Handbags At Dawn: SEO In The Fashion Industry

A detailed SEO case study on how the major fashion brands dominate the search results and how their SEO techniques can be adapted for your own site.


Fashion is big business. In 2012, the industry was worth a reported £21billion in the UK alone.

With all that potential revenue up for grabs it will come as no surprise that the major fashion retailers spend big bucks on their SEO campaigns. Moving just a few places up the rankings for big money phrases can potentially mean hundreds of thousands in additional revenue.

So what tactics do the big boys use to outrank their competitors?

Well, today I’m going to find out.

I’m going to take a popular phrase (handbags) and examine the link profiles of the top 3 UK results.

The results are interesting, so read on to find out more as I examine SEO in the fashion industry!

As a bonus, after I have analysed the top 3 results, I’m going to take the site at the bottom of page 9 and explain what I would do to move it up the rankings for the keyword.

Handbags At Dawn

If previous Mrs Top 5 SEOs are anything to go by, then it’s safe to say that most women love bags, so ranking for the word ‘handbags’ would probably be an attractive proposition.

Let’s see what google adwords keyword planner has to say about potential UK traffic.


So, 60,500 average monthly searches.

While in general you shouldn’t worry too much about trophy phrases and focus your efforts on long tail traffic, that would certainly be a nice piece of google pie to get a slice of.

What are the top 3 results in the UK at the moment?


Ok, in positions 1, 2 and 3 we have: –

  1. House Of Fraser
  2. Debenhams
  3. ASOS

3 huge UK fashion retailers.

How Did They Get There?

Time to take a look ‘under the hood’ and delve into the stats/link profiles for each of these pages. We will be using moz’ industry leading opensiteexplorer to dig the dirt.

House Of Fraser


URL: http://www.houseoffraser.co.uk/Handbags/193,default,sc.html

Key Metrics

Domain Authority: 70
Page Authority: 54
Total Links To Page: 11,265

Anchor Text Distribution/Link Sources

 Anchor Text Domains Type Notes
handbag4sponsored, paid, spun
  1. paid link from made for adsense site (first paragraph)
  2. spun article on a low quality article site with anchor link
  3. spun article on a low quality article site with anchor link
  4. sponsored post (reviewing their handbags)
handbags3 from main site
find handbags of all sizes1sponsoredlooks unnaturally placed in the article
staple handbags1sponsoredPR article
bags1sponsoredanchor text link from first paragraph (disclosed as sponsored)
here1sponsoreddisclosed as sponsored
house of fraser1sponsoreddisclosed as sponsored (actual anchor text designer handbags)
these designer bags1sponsoredPR article (not disclosed)
handbags at house of fraser1sponsoreddisclosed as sponsored (also includes anchor text link to shoes)
click here1sponsoredprobably sponsored (not disclosed)
h1natural or PRpossibly sponsored – link should be ‘here’

Link Sources At A Glance

  • Sponsored (disclosed): 5
  • Sponsored (undisclosed): 5
  • Spun article links: 2
  • Paid link from adsense site: 1


The above would suggest that House Of Fraser’s primary tactic for building deep links to hub pages is sponsoring blog posts on fashion sites.

Half of these links were disclosed, the other half undisclosed and all of the links were ‘dofollow’ (I know that term doesn’t actually exist!), allowing them to pass pagerank and influence rankings.

Google’s guidelines of course say that any links that are paid for (sponsored) should have the nofollow attribute applied and in fact they penalised themselves at one point for doing the same thing.

They have been careful to vary their anchor text…

Potential Google Penalties: A manual review could result in a warning, lowering of pagerank and/or loss of rankings for money phrases.



