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How Do You Properly SEO Discontinued Products on Ecommerce Sites?

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seo discontinued products

Products go out of stock or become discontinued all the time, but it’s tough to know what you should do with that webpage when the time comes. Sometimes these product pages rank well in search results and are bringing in traffic to your site. Should you keep the product page, show a 404, or redirect users to a similar product that isn’t discontinued? Furthermore, should your decision be based upon how many discontinued product pages you have?

This was the latest question posed to Head of Google Webspam Matt Cutts, which he discussed in this video:

He explained that how you handle this problem really depends upon the size of your site.

How to Respond to Discontinued Product Pages Based on the Size of Your Company

Below offers some quick advice about handling discontinued product pages or pages where a product is out of stock based on your company size.

A Small Ecommerce Site

Size: A small eCommerce site should have less than 100 pages.

Avoid: Do not use a 404 page. Chances are you don’t have many product pages.

Solution: Instead, show those who click the link to a related product that might interest them. This is a good way to make sure all the work you put into your first product page isn’t lost.

An Average Ecommerce Site

Size: An average eCommerce site should have hundreds or even thousands of pages.

Solution: For this size company, a custom 404 page is recommended. Cutts’ reasoning was that you don’t want to be the product site that always has everything out of stock. This can be just as frustrating as when no results are found at all. Create a custom 404 that has links to your homepage or similar products so that people are directed back.

Avoid: Do not 404 pages if the products are only out of stock temporarily because you don’t want to lose those rankings. If it’s only out of stock for a few weeks, it’s important that when it comes back you have those rankings intact. Let your visitors know it’s a temporary situation, and the frustration might go down a little bit.

A Large Ecommerce Site

Size: Sites with thousands and hundreds of thousands of pages. Cutts gave the example of Craigslist.

Solution: There is a special Meta tag you can use to tell Google when the page is no longer available (and therefore shouldn’t be indexed). This tag allows you to put a deadline on it to tell Google when to stop indexing the page. The tag is called the ‘unavilable_after’ tag and looks like the following:

<Meta Name=”Googlebot” Content=”unavailable_after: 20-Mar-2014 8:00:00 PST”>

Avoid: This tag should only be used on content that expires, so classified listings and time sensitive content work well. If something is just temporarily unavailable, you can go back to the 404 method (but for such a large site, this is more unlikely).

In the end, it all depends upon the size of your company more so than the number of discontinued product pages you may have. For example, if you are considered a small eCommerce site with a lot of discontinued product pages, chances are you still don’t have enough to move to some of the suggestions Cutts gives for an average website.

Shopping Photo via Shutterstock

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HigherVisibility HigherVisibility is part of the Small Business Trends Publisher Channel, offering a full range of professional interactive marketing services. The mission of HigherVisibility is to provide clients “Valuable Solutions with Visible Results.” HigherVisibility works with companies of all sizes, offering advice on topics ranging from keyword research to algorithm updates.

6 Reactions
  1. This article seems spurious to me. In managing our site, discontinued and otherwise old products were indexed by google but previously flagged as 404. Immediately, we saw both multiple messages in webmasters tools claiming a site error as a result of the 404s, plus a dip in organic search impressions. To counter this, we had to reinstate those discontinued products, then create easy navigation for customers to get to newer replacements.

    Our site has also been flagged in webmasters tools for 404 errors from outside links pointing at pages that never existed in the first place. If 404s weren’t a big deal, how come we caught hell for having them, whether we created them or not? This article seems like yet another venue for Matt Cutts to continue to spout false claims in an effort to downplay Google’s efforts to “improve search” which ultimately hurt online businesses.

    • Anita Campbell


      Thanks for your note. I don’t purport to know that much about Webmaster tools, but I do know that just because there’s a 404 error message doesn’t mean you “caught hell” for them. Those messages are alerts designed to help you understand your site better, fix internal issues and so on.

      Let me tell you a little story. At one time we had a forum on a domain, and the forum software went haywire and created 900,000+ junk pages that somehow got indexed in Google. These were more-or-less empty pages or duplicates from VBulletin software gone wild. What a nightmare! After six months of trying to get those junk URLs out of the index, we finally gave up and just deleted the forum completely. That meant we had 900,000+ page errors. Sometimes the only way to clean up a mess is to eliminate the pages. 🙂

      Google says “Generally, 404 errors don’t impact your site’s ranking in Google, and you can safely ignore them. Typically, they are caused by typos, misconfigurations (for example, for links that are automatically generated by a content management system) or by Google’s increased efforts to recognize and crawl links in embedded content such as JavaScript.”

      – Anita

  2. I disagree with the message here for several reasons. While he is looking at this from a very narrow listing perspective, he’s not taking into account retail competition.
    If you sell a product that a hundred others also sell and the manufacturer discontinues it, every retailer you’re competing with is affected by it. If most of them then delete the product, or redirect it, the competition drops.
    I’ve seen this happen.
    We keep all discontinued products in another category then manually redirect the visitor by suggesting the best alternatives for them. This means that while most of our competition loses ranking for the now discontinued product, we still get the traffic for it and we have a better opportunity to sell an alternative item to them.

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