Consider SEO for Your Discontinued Products

So, for those of you who missed it, this year’s Searchlove was certainly one to remember. Featuring two days of incredibly detailed and insightful presentations from some of the most talented speakers in the digital marketing space. From content, link building to PR and technical SEO, there was something for everyone who works in the industry.

What made this year’s Searchlove stand out for me (and no doubt others) was the all-new community speaker slots. Three sharp, quick-fire 20-minute talks from new and emerging speakers who live and breathe digital marketing on the daily.

I was lucky enough to bag one of the three community speaker slots alongside Andi Jarvis and Laura Hogan who both really rocked the stage with their talks and digital insight.

My topic? “How to Nail SEO for Discontinued Products”. It’s getting up on the Searchlove stage and talking about this topic that inspired me to get on and write this very blog post.

Right then, niceties over – let’s get stuck in!

Put yourself in your customer’s shoes for a moment…

To get a feel for the problem at play here, let’s look at things from a customer’s perspective.

You’re looking to purchase a new piece of tech (let’s say you’re in the market for some new headphones) and you’re reading through some reviews online that are comparing the best cans from your shortlisted brands.

One set comes up highly recommended in What Hi-Fi. They’re in your price range and they look suitable for what you need. Cool! You’re ready to buy. You click the link for your chosen retailer annndddd…

Yeah – nice. Irritating 404 page. Buzzkill. Through a mix of disappointment and frustration, you abandon the retailer’s website.

Now, if you’re feeling especially determined that day, you may try your luck with internal search. However, as the item no longer exists on their website – you’re pretty much fresh out of luck trying to find what you’re looking for on this retailer’s site.

For the retailer? A lost sale (that they never knew they could have had) and potentially a lost customer.

Not a great position to be in regardless whether you’re the customer or not in this case.

So, why SEO dead/discontinued products?

Now, back to my original point – there are a few solid reasons why considering SEO for discontinued products could yield healthy positive results. The key points listed below:

  1. Search demand often remains after the product has been discontinued
  2. Reclaim noteworthy backlinks from referring domains. (Especially for popular and ‘hot topic’ items)
  3. Better UX for visitors

In addition to these three points, there are two other key point to consider:

  • Avoid redirects where possible
  • Offering direct replacements and solid alternatives are key

We’ll look at each of these three points in more detail shortly. However, before we get in to the meat of the above, let me address this first.

Bear this in mind…

Although this proposed discontinued products solution works in a variety of cases and scenarios, as with everything in the world of digital and SEO, it’s definitely not a one-size-fits-all solution.

In summary – there will always be exceptions, caveats and edge cases as one person pointed out on Twitter shortly after my session (there’s a TL:DR summary below the tweets if you prefer):

TL:DR Philipp Kloeckner explains how discontinued product SEO could be poor advice for large and enterprise-scale sites like Etsy and eBay etc. However, this is exactly what these websites often do!

eBay has embraced discontinued product SEO for years…

Although I’m sure they’re not live indefinitely, eBay keeps auctions and listings online for a length of time after they’ve ended. If you’re an eBay user – I’m pretty sure you’d have seen a page like this before:

What’s even more interesting is this specific eBay listing page (at the time of writing) isn’t explicitly excluded from search engines and is still indexed in Google 7 days after the item officially ended:

To address his first point regarding disappointment, nothing’s more disappointing that a 404! Now I’ve cleared that lot up – let’s go back to addressing the three points I made earlier…

1) Search demand often remains after the product has been discontinued

Just because something is no longer available doesn’t mean the demand for this specific item dies at the same point in time.

Sure, the demand decreases over time, but people searching for these discontinued items continue to do so long after the item has discontinued. Sometimes years depending on exactly what it is and how popular it was when it was available.

For example, people searching for a job after the listing has expired is going to flat line much sooner than people searching for last year’s discontinued MacBook Pro.

