Here are some quick tips in response to a question that comes up often from e-commerce store owners: “What do you do with deleted or discontinued products?” First, let’s get on the same page about what problems, if any, result from having products on your store that aren’t for sale, and then we’ll talk about solutions. We’ll use examples from some real online stores.
Many store owners resort to one of two courses of action when dealing with a discontinued product. They either delete it or hide it. This removes the product from your store so you don’t have to deal with people purchasing it or asking questions about it. That’s great, but causes the first problem.
Problem: Loss of Backlinks
So the legacy product is gone from your storefront, but there are still links to that product out there on the web. These include links that you shared on social media, links you may have posted in your blog, links posted in discussion forums, innumerable links posted and shared by your customers, and the links that Google likely still has and is displaying in SERPs.
Healthy and legitimate backlinks – like those posted and shared by your customers – play a part in your site’s overall ranking in Google’s search results. When you send web crawlers to dead links, those crawlers report this bad experience back to Google, who then punishes you by reducing your rank.
From a human perspective, people who click these links will be very disappointed when they don’t find your product. Depending on your e-commerce platform / host, the visitor could experience one of two things – a hard or soft 404 error.
You’ve seen this before. This sucks. There’s nothing to do but press the Back button. Hard 404s are the worst results of a deleted or discontinued product because the visitor is dumped at a dead end and Google will hate you for it too. I got this error from a friend’s Volusion store when I tried to go to a product that doesn’t exist.
Solution: Custom 404 Page
Most online shopping cart providers offer either a step by step do-it-yourself guide to creating custom 404 pages or a paid option. No matter what, you want something – anything – in place of the hard 404. A custom 404 page is a great fail-safe that you should have in place because it gives you a chance to explain what’s going on and offer a suggested course of action. You can see my 404 page by following the nonexistent link below:
Problem: Loss of Relevance
Creating a custom 404 landing page solves the problem of having a disconnected backlink and allows the visitor to actually reach your page and utilize your navigation menu and search bar. This is progress but it creates a new problem, loss of relevance.
I call this a “Soft 404.” While still an undesirable result, it’s not a dead end. At least now the customer is on your site, but this page is not a relevant result. Let’s say I have a store that sells housewares and you click a link that reads Click here to see these dinner plates I want! And you land on the page pictured above. It’s great that you’re on my site, but are you going to share this page with your buddies? Is there anything to buy here? Where the hell are those dinner plates!? Not only is this frustrating for the visitor, but irrelevant links don’t get shared, don’t get visited, and thus don’t help your SERP ranks and SEO. Ugh… if only we hadn’t deleted those plates.
Solution: Don’t Delete Products
See all the problems that deleted and hidden products can cause? You end up needing to pick the best bad option. We suggest the following course of action instead:
1) Edit the product’s Availability, Price, and/or descriptions to indicate that it is no longer available, and only exists for reference.
2) Check boxes or select options to make the product “Not for Sale” and “Non-Searchable.” This will prevent the customer from searching for it locally on your site and prevent them from buying it if they do manage to find it.
3) Remove ALL categories from the product. This step ensures that visitors won’t find the product through casual category browsing.
4) Optional: Edit the product’s META description and/or Title to indicate that it is discontinued. This gives people a heads up in SERP. You can also edit the product image with something like a “Discontinued” watermark.
(the above process will vary depending on your platform)
In the end, you create a customer experience like this:
This is a page for a very, very popular product on Allparts.com that is discontinued indefinitely. Here’s what I had in mind when I set up this product:
1) I want to prevent customers from buying it, but I don’t want to delete it and lose my backlinks.
2) I want to provide some options for alternative products that can be purchased. (not visible in this screenshot)
3) I want other visitors to see those wonderful product reviews.
You can view the whole product page here to get a feel for the user experience.
I realize only now that I’ll have to rewrite this article if that product comes back in stock :( But until then, I hope you will reevaluate the user experience caused by discontinued, deleted, or hidden products on your own site. Please visit the contact page if you need help or would like a consultation on your options.