What do you do with your eCommerce site product pages when they’re no longer available? Do you do anything at all? In this article, we explain SEO best practice for taking care of discontinued products.
Making sure you deal with your discontinued products is an important part of your eCommerce SEO for several reasons:
- The technical integrity of the site, to ensure there are no broken links, dead ends or pages that exist with no links to them from your other pages.
- User experience – what happens when a user visits that discontinued product? You need to make sure you provide a seamless user experience to grow brand loyalty.
- Search engine optimisation – if both of the above aren’t as good as they could be then you may be missing out on search engine visibility – which means you’re missing out on traffic and revenue.
Types of discontinued products
When we say “discontinued products”, different eCommerce store owners will have different meanings. Broadly speaking, there are four situations where products are removed or aren’t available:
- Discontinued product – that product has finished being sold due to stock availability for the retailer or perhaps it’s no longer manufactured.
- New season – the current product is no longer available because it’s being replaced by an updated model or version of the product.
- Out of stock – The product is temporarily unavailable because it’s currently out of stock.
- Unavailable – For any other reason that the product is not available for purchase by the customer.
For the purpose of this article, we’re talking strictly about number one; products that are no longer available and won’t be for the foreseeable future.
What are your options
There are three generally accepted options when it comes to dealing with discontinued product pages. The right one to use depends on the specific circumstances, but we’ll come to that later. First, here’s a quick summary to give you an idea of the tactics we’ll be looking at:
- 301 redirect: Sending users to another page.
- 404 page: Showing users the page no longer exists.
- Repurposed page: Change the design/content of the page to make it obvious the product is no longer available.
Each of these approaches has its own pros and cons so let’s look at which of these tactics is right for your eCommerce store.
Which discontinued product strategy should I use?
It can be tricky reading through reams of content when all you want to know is what strategy to use depending on your situation. The tree diagram below should help you figure out which strategy you should be using:
1. Send the user to another page using a 301 redirect
A 301 redirect is a way of automatically sending a user from one location to another. This is the ideal solution when you’re moving the same page/product to a new URL and want to keep users landing on the right page when they click existing links.
301 redirects are also the best options if you’re replacing a product with a new version of the same product and creating a new page for it.
However, we don’t recommend redirecting to another product. There are three reasons for this:
- The user isn’t aware what you’re making them do. By taking them to something they weren’t looking for they are more likely to leave, giving you higher bounce rates and poor user experience.
- Search engines may stop showing the page in search results, so people searching for that particular product will no longer be able to find it.
- What if the product you’ve redirected to gets removed in the future?
We recommend redirecting to the next level up in the navigation like a sub-category or category page that lists the most equivalent products.
2. Custom ‘not found’ or 404 page
A 404 page is displayed when another cannot be shown. One of the reasons for this is the product no longer exists because it has expired or has discontinued.
A standard 404 page (such as the one below) provides very little information that would be useful to a user arriving on the site via a product URL. Clearly, it doesn’t contain what the user is looking for so the user experience becomes poor and the journey stops. This is what you need to avoid. If you’re giving potential visitors a bad experience, then it’s a bad experience you’ll be giving search engines as well.
Instead, we recommend investing time in creating custom 404 pages for your discontinued products that specifically tell usrs the product is no longer available and provides links to similar alternatives.. The advantages are:
- It’s clear to users and search engines that the page is gone.
- You’re not forcing users somewhere else through a redirect which provides a better user experience.
- You’re providing alternative products to help reduce bounce rates.
However, there are some disadvantages to custom 404 pages. They are more demanding and time consuming to create, they may require additional development and therefore investment.
A good example of a custom 404 page from an eCommerce site is below:
You can see that the product the user was looking for no longer exists, but alternative products are provided; the site registers user intent and addresses it immediately.
This makes for a great user experience.
3. Re-purpose the page
Re-purposing a page is similar to a 404 as described above. However, rather than making the page return a 404 (which tells search engines the page that was there is no longer) the page appears as a normal one – it just has different content on it.
What you can do is replace the content on the product page with updated imagery, text, links and status – to reflect that it’s no longer available but also provide information on alternative products. This tells search engines and users that the original product they were trying to find is no longer available. However, it provides lots of useful information to the user about an equivalent product without forcing them with a redirect.
This is an effective way of reducing bounce rates and also provides more control over the content than a custom 404 usually would. This is a good tactic to use for products that previously generated good traffic and was of high value.
An example of a re-purposed product page is below:
What does Google say about unavailable products?
It was back in March 2013 that Google released a video with information about what sites should do with pages for products that are no longer available. Here’s the video:
Search Engine Watch also did a good round-up of the points that Matt Cutts makes in the video, which you can read here. This covers small eCommerce sites, medium and larger sites.
More recently, in 2019, John Mueller explained a common issue where expired product pages often return as soft 404s, even though site owners have repurposed them to show users the item is no longer available and provide recommendations for other products.
The issue was raised during a Google Webmaster Central hangout, which you can view below (the issue is raised at 11:23):
Here’s What John Mueller had to say on the topic:
“I suspect what is happening here is that our algorithms are looking at these pages and they’re seeing maybe there’s a banner on the page saying “this product is no longer available. And [our algorithms] assume that applies to the page the user ended up on. So that’s sometimes not really avoidable.
If you’re really replacing one product with another it might make sense to just redirect.
If one product is gone completely and is no longer available then you could put it in this soft 404 state where you say this product is no longer available.”
So try to stay away from phrasing like “no longer available” on repurposed pages that could trick Google into thinking the page itself is no longer available. Stick to phrasing like “out of stock” or “discontinued” that makes it clear to both users and search engines that the item is no longer available but the product page still holds some value.