Should Small eCommerce Guys Even Invest In SEO Anymore?

Seo investment worth it?

If you’ve been in the business of developing websites and marketing them for a while, you probably yearn for the “golden days” of SEO.

A world with no pesky Penguins or Pandas.

A world where you could put up a website, write two or three articles, spin them into 100s, have a software submit those articles to thousands of websites, and be ranking on page one in no time.

Those were the days, right?

It was also really easy for small e-commerce merchants to get ranked, too. Just put up a site, fill it with products, use manufacturer descriptions, link out, and you were good to go. Things have gotten a lot harder now. It’s so much more difficult to rank, and even when you do rank, how much exposure are you getting anyway?

There is a silver lining though – Panda and Penguin are separating the riff-raff from the genuine, hard-working merchants. So if you are in it for the long haul and willing to work, there is a pay-off. But the question here is…

How much space are you getting above the fold?

I did a little experiment and searched for a few different keywords to see for myself how many organic results were showing up above the fold. The keywords I searched for were “womens red shoes,” “vintage bottle openers,” and “cool headphones.”

womens red shoesYikes! Just two organic results above the fold! The bulk of the top part of the page is all paid ads, and the giant block on the right is all product listing ads. Granted, this is a pretty generic and competitive term, but still – just two results!

vintage bottle openersSlightly better, I suppose. Three organic results, but the top is all product listing ads. The right is paid ads, but there are six ads. That’s a ratio of 2 ads per 1 organic result!


I’m getting mixed feelings about this one. There are three ads, one product listing ads box, one(one!) organic listing, and one image results box. The links are gone from the organic listings, but if you do your image optimization correctly, I guess you might have a fighting chance.

I guess there is some respite in the fact that most internet users are very savvy, and they can tell apart ads from natural listings. The other interesting thing is that most advertisers are not that smart(or they have money to burn), and not all keywords match their ads 100%.

So if you can find a niche where the ads are all for similar keywords, people would be less inclined to click on the ads and more inclined to scroll down.

Time investment

SEO isn’t a set and forget deal. Nor is it something you can do for a while and then stop. Nor is it something that you do today and see immediate benefits. SEO is something you have to keep doing as regularly as you can, and it is a really long term thing.

Search engine optimization that you do today will probably pay off months, even years from now. The time investment is huge – but the payoff is bigger.

From my experience, I’ve seen that eCommerce sites are generally tougher to rank than smaller niche sites. Spencer Haws from over at NichePursuits makes his living making micro sites that rank well and really quickly for one or two terms – and his revenue model is AdSense and affiliate marketing.

The thing with his sites is that they are laser targeted and have maybe 10-20 pages, 50 at the most. He also has lots of flexibility with his keywords. If you were an ecommerce business that sold “orange overalls,” you would need to rank fairly high for that term itself. Other terms would be bonuses.

An eCommerce site probably has hundreds of pages, each targeting different keywords – and product pages are generally poorly optimized for search engines, since they usually have lots of pictures and repetitive content.

To rank an eCommerce store well, you need to have really well optimized pages, laser keyword targeting, loads of unique content, just to mention a few things – and all of that takes a helluva lot of time.

If you want to succeed in eCommerce, you need to adopt the time-tested adage of A2C – Ass 2 Chair!

% of traffic you will get

Once you have worked your behind off trying to rank, and finally started popping up in Google results, how much traffic are you going to get?

Did you know that the top position in the search engine results get about 30% of the traffic for that particular term? So if “blue striped widgets” was getting about 6000 searches per month, the site ranking at the #1 position for that term would get about 2000 visits.

Now it’s probably pretty hard to rank #1 for your main keyword, so what happens if you rank at say position 3? Now you are only getting a measly 9-10% of the traffic! 2000 visits suddenly turns into just 600.

And that’s IF you are ranking at #3 – which is still a really high position and would probably take at least 8-14 months of solid, white-hat SEO.

If you’re thinking “I’m not going to target something that only gets 6000 searches – I’m going to go for the BIG money terms – like laptops and ipods, that get hundreds of thousands of searches per month,” I’ve got one thing to say to you: Good Luck!

