E-commerce: How to Deal with Out of Stock Products

Tad Chef
Tad Chef writes for SEO blogs from all over the world including his own one called SEO 2.0. He helps people with blogs, social media and search, both in German and English. You can follow Tad on Twitter @onreact_com to get his latest insights daily.

    Last September I have researched for a  jacket online. I’ve found numerous but none of them really fitted. There were always some issues. So at the end I bought a jacket in a real life retail store. This year I’ve cleaned up my bookmarks and looked up the jackets I’ve saved last year. Of course most of them were out of stock by now.

    It happens frequently that products are unavailable. The way e-commerce sites display out of stock items is the interesting part. Most sites failed here.

    Indeed I considered buying another jacket this year because the one I bought last time wasn’t perfect for all occasions. Sadly most of the stores made it very difficult. Some of them even fooled me to believe the jacket was still available until I looked closely.

    So I decided to write about this important issue when it comes to e-commerce: how to deal with out of stock products.

    At first let me show you a few ways online stores deal with out of stock items, all of them more or less wrong of course:

     

    The Fine Print

    Many e-commerce sites just show the product page almost unchanged. Then there is some fine print saying that’s it’s out of stock or unavailable. Sometimes it’s even harder to spot. See this example:

    article_Out_of_stock_1

    Here only the size selection tells you that the jacket is sold out. So you have to look very closely to spot it all. This is almost deceptive. It’s both bad for users and for search engines. People are annoyed finding out that the item is sold out after they assumed it’s there. It’s like displaying it in your store window but not selling it.

    Even when telling your customers it’s out of stock right away you can do it wrong, see the next example!

    Is it out of stock or in stock?

    Is it out of stock or in stock?

    The “Sorry, this product is currently out of stock” notification is not easily spotted but once you read the text you’ll notice it. Take a look below the text though at the green checkmark list. There it says “in stock”! So what now? Is it available or not? The red brackets are mine.

    Another example of fine print that is almost right:

    attention not available

    The notification is in red and surrounded by a border so that you spot it almost right away. Still for Google, the page is worthless as you can’t find the product there nor any alternative. So you risk a Google Panda penalty with many such so called “thin content” pages.

     

    The Homepage Redirect

    Many online stores just redirect me from the product URL to the homepage. Is this useful? No. In such cases I would have to select the specific menu items again to find other jackets. Also I often open a few links at once in separate tabs and wonder what happened. I don’t even remember opening the homepage of a particular store. So I just close it again. This might save you some Google juice in case you redirect correctly (using a 301 redirect) but it alienates the shoppers for sure.

    Redirecting to the homepage is like telling a customer to get out of the store just because an item is gone.

     

    The 404 Page

    Another common mistake is the 404 page aka “not found”. When this happens I assume that your site is broken or something. Indeed it is. That’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    When a link ends up being an error this actually means your site is broken.

    Too many 404 errors also raise a red flag with Google. It’s not a coincidence that Google shows “not found” errors in Google Webmaster Tools.

     

    Random Similar

    Similar products are randomly shown. And yet it is not enough!

    Similar products are randomly shown.

    Now let’s take a look at an almost correct example. There is a big headline saying the jacket is “out of stock”. You might mistake it for a subheading and overlook it but that’s not the main issue. The site is showing me similar products. That’s a help.

    Sadly these products are solely similar based on brand (Element) and category (winter jacket). They are not similar by color or product name.

    When you take a close look at the screenshot you’ll notice that there is almost the same jacket available just with slightly different colors at the right. Unfortunately this “similar products” are randomized”. So next time I reloaded or rather revisited, it didn’t display there at all.

     

    Doing the Right Thing

    So how exactly can you do it right? I’ve found one page via Google that showed me how it could be done. Let’s take a look at the “out of stock” message first:

    "Out of stock" message is simple and clear

    Out of stock” message is simple and clear

    It’s simple and clear. The red color suffices to show that the jacket is not available anymore.

    As this is not the ASOS store directly but its “Fashionfinder” it even gets better. Take a look at the screenshot below. At first it’s very similar to the example above. It’s the same jacket but it also displays similar products based on the brand (Element). It doesn’t show just 4 random jackets like above. It shows 40 items! It also takes into account colors and product names it seems:

    Click to enlarge the image

    Click to enlarge the image

    When you take a closer look (just click on the image) you will notice that there are 7 Element Hemlock jackets among them, almost all in different colors.

     

    Key Takeaways

    1. Do not remove the item completely and create a “not found” error page.
    2. Do not redirect the out of stock item to the homepage.
    3. Do not display conflicting messages (“out of stock” and “in stock” at the same time)
    4. Display the out of stock items with a clear red sign saying it’s out of stock.
    5. Display many similar products based on product name, color, brand, category etc. (the more similarities the better)
    6. Do not randomize similar products each time, enable saving and bookmarking.
    7. Make sure your product page is still useful not just an archived one.
    Tad Chef
    Tad Chef writes for SEO blogs from all over the world including his own one called SEO 2.0. He helps people with blogs, social media and search, both in German and English. You can follow Tad on Twitter @onreact_com to get his latest insights daily.

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    • Mikael Uusitalo

      What about a 301 to the brand or category the item was placed in and pushing a lightbox saying “Product X is out of stock…” and a hint/message that there are many others that you can find. Maybe taking it even further and also displaying some “similar” jackets in the same lightbox?

      • Jon Hogg

        This. If the product isn’t coming back I think it’s fine (and wise) to 301 to either category or homepage with a lightbox and a picture of the item. If it’s coming back into stock within, say, 3 months then I’d keep the page live and offer similar products but ALSO an email capture form to notify the visitor when the item’s back in stock. Even maybe a checkbox to subscribe to newsletter.

        Either way, 301’ing when stock (and so the page) will come back soon enough is suicide.

        • Good ideas but a bit complex. Ideally you don’t have to redirect, call to action etc. but you just provide what the user wants right away (similar products). So less is more here.

          • Mikael Uusitalo

            Most def! I’d A/B that! 🙂

      • It depends on how many products you redirect. In case you have hundreds of 301 redirects all over your site this might look a bit fishy. Also each redirect is annoying people. You lose them because they do not have the impression that they get what they wanted when they arrived on your site. So providing similar products right away is the best solution IMHO.

        • Jon Hogg

          Although eventually you’re going to have bloat with years of dead products still indexed. 

        • Mikael Uusitalo

          I get your point, although it’s not a clearcut situation.

          I’v seen Cutts on one hand tell (in conjunction to the use of 301:s) people it’s great for usability and user experience but on the other hand say don’t overdo it, pointing to lets say 302’s for products that might get back in stock and so forth. 

          Most of the time I go with how the user would experience the situation. That way I feel any SEO “implications” often is mitigated.

          As usual, everything is held in a cloud of mystery! 🙂

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