E-Commerce SEO

5 Tactics Barnes & Noble Uses to Scale their SEO

By Nicole Calebrese

It’s not every day you get SEO tips from the largest bookstore chain in the US.

That’s why we leaped at the chance to partner with Search Engine Journal on a webinar featuring Barnes & Noble SEO and Personalization Manager Jessica Flareau!

This turned out to be one of the most interactive webinars we’ve ever hosted. Following her conversation with Botify Chief Product Officer Christophe Frenet, Jessica answered 23 audience questions for thirty minutes straight – and there were still questions coming in when it was time to end.

That’s because everything’s harder at scale, and SEO is no exception. When you’re managing hundreds of thousands of URLs (or 9 million, in Barnes & Noble’s case), you’re faced with an entirely unique set of obstacles. What better way to tackle them than by learning from the greats?

The challenges of SEO at scale

As Christophe explains in his introductory presentation, search engines simply do not have the resources to crawl such large sites in their entirety. It is for this reason that an estimated 77% of pages on the average website are not getting organic search traffic.

So before large-scale e-commerce SEOs like Jessica can think about keyword rankings, they have to contend with crawl budget.

Crawl budget refers to the number of pages on your site a search engine can crawl within a given timeframe. Because Google can only get to so many before moving on to the next site, SEOs have to work to ensure it sees the most important ones first.

The following challenges unique to large-scale SEO teams all come back to this problem of crawl budget:

  1. Optimizing the top of the funnel. SEOs managing small sites of only a few hundred or thousand URLs can focus on ranking, confident they’re nowhere near exhausting their crawl budget. Enterprise SEO teams don’t have that luxury.
  2. Harnessing technical resources. Because the top of the search funnel requires technical skill to optimize, enterprise SEOs will have to work more closely with their development teams. This is an infamous source of bottlenecking and can cause SEO initiatives to move at a sluggish pace.
  3. Overcoming the human-to-URL ratio. SEO teams tend to be small, even at large-scale e-commerce companies. When there are a million URLs for every SEO  practitioner, it becomes impossible to make an impact without some ability to automate.

It was exciting to learn firsthand what Barnes & Noble has been doing to tackle these issues. Jessica shared dozens of practices she and her team have implemented with great success. To hear them all, watch the webinar on demand! Otherwise, read on for a discussion of our top five favorites.

Barnes & Noble’s top recommendations for scaling SEO

1. Prioritize pages based on revenue impact

How it works. Jessica says Barnes & Noble puts priority titles first, making sure those pages are optimized and linked to frequently before moving on to titles with less revenue impact. 

“I think this is pretty common for large e-commerce sites,” she says, “but it is difficult to do, especially since it can be so difficult to track natural search back to a specific change.”

Nevertheless, Jessica and her team use average order value, conversion rate, and the estimated number of visits a page would earn as a result of rank improvements to determine page profitability, optimizing the most profitable pages and products first.

Why we care. Ranking optimizations in order of revenue impact keeps SEO teams focused on achieving the results that matter most to e-commerce organizations. It also helps large e-commerce sites spend their crawl budgets as efficiently as possible, prioritizing their most important content.

2. Give product engineering an ROI estimate

How it works. As Christophe notes, it can sometimes take months for SEO teams to get optimization help from Product Engineering. Their project tickets simply get added to a backlog where they are weighed against other company-wide initiatives. 

Jessica says one of the most effective tactics her team has deployed to deal with this problem is ROI estimates. Using the revenue metrics they’re already tracking, her team will help Engineering prioritize SEO tickets by predicting the revenue impact of that particular fix.

To do this, they make both aggressive and conservative forecasts, citing these as the upper and lower bounds of the ROI range, respectively. Including these numbers helps Jessica’s team get their projects noticed.

Why we care. ROI estimates go a long way towards helping Product Engineering teams plan their sprints, and they legitimize SEO as a performance marketing channel in the process. It can also help build trust and transparency between SEO and engineering teams by giving each insight into the other’s priorities.

3. Hold customized SEO learning sessions for other departments

How it works. Jessica and her team foster SEO advocacy in other departments by hosting training sessions tailored to each team. 

“If there’s something that I think a particular team will come in across as they work in their day-to-day,” says Jessica, “I’ll include that in the deck just so that they know when it comes up.”

We also try to educate other teams so that they can become advocates for SEO…It really helps them to champion every project meeting at every time.

Jessica Flareau, Barnes & Noble

Why we care. Educating other teams on the value of SEO and training them to spot potential SEO issues in their work will ultimately reduce your team’s workload. It also fosters a company-wide appreciation for what you do, which can manifest as anything from better communication to accelerated ticket times.

4. Make sure your attribution model is telling the whole story

How it works. Barnes & Noble’s SEO team uses multi-touch attribution to help ensure a more accurate measurement of SEO’s revenue impact.

Instead of simply relying on first-touch attribution or last-touch attribution, a combination of the two will help prevent revenue from being attributed to, say, affiliate marketing when organic search played an important part in the conversion.

Why we care. Attribution is critical to telling your SEO revenue impact story. If your team’s ROI forecasts aren’t reflected in attribution reports, it will delegitimize your efforts. Careful attribution will help you make more accurate forecasts with more clout.

5. Create unique content

How it works. The books Barnes & Noble sells are not unique to its brand, so how is it supposed to deliver unique content?

Jessica says it’s all about capitalizing on your differentiators. For Barnes & Noble, this means bringing bookseller expertise into the limelight with reviews and recommendations.

Why we care. It’s not uncommon for e-commerce brands to have product overlap with their competitors. Creating unique content will help you stand out in search while also distinguishing you in the marketplace.

To hear Christophe and Jessica on other topics, including tips for managing faceted navigation and out-of-stock products, watch the full webinar on demand.

Deep dive on audience questions

On top of these topics from the presentation portion of the webinar, Jessica answers a whopping 23 audience questions during the Q&A. Here are some of the meaty questions attendees put to her:

  1. How does Barnes & Noble manage its XML site map?
  2. What are your preferred SEO tools for large sites?
  3. Google is crawling but not indexing large parts of my website. How do we fix that?
  4. Did you ever think to open your inner search bar results for indexing to create categories?
  5. How do you audit to discover near-duplicate pages? What are your evaluation criteria for determining the level of content similarity?

To hear Jessica’s answers to these and over a dozen other audience questions, watch the full webinar on demand. To catch future events with Botify customers like Barnes & Noble, sign up for our newsletter or follow us on social.

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