No matter what type of ecommerce website that you run there is a good chance that you have to deal with the issue of what to do with discontinued products.  For some brands like fashion sites their entire catalog can change multiple times per year.  For the site that I run (MyBinding.com) the majority of our catalog is somewhat static.  However, we still have hundreds of products per year that are discontinued by their manufacturers.  In many cases these products have unique product descriptions, product videos/transcriptions, product reviews, Q&A and other SEO features that we don’t want to give up.  However, figuring out what to do with the products is a huge challenge.  Over the years we have tried a number of different options.

In this article I will discuss the pros/cons of the different strategies for dealing with discontinued products and discuss the new option that we have adopted at MyBinding.

Option #1: Delete the product and 301 Redirect the URL to a Similar product or Category Page

The first option for dealing with discontinued products as they come is to redirect the pages to other similar products on the site or to another relevant page using a Google/SEO friendly 301 redirect.  For many years this was the option of choice for many retailers.  It allows you to pass any link value and hopefully the rankings that you have obtained to another page on your site.  However there are several major issues with this strategy that have caused many retailers to rethink this as a primary strategy.

In recent years, Google has indicated that 301 redirects should really only be used when there is a direct correlation between the old content and the new content.  In other words the page has been moved or the old product has been replaced with a new one.  According to John Meuller Webmaster spokesman in this video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nIDZmac_rMI 301 redirects to category pages, the home page and in cases where there isn’t a clear 1:1 relationship can be treated more like a soft 404.  This is not good because it means that Google is deciding that your redirects are not accurate and is discounting them.  Any backlinks to these pages will NOT count and the URL’s will most likely be dropped from the Google index.

You might be asking yourself why Google is taking this stance.  It appears that their reasoning is that soft 404 (301 redirects without a direct 1:1 relationship) create a negative user experience.  If a user clicks through a link in the search engines to the old URL expecting to find a specific product and end up redirected to generic page that user is not going to get what they expected.  When this happens there will be a much higher bounce rate to these URLs.  This is a negative ranking factor for your site.

That being said.  Using a 301 redirect is still the best option if a product has a direct replacement or is being moved to a new URL on your site.  If that is not the case this is probably NOT the best option.  However don’t take my word for it.  There is a fairly lengthy discussion about using 301 redirects for discontinued products that you can read here http://www.hobo-web.co.uk/should-i-301-redirect-old-product-pages-to-existing-category-pages/ it is quite thorough and worth the read if you have time.

Option #2: Delete the Products and Provide an awesome 404 page

The second option is to simply delete the page from your site and ensure that it serves a 404 or Not found status message in its http headers.  This lets Google know that the product doesn’t exist anymore and eventually Google will remove the content from their index.  This is a solid option for products that don’t have substantial content created for them, no inbound links or that you don’t want customers to be able to access any longer.

When you choose this option the inbound links to these products will no longer benefit (or damage) your site.  More than likely any rankings that these products have pointed towards them will disappear.  This may happen in hours, days or weeks depending on how often Google crawls your site.  However you still have an issue.  If users have these products bookmarked, follow a link from another site or click through from Google before the pages are deindexed you still need to provide them with a solid experience.

In these cases you want to make sure that you have an awesome custom 404 page on your site letting the user know that the content is gone and giving them options to find what they need.  You may want to link to your most popular content or provide a search box for users to find what they need.  Or both.  Here is an example of the custom 404 page from MyBinding.

MyBinding 404 Page Has Been Shredded

Option #3: Keep the products on the site and mark them as Discontinued / Out of Stock

The third option is to take the products that are discontinued and keep them on your site marking them as discontinued.  In the case of out of stock products that may come back in stock this may very well be the best option.  By changing the product to out of stock and leaving it on the site (serving a 200 Found status code) the product will remain in the search engine’s index and will retain its ranking, inbound links and the content will be available when the product comes back into stock.  However, you may want to make sure that these products are demoted in the sort order of your category pages and site search results to prevent users from becoming frustrated that they are not available for immediate purchase.  Even so, you may also want to add an option to the page to create an email alert when the product comes back into stock.

In the case of a product that is discontinued and is most likely never coming back in stock you have a choice to make.  If the product has substantial content, inbound links etc it may benefit you to mark it as discontinued and keep it on your site.  However the problem with this strategy is that many users will land on the page find that it is discontinued and bounce back to the search results which is a negative search engine ranking factor and can reflect poorly on the quality of the content of your site.

One example of a retailer that uses this strategy is Home depot.  You can see in the screenshot below an example of products that are marked as out of stock and products that are marked as discontinued.  Interestingly they have made the decision to mark the products that are Discontinued with a robots=noindex tag to tell the search engines to drop these pages from their index.  If you have a large number of low quality discontinued products on your site this may be the best option to prevent these products from degrading the overall quality rating of your site for algorithms such as Google Panda.

Home Depot Discontinued Out of Stock

Option #4: Mark them as discontinued but curate recommendations on the page to direct customers to better and new alternatives.

A fourth option and the one that MyBinding has recently adopted is to take the discontinued products on the site, mark them as discontinued but curate recommendations for replacement products on the page.  This allows the unique content developed for these products to continue to rank in the search engines and allows users to find information on products that are discontinued such as user’s manuals, demonstration videos, reviews and recommended supplies.  Here is a screenshot with an example of what these products look like on our site.

MyBinding Discontinued Products Example

At MyBinding we are using Magento Enterprise for our storefront and we are using this module from Added Bytes https://www.addedbytes.com/store/discontinued-products-magento/ to power the curated recommendations at the top of the page.  Using the extension we are able to recommend specific product replacements or choose a category of products from which the module will recommend the products from.

We have created a new section on our site for discontinued products and remove them from the primary categories on the site.  However, we still allow the products to be found in site search but demote them to the end of the results.

This strategy has the benefit of providing a better user experience than a simple out of stock or discontinued message.  It also has allowed us to retain rankings for these products and drive additional incremental revenue.  Plus, it solves another issue for us in that sometimes items that we thought were discontinued come back into stock.  With this strategy when the product is available again it can be moved back into is primary category and will already have rankings, history and content that will help it to convert.

BONUS TIP

Interested in this idea for your site.  Why not consider going through your past exports and data and reactivate some of your best selling products that might have been deleted from the site over the years.  Be sure to use the same URL that you used in the past.  This is a great way of gaining some additional traffic by adding relevant unique content to your site that you already have in your library.

Have you tried something similar to this?  What type of results have you achieved?  I would appreciate any comments that you might have.