As is inevitable on ecommerce sites, products will need to be retired as they become temporarily or permanently unavailable. What should be done with these pages to ensure SEO health and positive UX?
As with much in the world of SEO, there’s not necessarily one correct answer to the question of what to do with your discontinued product pages: similarly, the approach you take will depend on a number of variables, including:
- Is the product temporarily out of stock, or discontinued for good?
- Was the page getting organic traffic?
- Did the page have valuable backlinks?
- What development resource is available?
Nevertheless, it’s an important question to consider, as the route you take can impact the technical health of your site, user experience and SEO.
Let’s first have a look at some approaches to take if the product is temporarily out of stock.
What to Do With Temporarily out of Stock Product Pages
If the product is only temporarily out of stock, it’s best to keep the page live – you don’t want to 404 or 301 redirect these pages, as the item is only unavailable temporarily.
There will be some input required from your dev team, as it’s essential that you let users know that this product is unavailable. To avoid frustration, the page should explain that the item is temporarily unavailable and ideally give an idea of when it might be back. To avoid confusion, the ability to add the item to the cart should be removed.
This question was asked of John Mueller in a 2018 Webmaster Hangout, and he stated that the page should be kept as is, with structured data implemented to show that the product is no longer in stock.
Bear in mind that if a user lands on a product that’s out of stock, that page is likely to have a high bounce rate.
There are a few things you could consider doing to mitigate this, such as presenting a selection of closely related alternative items, providing search functionality, or the ability to sign up to be notified by email when the item is back in stock.
What to Do With Permanently Discontinued Product Pages
There are a few options when it comes to products that are gone forever.
The first is simply letting the expired product page show a 404 error.
In fact, this is the solution advocated by Matt Cutts in this video, at least for average-sized ecommerce sites. The reasoning is that as those products are gone forever, it makes sense to serve a 404 page, as it’s frustrating to land on a product page only to be told that you can’t buy it anymore.
With avoiding user frustration in mind, the 404 page should be useful too. Rather than serving a standard 404, consider how that user’s experience could be improved by creating a custom 404 page, for example by suggesting related products.
When to Avoid 404’ing Expired Product Pages
Before serving a 404 page for everything you no longer sell, and never will sell again, it’s worth considering the downsides to this approach.
Something to bear in mind is that while 404 pages aren’t bad in themselves, if the numbers start to rack up significantly, your crawl budget will be wasted – Google will be crawling pages that no longer exist.
Additionally, when deciding on a course of action, you should assess whether the page receives organic traffic, and, importantly, quality backlinks. Serving a 404 will mean that any link equity that page earned is lost. With backlinks arguably the most important SEO factor, you ought to be doing whatever you can to keep quality backlinks pointing at your site.
So, what’s the approach if you have a product that’s never coming back, but the page has backlinks? You don’t necessarily want to keep the page live, but you do want to preserve its value.
What to Do With Valuable Expired Product Pages
If a product page is valuable, in that it receives organic traffic and has quality backlinks pointing towards it, a 301 redirect should be considered in order to preserve the page’s link equity.
Before getting rid of a product page, use a tool like Ahrefs to check whether the URL receives any good quality backlinks.
If this is the case, then a 301 redirect should point towards the most relevant page. Avoid redirecting to a page that’s likely to be removed in future, such as another product page; as this will lead to redirect chains, which ideally you want to avoid. It may make the most sense to redirect your discontinued product to the subcategory page it originally came from, which is less likely to be removed in future.
With UX in mind, consider that redirecting a user without any explanation would be pretty annoying. Ideally, use a dynamically generated message to explain that the item’s out of stock, but that the items on this new page may be of interest.
When To Avoid 301 Redirects
In the case of discontinued products, this will very much be relevant to your specific business and customers. Even if the product is gone, people may still want to know about it in future, for example, to read up on its specifications or manuals. If you redirect the page elsewhere, users who may be interested in this useful content will lose access to it.
So, if the product page ranks well and contains content that people will still find useful even if they can’t buy it, it could be best to revert back to the first option, leaving the page as it is, but with a message stating that it’s been discontinued.
To Sum Up
For products that are out of stock but will be coming back, keep the page live, but ensure you let customers know that it’s unavailable. Depending on the size of your site and your development resources, you could also show related products, or offer the ability to be emailed when it’s back in stock.
For permanently discontinued products, you first need to assess the value of the page. There’s no problem with letting a page 404 if the item no longer exists, but before doing so assess whether the page receives traffic or good quality backlinks. If it is, a 301 redirect to a relevant page is likely your best bet, as this will retain link equity.
So, when it comes to deciding what to do with your discontinued or out of stock products, some judgement and a little bit of analysis is required. Don’t forget to take UX into account, and offer explanations as to why users are being redirected and served a different page.
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