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Fluctuating Inventory and SEO
SEO considerations for sites with widely fluctuating inventory levels
bbarbeau



 
Msg#: 4340000 posted 3:18 pm on Jul 15, 2011 (gmt 0)

Hi all,

I'm looking for some advice or insight as to how people handle product pages once the product goes out of stock. A decent chunk of what we sell is used/preowned product, so inventory can fluctuate quite a bit, and we are never certain if we will get more of any particular product.

Currently, our CMS handles this by recognizing the product is out of stock, then serving either a different combination of the same SKU (i.e. a different color or different size). If no other products are available from the parent SKU, it will then incrementally "back out" of the breadcrumb trail until it finds a product page or category/gallery page that does have products in stock.

So basically the URL remains unchanged, but in its place we try to serve the user with the most relevant and closely related product as possible.

To be clear, this behavior is really only an issue with referrals to the site, as once an item sells out, it is removed from the site navigation altogether.

However, we are running into SEO issues because this leads to duplicate tag warnings in Google Webmaster Tools.

Perhaps a concrete example will work:

http://www.example.com/widgets/round-widgets/blue-widgets.
(our URLs aren't keyword stuffed like that--it's just for illustration purposes).
title: Blue Round Widgets from Example.com
meta desc: Blue Round Widgets are useful because they are blue and they are round. Example.com has the lowest prices on the internet!


But then we sell out of every shade of blue widget. We remove it from site navigation, but the blue round widgets page was ranking.

Since we no longer have any blue round widgets, if people still arrive at that page, we don't want to lose them. Maybe a red round widget will suit them, or a green round widget.

Because of that, when http://www.example.com/widgets/round-widgets/blue-widgets renders, it will render the content from, say, the round widgets page, which is something like this:

http://www.example.com/widgets/round-widgets
Title: Round Widgets from Example.com
Meta Desc: Round widgets in all sizes to fit in any round widget outlet. Example.com has the lowest prices on the internet!



By grabbing it, that means that the blue round widgets pages would render like this:

http://www.example.com/widgets/round-widgets/blue-widgets
Title: Round Widgets from Example.com
Meta Desc: Round widgets in all sizes to fit in any round widget outlet. Example.com has the lowest prices on the internet!


Which of course means duplicate content for these URLs:
http://www.example.com/widgets/round-widgets
http://www.example.com/widgets/round-widgets/blue-widgets

If we get more blue round widgets in stock, the page updates and the URL now serves blue round widgets content.

The question is: how should this be handled from an SEO perspective?

In my mind, there are three options, none of which strikes me as a clear cut winning approach:

1) Display "out of stock" content.
Pros: No duplicate content issue.
Cons: User has to continue clicking through to get to relevant products, whereas our current system brings the relevant page to that URL by default.
2) 301 the URL to the relevant page.
Pros: Link juice goes with it, duplicate content issues avoided.
Cons: If the product comes back into stock, we've already told spiders that page has permanently moved. We risk SE's excluding that page from the index because, well, we've told it to.
3) 302 the URL to a relevant page.
Pros: Duplicate content issues avoided; ability to allow restocking to take place and reindexing to take place as well.
Cons: Link juice doesn't get passed, and since we have no guarantees a product will come into stock, we run the risk of amassing a huge set of internally 302'd pages.


Does anyone see or know of an approach to use in this situation other than the three above?

I think a different approach--but one that would require significant development resources and/or a third party tool to handle it--would be to display the out-of-stock content, while having more-prominent recommendations listed above the fold, i.e. "We're out of this at the moment. Sign up to be notified if we get more in stock. Or perhaps these products will be useful to you: "

But because of the user experience concern, as well as the possibility of us having thousands of "out of stock" pages live on the site (just given the thousands of SKUs we have regularly plus the hundreds or thousands that fluctuate like this).


Thanks in advance.

 

ssgumby

5+ Year Member



 
Msg#: 4340000 posted 1:37 am on Jul 17, 2011 (gmt 0)

How about showing the product as out of stock, but have a link with something like "sorry, we are out of blue round widgets, but would you like to look at red round widgets? <click here>"

g1smd

WebmasterWorld Senior Member g1smd us a WebmasterWorld Top Contributor of All Time 10+ Year Member



 
Msg#: 4340000 posted 7:31 am on Jul 17, 2011 (gmt 0)

Do you not already have 2 or 3 "upsell" and "alternative product" links on the right of the page?

Show "out of stock" and highlight those links more (or add them if you don't already have that system in place).

bbarbeau



 
Msg#: 4340000 posted 2:33 pm on Jul 18, 2011 (gmt 0)

Thanks for your replies ssgumby and g1smd. My gut reaction is also to display "out of stock" content.

We do have product upsell modules on the page, and simply highlighting those more may be the best option.

