One aspect of running a successful eCommerce site is how you handle your changing inventory, especially if you sell unique, one-off products that cannot be restocked.

When an item sells out, its page on your website becomes obsolete. There are other reasons why you might have expired content on an eCommerce site, from seasonal changes to retiring a product line altogether.

How you handle those expired pages can have a massive effect on your website’s performance, including your search rankings, so it’s crucial to get it right by using an appropriate method to move or remove the page.

Some of your main options are:

1. Homepage redirect

When a customer tries to load an expired product page, redirect them to your homepage.

This can seem sensible — it puts them in the best place to start a new search for an alternative product that you still have in stock — but unless it’s clear what has happened, it can be confusing for users.

It’s also not necessarily the best option for your search rankings, as Google is likely to teach a homepage redirect as being similar to a 404 Page Not Found error.

2. 404 or 410 status code

A 404 or 410 status code is the standard or expected way to deal with a page that has been deleted for any reason, but again it might not be the best option.

It gives you the opportunity to display a custom page so that although the user does not find the exact item they are looking for, you can tell them what has happened and give them options like starting a new product search.

But it means removing the original item page, which in SEO terms means you lose out on an item in Google’s search results and on other SEO value such as any hyperlinks pointing to and from the page.

3. Leave it active

Leaving the page active for the purposes of inbound links and searches has some logic behind it — you want to make sure anyone who has bookmarked the page can still find it, but see that the item is out of stock.

For very large eCommerce site with thousands of ever-changing products, this can lead to index bloat as those old ‘out of stock’ pages start to swamp your in-stock inventory.

There are also bandwidth issues, as you’re faced with a website that continues to grow and grow, taking longer to be indexed by the search engines and offering a smaller and smaller proportion of useful content.

What’s the solution?

The specific answer to your problem can vary depending on the circumstances. For instance, if there is a chance of re-stocking a product in future, you’re less likely to want to delete its page completely.

If you have retired one product but replaced it with a newer version, you might want to redirect to the new product page.

And if you have completely stopped selling an entire category of products, you might decide it’s for the best to remove that section of your website rather than have confusing results appear on the search engines.

You can also make the decision based on your SEO analytics. A low-value page with few inbound links is unlikely to hurt your performance if you remove it.

If it’s a popular landing page for your site – perhaps because a prominent review linked to it or you are one of very few stockists of a product — you might want to choose an alternative method that updates the page content without losing the value of those incoming links.

Planning ahead

Some content is clearly time-sensitive, for example, limited edition products or seasonal special offers like January sales and Black Friday deals.

But you’ll want these pages to be crawled and indexed by Google ahead of time, so it’s smart to give them an ‘evergreen’ template and a URL that doesn’t tie them to a specific year.

Out of season, you can replace the page content with well-optimised placeholder text, so that the next time the page becomes relevant again, you can update it and still have that SEO value from previous years.

Where to redirect

With some careful planning, you can also make sure you keep as much SEO value as possible when you redirect deleted product pages to others on your site.

As mentioned above, simply redirecting all missing pages to your homepage can be confusing and feel like a mistake to users.

By keeping your product pages well organised, you can instead redirect to an equivalent product that you still have in stock, or to a category page that lists all of your in-stock equivalents in one place.

So the order of preference for redirects is generally:

  1. An equivalent or similar product that you still stock.
  2. The parent category for the missing, removed or out-of-stock product.
  3. Your homepage if there is no other suitable option.

If you have permanently removed a product that had little SEO value, you can also use a 410 (Gone) error code to show Google that it has been deleted deliberately and to prevent the search engine from trying to find it again.

This compares with the usual 404 (Page Not Found) error which can be a sign of a server problem, so the search engines will typically try again a number of times before giving up.

Inform your users

Remember the search engines aren’t the only visitors to your site, so make sure it’s clear to human users what has happened.

For items that are out of stock temporarily but potentially for a long time, a ‘noindex’ tag can help to avoid index bloat by removing the page from search results without deleting it from your site.

Give a clear indication to human visitors whether a product has been retired forever or whether it will be restocked in the future – you can even offer notifications when you get new stock, so you have potential sales-ready and waiting for you.

Finally, always offer an alternative if you have something suitable. Not all shoppers will take your recommendations, but if even a small percentage do, it’s better than losing 100% of those purchases.