Optimizing your e-commerce site in turbulent economic times

July 9, 2024 - 11  min reading time - by Emma Russell
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Speak to any millennial and they’ll tell you that we’ve been through some pretty turbulent economic times, from the financial crisis of 2008 to the current cost of living crisis here in the UK and “technical recession”. That’s not to mention the pandemic and Brexit. And it’s not just the UK, we’re not alone, we’ve experienced a good number of global economic shocks and each country has their own economic turbulence going on.

Simpsons Meme

Though we may sometimes be moved by forces outside of our control, knowledge is power, so knowing how this kind of thing can impact our results at work can mean that we’re armed to make better decisions with the lot we’re given, which will help us keep things moving and inform stakeholders of the outlook and strategy.

So, given that, it makes sense to understand how these times of turbulence can also impact our marketing aims and what we can do to optimize our e-commerce site whilst user behavior is shifting.

Conducting your own user research

There are a number of different sources of information you can look at to get an understanding of how your users are currently behaving and how they intend to behave in the future.

One thing to do is to conduct your own research, with your own audience, to get a better understanding of exactly how they currently behave and how they intend to behave in future. This will give you insight into specifically the people you are targeting, which is the most accurate kind of user behavior study you can do.

Your research can take the form of event tracking and analyzing your website data as well as good old fashioned market research, where you ask people questions and get both qualitative and quantitative data back. One thing that’s worth remembering though, is that people won’t always behave in the ways they say they will, despite however much they intend to do so.

Heat mapping tools

If you’re not currently getting website data, here are a few good tools to look into:

  • Hotjar – has the added benefit of showing surveys on your site
  • Microsoft Clarity – has the added benefit of being free
  • Google Tag Manager
  • Eggplant Monitoring

Looking at studies into behavior

Another way to get information about how people will behave is to look at user studies conducted within your industry and, preferably, also about your target audience. Some good sources of information out there are:

The Boston Consulting Group


Retail Week (reports section in particular)

Haver Analytics

McKinsey (insights section)



But, there are many more, and Googling, surprise surprise, is normally a good place to start if you’re interested in a specific type of audience.

How has user behavior changed in the past 2 years?

During the pandemic, we saw huge shifts in behavior as people adapted to a new way of living. We also saw a cost of living crisis begin in 2021, which has followed us into 2024.

In 2022, Boston Analytics published a report called Recessionary Behaviour Snapshot #1, which looked at consumer spending during the recession, post-covid. They looked at four countries, the US, UK, France and Germany, and found that most people believed there was a recession. This article is packed full of useful knowledge, so I recommend reading the whole article, but there are some interesting highlights on the subject at hand.

On the whole, post-pandemic and at the beginning of the cost of living crisis, people started looking for deals and promotions more often. People wanted to spend less money on petrol (or gas for our American friends) so went on fewer trips to the store and they were shopping online more often to find the best prices.

How much do you agree with the following statements?

The article breaks this down by country so if you’re looking for country specific insights, I really do recommend looking at the original research.

The survey also found that on the whole, people were spending more at online marketplaces and shopping second-hand and fewer people were going to the official store/website to make their purchases, which is something that they intended to keep doing in the near future.

Moving forward to October 2023 and YouGov, nShift and Retail Week conducted a survey of 1,000 UK adults to find out more about how they were feeling about the cost of living. They found that 38% of people surveyed were “very worried” about the cost of living and 48% were “slightly worried”. That’s a total of 86% of respondents who were worried about the cost of living in the UK in Q4 2023.

When it comes to how people are spending given their concerns, the survey found that people were prioritizing most of their spending on food, which makes a lot of sense.

How are you prioritizing your spending on new items?

General merchandise, followed by entertainment and eating out came in second and third, however, it’s nowhere near close.

The impact on the cost of living extended to delivery options as well with over 60% of respondents choosing free delivery even if it takes longer and 42% of people saying they would not make the purchase if their preferred delivery option wasn’t available.

Retailer delivery options


Preferred delivery option


Looking at specific industries

The above analysis was looking at the population in general, however, we have to take into account behavior in specific industries.

For example, Statista found that consumers are still intending to spend money on travel in 2024, their spending will just be slightly different, with the intent to make their money go further. The survey results indicated that people will holiday outside of the peak period or book cheaper flights.

Holiday cost of living

Looking at socio-economic groups

Going back to Recessionary Behavior, this survey also found that high-income earners were planning to spend more on discretionary categories like casinos, hotels, clothing, wine, and cosmetics.

Holiday cost of living 2

This goes to show that looking at how people generally are intending to behave, doesn’t necessarily give you an idea of how your specific audience is going to behave. Analyzing studies that focus on your audience and conducting your own research can be truly pivotal.

A few takeaways from this general overview are:

  1. The comparison stage is longer and more complex.
  2. Most people still purchase but look for ways to spend less, be that on petrol, delivery fees or the price of the product.
  3. High-income earners will continue discretionary spending.
  4. Consideration extends to delivery options.

How to optimize your site given this behavior

Let’s focus on that first learning, that the comparison stage is longer and more complex and think about a few ways that we can cater to this behavior with our SEO strategy.

