It’s inevitable that products on ecommerce sites will need to be retired when they become temporarily or permanently unavailable, but what should be done to maintain the SEO health and positive UX of these pages?

As with most things in the world of ecommerce SEO, there’s not necessarily one correct answer to the question: what should you do with your discontinued product pages? Like the question of pagination on ecommerce sites, there are several valid approaches. The one you opt for will depend on a number of variables, including:

  • Is the product temporarily out of stock, or discontinued for good?
  • Was the page getting organic traffic?
  • Did the page have valuable backlinks?
  • What development resourcing is available?

Nevertheless, it’s an important question to consider because the route you take can impact the technical health of your site, the user experience and your SEO.

Let’s have a look at some classic approaches you can take if a product is temporarily out of stock.

What should you do with temporarily out of stock product pages?

If the product is only temporarily out of stock, it’s best to keep the page live – you don’t want to 404 or 301 redirect these pages. It’s a counter-productive to rock the boat of search engine visibility if you know the product will be coming back soon.

But  leaving the page exactly as it is doesn’t provide the best user experience – it’s likely you’ll need some input from your design and development teams to make it clear that the product is unavailable.

To avoid frustration, the page should explain that the item is temporarily unavailable and ideally, it will give an idea of when it might be back. To avoid confusion, giving customers the option to add the item into their shopping cart should be removed.suit jacket labelled 'out of stock' on ASOS websiteOut of stock on ASOS – clearly explained, with add to cart functionality removed

Structured data could be implemented to highlight that the product is out of stock. If a user sees your product is out of stock on the SERPs, they’re unlikely to click on your listing, whilst they might end up having a smoother overall experience on another site. It’s best that we get users on our site, and at least present them with helpful options if the product is out of stock.

This includes things like presenting a selection of closely related alternative items, providing search functionality, or the ability to sign up to be notified by email when the item is back in stock.

Thinking about how out of stock product listings appear on category pages, if possible it could be useful to demote these out of stock products to the bottom of the category page. This avoids the perception that you only have out of stock products. 

What should you do with permanently discontinued product pages?

There are a few options when it comes to products that are permanently discontinued.

The first is simply letting the expired product page show a 404 error.

In fact, this is the solution advocated by Matt Cutts in this video, at least for average-sized ecommerce sites. The reasoning is that as those products are gone forever, it makes sense to serve a 404 page, as it’s frustrating to land on a product page only to be told that you can’t buy it anymore.

With avoiding user frustration in mind, the 404 page should be useful too. Rather than serving a standard 404, consider how that user’s experience could be improved by creating a custom 404 page, for example by suggesting related products.

As with any non-200 status URL, ensure that these are removed from the xml sitemap and remove any internal links to this now-404 page.

When should you avoid 404’ing expired product pages?

When deciding on a course of action, you should assess whether the page receives organic traffic, and, importantly, quality backlinks. Serving a 404 will mean that any link equity that page earned is lost. With backlinks one of the most important SEO ranking factors, you ought to be doing whatever you can to keep quality backlinks pointing at your site.

So, what’s the approach if you have a product that’s never coming back, but the page has backlinks? You don’t necessarily want to keep the page live, but you do want to preserve its value.

What should you do with valuable expired product pages?

If a product page is valuable – so it receives organic traffic and/or has quality backlinks pointing towards it – a 301 redirect should be considered in order to preserve the page’s link equity.

Before getting rid of a product page, use a tool like Ahrefs to check whether the URL receives any good quality backlinks.ahrefs site showing how many backlinks a URL has gotThis ASOS product page has no backlinks

This can also be done on a larger scale with the Batch Analysis tool on Ahrefs, which allows you to check up to 200 URLs at once.

If this is the case, then a 301 redirect should point towards the most relevant page. Avoid redirecting to a page that’s likely to be removed in future, such as another product page; as this will lead to redirect chains, which ideally you want to avoid. It may make the most sense to redirect your discontinued product to the subcategory page it originally came from, which is less likely to be removed in future.

With UX in mind, you have to consider that redirecting a user without any explanation might be pretty annoying. Ideally, use a dynamically generated message to explain that the item’s out of stock, but that the items on this new page may be of interest.

The other occasion in which it make sense to keep a permanently discontinued product page live is if users find some of the content on the page a useful reference – for example, if it’s one of the few places to find technical information or manuals related to a now discontinued product, there could be value in keeping that URL live.

When should you avoid 301 redirects?

In the case of discontinued products, this will very much be relevant to your specific business and customers. Even if the product is gone, people may still want to know about it in future, for example, to read up on its specifications or manuals. If you redirect the page elsewhere, users who may be interested in this useful content will lose access to it.

So, if the product page ranks well and contains content that people will still find useful even if they can’t buy it, it could be best to revert back to the first option, leaving the page as it is, but with a message stating that it’s been discontinued.

To summarise

For products that are out of stock but will be coming back, keep the page live, but ensure you let customers know that it’s unavailable. Depending on the size of your site and your development resources, you could also show related products, or offer the ability to be emailed when it’s back in stock.

For permanently discontinued products, you first need to assess the value of the page. There’s no problem with letting a page 404 if the item no longer exists, but before doing so assess whether the page receives traffic or good quality backlinks. If it is, a 301 redirect to a relevant page is likely your best bet, as this will retain link equity.

So, when it comes to deciding what to do with your discontinued or out of stock products, some judgement and a little bit of analysis is required. Don’t forget to take UX into account, and offer explanations as to why users are being redirected and served a different page.

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