URL: http://www.debenhams.com/women/handbags-purses

Key Metrics

Domain Authority: 71
Page Authority: 57
Total Links To Page: 80,459
Linking Domains: 32

Anchor Text Distribution/Link Sources

Anchor TextDomainsType/Notes
radley bags8all from link directories
handbags5mainly from the root domain
debenhams4sent product for review (added nofollow)
horrible free directory thing
natural link – celeb fashion site
natural link – includes links to other products
belts32 from press release sites
1 press release on a blog site
handbags purses2both from debenhams owned satelite sites
black white tote1probably editorial – links to other fashion sites
debenhams amazing range of bags1probably sponsored (perhaps just free product) – includes link to one other fashion site
across body bags debenhams1included in list of resources on a low quality affiliate site (possibly editorial, but looks like they have been targeting ‘across body bags’ as a phrase)
buying stylish handbags for any occasion1sponsored (cryptically disclosed!)
здесь 1foreign forum – looks natural
image (alt text: silver satin clutch bags)1Editorial – article rounding up the blogger’s favourite bags
have too many handbags1almost certainly a paid guest post on a poor quality blog site
new handbag to review from debenhams1sent product for review
high street handbags1sent product for review (anchor text probably requested)
image (alt text: debenham’s reasonably priced wallets)1Editorial – includes other affiliate links to wallets
click here to shop for this funky purple polka dot canvas bag1Editorial – lots of links to different fashion sites
click here to shop for this fabulous…1same site as above – editorial
shop all handbags1debenhams blog
shop all handbags purses1debenhams blog
new arrivals in bags1debenhams blog
bags purses1debenhams blog

Link Sources At A Glance

  • Directory Links: 9
  • Reviews (with no follow): 1
  • Natural Links: 8
  • Press Release: 3
  • Debenham’s Blog: 4
  • Satelite Sites: 2
  • Sponsored (paid or product incentive): 6


Quite a mix of different links for Debenhams, obviously aiming for a diverse, ‘natural looking’ link profile!

As above, all of the sponsored links except for one passed pagerank.

On a plus point, they do have a decent number of genuine editorial links in there, while House Of Fraser (the top ranking site) appeared to have none.

Again, a good mix of anchor text!

Potential Google Penalties: Possibly another manual action for the sponsored posts



URL: http://www.asos.com/Women/Bags-Purses/Cat/pgecategory.aspx?cid=8730

Key Metrics

Domain Authority: 86
Page Authority: 63
Total Links To Page: 271
Linking Domains: 29

Anchor Text Distribution/Link Sources

Anchor TextDomainsType/Notes
guest post
bag3chinese site
copied description (well done for putting internal links in!)
another copied description
bags handbags handbags clutches2tumblr profile – looks placed
directory on niche site – looks editorial
assos1Editorial – handbags wishlist with links to other fashion sites
online retailer of clothing, shoes handbags and accessories1guest post (no brand link or g+)
tutaj1foreign magazine – looks editorial/pr
black handbag1looks sponsored/paid
women’s clothing, accessories and handbags1sponsored
bags purses women1asos satelite site
coloured handbags1guest post
bags and handbags1sponsored
ссілку 1Forum – editorial
asos bag1chinese site
bags handbags11blogroll on an affiliate site – editorial
bags purses1internal

Link Sources At A Glance

Editorial Links: 10
Guest Posts: 3
Sponsored Links: 3/4
Copied Text: 2
Other Links: 3


A strong ratio of editorial links here, which would suggest ASOS is genuinely popular with fashion bloggers. Most of the articles showed the blogger wearing the item and there were links to other products/sites within the posts.

None of the guest posts had authorship claimed through g+ and two of them contained optimised anchor text.

Kudos for including internal links in their descriptions as they have picked up some links from sites which have copy and pasted text from them!

Overall quite a strong link profile and the cleanest so far.

Potential Google Penalties: There are some paid links in there, but it does not seem to be their primary tactic, so probably not a huge concern.

They might hit a problem if google decides to devalue guest post links in the future which do not claim authorship etc (see this post for how to get the most out of guest blogging). As this seems to be one of their primary tactics for actively acquiring links they might lose a fair amount of juice site wide if a load of links were devalued at once.

On-Page SEO Overview

When you are dealing with such trusted brands, with such a high number of links then on page factors (aside from using keywords in the title tag etc) aren’t so much of a concern, but just for good order, here is what moz analytics on page grader recommended giving attention to for each of the sites.