Multiply this over potentially hundreds or thousands of discontinued listings/products etc and you’ve a lot of traffic potential at play here – although capturing all of it may not be ideal or beneficial so be careful here.

You’d need to work out what items are worth turning on and which items are worth turning on AND making them visible to search engines. There’s a very big difference between these two when it comes to SEO.

In other words, just because there’s a healthy amount of demand for an item that’s discontinued doesn’t always mean it’s right to expose that item to search engines.

2) Reclaim your noteworthy backlinks from referring domains

So, the product’s discontinued and now the product has been redirected or worse no redirect was configured and you’re left with a dirty 404 instead.

If you’ve put redirects in place…

So, if you’ve put redirects in place, skip over this section and jump to ‘Tip: Avoid redirects where possible.’ Dealing with 404 errors? (You’ve turned discontinued products off), then keep reading!

404 errors prevent back links to that URL from passing their equity to the website. Nothing revolutionary there. But let’s put that in to context real quick.

You’ve a broad number of product URLs that 404 (due to the fact that they’re discontinued and therefore the pages no longer exist online) which means any backlinks to these pages are not contributing to the site’s SEO.

At the very least, turning these product URLs back on and setting them to rel=”noindex,follow” would allow you to reclaim these backlinks and reduce the chance of customers seeing irritating 404 pages.

Think about an item that’s got some great attention across the interwebs and social media for example. Something that happens quite frequently in fashion and apparel; you could have attracted back links from lifestyle and fashion blogs, YouTube product reviews, shout outs on social media etc.

The product page that attracted all that attention has been removed. So, all those backlinks and social signals are practically binned. Gone, scrapped.

Reclaim these links and turn the items back on. Of course, paying particular attention to ensuring you regulate and control what discontinued items search engines are permitted to see.

Tip: Avoid redirects where possible

Redirects are awesome! Well, sometimes and if use in the correct way.

However, redirecting discontinued products to another destination (be it a category page or alternative product) isn’t always a great idea. Especially when it comes to UX.

In summary redirecting your discontinued products to an alternative location means you’ve removed that choice from the user. Chances are, you’re redirecting them to somewhere they’re not expecting to go.

If the product page remains active (redirect free) then the customer can:

  1. See the product they’re looking for in the first instance
  2. Realise that the item they’re looking for isn’t available
  3. Can see a potential direct replacement / solid alternatives

Whether you agree with the above (or not) redirecting a potential customer elsewhere when they’re looking for a specific item is jarring and could be frustrating. Allowing the customer to be in control of what they do next is important and can help to mitigate their frustration from redirects.

Which brings me on to my next point:

Tip 2: Offering direct replacements and solid alternatives is key

If you can’t provide customers with rock-solid alternatives (or even better a direct replacement of the discontinued item) then you’re only solving half of the problem. Turning on discontinued products as a sole exercise only really benefits SEO as we touched on a little while ago.

However alternative products tackles the UX / human element of this concept; which is equally, if not more important than SEO piece.

Offering awesome direct replacements on the discontinued products page can mitigate frustration. This essential step also goes a long way to connecting a product that’s no longer available to the sale of an alternative item.

Using the eBay example from earlier. The seller’s original item has ended – here’s the relisted item (direct replacement) or something very similar (ideal alternative).

Ok – so it could look better, but it’s the suggestions that are important here.

So, what makes a rock-solid alternative?

Ok, so you’ve discontinued a red clutch bag. Suggesting other hand bags or even other red handbags isn’t enough. You need to suggest other red clutch handbags in the same ballpark price wise and clutch bags that are as similar as possible to the discontinued item.

Ultimately you have to think that the customer is naturally disappointed that the item they’re looking for is no longer available, which is precisely why any alternative suggestion really needs to hit the nail on the head. The better the alternative item(s) the more likely the visitor is to stick and buy.

