If you’re an ecommerce marketer, chances are that most of your day is geared towards selling more stuff. You spend time optimising your website and marketing channels to make customers want to buy what you’re offering. You work hard day in, day out to make your products irresistible to the people you want to buy them.
So what happens when, for whatever reason, the product that you’ve convinced your visitors they can’t possibly live without isn’t available at the time they want to buy it? Nobody likes to be set up for a fall, and out of stock items are a minefield, with the potential to harm your online store’s search engine performance as well as its reputation.
While there’s no hard and fast rule for dealing with unavailable items, having a plan of action for when a product goes out of stock is really important: after all, nobody wants to have a whole host of unsatisfied customers on their hands. This blog post will take you through the main things to consider from various perspectives, whether paid search, SEO or general usability.
If you’re running product-specific paid search campaigns, it’s only logical that the product in question is available, else the money you paid for the click is likely to be wasted (as the visitor is probably going to bounce if they see it’s out of stock).
Action to take:
If you run your Adwords/social ad campaign manually: ensure you sign into your ad account and pause any paid search campaigns for products that are temporarily out of stock.
If you use an agency/automate the process yourself by linking your product feed with the Adwords API: use your analytics tool to test that there is no paid traffic going to out of stock product pages.
Delete? Set up a redirect? Leave the page as it is? As always, there’s no clear cut answer to how best to deal with out of stock product pages from an SEO perspective.
Your response should vary depending on factors such as whether a product is permanently or temporarily out of stock, how many links the page has and how much traffic it gets. Here’s what Google’s Matt Cutts has to say on the matter:
As he doesn’t cover every eventuality in the video, here is a brief rundown of your options:
The 404 error page: ‘404’ing a permanently out of stock page essentially means that a visitor will see an error message instead of a product. Although Matt Cutts points to this as the method of choice for most ecommerce sites, online store owners should be warned that having a lot of 404s both wastes your site’s crawl allowance, and also usually results in high bounce rates for that page. A lot of retailers try to counteract this with custom 404 pages that redirect visitors to the homepage, category page or similar product pages.
The 301 permanent redirect: Permanently redirecting out of stock pages means you retain a lot of the good stuff from the links you’ve built to that product page. On top of this, visitors are less likely to bounce if you redirect them somewhere relevant, for example, to a related category page for the product they were trying to view than if they’re going to a simple 404 error page. This Moz article above suggests setting up a dynamically generated message alongside this redirect to explain that the product is out of stock.
Leaving the page as is: probably the best solution if an item is temporarily out of stock. Be sure to immediately make it very clear that the item is currently unavailable, else you’ll make your customers cry (some good solutions to this below).
Action to take:
The ultimate goal is to create a process that makes deciding what action to take easy. The Moz article I mention above offers some important advice on putting the above into practice:
“Consider creating separate checklists for the steps that you...need to take to determine which pages to 301 redirect, which ones you need to 404 (if you absolutely need to), and which ones to leave as is...after a while, an overall framework should emerge on how your site handles its expired content, which will help make the entire process run much more smoothly.”
On-site customer experience
If you go with the option of leaving an out of stock product page live, there are a number of measures that you can take to improve the customer experience, prevent high bounce rates, and improve the chance of still making a sale. Here are a few:
Present them with a similar alternative
Website dead ends are conversion killers. There are a number of ways of encouraging visitors to stick around on your site instead of saying ‘sorry we don’t have what you’re looking for, bye!’.
It’s pretty much standard practice these days to use product pages to cross-sell related items (and most ecommerce platforms will have product recommendation plugins that will make this task easier). Ensure that this is activated and, if possible, do your best to draw attention to related products on out of stock pages, perhaps using a popup. You can use :
Recent items they’ve looked at in the same category
Similar products, based on category, brand, colour (the more similar the better)
Popular items in the same category or subcategory
An alternative to showing related products is providing visitors with the option to search for what they’re after (less useful if they don’t know). ASOS uses search and great copywriting to diffuse any potentially awkward out of stock situations.
Another method employed by a number of online retailers to keep the flame alight for out of stock products is to set up a notification service in which customers receive an email when an item is available again. True, they may have taken their business elsewhere in the meantime, but there’s a chance they may hold out. Below are two great examples from Brummells of London and ModCloth.
In-store pickup (for multichannel retailers)
Astute multichannel retailers are making it easy for customers to cross the online/offline divide with out of stock products, offering visitors the option to check whether their local branch still has the item in stock. Two examples from Topshop and Ted Baker below:
Have a plan: As always, being organised is key. Devising a workflow for out of stock products that will ensure a consistent approach - and be sure to consider channels like SEO and paid search.
Do everything you can to keep the visitor on your site: Use tactics like displaying related products and deal-sweeteners to keep people who hit out of stock pages from bouncing.
Give visitors options: If they did really realllly want to buy that item, they’ll likely hold out until it’s back in stock or visit one of your stores to collect it - make it easy for them to do this!