SEO Guide to Discontinued Products

Jan 11, 2024featured, SEO

E-commerce sites need to deal with turnover of products in their catalogs all the time. One common scenario is that products are discontinued. For many consumer electronics products, this can happen on a yearly cycle as the new models with upgraded features replace the existing products. For fashion brands, this is typically a quarterly thing to keep up with seasonal trends, but for ultra fast fashion brands, product turnover can be a constant process.

Regardless of the timing or regularity, any SEO for an e-commerce brand has surely been asked what should be done with discontinued products. As with virtually everything in SEO, there’s no one answer for every scenario. This guide is meant to help you come to the right answer and cover the vast majority of circumstances you’ll encounter involving discontinued product SEO.

Before the product is discontinued

Tip: Get Ahead of These Changes

In most cases, product teams are aware of discontinuation plans ahead of time. So your job is to also be made aware of these plans. If we can plan ahead, this entire process will go more smoothly, but we’ll also have some options to help speed up the transition of rank from the old product to the new one. It’s important to consider the impact on the user experience when browsing and finding discontinued items.

Is There a Near-Direct Replacement?

In the case of the standard product upgrade cycle, there’s often a new product that is a direct replacement for the old. Think of the annual iPhone update. The new model isn’t the exact same item, but it’s pretty clear you have someone in the market for an iPhone 12, you would sell them an iPhone 13 in its place. 

There may also be a reasonable substitute that exists. For example, car manufacturers offer models in a variety of trim levels. Toyota has a Camry LE, SE, XLE, XSE, TRD, etc. If they decide to discontinue the XLE, they might say the XSE is the most comparable substitute.  

Link to the Replacement Product ASAP

In some cases, like the iPhone example above, there’s a period of time where the new model is live on the site (even if it’s in pre-order or “coming soon” state) but the old model is also still available. This is a perfect opportunity to start building rank for the new product.

In these instances, build a link to the new model. Worst case, you can add a text link within the product description. But if this is going to be a regular occurrence, you’ll want to have development invest in functionality to do this in a more robust way. Product teams will generally love this as it helps build greater awareness of the new product, so you should have some extra backing for the project.

Product is Discontinued and Removed From Site

You can prep for all of these steps, but can’t implement anything until the product is removed from the site. The idea is to not do this for every discontinued product, as with large catalogs it will become a huge burden. This is a workflow you can follow to determine what, if any, action needs to be taken. 

Is There a Near-Direct Replacement?

Going back to the question above. If the product has a suitable replacement, our course of action will be different than if it’s something an entire category of products being removed.

If yes: We’ll want to 301 redirect to the replacement product. This is a good practice regardless of any SEO performance indicators, as this is generally the best experience for the customer. 

If no: Continue on to the next section.

Are There Backlinks Pointing to the Discontinued Product URL?

You can check this manually for small numbers of products, but for larger catalog updates, most crawl tools have an integration with one or more backlink research tools. For example, Screaming Frog can connect to Majestic and AHREFs via API.  

If yes: 301 redirect to the parent category (whatever is the most specific category where the product existed). This will pass some of that backlink rank to a page that’s still live. 

Note that this is not a very clear signal to consumers, so you may need to reserve this for only instances where a very specific category exists. If Apple stopped making iPhones entirely, redirecting people to the Macbook page would leave consumers thinking something was wrong with the site. (side note, if that major of a discontinuation happened, you’d probably have a whole page on the site dedicated to the reasoning for the change and redirect there instead – I’m just using it as an easy example.)

If no: Continue on to the next section.

Is There Substantial Organic Traffic to the Discontinued Product URL?

Again, we can handle bulk checks of this via a crawl tool connected to your analytics platform (or Search Console) via API. You can also usually do this via a spreadsheet with vlookups, where with backlinks the spreadsheets can become unmanageably large.

If yes: 301 redirect to the parent category.

If no: Continue on to the next section.

Why 301 Redirects?

A 301 redirect is a permanent redirect from one URL to another. You don’t want a huge amount of discontinued product pages on your site – this makes for a bad customer experience. If this is happening, you can delete a discontinued product and use a 301 redirect.

From an SEO point of view, a 301 redirect helps you maintain your search rankings. Tell the customer they have been redirected and why. If you don’t tell them, they will be confused. For Example, if your customer thought they were clicking through to a new iPhone 15 and they found an old iPhone 12 instead, they’ll likely be confused and may become frustrated. Always consider your customer’s user experience.

If “no” to all the above, let the product 404/410.

Generally, you want to be able to answer “yes” to at least one of the previous questions and implement a 301 redirect. If you simply hit delete and remove the discontinued product, your customer will arrive at a 404 page if they happen upon your old product link. No customer likes a 404 page, it’s a dead end. They have to go back, and will possibly just leave your site.

That’s why 410 is the preferred status, as it makes it clearer that this is a permanent change where 404 can oftentimes be the result of unintentionally changing URLs and other user error. But sometimes you’re limited by the capabilities of your platform and a 404 will do just fine.

If possible, create a custom 4xx  page just for product URLs. The goal here is to have messaging for customers that they landed on the error due to a product being discontinued.

Last, update internal links

Internal links should never be going through redirects. This is entirely under your control as you can just update where links point (or remove them entirely if the product is ultimately going to a 4xx status). This will save some crawl budget and avoid any diminishing of rank through those internal links.

SEO Workflow Diagram for Discontinued Products

SEO Guide for Discontinued Products

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1 Comment

  1. Lauren

    Love the infographic! Makes it easier to remember what to do.

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