What Matt Cutts Says About Handling Pages of Out-of-Stock Products on E-Commerce Websites

In a recent webmaster video, Matt Cutts talks about what e-commerce sites should do with the pages which feature products that are no longer available in stock. Cutts was responding to a user’s question – ‘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?)’. A professional SEO company handling e-commerce website development for various types of businesses needs to pay attention to Cutts’ recommendations.

Informing their customers/visitors about out-of-stock products is a major concern for e-commerce stores. Major e-commerce sites like AT&T online store highlight the ‘out-of-stock’ information along with the product name searched for (as shown below).

AT&T Online Store

However, some sites may display the information ‘this product is out-of-stock’ in an inconspicuous way with the chance that people will most likely overlook or not see it. Some sites dedicate an entire page to this with the message ‘the chosen product is unavailable’, though this can get hurt by Panda which targets pages with thin content. Based on the type of business, Cutts offers three suggestions about handling out-of-stock pages:

  • Specialty Stores: Show Related Products – Cutts advises specialty stores with small number of products to direct customers from inactive product pages to the similar items that are in stock. For example, if you are running a wooden furniture store and solid pine chairs are out-of-stock, you can direct consumers to oak chairs that are in stock in the similar products section. According to Cutts, this is a viable strategy when you are focused on individual product pages.
  • Mid-sized e-commerce stores: Do a 404 – For a mid-sized e-commerce website with hundreds of product pages, the right thing would be to do a 404 for out-of-stock pages. He says that getting rid of these pages is the right strategy in this case instead of frustrating users by displaying items that are not in stock. However, if that page influences your rankings and the stock may come back, keep that page and inform users that the product is temporarily out-of-stock. Create a custom 404 page if you choose this strategy since such a page will have links to your critical pages, including the home page and search bar. Adding automatically generated related products or popular products would be also helpful for consumers. Returning just a 404 error page that won’t direct consumers back to your home page is not a good strategy.
  • Big Ecommerce Sites: Use Meta tag ‘unavailable after’ – If you have a huge ecommerce site (for instance, like Craigslist), Cutts recommends using the Meta tag ‘unavailable_after’ since some products are often not availbale after a certain period of time in such sites. This tag will tell Google to stop indexing that page after a specific date. You can fix the deadline date yourself and let the page expire automatically. In its official blog, Google specified the correct use of this tag in the following format at the first section of the page you want to expire.
    Meta Name
    This tag gives permission to Googlebot to remove the page after 25th August, 2007. You can adjust the date according to your need.

Cutts’ advice is very relevant for your SEO depending on how the number of products you have and how long they would stay available for customers to buy. To implement these strategies effectively, it is very important to understand which category your site belongs to and the extent to which out-of-stock pages influence your page ranking.