Why SEO is Hard for Promotional Products

If you’re not already familiar with search engine optimization from reading about it here for the last few years, I’ll give you a very brief refresher. Search engine optimization (SEO for short) is the science (or, in some cases, the art) of improving the position of your websites pages in the ranking of search engine results. When you go and search for “promotional products” on Google, you’ll probably notice that some big, familiar names come up first, and your site doesn’t appear at all – not even in the first 15 or 20 pages of results.

Search engine optimization really consists of two simple practices: first, your search ranking is, to a great degree, determined by the links from other sites to yours. These so-called “back links” or “inbound” links are essential in building the type of trust that search engines like Google analyze to determine how to rank your website. These links take time, expertise, and often great effort to build and maintain.

The second part of search engine optimization is the management and fine-tuning of content on your own site. The keywords that you use to build your webpages, the variety and originality of the content on your site, and even the structure of the site itself – that is, the way your site is organized – all affect how Google analyzes and ranks your website.

It’s this second part that is so problematic for most promotional products distributors looking to improve their rankings. When search engines analyze the content and structure of your site, one of the important factors is the originality or uniqueness of your information. Put simply, the description, pricing, product number and categorization of your ceramic mug should be different from your competitors, even if you’re selling the same thing.

Unfortunately, with thousands and thousands of distributor websites selling the same ceramic mug from the same supplier, it’s nearly impossible to stand out from the crowd. Not only are product names, numbers and descriptions exactly the same; in most cases the entire product web page is almost indistinguishable from all the other sites out there showcasing the same product.

Even worse, thousands of distributors use technology providers that simply rebrand the same catalog for every distributor website. In this case, not only is the product information the same across all the sites; the structure of the site iself, including the catalogs, categories and even the URLs, are exactly the same for every site on this system – only the domain name and a few other pages are different.

You’re Unique, Like Everybody Else

What does this mean? In simple terms, your content is not unique. That might not seem like a big deal – after all, you are selling the same products as thousands of your competitors. Why on earth would the fact that your content is nearly identical to the content of hundreds or thousands of other websites actually cause you problems in search engine ranking?

The reason is partly due to a phenomenon called the “duplicate content penalty.” While Google does not disclose the actual details of the algorithms it uses to rank websites, it’s well known that Google generally frowns upon content that is identical to other content. That’s not to say that your mug will necessarily be penalized in its ranking against other identical mugs. In fact, your mug and all those other identical mugs, all other things being equal, will probably rank about the same.

But it can make your job much harder. Rather than starting from the position of unique, original content, your site is tossed in with dozens or hundreds of others that are essentially identical. The portion of search engine optimization that a site owner has the most control over – your own content – actually becomes the weakest part of your strategy.

Now, the practice of link building becomes the only viable method for improving your ranking. As anyone who has tried to build, request, or otherwise acquire quality inbound links to their own website can tell you, obtaining links that will improve your ranking and do not violate Google’s guidelines is an increasingly difficult task.

When I teach classes on basic search engine optimization for new business owners here in Austin, the question I get asked the most is, “how do I get more links to my website?” While there are some simple answers to this question – blogging, article writing, social media and publicity are all simple ways to build inbound links – these all take time and effort to build and maintain. A thorough link building strategy can take months or years to build favorable ranking.

It Takes Two

Truth is, you need both a link strategy and a content strategy to consistently rank well in search engines. As I discussed in my last column, leveraging the unique aspects of your business in your content – including the way you describe your products and services – is a very effective way to rank well for specific searches. Once you’ve got users into your site, cross-selling and up selling are effective techniques for generating more sales.

But if your content is not unique, you’re going to be fighting an uphill battle. If you’re working with an e-commerce provider or an e-catalog company, you should talk to them about making the products themselves unique enough that they do not substantially duplicate other sites. This means unique product numbers, different pricing – a discount never hurts as a way to differentiate yourself from your competitors – and ideally some structural uniqueness as well.

What’s structural uniqueness? Build your own catalogs and collections. Create your own category names and descriptions. If possible, use unique URLs for categories and products – even better, create URLs with important keywords in them for products in categories.

The guiding principle goes back, again, to last month’s column: Focus your content. Pare down your products. Make an effort to make your website look different from your competitors. The more unique your content is, the stronger of a foundation you’ll have for building search engine ranking.

This article also appears in Identity Marketing Magazine. Brent Buford is the CEO of eBlox.

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