Exclusive Ecommerce SEO Interview with Top 500 Internet Retailer

By Tinuiti Team

Seems like everyone and their mothers are talking about what online retailers need to do to be successful in gathering organic traffic. There’s lots of good advice out there but there’s also lots of bunk that needs to be sifted through.

This article cuts through the clutter and shares tips directly from a retailer who went from a small online fish to Internet Retail 500 status in less than 10 years, lots of it due to a content marketing strategy that began a few years ago.

Intro – Jeff McRitchie, VP of Marketing,

Jeff McRitchie is VP of Marketing for, a B2B office products retailer located in Hillsboro, Oregon.  He has been with the company since 2003 when he designed and launched the ecommerce store.  In the early days of the website Jeff was the sole member of the MyBinding marketing department.  Today, Jeff manages 14 employees as part of the MyBinding marketing department and in 2011 they were named to the Inc 5000 list of fastest growing private companies in America.

He also recently got accepted to be one of the 4 community speakers at MozCon on How to Create Professional Video on a Budget. Congrats Jeff!

Here we go, ecommerce and content marketing SEO tips from


Q: What’s been the main reason why you’ve weathered the storm of Penguin and Panda, and what would you tell an eCommerce retailer about how to get out of any SEO rut, be it Penguin, Panda, or Pilgrim?

A: The only way to weather the storm of Google algorithm changes is to diversify, stay flexible and keep moving.  It is really easy to find a SEO strategy that works and then invest heavily in that strategy.  In the past we were guilty of doing that with article marketing.  However, the things that Google likes today aren’t necessarily the things that they will like tomorrow.  Instead, we are constantly looking for ways to diversify our strategy so that we are building our “BRAND” rather than just building search engines.  Ultimately, Google has shown over and over that they want to provide users with what they are looking for.  The real challenge is how to make sure that searchers are looking for our brand and not just the products that we sell.  In order to do that there are a number of values that we have adopted…

1. We believe in creating high quality content and lots of it.  Our video team makes 10 product/demo videos per week.  Our writing team produces more than 60 unique articles and pieces of content per week.  Every new product added to our site has its own unique description written for it that brings unique value or perspective for our customers.   But quantity isn’t the ultimate goal (an easy trap to fall into), instead every piece of content that we create has to pass a simple test.  “Does this content add value for our customers, publish information that you can’t find elsewhere and does it help us to establish ourselves as the experts in our space?”  Ultimately if the answer is yes to that question you really can’t go wrong with content generation.

2. Make your site better!  Every time you notice something that you don’t like about your site, write it down and if possible take the time to fix it.  Maintaining a large site is a massive task for most retailers.  On our team one of our values is to “fix it now not later”.  This can be as simple as fixing a spelling mistake or typo or as complex and reordering the merchandising of a page.  Google likes to see a site that is improving and they want to provide results to sites that give users what they are looking for.  Every time we make our site better we hopefully add a little bit more to the customer experience and ultimately that is going to help both our sales and our search engine rankings.

3. Pay attention to the data.  Make sure that you (or your analytics person) are logging into your webmaster tools and analytics account every single day to see what is happening.  Watch for trends in traffic, conversion rates, impressions, landing pages, bounce rates and warning messages.  If you aren’t paying attention there is no way for you to respond to what is happening (and with penguin and panda a lot has been happening).  The earlier that you notice a change the easier it will be for you to respond.  Don’t panic if you notice something odd, watch, gather the data and analyze it so that you can respond appropriately.

4. Diversify, Diversify, Diversify…  This is key.  It is our goal to be everywhere when a customer is looking to buy the type of products that we sell.  We want them to see our videos, read our articles, find our blog posts, read reviews about our company, see our items on third party marketplaces, see our paid search ads, read our tweets, like us on Facebook and find us in the natural searches.  We do traditional press releases almost every week, are constantly looking to partner with vendors to do promotions and advertising and are always looking to put our brand in front of as many potential customers as we can.  Google counts so many factors into their algo these days that the only choice is to do as much as possible with the resources you have.

5. Don’t be afraid to hire some inexpensive talent…  There are a huge number of awesome writers out there right now that are looking for work and they can give your brand, product descriptions, faq’s and other content a real boost.  Experiment with doing video in house with some local talent.  Also, don’t be afraid to outsource some of your tedious tasks like image masking, content distribution and competitive research to lower cost overseas employees.  If your excuse is to not do things because it is too expensive then the challenge really has to be how can I do that cheaper!

Q: SEO is all about organizing tasks and getting them done. For a lot of retailers, there’s just not enough people to delegate SEO related tasks to. How do you scale effectively? Where do you invest first if you want to take your organic traffic to the next level?

A: When I started the MyBinding site I was responsible to do all of the SEO related tasks myself and there wasn’t enough time.  Today, I have 14 people on my marketing team and there still isn’t enough time.  Part of the reality that ecommerce companies are going to face as we do SEO is that there is never enough time to get everything done.  That is why it is so important to be able to prioritize your tasks and tackle them systematically.

When it comes to online marketing I really love the idea of building a machine.  The marketing machine is designed to streamline and automate all of those tedious tasks that we either never get around to or that we dread doing.  However, in order to get the machine built you really need to fully understand the tasks that you are doing and have an awesome strategy for getting them done.  Armed with that information you can train your team and delegate the tasks to your employees.

These employees don’t have to be highly paid executives. Consider using interns, hiring new college graduates or finding someone that you know and training them for the position.  It is a little bit more work to do it that way but your budget dollars will stretch a lot further.

