Google has a new "Webmaster Help" video out, which many ecommerce businesses may find useful. Head of webspam Matt Cutts discusses what to do on your product pages for products that are no longer available.
Specifically, he answers this user-submitted question:
How would Google recommend handling eCommerce products that are no longer available? (Does this change as the number of discontinued products outnumbers the active products?)
He runs down a few different types of cases.
He begins, "It does matter based on how many products you have and really what the throughput of those products is, how long they last, how long they're active before they become inactive. So let's talk about like three examples. On one example, suppose you're a handmade furniture manufacturer - like each piece you make you handcraft, it's a lot of work - so you only have, ten, fifteen, twenty pages of different couches and tables, and those sorts of shelves that you make. In the middle, you might have a lot more product pages, and then all the way on the end, suppose you're craigslist, right? So you have millions and millions of pages, and on any given day, a lot of those pages become inactive because they're no longer, you know, as relevant or because the listing has expired. So on the one side, when you have a very small number of pages (a small number of products), it probably is worth, not just doing a true 404, and saying, you know, this page is gone forever, but sort of saying, 'Okay, if you are interested in this, you know, cherry wood shelf, well maybe you'd be interested in this mahogany wood shelf that I have instead,' and sort of showing related products. And that's a perfectly viable strategy. It's a great idea whenever something is sort of a lot of work, you know, whenever you're putting a lot of effort into those individual product pages."
"Then suppose you've got your average e-commerce site. You've got much more than ten pages or twenty pages," Cutts continues. "You've got hundreds or thousands of pages. For those sorts of situations, I would probably think about just going ahead and doing a 404 because those products have gone away. That product is not available anymore, and you don't want to be known as the product site that whenever you visit it, it's like, 'Oh yeah, you can't buy this anymore.' Because users get just as angry getting an out-of-stock message as they do "no results found' when they think that they're going to find reviews. Now if it's going to come back in stock then you can make clear that it's temporarily out of stock, but if you really don't have that product anymore, it's kind of frustrating to just land on that page, and see, 'Yep, you can't get it here.'"
He goes on to discuss the Craigslist case a little more, noting that Google has a metatag that sites can use called "unavailable_after". Here's the original blog post where Google announced it in 2007, which discusses it more.
The tag basically tells Google that after a certain date, the page is no longer relevant, so Google won't show it in search results after that.
Image via YouTube