How to Handle SEO For Out-Of-Stock E-Commerce Products

under E-Commerce Marketing.

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Do you run a successful e-commerce store? Are you not blessed with an infallible supply chain?

Then you've probably come up against this. Products go out of stock. You don't want them to. But they do.

Most handle it all wrong. Especially if you're leaving it to your platform's default settings. There's cash on the table here, but the best answer depends entirely on your business.

Here are your options.

  1. Leave the product page online and show "out of stock"
  2. Leave the product page online with a wait list
  3. Take the product down and return nothing (404 status)
  4. Take the product down and temporary (302 status) redirect
  5. Take the product down and permanent (301 status) redirect
  6. Use the meta "unavailable-after" tag
  7. Use the meta "noindex" tag

There are many options but only one right answer for your store.

Let's talk through each to decide which is right for you.

1. Leave the product page online and show "out of stock"

Your page stays online. It still ranks. It still gets shares value from links. If you've managed your structured data and reputation, it has an attractive review history and stands out in Google's results with five little yellow stars.

This is your default fix on most e-commerce platforms. I hate it.

First, one of the earliest known negative ranking factors was an "under construction" page. Google has regularly implied that they punish it. We're talking '2002 Google'. This plays a bit into superstition land, but doesn't "out of stock" imply the exact same useless search experience? Does it pass the "if I were Google" sniff test?

Second, let's say your rankings stick. What are you accomplishing? You'll keep vanity metrics like rankings, keyword coverage, and traffic. But there's no call to action. That's why #2 is always preferred to #1.

2. Leave the product page online with a wait list

This solves both problems with #1. You can do this using a plugin on every e-commerce platform that's worth its salt.

You keep all your search value. You keep your rankings. You keep a useful sales funnel.

If you have a relatively small number of products that are dissimilar and will return this year, this is your answer. That's a lot of "if's", so if that's not you, read on.

3. Take the product down and return nothing (404 status)

This is Google's usual advice:

It's a trick. Don't do it.

If the product is gone and it's never coming back, sure, remove it. But you never want to delete a useful page without creating a redirect. The only exception is if the page you're deleting was either spam or a mistake.

Why?

Links.

Links from Google's current crawl-in-progress of your own site. Links from syndication to shopping sites. Links from social media. Links from weird scraper sites that you didn't even know about. Links from product reviews and guest editorials and press mentions and all manner of places. If you think that this page doesn't have other pages linking to it, you'd probably be surprised. And like all good SEO, this is bigger than Google -- what happens when somebody clicks on old links? Should they meet a dead end or something else that they might like?

Product pages on an established e-commerce site have page authority (PageRank). This occurs when another page links to them. It contributes to a score that's shared by your entire store, called domain authority. Links are hard to get and preserving their value takes seconds. So, (almost) always redirect when you delete.

4. Take the product down and temporary (302 status) redirect

This is the most common SEO advice that you'll see from (supposed) experts and it's dead wrong.

It's kind of showing off what could be a correct use for a rare trick. The infamous 302 redirect. Almost always, when you redirect a page, you want to tell Google that it's permanent. This is done using the invisible HTTP headers that get sent to a web browser using one line of .htaccess code:

redirect 302 /oldproduct /newproduct

If your out-of-stock status is temporary, you want option #2. That keeps your rankings and gathers leads.

If your out-of-stock status is long-term or forever, you want option #5.

5. Take the product down and permanent (301 status) redirect

Lose the rankings but keep the value and user experience from old links. If you must take a product down, this is how you want to do it. If you host the store yourself on Magento, BigCommerce, etc. there's just one line of code:

redirect 301 /oldproduct /newproduct

You can also do this in Shopify Plus' web-based redirect manager so long as the old product has been deleted. Be careful that you've already deleted the old product -- it will look like you added a redirect but it won't work.

6. Use the meta "unavailable-after" tag

There's a special HTML tag that you can add to tell Google that a product is unavailable. Google suggests it but there's no real upside.

<META NAME="GOOGLEBOT" CONTENT="unavailable_after: 22-Sep-2018 18:00:00 CDT">

If you compare to option #2, you risk implying that you're offering a poor search experience to Google.

If you compare to option #5, you have a useless page cluttering up your site. That's consuming page authority and offering no real value to Google. Unless you "noindex" it, in which case, this tag doesn't matter.

If you're not familiar with how page authority would suffer in this example, here's a simple analogy: Your store has 100 links pointing at it and 100 pages including products, categories, etc. Each page has a page authority of 1.0. You decide to add 100 more pages. Now each page has a page authority of 0.5.

Every page increments the denominator of a fraction. So if you're going to keep a page in Google's index, make sure it has a worthwhile and clearly defined ranking goal.

7. Use the meta "noindex" tag

If for some strange reason you don't want the page in Google, and can't/don't want a 301 redirect, this is a reasonable alternative. It looks like this:

<META NAME="ROBOTS" CONTENT="NOINDEX">

Make sure that you don't add "nofollow" to this code. That's a common mistake.

What's Next

No matter what route you choose, it's always a good idea to clean up any outdated links on your homepage, navigation, or old blog posts.

This post dives into why.