Handling Out of Stock & Removed Product Pages

December 15, 2020

On an ecommerce site, products can end up out of stock temporarily—especially if the product is particularly popular. Products can also be removed permanently from the site. Both of these scenarios make SEO challenging for pages about the out of stock or removed products. After all, you work hard to get a product page ranking in search results and driving traffic to your website only for the product to go out of stock or for the product to be removed altogether. How do you handle these scenarios without harming your users or SEO performance—or at least minimize the harm?

Out of Stock: Temporary Removal

If an item is temporarily out of stock, the first question to answer is if you want customers to still be able to find this out of stock product on your website. There isn’t a correct answer to this question. It depends on the nature of the product and the nature of your business.

Let’s say the product is important to your business and that product is something your business is known for selling. Well, in that case, you’d probably still want people to find the product even if it isn’t available right now. Plus, you’d want that product page to continue performing well once the product is back in stock. This is the scenario I recommend to almost every ecommerce business.

That said, there are exceptions. For example, you might have a contractual obligation to limit the number of people reaching that product’s page while it is out of stock. In this case, you want to limit how many people are able to find the product page while it is out of stock. You may also need to prevent anybody from finding this product while it is out of stock.

The thing to remember, though, while making that determination is that organic search doesn’t come with an easy on-or-off switch. If you pull a product page out of search results, it will take work and time for that product page to return to the search results. Given that, as you weigh your options about whether people should or shouldn’t find the page on your website about the out of stock product, you should also factor in how important organic traffic is to this particular page. The more important organic traffic is, the more likely you’ll want people to continue finding this product page in search results even if it happens to be out of stock. That way once the product is back in stock, traffic remains the same as it was before the product went out of stock.

So, make your choice: should people find this temporarily out of stock product or not?

Option #1: Don’t Let People Find the Temporarily Out of Stock Product (Not Good For SEO)

With this option, you want to do all you can to discourage discovery of the product page. The first step is minimizing the number of links referencing that product page. A common technique is moving out of stock products to a separate area of category listing pages. That out of stock listing area is typically somewhere a little harder to find on the website as you don’t want to draw too much attention to it. People may still find the product page, but you are minimizing how many people can.

For similar reasons, you can remove out of stock product pages from the XML sitemap. Search engines won’t remove the page from their index, but they may stop giving the page as much attention as they did before. Note that between the removed XML sitemap and the reduction in internal links referencing the product page, you do run the risk of search engines lowering the page’s ranking position and, therefore, losing traffic to this page. This is what makes this option very challenging for SEO; taking a page out of search results is much easier than getting the page back into search results.

A more aggressive approach is to turn off the product page while it is out of stock and remove every link to the page, including all links in the XML sitemap. It is as if the product never existed on your website. People who attempt to visit that product’s page will instead see a 404 not-found error message telling them that the page has been removed. This option is the best way to guarantee nobody finds this out of stock page, but it is also the hardest option to undo once the product is back in stock. After seeing the 404 not-found error message, though, customers may be reluctant to return to the website thinking it is full of errors, affiliates might be reluctant to update links to send people back to the product for fear it will be turned off again, and search engines may not catch the changed status preventing the page from returning to search results.

On a related note, using noindex tags to prevent the out of stock page from ranking in search results basically works like a 404 error message where search engines are concerned. As John Mueller noted recently, “we will assume that [a noindex] is kind of like a 404 page and we don’t have to crawl it that frequently” and “fluctuating with the noindex meta is counterproductive…if you really want those pages to be indexed every now and then”. The only advantage of a noindex is that it is only presented to search robots and not to users, unlike a 404 not-found that would be presented to bot and human visitors alike.

Bottom line: only use this option if you really don’t care about the page’s SEO performance once the product is back in stock and if you are prepared to work to get the page performing again once the product is back in stock.

Option #2: Let People Find the Out of Stock Product (The Best SEO Option)

If instead you have decided to let people see the out of stock product page, you want to keep the page active on your website. The page shouldn’t redirect anywhere. The page should return a status 200 to indicate it is okay. All links to the page should be left in place, including links on the XML sitemap. Other than altering the content to mention the product is out of stock, nothing else on the product page should change while it is in the out of stock state. Images, additional content, videos, and so on should all be kept on the page exactly as they were when the product was in stock.

Your main focus in this option needs to be on keeping that product page purposeful by delivering a good out of stock user experience by doing things like offering alternatives and giving clear messaging around when the product will be back in stock. You could even let people subscribe for notification when the product is back in stock. In essence, you don’t want the out of stock product page to seem like a dead end—sure, people can’t buy the product, but what else could they do? What content could be included on this page to help people find value in this page even if they can’t buy the product at this time

The more you can demonstrate the page’s purpose, the better your chances of not hurting the page’s SEO performance while the product is out of stock. What we are trying to avoid here is Google’s bots thinking that the out of stock page is actually an error page that is no longer helpful for the end user. If the bots think it is an error page, then you run the risk of the page being removed from search results as any error page would be. A product page that says nothing more than “Product X is out of stock right now. Check back later.” will probably be miscategorized as an error page and runs the risk of falling out of search results.