But I'm also thinking of seeing if IT has a way to leverage the current logic (which pulls all the content from the comparable page) to stop short of its current behavior and just do product suggestions like you guys are talking about.

Thanks again for the input folks.

Would love to hear any other ideas though.

g1smd

WebmasterWorld Senior Member g1smd us a WebmasterWorld Top Contributor of All Time 10+ Year Member



 
Msg#: 4340000 posted 10:35 pm on Jul 18, 2011 (gmt 0)

There was a long thread with more ideas just a few weeks ago.

bbarbeau



 
Msg#: 4340000 posted 1:11 pm on Jul 19, 2011 (gmt 0)

g1smd--do you have a link or happen to remember the title? I searched but didn't see anything, but I must've overlooked it.

g1smd

WebmasterWorld Senior Member g1smd us a WebmasterWorld Top Contributor of All Time 10+ Year Member



 
Msg#: 4340000 posted 11:24 pm on Jul 19, 2011 (gmt 0)

[webmasterworld.com...] [webmasterworld.com...] and several others.

bbarbeau



 
Msg#: 4340000 posted 12:59 pm on Jul 20, 2011 (gmt 0)

hmmm... those were both about url rewrites rather than inventory/stock issues. Is there a connection between those and the in stock/out of stock SEO issue?

g1smd

WebmasterWorld Senior Member g1smd us a WebmasterWorld Top Contributor of All Time 10+ Year Member



 
Msg#: 4340000 posted 7:04 pm on Jul 20, 2011 (gmt 0)

I posted in the wrong thread.

I expect I posted the link you need in the other thread, the one where those above should have been posted.

enigma1

WebmasterWorld Senior Member 5+ Year Member



 
Msg#: 4340000 posted 1:54 pm on Aug 9, 2011 (gmt 0)


Which of course means duplicate content for these URLs:
http://www.example.com/widgets/round-widgets
http://www.example.com/widgets/round-widgets/blue-widgets

If you set it up right you shouldn't have the duplicated issues. I think you posted the principles already so basically if
/widgets/round-widgets/blue-widgets
goes out of stock you drop the navigation and all dependencies generating links to that page.

Requests made to the old page may return a 200 with the new content you want to display (of a similar item). It shouldn't show (for long) as duplicate content because the link will is no longer generated from within your domain, so google should clear it up.

That's one way of doing it. Another is with 301 which is more effective but you lose ranking of the old page real quick.

Also depends how often the catalog is updated. If you update often (eg: 2nd hand items, in/out of stock different products) is not a good idea to let the out of stock pages flooding the SEs index.

explorador

WebmasterWorld Senior Member 5+ Year Member



 
Msg#: 4340000 posted 3:13 pm on Aug 9, 2011 (gmt 0)

How about showing the product as out of stock, but have a link with something like "sorry, we are out of blue round widgets, but would you like to look at red round widgets? <click here>"

That's a very nice idea.

Out of stock products could still bring you lots of traffic, and from there you can lead the clients to other products you still have. Why? Some times we can only find specs of old products on old e commerce pages, antiques or out of stock items. The bad thing is a lot of sellers remove those pages.

Take per example ARM computers, there are lots of them but is hard to find old models. If you need a replacement you will get a lot of "out of stock" pages, but mostly "sorry the page you are looking for blah blah". Some sites take advantage of this showing COMPATIBLE models or related products while still showing the out of stock item with all the specs.

In my own experience I've found this to be really useful, for documentation, specs, to find replacements, compatible models, models for parts, accesories and references, pictures, etc.

Perhaps you could also implement a "sign up" alert, allowing your users to receive a notification in case of any of those products coming to your inventory (or alternatives). This could be useful for you to measure how many people are still interested on getting that product.

Good luck.

MrFewkes



 
Msg#: 4340000 posted 3:35 pm on Aug 9, 2011 (gmt 0)

Dont put a message up "out of stock" until they check out.
This way - they may build up their cart - then checkout and can only buy the instock items. At least this way you get to keep the rest of the sale - which they may have been put off by the out of stock item if they saw that early on.

Leave all items on site and instock until you check out.

This sends good signals to the search engines who may de-rank sites with "out of stock" all over the show. Well they may.

Remember - treat customers with your own goals in mind - not theirs.

They would do you over for a few $ if they had a chance (many of mine would anyway) - so dont be worried about miffing them off with the out of stock at checkout.

At least you get the se traffic and also they may browse round for other items.

bbarbeau



 
Msg#: 4340000 posted 4:19 pm on Aug 9, 2011 (gmt 0)

Thanks for your input, enigma1, explorador, and MrFewkes

@enigma1
It shouldn't show (for long) as duplicate content because the link will is no longer generated from within your domain, so google should clear it up.

And that could be the case. I really need to do some analytics digging into SE referrals for specific product pages which have gone out of stock, and see how long it takes SE referrals to drop (i.e. for them to recognize the content of /widgets/round-widgets/blue-widgets is now actually the content from /widgets/round-widgets/ and to adjust their rankings accordingly).

