How to compensate eroded traffic in e-commerce
Insights from Foot Locker, Neiman Marcus, AboutYou and Gap
Google’s e-commerce search results show so many ads that competing only with organic results isn’t feasible anymore. Over 83% of e-commerce SERPs show Product-Listing Ads (PLA), over 63% classic Top Ads and over 77% Local Packs. Organic snippets compete with a long list of detractors that erode organic traffic and revenue.
The problem hurts, especially right now, as companies need to become profitable and maximize margins. E-commerce saw a big boom during the pandemic that turned out as a pull-forward instead of a new baseline. In 2023, online retailers are getting squeezed from both sides: high inflation and interest rates prolong sales cycles and reduce average order value. Less organic traffic is the last thing e-commerce players need. And yet, it’s reality.
Most retailers reduce paid spend and lean more on SEO to drive revenue. However, due to the bidding system of Google Ads, reducing paid spend doesn’t mean ads are going away. The big question all e-commerce teams have to ask themselves in 2023 is how to compensate for organic traffic that goes to ads and SERP Features.
To give you the best possible answer, I’m not only sharing my own experience but the knowledge of
Stefan Vorwerk, Head of SEO @ AboutYou
Heather Mezzetta, Director of SEO @ Gap
Chris Chapa, Global Director of SEO @ Foot Locker
Holland Dauterive, Director of SEO @ Neiman Marcus Group
Most SEO teams don’t know their traffic is eroding
Solving the problem starts with awareness. Most retailers simply don’t know that traffic has been shifting from organic to paid and SERP Features and by what degree.
Stefan Vorwerk (Head of SEO @ AboutYou):
Anyone who has already answered the questions 100% and is already implementing them is certainly one of the top 1% of in-house teams.
The reason isn’t ignorance but complexity.
First, SERP layout changes aren’t publicly announced but creep in slowly.
Second, they vary by device (desktop vs mobile), country and keyword.
Third, there are lots of different SERP Feature permutations - and they change all the time.
Google Search has become a fluid experience that constantly adjusts to user behavior and needs, which means the layout and experience change as well, making it tough to track and understand the impact. As a result, many teams see organic traffic going down and either don’t know why or attribute it to the wrong reason.
Chris Chapa (Global SEO Director @ Foot Locker):
The increasing monetization of the SERP by Google is definitely an evergreen concern of ours from an SEO perspective. For some product searches, on mobile especially, the SERP is so saturated with ads that it takes some serious scrolling just to see the first five or so true organic listings.
We can understand the shift of organic to paid traffic through an erosion analysis (more under the link), which measures the difference between paid and organic traffic, conversions and order volume over time across keywords, pages and directory levels.
To align teams and leadership, the first step SEOs can take is to show how click curves changed over the last years (see screenshot below). Every year, click-through rates (CTR) for organic results drop a little as a result of new SERP Features and ads.
The second step is a Share of Voice report to show how much traffic comes from paid and organic results - and at what price. Share of Voice reflects how many clicks a site gets for paid or organic results over time compared to all other visible sites. Ideally, teams report on a directory and page level how many clicks and sales come from organic and paid channels.
How to compensate lost organic traffic
To be plain, there is no easy way to get the traffic back. You can only make up for lost traffic in other ways. Sometimes, Google reverses the rollout of ads and certain SERP Features if it doesn’t see positive user engagement or if user intent shifts. However, most of the time, SERP layout changes are permanent.
To my surprise, many companies just take the hit, even when they’re aware of the traffic erosion. I spoke with many in-house SEO teams in e-commerce. It turns out many stay the course. They understand that Google has turned more into a Walled Garden that tries to keep traffic on its platform. Part of the reason is there are limited options, but they’re not zero.
You have two strategic options to compensate for the lost traffic (hat tip to Stefan Vorwerk for the concept of vertical and horizontal growth): horizontal or vertical growth.
Option 1: Horizontal Growth
Horizontal growth reflects the idea of moving the playing field. If you can’t win with product or category keywords, go after different page types, new product categories or new countries.
Not every retailer and online store is leaning on editorial content, but it’s a missed opportunity. Articles complement product and category pages and can address users much earlier in their journey.
The biggest challenge is attribution. Product and category pages are very transactional. Sometimes, users buy within minutes of a visit. But editorial content targets consumers earlier in their user journey, which means it can take days or even weeks for them to buy. Since most attribution models in e-commerce have 90-day lookback windows, sales from content are often underattributed.
Holland Dauterive, Director of SEO @ Neiman Marcus Group:
I will be pushing us to grow top and mid-funnel content so we're not always showing up solely in transactional SERPS, but I know it'll be slow to show revenue impact (if it ever does, given that we're using a basic last-click attribution model).
Classic content formats for e-commerce are:
Tutorials and explainers
Inspiration (seasonal trends + influencer picks)
Some retailers are doing a phenomenal job at compensating for lost traffic with content:
The other option is entering new markets or product categories. Google tends to roll SERP changes in the US first before other countries. I’ve anecdotally spotted query refinements in Germany before the US, but it tends to be the exception rather than the rule. So, one way to compensate for lost traffic is simply going after new markets where SERP Features (and maybe ads) aren’t as populated yet.
Similarly, new product categories might offer relief since Google shows SERP Features and ads on a query level. The best SEO teams continuously monitor SERPs for their target keywords and adjust their strategies based on where they find the biggest opportunities.
Option 2: Vertical Growth
Vertical Growth means maximizing the traffic from keywords you already go after, for example, by showing up in SERP Features or improving the CTR of your snippets. The search results have become a lot more visual - especially in e-commerce. Making your site results more visual is a way to compete for attention.
E-commerce SEO offers the most options to implement schema markup to get rich snippets:
Product features (color, size, etc.)
Pros & Cons
Some SERP Features link to websites and can deliver meaningful traffic:
Organic product listings (see screenshot below)
Besides creating content in the right format (images, videos), merchants also need to pay attention to their product feed in the Google Merchant Center for rich snippets and organic product listings.
Identify, compensate, adjust
The e-commerce playbook for SEO in 2023 is a mix of organic and paid across all available formats. Google constantly expands ways to show information in snippets, rank in SERP Features or bid for ads.
The best teams adopt a simple process of identifying changes and opportunities, compensating for lost traffic and adjusting their strategy.
Understanding is the result of monitoring and tracking - not just keywords but as many SERP Features as possible. Many teams take screenshots manually, but tools like Semrush, Ahrefs, or Stat have improved their SERP Feature monitoring capabilities. Alternatively, teams can build their own monitoring solutions with SERP crawlers like SERPapi.
Strategies need to be as fluid as Google’s search results. Finding ways to compensate for traffic lost to SERP Features and ads isn’t a one-time move but an ongoing practice. At a high-level, teams a/b test vertical growth strategies and test into horizontal expansion.