Google Advice; How To Deal With Out Of Stock Items

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John Mueller from Google gave us all some tips on what Google expects to see from e-commerce sites they rank in their index:

What to do with out of stock pages?

  1. Return a 404 if the product is permanently out of stock and never going to be in stock again

  2. Return a 200 if the product is temporarily out of stock

  3. Return a 301 to equivalent content if the product is expired but you have reason to preserve SEO Benefits

Your options are thus:

  • use 404 pages and definitely LOSE ALL SEO benefits to do with a URL
  • use 301 redirects and potentially negatively impact SEO benefits if you do not redirect backlink equity properly to equivalent content (annotated as non-critical soft-404s in Search Console)
  • use 404 pages and positively impact indexation challenges on your site e.g. get expired pages de-indexed and get other useful pages indexed
  • leave the URL as is

Specifically, how to manage produce pages on your site when the products are out of stock

We are first asked to  “differentiate between situations” and that’s because it is important to do so.

You will want to

  • redirect users, and
  • redirect Google to consolidate and preserve ranking signals accrued by old product pages (if they are valuable to you in any way, and they sometimes are)

When it comes to redirecting users, you can do whatever you want to do that is best for your users. You can redirect users anywhere.

You certainly do need to create useful 404 pages because you do not want users bouncing back to Google from your site.

Where it gets tricky is what to tell Google about these out of stock pages.

Some out of stock pages are more valuable than others.

If pages have ranking equity (and traffic) you RARELY EVER want to 404 them, you ALWAYS want to do something with those URLs. Google has made this more tricky in 2018.

You need to be careful redirecting users and Google these days, if you want to ensure you get the full benefits of your past online marketing activities.

  • You do not want to just redirect expired pages to your home page as Google may class them as soft-404s and any ranking signals can be lost – see NOTE: 301 Redirecting expired pages to your home page may result in ‘soft-404s’
  • You do not want to just redirect them to category pages as Google may class them as soft-404s and any ranking signals can be lost see NOTE: 301 Redirects from Products To Categories May Result in Soft-404s
  • You do not want to redirect them to in-equivalent content as any ranking signals can be lost  – see NOTE: You MUST Redirect To Equivalent Content

NOTE: This only matters if you actually HAVE useful ranking signals on these URLs e.g. they have links from other websites.

The rule of thumb is you must redirect to equivalent content if you expect to preserve SEO benefits in the long run.

If you fail to manage your site properly, Google will let you know that certain redirects are classed as soft-404 and that means do not expect to preserve any link equity from these URLs.

It’s not a penalty situation, but you can still negatively impact your site rankings by redirecting to inequivalent content.

Point 1 – How to deal with “product is permanently out of stock and never going to be in stock again

QUOTE: “a product is permanently out of stock and never going to be in stock again and nobody is going to care about this product anymore in the future… ” John Mueller, Google 2018

Google want you to 404 out of stock pages. You should do this, but don’t do this if the page has external backlinks to it – you should 301 it to somewhere. Most product pages do not have links going to them, so as standard, you should probably 404 expired pages – when they are gone, they are gone.

You should check for broken backlinks every few months or so and reconnect them, too, in a process known as backlink reclamation.

POINT 2 – How to deal with “the product is temporarily out of stock

QUOTE: “the situation where the product is kind of temporarily out of stock and might be back in stock at some later point…. if it’s temporarily out of stock then essentially that’s that’s up to you I would probably keep that page as it is and maybe use structured data markup to indicate that it’s no longer available at the moment that way we can keep indexing that page we can keep crawling that page and once you change the markup to say it’s available again we can pick that up and show that again so nothing really changes there” – John Mueller, Google 2018

Keep these URLS as are and wait for stock to repopulate. Use markup to “indicate that it’s no longer available at the moment“.

Google will often choose not to index your entire website, though, especially if you have site content quality problems.

If I was running my own e-commerce shop, I’d go a step further and aim to minimise the amount of ‘out of stock’ pages indexed by Google and aim to make sure the pages I do have in Google can satisfy users if they land on them.

I would only be interested in doing something more creative with the URL if it had external backlinks pointing to it.

POINT 3 – How to deal with “product will never be in stock again but you want to keep something as a reference

QUOTE: “a third variation might be that the product will never be in stock again but you want to keep something as a reference so with let’s see those three situations in mind if something is really permanently out of stock and never going to come back and you have a replacement product that’s pretty identical I would just redirected that replacement product that seems like the the easiest solution there… if it’s something that kind of is moved to an archive situation where you say well we once had this thing and we want to have a placeholder for the documentation and the support material all of that I might consider moving into an archive section of a website and just keeping it there as something that’s like not a part of your normal shop not normal ecommerce set up but kind of like a place where you keep kind of old documentation of old things together and just redirect to.” – John Mueller, Google 2018

This only matters if you have users looking for the content, or the old content has a lot of backlinks to it.

John is spelling things out here. Use 301 redirects to preserve accrued link equity. The content you redirect MUST be equivalent content e.g. the destination URL must be thematically and keyword relevant to the old URL IF you want the long-term SEO benefits.

Point 4 – Canonical Evergreen Product URLs

QUOTE: “From a search point of view it might even make sense to just reuse the old URL and say well this is the URL of the new product instead that helps you to kind of build on the existing URL rather than to have to worry about all of these redirects going to like old versions and like this 2011 version of the product redirects to 2012 2013 2015 2018 version of the product all of those redirects are big hassle to maintain so if you can keep the URLs and just replace the content that’s probably the ideal situation.” – John Mueller, Google 2018

Some sites have product URLs that you can approach this way.

I ALMOST NEVER use dates in my URLs anymore, unless it is critical to relevance and usefulness (it rarely is). That means I build on URLs and continually improve the URL quality score over time, and this helps to keep redirect chains in a site structure to a minimum.

NOTE: Soft 404 Errors

QUOTE: “Can it be surmised that Google might label certain 301 redirects (that DO NOT redirect to VERY EQUIVALENT CONTENT) as SOFT 404 and so devalue all signals associated with them?” Shaun Anderson, Hobo 2020