Products going out of stock is inevitable for all retailers, whether they run a bricks and mortar shop or trade online. However, unlike in high street shops, an eCommerce store owner can’t just put an ‘out of stock’ sign up and call it a day until their next shipment arrives.
At Re:signal, our eCommerce SEO team works with some of the biggest eCommerce brands in the UK on a daily basis. Through this work, we’ve developed several systems for handling out of stock products which ensure you don’t lose organic visibility (and, most importantly, the revenue that comes with that visibility!)
There are three main scenarios here: products being temporarily out of stock; products with a new version; and discontinued products. We’ll look through each of these situations in turn.
- How does Google react to out of stock products?
- Temporarily out of stock products
- Let users sign up for alerts
- Show similar products
- Stop linking to it from relevant categories and other products
- Update your structured data and products’ feed
- Products with a new version
- Update internal links
- Update XML and HTML sitemaps
- Remove from products’ feed
- Add a 301 redirect
- Discontinued products
- Remove internal links
- Remove from XML and HTML sitemaps
- Remove from products’ feed
- Review the performance of the page
- Add a 301 redirect or a 410 status
How Google handles out of stock products
If you want to know how Google handles out of stock products, it’s probably easiest to go straight to the source. Here’s what Google’s John Mueller had to say about it when asked:
“I think there are multiple things that come into play when it comes to products themselves in that they can be shown as a normal search result. They can also be shown as an organic shopping result as well. If something is out of stock, the organic shopping result might not be shown. When it comes to the normal search results,..we see that something is out of stock (and) we will assume it’s more like a soft 404 error, where we will drop that URL from the search results as well. Theoretically, it could affect the visibility in search if something goes out of stock.”
In short: a product being out of stock may result in a visibility decrease in organic search for the product in question.
However, this doesn’t affect the website as a whole and isn’t always guaranteed for all products. If you have a particularly high quality product page or are recognised as an authority for this specific product, the odds are you’ll still rank well for it. And even if you don’t, it won’t stop you ranking well for everything else you offer!
Case 1: Temporarily out of stock products
Products being temporarily out of stock is one of the most common issues faced by eCommerce stores – it can be due to anything from administrative errors, to shipments getting delayed or even (ideally) unprecedented demand resulting in everything being bought before you could re-stock.
Whatever the reason for your product being temporarily out of stock, it’s important to remember one thing above all else: don’t remove the page from the website until it’s back in stock.
If you do remove a page, then Google will simply stop crawling it. This means you could have real difficulty regaining your rankings once you’re ready to start selling that product line again.
Instead, follow these simple steps to provide a great user experience and preserve your rankings.
Let users sign up for alerts
Most eCommerce platforms offer plugins which enable you to set up out of stock alerts – where users can enter their email address to get an email as soon as a product is back in stock – activating this on your shop should be your first port of call. Adding information on when you expect the product to be back in stock can further motivate users to sign up and purchase from you.
Although this benefits all stores, this can be particularly beneficial if you stock higher value items or more unique products which aren’t necessarily a time-sensitive purchase. For example, if you’re a fashion brand, someone might find a top they love made by you which is currently out of stock. Implementing this means they’re able to sign up and purchase it in a few days when you get more stock in – rather than simply forgetting about it.
Showcase similar products
Of course, while allowing users the option to wait for the specific product they found is important, sometimes your customers simply don’t want to wait. If their keyboard is broken, for instance, they’re unlikely to wait a week for you to stock a replacement! Instead, they’ll just shop elsewhere.
Adding functionality which showcases similar products can have a huge impact on retaining customers in cases like this. After all, why would you want to back out to the search results and look through another shop when you can purchase a similar version at a similar price with a single tap or click?
While you don’t want to remove all the products altogether, you also don’t want to frustrate users by having them open a number of out of stock items when browsing. Setting your store up to not show out of stock products on category pages or in recommendations will stop this from being a problem, while ensuring your visibility is severely damaged.
Update your structured data and products feed
Product schema and your products feed are both used by Google to determine key information about your products, including stock levels.
