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There is still a lot of bad advice on what to do about deleted- or discontinued products on Ecommerce sites. An erroneous advice is typically to redirect those pages to their category page, but this is not just semantically inaccurate, it also does not guarantee that you get the effect you expect.
1. If a product is discontinued, the best thing you can do is actually to just label it as discontinued, possibly changing the product text, and link to replacement products in the product description; this avoids typical confusion when "hard" redirecting users to pages with different titles and content than what the user expected.
2. The next best thing is to send a "hard" 301 Moved Permanently redirect, so the user is instantly sent to a replacement page with very similar content. Do not just redirect to a category page! By "replacement page" I literally mean a replacement of the same product, perhaps even a better version of the same. Unfortunately, SEO folks tend to abuse 301 redirects for redirecting their 404s in general, because they believe it will somehow preserve their "pagerank". This is a bad practice that should be stopped for several reasons:
3. If a product is no longer sold in your webshop, the most accurate thing to do is to allow it to produce a 404 Not Found, or perhaps even a 410 Gone message to inform the search engines it was deleted on purpose.
Don't worry about losing "link juice" or "pagerank" by having 404 errors on your webshop – these errors are completely natural and intentional functions of the HTTP protocol, and will not hurt your rankings when used normally.
If you replace a product with a better version, then there could be a narrow argument for redirecting the old product page to the new page of the product that is intended to replace the old one.
In terms of usability it may still be better to just write in the product description that you have replaced the product, and then link to the new page.
Note. This way you also allow some of the ranking signals accumulated on the old page to flow naturally to the new page; this is much nicer than just blatantly redirecting the page without explanation, which would risk total loss of value from the old page.
If a product is deleted entirely from your webshop, or perhaps just disabled from the backend, then they should either produce a 404 Not Found or 410 Gone message; allowing this to happen will send an accurate signal to the search engines indicating that the product or page is no longer available on your website.
Of course, it will be better both SEO and usability wise if you can keep the page in your system after disabling it in the shop, and still allow it to produce a 200 Ok response.
But, you really should update the product description to inform users that the product is no longer active. Some webshop systems may even allow you to show a list of related products along with your updated description. It can be entirely automated, when done right, so you might not even have to update the description manually.
The important thing is:
Years ago, when Matt Cutts was still answering your SEO questions, a question came up about how to handle unavailable products. The video itself is only 3:24 long, so I recommend you watch it, because it is still as relevant today: What should sites do with pages for products that are no longer available?
In this video, someone identified as Blind Five Year Old asks:
How would Google recommend handling eCommerce products that are no longer available? (Does this change as the number of discontinued products outnumbers the active products?)
And of course, this part of Matt Cutt's answer should come as no surprise:
Suppose you got your average e-commerce site. You've got much more than 10 pages or 20 pages. You've got hundreds or thousands of pages. For those sorts of siturations, I would probably think about just going ahead and doing a 404, because those products have gone away, that product is not available anymore.
This is obvious when you think about it. Products or pages that are no longer available can and probably should be 404'ed. It is totally within the boundaries of the HTTP protocol, and allowing it to function the natural way also avoids confusing your users.
Furthermore, he continued explaining his reasoning:
You don't want to be known as the product site that whenever you visit it, it's like, oh, yeah, you can't buy this anymore. Because users get just as angry getting an out of stock message, as they do no results found, when they think they're going to find reviews.
Again, this makes a lot of sense when you think about it. You do not want to frustrate your users by redirecting them to irrelevant pages or showing out of stock signs; of course, if you do have inactive products, you can just avoid linking to them and give them a nice noindex to avoid users landing on those pages through search engines, and at the same time, those pages will still accumulate pagerank that can flow naturally.
Products that are just out-of-stock can be left alone, since typically users can still order those products from a store, only with an increase in delivery time.
However, if you do not know when a product will be in stock again, it is probably best to disable it so users can not make new purchases. In some cases you might even opt for throwing a 404 Not Found – but again, this depends on the circumstances.
Personally I would just disable the product, and perhaps add a temporary robots noindex meta element in cases where you expect a product to be unavailable for a prolonged amount of time. E.g.:
<meta name="robots" content="noindex">
To have search engines re-index the page later, there should be no problem in just removing the noindex instruction.
If you know the product will be in stock again, you can just leave it alone; E.g. Still indexed, and still producing 200 Ok). Optionally you can disable it, but only if you deem it necessary. E.g. Re-stock or delivery time is too long.
Be careful of blindly following the trends or general SEO recommendation you find online, and indeed, even what you hear from your hired SEO folks.
There is a lot of things to consider when building a webshop, and the long-term strategy, including the design and usability of your shop, is much more important than what happens with deleted products – which belongs in the category of short-term optimization problems.
Unfortunately, if you just construct your site with SEO in mind, your strategy could also be more influenced by such short-term issues, and you may be forced to adapt to whatever makes the search engines happy at any given time. This is why I prefer to eye the long-term, and if possible, do both, because one focus probably does not rule out the other.
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