However, the SEO concern I have is less about lost rankings for specific products than with the report I'm seeing in Webmaster Tools, which says I have 40,000 duplicate title tags and description tags.

Does that make sense? I guess to say it another way: if we are filtered by Google for duplicate content for [blue round widgets], that is an extremely long tail term for us and so the loss of traffic won't have much revenue impact.

But from a higher level point of view, I am concerned if Google looks at our site as a whole and says, "Wow, they've got 40k duplicate pages. The overall quality and care of the site is less than competitor X, so we will reward the 'cleaner' site with better rankings for [widgets]."

I have to imagine that sort of high-level qualitative comparison is among the signals used in the algorithms, right? Otherwise, it doesn't make sense for Google to include it in Webmaster Tools.

Also depends how often the catalog is updated. If you update often (eg: 2nd hand items, in/out of stock different products) is not a good idea to let the out of stock pages flooding the SEs index.

We do update the catalog frequently with both new and used items. Can you say more about the issues of leaving a lot of "out of stock" pages open for indexing?

It sort of feels like a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" scenario. If we leave the behavior as is, we're leaving it up to Google to clean up our presence in the SERPs, which means periods of duplicate content. If we change the behavior, we risk flooding the SERPs with out-of-stock pages, which may frustrate users who are ready to buy, only to find an out of stock/suggestion page instead.

If we do a 301, my concern is the SEs not re-indexing the pages since we told them we had permanently moved them to a different URL.

@Explorador

I am also a proponent of the "sign up" alerts. I think newegg and zappos (to use two prominent ecommerce sites as examples) both have sign up/notification alerts for products or product combinations that are out of stock, and they certainly must have data to support its efficacy.

But there is huge concern for the UX of landing on a page that then disappoints. While I can completely understand those concerns, I still think there is value to a user in an out of stock/suggestion page, as you mentioned in your response.

But I am fighting an uphill battle in trying to shift to an "out of stock" model.

@MrFewkes

I can totally relate to your statement that customers are highly driven by their own bottom line, but I've been on the receiving end of the "In-Stock -> Out of Stock" checkout process, and that's a nightmare in and of itself.

greenleaves

10+ Year Member



 
Msg#: 4340000 posted 10:28 pm on Aug 9, 2011 (gmt 0)

Pre panda advice:
out-of stock

Post panda advice:
Let them add it to the cart

The LAST thing you want is the user hitting the back button and google seeing you as a 'high bounce rate' site.

leadegroot

WebmasterWorld Senior Member 10+ Year Member



 
Msg#: 4340000 posted 11:24 am on Aug 10, 2011 (gmt 0)

A different suggestion:
When http://www.example.com/widgets/round-widgets/blue-widgets is out of stock.
show the content from, say,
http://www.example.com/widgets/round-widgets
and add a canonical tag to that blue-widgets page.
Google sees that the correct page to show is the other and you don't get a dupe report.

I am doing this on one of my sites (not e-commerce, but I have entries that pop in and out and I don't know if they will return) and am watching to see what the effect of removing the canonical is when (if) the entry returns.

enigma1

WebmasterWorld Senior Member 5+ Year Member



 
Msg#: 4340000 posted 2:46 pm on Aug 10, 2011 (gmt 0)

I'm seeing in Webmaster Tools, which says I have 40,000 duplicate title tags and description tags.

That implies somewhere in your domains duplicated pages exist or getting recreated somehow. I've seen it happening a lot with code that builds URLs accepting any parameter passed from requests (eg: pagination links generated from a search, carry all kinds of parameters and in many cases they just duplicate the ones from the request).

So when you put an item out of stock make sure it has completely dropped from all navigation elements if you want to do the 200 response.

If there is a single routine which generates the links (most carts work like that) - and there are no hard-coded links, you could deploy a log and check the caller functions to figure out the ones with the problem - if any.

Can you say more about the issues of leaving a lot of "out of stock" pages open for indexing?

I would think as the number of out of stock products increases and these pages remain exposed, so the site's info broadens and loses focus. Important links may now be hidden in the myriads of "out of stock" products and search engines may give priority to irrelevant pages. Your eshop should always keep focus of the important pages. The main navigation links (like a menu) do not always guarantee spider focus.

As I mentioned before depends what you carry. If I sell new items and I have a clearance section to get rid of returns, I would only expose to SEs one page/link for a clearance section/listing - of products and have the add-to-cart in the listing page instead of using a separate page.

If I sell only second hand items I would group the items by category or type etc. and focus SEO on the listing pages, if necessary I would use a js or a form for the product details page so customers can select fields and buy, but SEs cannot see them. Still items will be visible from the listings and should be indexed fast, as the page content would change often.

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