All that said, you do want to communicate to search engines that the product is out of stock by using product schema. You can change the itemAvailability attribute from https://schema.org/InStock to https://schema.org/OutOfStock instead. Note that Google supports other availability attributes including LimitedAvailability or SoldOut, which can also be used to communicate more details about the stock status than simply noting if the item is or isn’t currently in stock.

Permanent Removal

Next, let’s talk through permanent removals. Here again, we start with a core question you’ll need to address for your company: do you want people to see the removed product, at least for a little while?

If you are permanently removing an item your company has carried for years and have plenty of alternative products to suggest as a replacement, chances are it is perfectly fine for people to see the page about the removed product. On the other hand, if you are removing the product due to negative customer feedback, then perhaps you don’t want people to find the product ever again.
Here again, make your choice: should people find the page about the permanently removed product?

Option #1: Let People Find the Permanently Removed Page

If people can find the removed page, as with the temporary removal, your focus needs to be on improving the page’s user experience by giving people a reason to visit the page and by giving search engines a reason to keep this page indexed even if people can’t purchase it. In most cases, that means offering related products that people can buy instead of the product that is no longer available. That could be as simple as a list of related products or it could be a more involved guide discussing the details of each product and how they compare to the removed product.

Alternatively, the content offered on the removed product page might be warranty information or instruction manuals that are of value to consumers who purchased the product before it was removed from the website. Ultimately, the better and more valuable the content, the better the chances the removed product page will continue to rank in search results and get some traffic.
Because you still want people and robots to find the removed page, you want to continue linking to the removed page. Possibly, though, instead of linking to the page from the main category pages, you can link to the page from a “Discontinued” category page. By reducing the number of links referencing the page, the page will start to lose rankings in search results. If you intend for this page to rank in search results, the removed product page should continue to be listed in the XML sitemap.

You do want to communicate the removed status to search engines, though, and you can do so via product schema. On the removed product’s page, the itemAvailability schema should be set to Discontinued. This indicates very clearly that this is no longer a product you are carrying.

Eventually, though, the removed product page will fall out of search results and people will see less value in visiting the page. When exactly this happens will vary depending on the nature of the product—it could be weeks, months, or years depending on the product’s popularity. As traffic dwindles to the page and as the page falls out of search results, you will want to remove this page permanently and stop allowing people and bots to access the page.

Option #2: Don’t Let People Find the Permanent Removed Page

There are two ways of removing a page: you can redirect that page somewhere else or you can turn the page off, resulting in an error message. Before we discuss these options, either way, you’ll want to remove all links referencing the removed product. That includes removing links contained in the XML sitemap—after all, you want this page to come out of organic search results.

You only want to implement a redirect if you have a highly relevant place to redirect to—for example, a new version of the product you’ve removed. You want to be careful that the product you are redirecting to is highly and clearly relevant to avoid confusing your users. That is to say, if somebody was looking for a vacuum cleaner, don’t redirect them to a page about a washing machine instead.

In some cases, websites redirect removed products back to a relevant category page. However, a redirect to a category can be confusing for users—they thought they were going to see a specific product, but now those users are seeing a list of many different products. This can work in some scenarios if the category is very specific—I was looking for a specific lawnmower, but now you are showing me a list of other lawnmowers your website offers.

If you do implement a redirect, whether to a category or another product, you can ideally show a message explaining the redirect. For example, on the top of the page you’ve redirected to, you could place a message that explains the product the customer was trying to access is no longer available and you’ve brought them to this page instead. Typically, this type of message can include a phone number or email address for support should there be any questions or confusion. The idea behind this message is to reduce any confusion or friction that can be caused as a result of the redirect.

If you do implement redirects, do not, under any circumstances, redirect back to the home page. The home page is too generic a page and covers too many different subject areas. As a result, the home page will never be relevant enough to the product page you have removed from your website; a redirect to the home page will confuse users even if an error is presented. Further, Google’s John Mueller has stated on a few different occasions “if you 301 redirect pages that should 404 to your home page, Google will treat them as soft 404s anyway.”

The alternative to a redirect is removing the product page outright and returning an error message. To be of most use to your customers, this error message should be specifically crated to discuss removed products, though not necessarily the specific removed product the visitor was seeking. Think about the visitor who was trying to find a product on your website. Would it be better for that visitor to see a message that says “Page Not Found” or to see a message that says “Sorry, we’ve removed the product you were looking for from your website”?

This error message needs to return either a 404 or 410 response status code. If technically feasible, I typically recommend using a 410 response since that indicates a more intentional removal from the website unlike a 404 message.

Final Thoughts

Removing a product and handling out of stock scenarios requires stepping through a complex series of questions. Chances are, different products on your website will need to be handled in different ways given the nature of that specific product. If you have any questions about any aspect of this or want help handing this on your website, please contact me.

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