing blogs for YouTube. And, I was like, “We should be doing that too.” 

 

Obviously, I have thought about that in my past before. But, it’s a great idea if it’s not something I do a lot of myself. Nor is it something that I consume a lot. I watch some people’s blogs, but not a whole lot.

In 2018, I went to INBOUND, the HubSpot conference. And for all our agency clients, in 2019, we did an experiment, where we offered them a service to convert the written blog piece into video content. Obviously, we found a cheap way where we could do it for a lesser cost, and the turnaround time would be like two or three days. We did see an increase because you can embed it in the blog, or run it on YouTube. It also depends on the business. But, I'm also a big fan of just repurposing content in any form you can. And you do see results.

Yeah, or the other way around, is something I have done for clients. 

 

I’ll sort of read their YouTube channel, and I’ll say, “Why isn’t all this stuff on your website”? Then, we’ll get videos transcribed and create Tutorial pages. YouTube does an okay job of transcribing. It’s not perfect, but though there’s a transcription already there for you. You can literally just copy-paste, then tune it up a little bit, put it into the page, and add some additional content. Now you’ve repurposed something into a completely different content format. And it’s not spammy or hacky in any way. Some people want to watch a video while some people want to read a blog. It’s the same thing that they do for Whiteboard Friday.

Before you go, John gives us one valuable tip that the viewers can apply right away and gain benefits.

That’s a lot of pressure.

 

This was a popular tweet for me too but put the keyword in the title tag. I say it jokingly. But, if you’re a service-based business, your service area should be in your title tag.

If you are a nationwide chain of grocery stores, look at your location pages, does it say grocery store in the title of that page? 

 

These are opposite ends of the spectrum examples, where within the last week, I’ve looked at websites and realized that the answer is no. You’re not speaking to the area that you serve within your title tag. So put your town in your title tag right away.

Well, John, thank you so much for your time today. It was fun chatting with you. Thank you for sharing such valuable insights with us.

It was my pleasure.

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