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How can a small e-commerce site compete against big brands?

As a small online retailer, you’re may find that those ranking in the top few positions for what you’re selling are industry ecommerce giants or household names like Amazon. Rather than giving up hope, let’s take a look at what you can do in order to increase traffic and revenue on your site.

Published on:

Stanley Dunthorne

Senior SEO Consultant

ecommerce seo

With many e-commerce sectors currently facing a downturn, I’m going to use as an example, one that is currently flourishing. Many gardening-related sites are doing well out of the current situation, as demand for gardening equipment has risen while people are stuck at home with extra time on their hands. 
To illustrate this, both ‘gardening’ as a topic and ‘gardening equipment’ as a more commercial term have both recently sky-rocketed:
gardening google trends
gardening equipment google trends
Although I’ll use this industry as an example as it’s timely, the process outlined could apply to many industries and at any time. This blog will focus on overall strategies smaller e-commerce brands can use to appear on page one, in the face of tough competition. As a starting point, you’ll need to ensure your pages follow on-page SEO and e-commerce best practice, and that your site is strong from a technical point, to maximise your chances of success. 

The State of the SERPs 

Let’s assume we’re a smaller e-commerce site selling various bits of gardening equipment, and we need to work out a way we can do so organically. Looking at that umbrella term, the top-ranking sites are, and is a site ranking for over 5000 keywords, raking in over 200,000 organic visits a month (according to Semrush) and with a Domain Rating (DR) of 64. 
Looking at the top traffic-driving URLs that Suttons is ranking for, it’s quite clear that any smaller operation in the gardening sphere isn’t going to stand much chance of ranking for any of these massively high volume, broad terms. Suttons are getting huge volumes of traffic from broad, highly competitive keywords such as ‘sunflower seeds’: 
suttons ranking positions
Further down the page are more huge retailers, including household names like B & Q and Screwfix. This might not fill any smaller operation selling anything to do with gardening with much hope. 
What an initial glance over the SERPs as well as a look at the terms those big retailers gain traffic from indicates, is that as a small garden retailer, we need to get more creative with how we target and attain organic traffic.

First Things First

Of course, you should be carrying out keyword research for your website. This is also the case for those lucky enough to be operating in a sphere with less strong competition, but when you know your website will be facing the extra challenge of huge brands, this step holds extra importance. 
Properly targeting more niche terms related to your products, versus maintaining the same targeting as big brands, could be the difference between you getting traffic and languishing somewhere on page thirty. 
This comes with the suggestion that you may need to manage expectations and reassess your (or your boss’s) goals in relation to the terms you should target and the traffic you’re likely to achieve. If your site lacks the authority and brand awareness of big names, you need to be realistic about the terms you want to target and the traffic you expect to receive.
Essentially, you can have those high volume, super competitive terms as a (very) long term goal, but as a more immediate solution, identify ways to describe what you offer that align more closely with the specificities that people are searching for. 
For example, ‘garden planters’ is a term with 12,100 monthly searches in the UK, and a search for it returns the usual suspects in the search results, including Primrose, Amazon and B & Q:
garden planters serps, on the other hand, is a little 300-page site with a DR of 7, and is doing well to rank in position 33 for ‘garden planters’. But using Semrush to look at the terms they do rank well for, we can see that they’re approaching selling garden planters in a sensible way – they rank on page one and get traffic from less competitive, but still valuable terms including:

  • ‘Made to measure garden planters’
  • ‘Extra large garden planters’
  • ‘Wooden garden planters’

So, consider how you can better describe your products and how your category and product pages can target long-tail keywords. That way, you’ll have a much better chance of competing with bigger e-commerce sites.

How Small E-commerce Sites Can Use Blog Content

In addition to targeting long-tail commercial terms, a key way lesser-known e-commerce site can rank against big competitors is through blog content. 
Both the general terms ‘greenhouse’ and ‘buy greenhouse’ are high volume, competitive terms, with large, well-established and authoritative industry-specific e-commerce sites ranking for them. If our little-known gardening equipment site sold greenhouses, a way to get a piece of this traffic would be through coming up with helpful content that answers user’s questions about greenhouses. Perhaps focusing on the broad topic areas of :

  • How to build a greenhouse
  • How to use a greenhouse
  • How greenhouses work
  • What to grow in a greenhouse

With this in mind, we can see that ranks in position two for ‘what to grow in a greenhouse’, above many of those authoritative websites mentioned above. Compared to the e-commerce juggernauts ranking for the more commercial terms, Norfolk Greenhouses are a small 300-page site with a DR of 15.
While they’re nowhere to be seen on the first few pages for ‘greenhouse’ or ‘buy greenhouse’, for now, Norfolk Greenhouses might be happy to slip under the radars of the bigger brands and grab the traffic from users asking questions by providing well-written, informational and helpful content. 
In some instances, e-commerce giants may not be paying as much attention as they could to writing content. Look through their blog areas and see what they’re doing well for SEO and what you might be able to do better. Taking a quick look at the blog on (the number one ranking site for ‘gardening equipment’), there are opportunities to be seen that a small site could take advantage of.
You’ll see that the most recent blogs have been ‘Top April Allotment Tips’ and ‘Top March Allotment Tips’: 
suttons blogs
Of course, these articles weren’t necessarily written with SEO results in mind. But to use them as an example, I’d advise that there’s more SEO value in having one consolidated blog post on allotment tips, rather than splitting the same topic over several URLs. This is definitely something a smaller site could do, and by ensuring the content is quality – and ideally better than whatever Suttons have written –  they could definitely aim to be seen by Google as the authority on allotment tips. 
Ultimately, the aim with informational content is to provide something helpful to users, which can encourage them to click further through your site to buy your products, or if not, come back at a later date. 

Proving the Value of Blog Content

It’s all well and good to say that your blogs build brand awareness and encourage repeat visits which eventually convert, but you can prove this too. Navigate to your Google Analytics, then go to Conversions, Multi-Channel Funnels, Assisted Conversions. You’ll see all the conversions where a channel (i.e organic) was in the conversion path, but not the final conversion interaction. Choose Organic Search as the Channel Grouping, and by changing the primary dimension to Landing Page URL, you’ll be able to see how organic users that landed on your blog posts contributed to your e-commerce sales:
assisted conversions

Don’t Forget to Optimise Images

I mentioned earlier that a search for ‘garden planters’ mainly returned household name brands on page one, making it near-impossible for a smaller site to rank here.  
But, what’s this in the image panel?!
garden planters images
Alongside Screwfix, we have images of garden planters from the aforementioned (a reminder – it’s just a 300-page site with a DR of 7) and (800 pages, DR 31). Taylor Made ranks way back on page three for ‘garden planters’ and Great Little Garden doesn’t actually rank at all for that phrase. Yet, both websites are still able to maintain a presence on the first page of Google amongst the harsh competition. It’s very much possible for your images to rank where your regular search results cannot – do not forget to do something as simple as optimising your images for search!

To Conclude

Don’t despair when the SERPs for products you’re selling are dominated by huge names. By combining SEO best practice with a bit of creativity, you’ll soon be gaining visibility. A recap of the key points:

  • Ensure your pages align as closely as possible to the specifics that people are searching for 
  • Craft informational content that answers questions users are asking about your products. Often, these lower volume questions won’t be answered by big brands, as they’re happy to scoop up all the high volume, broad term traffic. 
  • Ensure your images are optimised – these may rank on page one high volume terms!

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