To rank well for those terms, you will need to topple Amazon, Apple, Best Buy, Walmart, CNET, and hundreds of other authority sites that have been around since the birth of mainstream internet. And frankly, unless you are the Pentagon, that’s not going to happen.

The money that small guys like us can make is in the Long Tail!

Is that all the traffic I’m going to get?

Not exactly. While you probably target “blue striped widgets” as your main keyword, you are going to get a ton of searches from keywords you never heard of! Google has gone on the record saying that every day, 15% of the searches they see are queries that they have never seen before!

So you may even see someone come to your site from “blue and white striped widgets,” “blue striped thingos,” or “good blue striped widgets to buy my wife.”

And THAT is where all of your traffic is going to come from(or should, at least)!

For example, I created a resource page on one of my eCommerce sites that was targeting one particular long tail keyword that I found. Even though my intention was to target just that one phrase, most of my visits came from similar and related phrases.

In two months(from June-Aug 2013), that page alone received 1400 pageviews(all from organic search), with over 170 variations in the search term that Google displayed in my Analyics. Another 800 were those that Google conveniently shows as “not provided” and “not set.”

For the term in question, I’m probably ranking between position 1-3 in Google depending on the query.

This gives the little guys like us some hope – with smart targeting, it IS possible to rank in Google fairly well. The key is to optimize those pages well and turn those visitors into buyers.

The bootstrapper’s go-to method

Since most small guys starting an eCommerce store are looking for ways to supplement their income, they probably don’t have huge marketing dollars to throw into Google’s ever hungry mouth so that they can show up everywhere.

If you have some spare cash lying around, though, it wouldn’t hurt to put yourself in front of your buyers a little more. Having both an organic listing AND a paid ad listing practically doubles your chances of getting a click.

But for those of us strapped for cash, SEO is the way to go – and SEO, after all, is the most relatively permanent method of marketing out there. In terms of returns, SEO has far greater returns than any other.

Let’s crunch some more numbers!

Suppose you want to get in front of your customers for our favorite keyword, “blue striped widgets.” Google’s average cost per click(CPC) for that term is $0.75. Assuming your quality score is good, and your click through rate is too, you actually pay Google around $0.50 per click. Not bad.

From the numbers above, for the 1500 visitors I got for my keyword(which wasn’t “blue striped widgets,” by the way :D) I would have had to pay 1500 x 0.50, or $750. Ouch.

On the other hand, I probably spent two to three hours finding my long tail keyword, writing an awesome piece of content for it, updating the content, and building one or two links(not necessarily to that page, since this page was linked to from the homepage and any link juice going to the home page goes to this one as well).

If I’m an average Joe making $50,000 per year, working 8 hours a day for 300 days a year, my time is worth $20 per hour. So I invested about $60 in “time-money” and effectively saved $700.

And while those $750 evaporated with the clicks, the $60 I invested here are going to continuously pay off day in and day out.


While it is a lot tougher nowadays to get yourself ranked, and once you’re ranked, to get found, SEO is still the most economical and highest ROI form of marketing there is. While both PPC and SEO don’t guarantee conversions as much as the other, with SEO, your overheads are really low. The only cost(s) you would have are just the upkeep of your website, hosting, and maybe one or two other nominal costs. But nothing near the astronomical budgets some PPC campaigns require.

Bottom line: Small eCommerce guys MUST invest in SEO!

Do you think SEO alone is enough for marketing a store? What challenges did you have in ranking? Share with us in the comments!

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Thanks to Jim Rush for the photo!

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  1. Hey, everybody!
    I want to build a dropshipping business over here in Europe. I did some research for a niche and came across a topic, which seems like a good opportunity to me. In the U.S. there is a pretty big retailer of back support products called “Relax the Back” ( The problem of back pain is huge everywhere in the 1st world, yet there is no such online retailer in my country.
    My problem is: People are searching online for help, not for specific products. Terms like “back pain”, “lumbago”, “disc prolapse” are searched for tens of thousands of times every month, still not many people search for specific products like “zero gravity chairs”.
    Also general keywords as I mentioned above like “back pain” etc. are very competitive, because big fitness companies, physiotherapists and health magazines are already fighting over them.
    What do you think about that? Is there still a chance to get traffic through search engines? Somebody told me, that I had to niche down my keyword phrases, but I don’t know what that means 🙂

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