If I were giving suggestions to an ecommerce company that wanted to take its organic traffic to the next level, here are the things that I would suggest they start with (in order of importance)…

1. Check your site thoroughly for structural and technical issues (duplicate content, canonicalization, crawlability, soft 404’s, internal linking structure, site speed, robots.txt and www vs non www).  Make sure that you are building your SEO on a strong foundation and that Google can crawl your site as efficiently as possible.  Run a few sitemap generators and crawlers through your site and watch them work.  You just might notice things that you hadn’t realized.

2. Get your Analytics in order. If you can’t measure it you can’t improve on it.  Make sure that you have google analytics or your analytics tool installed on your site and that you are confident in the data that you are receiving.

3. Beef Up Your Content. Get a program together to systematically improve the content on your site.  Start with your category pages, then subcategory pages and then product pages (consider the way that pagerank flows through the site and start with the pages that are most likely to rank for your top terms).  The content that you produce should be natural and should help your customers make the decision to buy from you.

4. Build links.  This is very important but is also very difficult.  If you have awesome content on your site some links will come naturally.  However, if you are going to grow you are going to need to go out and build relationships and links.  Just be very careful how you do this.  Penguin is all about punishing bad link building practices and I suspect that Google will continue to crack down on this type of thing.  I would start by making sure that you have an awesome social media presence with lots of engagement so that you get the social ranking signals.  Consider guest blogging, contact the vendors that you work with, partner with local businesses, do press releases and make sure that you blog yourself.  Obviously there are a million tactics to good high quality natural link building and you should give as many of them a try as possible.

Q: What’s the most undervalued or unappreciated aspect when it comes to commerce SEO?

A: I definitely think that the most undervalued aspect of ecommerce SEO is content generation.  With the current Google algorithm, ecommerce stores are faced with the need to create massive amounts of content.  Every product should have a unique custom written description (no more copying and pasting).  Every category should have its own description.  Every page should have an optimized title tag and description.  After you finish with that then you can start writing the blog posts, articles, FAQ’s, videos and press releases.  Writing that much fresh, interesting and useful content takes a massive number of man hours and a lot of creativity.  The fact that it takes a long time and that the results are incremental make it difficult for many company executives to appreciate.  However, it is one of the most important things that you can do for your long term SEO results.

Q: Do you work with any SEO firms? What commits you to using one versus another?

A:  Currently we don’t use any SEO firms but we have worked with a few in the past.  If I were looking for an SEO firm right now I would be looking for one that has the knowledge and experience to give me smart advice and to notice the little (and big) things that need to be changed.  Ultimately, no SEO company is going to know our business better than we do and that makes me very hesitant to give up the on-page side of optimization.  Still, having a company that can come up with a clear plan that with measurable KPI’s would be helpful.  I would also love to have help with link building since it is one of the hardest parts about SEO.  However, I am a little bit afraid of SEO companies and link building right now with all of the Penguin stuff swirling around.  Finally, choosing an SEO partner also would really come back to cost.  How much value and measurable ROI can they bring as compared to the fee that I pay them.  That can be a really difficult number to nail down but it is something that has to be a major factor in the decision making when choosing an SEO firm.

Q: Big retail question: Where are the eCommerce markets, and your customers headed? What’s the next big channel to focus on? Or is multi-channel eCommerce management the only way to think these days? 

A:  Being in the B2B space we are really struggling to figure out just how social and mobile fit for our customers.  Most of our customers are at the office behind their desks and aren’t supposed to be using social media.  That being said, we spend a huge amount of time and effort of social media to try and engage with customers and to build our brand (back to that Google thing).  Still, the biggest thing that I see with our customers is that they are demanding a better ecommerce experience all the time.  Retailers like Amazon are really raising the bar in terms of customer service, shipping costs, shipping times, trust, navigation, technology and overall experience.

Rather than focusing on a new channel I think that the biggest challenge facing our company (and many other mid-sized ecommerce players) is to improve the shopping experience for our customers and to meet their new expectations.  Along those lines, multi-channel eCommerce is the only way to think these days.  Customers are looking to business with us in different ways and through different channels.  We need to meet our customers in the ways that they prefer rather than asking them to come and meet us in the way that we prefer.

Q: What are your thoughts on the New Google Shopping?

A: I have to admit that I have mixed feelings about the new Google Shopping.  I really don’t like the fact that I will have to pay for traffic that I am already getting for free.  Plus, the cost of the traffic and the value (quality vs. cost) is unknown at this point.  However, there are several things that I am excited about.  First, the fact that it will be paid will mean that they will actually provide support for the program.  For any merchant that has had problems with Google Base / shopping this is huge.  I am also excited that some of the poor quality sites and listings will most likely disappear from the results.  As more and more small sites discovered that it was easy and free to upload their products to Google shopping the results became more cluttered, less accurate and ultimately less effective for us as a business.  I suspect that the new paid program will have far less participation than the free program which will most likely be good for us and other mid-sized retailers.

Q: What products and services are you looking for these days as an eCommerce retailer and how do you find them?

A: The list of projects at MyBinding seems unending right now.  However, a couple of major things that we are looking for right now include: a product recommendations engine, conversion optimization services, site design / usability and integration of product reviews onto our site.  There are a bunch of other smaller things that I need but those are the major ones.  I normally find these type of things through recommendations from other online retailers (we are part of a group called the eMob which provides awesome advice).  I have also found some of my best partners at conferences such as eTail or Internet Retailer.

The biggest problem isn’t really finding someone to do the things, it seems like there are always people who want to take my money.  The real issue is finding a partner that will offer services at a price that is fair and can provide an ROI that is substantial and measurable.  It seems like many of the partners that I work with want to lay claim to the same revenue dollars.  Ultimately, I need measurable and attributable growth to be able to justify the expense.

Got any questions for Jeff? He’ll be answering questions through the comments below or you can reach him directly through his website or via Twitter or LinkedIn.

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