Indexing strategies

As businesses develop, there are more and more ways for people to shop, both online and offline. This has resulted in modern ways of searching and purchasing to become more complex than ever before.

For example, someone might first discover your brand online whilst researching a product they want or a problem they wish to solve, but when it comes to the comparison stage, this might be conducted online, on social media or in store. The list goes on, and the same is true for when it comes to the purchase phase.

Of course the aim is that someone will discover your company and offering, realize it’s the best option for them and make a purchase right then and there, but how often is that the case?

Updated purchasing process

Because of this, it’s important to be present where your audience is looking.

Let’s say your e-commerce store sells blue work dresses, amongst many other things. If you have a ‘dresses’ page, a ‘blue dresses’ page and ‘work dresses’ page, but no ‘blue work dresses’ page, you’re cutting yourself out of the running when someone searches online for that long-tail term, which does have search volume behind it.

Updating purchasing process-blue dresses

Longer tail keywords such as ‘blue work dresses’ tend to bring buyers, not browsers. So cutting yourself out of the running at the stage where someone is most likely to make a purchase isn’t a good idea.

That’s why getting your indexing strategy for your e-commerce store right is imperative, especially during tough economic times, when this consideration phase is typically longer. And, in all honesty, even when we aren’t living through a cost of living crisis, it would be great to rank for this type of term anyway.

Getting your indexing strategy right isn’t always easy and you certainly don’t want to index all of your attribute value URLs, as this can end up creating millions of indexable pages that you don’t want. Start with an analysis piece of which URLs you want to be indexable and go from there as there are a myriad of ways to achieve this aim.

Making product comparison easier

Another way to make sure you’re helping users to find the right product for them is to work on your PLP ordering. A lot can go into this, but to highlight some basics:

  • Show your top sellers
  • Show items with high demand
  • Show trending products
  • Show sale items
  • Prioritize in stock items
  • Prioritize in stock items in a store near them


Wayfair’s TopShelf algorithm

An example of a website that takes this even one step further is Wayfair, who use machine learning algorithms to determine which products to rank. In fact, in the spirit of sharing resources, their tech blog is really interesting; they have a LOT of info on what they’re doing on the tech side to improve everything from customer journeys and communication to supply chain optimization and PLP ordering.

I first encountered Wayfair’s tech blog when looking for insights on how to better order PLPs, about 5 years ago, whilst in house at a beauty retailer. At the time, they were using an algorithm called TopShelf, which they’ve since replaced with a different algorithm, but their discussion of how TopShelf worked is worth raising here as an interesting learning.

One of the things TopShelf would do is to find similar products to each other within the PLP, but would highlight differences between them, be that a design detail or price to make the decision process easier for the customer.

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For example, they’d place two bedside tables that look relatively similar next to each other, but one would be a more expensive option or one would be on sale. By doing this at scale, they managed to make choices between different options much easier for the user as they could more easily compare products next to each other when in a PLP. For Wayfair, who have millions of products to choose from, making this process easier was imperative.

If you’re interested in more insights on merchandising the Algolia merchandising playbook has some useful information.

Reviews and personal experience

Now that we’ve looked at a way to bring more traffic to the site with an indexing strategy, and looked to make the consideration phase easier when looking at PLPs, let’s now look at a way to help the purchasing decision easier from the SERP, PLP and PDP.

The third thing we can do to make this comparison stage easier is with the classic review. Reviews have been important and useful for a very long time, there’s nothing quite like seeing someone else who’s happy with the product to push you to make your purchase… or unhappy with the product to make you choose differently. If you haven’t implemented some method for people to leave reviews on your e-commerce store, it’s time to get cracking!

Having reviews on your PDPs and bringing them into the PLP product card is a great first step for helping users make purchasing decisions. But we’re SEOs so let’s go ahead and think about how we can make the absolute most out of them.


Getting your star rating directly into the SERP

You’ll need to implement Product schema markup and add reviews to your schema. I won’t expand on how to go about adding Product schema markup here, as there’s a full breakdown of how to go about generating and implementing schema markup here on an Oncrawl blog called “How to use schema markup and rich snippets to help your SEO”.

However, it’s worth mentioning a couple of other things that can appear in SERPs by adding structured data that will aid comparison and a couple of no-nos when it comes to reviews.

First, the additional info you can add that will appear in SERPs:

  • Shipping costs
  • Returns
  • Availability
  • Price drops
  • Pros and cons

Here’s an example of how a few of these can look in SERPs:

OUAI scalp serum_product ratings

And here’s what not to do, when it comes to reviews:

  • A clear mechanism for leaving reviews – if your site has reviews on site, the page must also have a method of adding a new review.
  • Reviews written by the site or person providing the service.
  • Company marked as a product in structured data.
  • Non-product labeled as a product.

All things that will get you a manual action are listed in the Search Console Help documentation.

So, there you have it: three ways we can cater to shifts in user behavior during tough economic times when the consideration phase is longer and more complex.

Emma is the founder of Oxford Comma Digital, a full-service SEO agency specialising in e-commerce for both startups and established brands. Day to day, Emma works closely with other members of the team to ensure all our clients reach their full growth potential, and oversees all areas of Oxford Comma. Emma can regularly be found speaking and conducting training sessions, at SEO events, and on podcasts.
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