3) Provide a better user experience

Letting the customer know that the product they’re looking for is no longer available and providing some great alternatives is certainly a better user experience than either a 404 or unexpectedly being redirected to an alternative destination.

How about a real-life example?

The first link (for tyre retailer Oponeo) 301 redirects to their home page:

https://www.oponeo.co.uk/tyre/michelin-energy-mxv8

This one however – the product page is still active, although the item is no longer available:

https://www.oponeo.co.uk/tyre/dunlop-grandtrek-pt8000

I’m certain you’ll agree with me that the latter is a far less confusing and far less frustrating than the first example and that’s exactly my point.

So what options do I have?

Rather than answer that question with a ridiculous essay, I consolidated the key options in to a table:

<- Table scrollable on mobile ->

Solution301 Redirectsrel=follow,indexrel=follow,noindex410 code404 code
Use caseRedirect a product to an alternative destinationKeep the product online and keep it fully accessible/indexable to search enginesKeep the product online, allow link authority to flow but prevent the page from appearing in the indexRemove the product from the website and let search engines know the page is gone forever (avoiding a 404 error)Remove the product from the website and take no remedial action
Link authority passed?YESYESYESNONO
Pros1) No need to maintain the product.

2) Can free up storage on server

1) Arguably the best possible user experience as the user gets to their expected destination and is told item no longer available

2) Keep product organic keywords

3) Can still perform organically

4) Potential for great cross-sell opportunities

1) Arguably the best possible user experience as the user gets to their expected destination and is told the item is no longer available

2) A more permanent solution than index,follow as search engines won’t pay attention to these types of products. Important if more discontinued items than live items online

1) No need to maintain the product

2) Can free up storage on server

3) Prevents 404 errors

1) No need to maintain the product

2) Can free up storage on server

Cons1) Potentially frustrating UX experience as user lands at an unexpected destination.

2) Chance of losing a number of organic keywords when redirecting away from the product page.

1) Product needs to be amended/maintained as it can no longer be sold but remains online.

2) Unlikely to work well as a permanent state – if there are a lot of these types of product, search engines may see more discontinued products than active.

1) Product needs to be amended/maintained as it can no longer be sold but remains online.2) Can no longer perform organically

3) Organic keywords dropped from product

1) Customer most likely to abandon as the website is likely to show an error page

2) Organic keywords lost

3) Possible broken internal links (pointing to product URL)

4) Link equity lost

1) Customer most likely to abandon as the website is likely to show an error page

2) Organic keywords lost

3) Possible broken internal links (pointing to product URL)

4) Link equity lost

Key takeaways

Remember – the above is only a guide summarising and comparing the key options when it comes to handling discontinued products. The choice is ultimately yours.

Put your customers first

In order for discontinued products SEO to work for you and your client/business – the choices you make must ultimately come down to what works best for your customers and target audience(s). Forgetting this key step could spell disaster or leave your customer base frustrated.

Consider your technical limitations (if any)

Although going for the best solution for the business is the first point of call, can your tech stack handle it? Have you any limitations on storage that would prevent discontinued products from being re-enabled? Does the business recycle SKU codes rendering it near-impossible to get old/dead products back online?

Don’t keep discontinued products indexable forever

Depending on your business, you may have more discontinued products archived than actual products available at any point in time. Naturally, enabling all of these discontinued products and making them visible and indexable to search engines is potentially damaging to your SEO. You’ll be showing search engines that you’ve more products on your website unavailable than items for sale.

To combat this, restrict how long each item is accessible to search engines after the item has discontinued.

Want more? How about case-studies and real-life gains?

Review and download my Searchlove slides
In my Searchlove presentation I look at some major household brands that have missed big opportunities when it comes to optimising their discontinued products and also review brands that seem to have their discontinued product strategy nailed.

I also discuss how discontinued product SEO generated an £250K online revenue increase for  a brand I’ve previously worked with.

Download or review my Searchlove slides on Slideshare