Back-to-School for SEO

The back-to-school shopping season can provide an extremely important sales burst for retailers. Sometimes getting that first dorm room set up just right results in sales that are second only to — or in some cases, depending on the lines carried, even bigger than — the holidays.

Yet sluggish sales performances have already claimed several retailers in the past year, including Linen ‘n Things, and Steve & Barry’s. While the government’s economic stimulus checks may have helped to provide a fleeting upturn in retail sales for May and June, consumer spending is expected to remain unseasonably slow in the back-to-school months.

The National Retail Federation predicts that sales will grow slower than inflation — a paltry 1.6 percent this year — following a less-than-stellar 2.9 percent increase in 2008. So with sales lagging and money belts tightening, what online marketing venue are retailers turning to this year? Every marketer’s darling, of course: social media marketing.

It will be interesting to see which retailers capture the tween market for the back-to-school season this year, and whose marketing budgets could have been better spent on good, old-fashioned SEO (define).

Mother and Child Reunion

J.C. Penney, for example, is launching five new exclusive clothing brands this year and a new “Dorm Life” brand that will include bedding and bath items, and desks and shelving units for those heading off to college. Meanwhile, J.C. Penney’s Web site,, is the new home for its consolidated “microsites” it already had for brands like Decree and Arizona.

I’m not a huge fan of microsites. Certainly, breaking up a series of brands into a succession of retail sites can be successful. It’s just highly uncommon for an online retailer to get it right.

Retailers usually end up with a shallow site that presents a doorway page to another destination. Or worse yet, they duplicate their own content and fragment link building to such an extent that they hamper each other’s search engine positioning.

For many retailers, investments made in building microsites never seem to add up to be the sum of their parts. If they had invested similar sums in optimizing one parent site, the returns would have ended up greater. So it’s at least good to see that J.C. Penney’s new brands, like RS by skateboarder Ryan Sheckler, will be complemented by positioning within JCP Teen on Facebook, not a microsite.

Too bad the catchy landing page presents search engines with a temporary redirect (302 header response code) to a category within the parent site. So all the press releases about the new brands that could spur link building to an optimal URL are lost, showing that no matter how big or successful the retailer is, it still doesn’t get the fundamentals of basic SEO.

At least the Facebook page is getting the conversation started. Too bad it’s not well positioned to cast a few lines for some link bait: “JCP Teen does not have any upcoming events.”

Perhaps it’s not too late for J.C. Penney to make a better mix of things for the other new brands the retailer intends to launch during the back-to-school season. Especially since J.C. Penney is going after the market with initiatives on Twitter and YouTube. Now if they could only get everything bound together with a blog…

Long and Short of It

Meanwhile, the office and school supply retailer Staples will sell back-to-school basics such as pencils and folders for a penny in deals that will rotate every week. Staples appears to be well positioned on Facebook and Twitter with its promotional offers poised and ready for back-to-school deals.

Staples has made nice headway on URL rewrites for its parent site, too. Now if only that trend would transcend down to product level pages, Staples would be in great shape to take on the Staples Center for search results.

Electronics retailers will also figure prominently in this year’s back-to-school marketing blitz. Apple, for example, is giving away an iPod touch or an iPod nano to students who purchase a Mac computer before Sept. 15. At least Apple knows how to bake a good deal into a crawlable URL:

Hewlett-Packard is already doing PPC (define) advertising for back-to-school computers, which is particularly good because the online destination is hidden behind a URL that only could love:

Not be outdone, Dell is making back to school offers available under a similarly search engine unfriendly URL:

I wonder what HP and Dell end up spending on PPC for the back-to-school sales season?

Alphabetically Correct

While sorties into social media should help retailers promote their back-to-school goods in a fresh new way, it looks like many of the most prominent online retailers on the Web should go back to school and take a remedial SEO course. Their first lesson would be their ABCs: Always Be Crawlable and Always Be Canonicalized.

Meet P.J. Fusco at Search Engine Strategies San Jose, August 10-14, 2009, at the McEnery Convention Center.

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