There are several values you can use to explain the status of your products in your product schema, using the ‘OutOfStock’ value confirms to search engines that the product is temporarily out of stock and will be available again soon. Combine this with the same value in your products feed to ensure search engines know to come back and recrawl the page soon.
Case 2: Products with a new version
There will be times when you have permanently removed a product from sale, and upgraded to a newer version (for example, this season’s trainers or the latest version in a line of laptop computers). While this new version may need to be on a new URL which better describes it, simply deleting the old version of the product wastes the reputation you’ve worked hard to build for it in search.
You can’t guarantee the new product will slot straight into the SERPs in the same position as your old product (and it will typically be lower ), but at the same time you don’t want the old product live and diverting traffic from your improved version.
If you’ve released an updated version of a product which sits on a new URL, follow these steps to help maintain your performance.
Update your internal links
Internal links help search engines crawl your site and contextualise your page, so if you have a lot of links with the anchor text “1,000 RPM washing machines” pointing to a page, Google will understand this page to be about 1,000 RPM washing machines.
With that in mind, your first step should be to track down all mentions of your old product’s name and ensure these link to the product page for the new version – you can use Screaming Frog’s custom search function to quickly find mentions of the product in the text of a page.
In doing this, you send a strong signal to search engines that the new URL is the most relevant page on your website for people searching for this specific search term..
Update your XML and HTML sitemaps
Next, update your sitemaps. Search engines will typically use your XML sitemap as the main source of information for the pages currently on your website, with HTML sitemaps used as a secondary piece of information. Ensure all your sitemaps are updated to include the new URL, while having the old version removed.
Remove from products feed
Removing your old product from the products feed (and ensuring the new version is listed) will send another strong signal that search engines should stop crawling the old product URL. Over time, this will lead to it dropping from the search results to (hopefully) be replaced by the new version.
Create a 301 redirect
Your final step is to create a 301 redirect. Essentially, 301 redirects tell search engines a page has been permanently moved to a new URL and all equity should now pass through to the destination URL.
Set up a 301 redirect which points from the old version of your product to the new version to pass all the SEO value this product has gained over the years to the upgraded version.
Combined, these steps maximise the chances of your upgraded products ranking well and your organic performance continuing without a hitch.
Case 3: Discontinued products
All good things come to an end – product included! . Any number of factors could result in you making the decision to discontinue a product, or even an entire line. Handling this properly is key to ensuring your site stays in a good place technically and maintains organic performance.
When you discontinue a product, you should:
Remove internal links
Start by ensuring all the internal links to the product or products across categories and recommendations are removed. Crawl your website using Screaming Frog or Sitebulb to discover any rogue links still pointing to these pages and take action to remove them.
Remove from XML and HTML sitemaps
Next, remove the product URLs from all your sitemaps. Much like with an upgraded product, you don’t want search engines going to these URLs any more, so removing them from your sitemaps is vital.
Additionally, having a large number of unused URLs in your sitemaps reduces trust in them and can have a negative impact on the organic performance of your site as a whole.
Remove from products feed
Once you’ve removed all reference to the pages from your website and all relevant sitemaps, remove it from the products feed to send a further signal to Google that this isn’t a URL it should crawl.
Review the performance of the page
Before making the final decision on what to do with the page, it’s important you review how it performs and how valuable the URL is to your website.
- Use your analytics platform of choice to check if the URLs in question have received any traffic over the last six months
- Use a tool such as Semrush or ahrefs to check if the page has any links from external sources pointing to it.
Do this for every URL before moving on to the next step.
Redirect or remove
You’re now left with two options: redirect or remove.
If the page has received traffic over the last six months, or has valuable links pointing to it, you should 301 redirect it to the most relevant category page. By doing this, you will retain the equity your product page has built up over the years and ensure your site’s performance is maintained.
However, if the URL doesn’t get any traffic and has no links (or just spammy links), remove it and show a 410 status code. This will let search engines know the page has been permanently deleted, meaning they don’t need to waste time re-crawling it to see if anything has changed (as often happens with 404s) and you keep your site organised.
Need help handling the out of stock product pages on your website? Re:signal can help! Contact us today.