House Of Fraser…

Overall Grade: A

Recommended Improvements

  • Avoid keyword stuffing in document
  • Avoid excessive internal links
  • Keyword Usage in Bold/Strong/Emphasized/Italics
  • Avoid Using Meta Keywords Tag


Overall Grade: A

Recommended Improvements

  • Keyword usage in image alt attribute
  • No more than 1 H1 tag
  • Avoid Keyword Self-Cannibalization
  • Canonical URL Tag Usage


Overall Grade: C (oh dear!)

Recommended Improvements

  • Broad keyword usage in document
  • Appropriate keyword usage in document
  • Keyword placement in page title
  • Keyword usage in URL
  • Static URL
  • Keyword Usage in Image Alt Attribute
  • Exact Keyword Usage in Document
  • Avoid Excessive Internal Links
  • Keyword Usage in Bold/Strong/Emphasized/Italics
  • Appropriate Keyword Usage in H1 Tag


Hmmm… I’m going to retract my statement above about the on page SEO not being overly important here.

Considering ASOS have the highest domain authority (86), page authority (63) and what I consider the cleanest link profile for the page, sorting out the above might just take them up a place or two…. but…

It looks like they are targeting ‘bags’ instead of handbags and they actually rank at number 1 for that keyword, so maybe not!

My thoughts: There are 144,000 UK searches a month for bags, however, personally I think it is too generic a phrase (someone could be looking for gift bags, school bags, tea bags!) and handbags would deliver more targeted traffic. Search volume is not necessarily the be all and end all!

What Would I Do With The Site At The Bottom Of Page 9?

Right, so that’s what’s happening at the top of the results. Big brands with huge trust and authority, using link building tactics that would certainly be considered at least grey hat.

Let’s see who is currently at the bottom of page 9 and then I’ll give an overview of what I would recommend they did to improve their rankings for the keyword handbags.


OK, so at the bottom of page 9 we have the site juben.co.uk.


There should be something obvious that leaps out at you from looking at the SERP (hint), but for good order let’s see what moz has to say about on-page optimisation for the keyword.

Overall Grade: C

Recommended Improvements

  • Broad Keyword Usage in Page Title
  • Exact Keyword Usage in Page Title (hopefully you noticed these two yourself!)
  • Keyword Placement in Page Title
  • Keyword Usage in URL (it’s the home page, so let’s ignore this)
  • No More Than One H1 Tag
  • Avoid Keyword Self-Cannibalization
  • Appropriate Keyword Usage in H1 Tag
  • Appropriate Meta Description Length
  • Avoid Using Meta Keywords Tag

The above improvements could be quickly implemented and would probably see some upwards movement straight away. Here is what I would do: –

The Title

I would rewrite the title tag to something like:-

Juben: Bespoke handbags in luxury leather

Not only will it improve our rankings for handbags, it should get more clicks too.

H1 Tag

Make sure there is only one H1 tag and include handbags in it

Meta Description

I would trim it down so it is not cut off in the search results.

Meta Keywords

Get rid of them, they are as much use as an underwater hairdryer!


I would also add a bit more content to the page, just a couple of hundred words or so using some of our keyphrases (but written for humans!).

So, that’s the on page stuff, now let’s take a look at the site’s link profile.

Vital Stats

Domain Authority: 18
Page Authority: 30
Total Links: 78
Linking Root Domains: 9

Ok, just from the above it’s clear to see that with a bit of work we could get this site moving up the SERPS very quickly.

There just aren’t enough linking domains to give the site any kind of authority and if we take a more detailed look we can see that even the small amount of links the site has are not particularly strong.

Recommended Link Building

Let’s take our lead from the big guns (well the good bits anyway)!

I would recommended a link building campaign consisting of a mixture of:-

  • Quality guest posting (branded, authority building links with authorship claimed through google+)
  • PR outreach to fashion bloggers, offering samples for review
  • Running an exclusive, invite only event for bloggers and local newspapers (maybe a fashion show?)
  • Running a competition for fashion bloggers
  • Analysing link profile of competitors and looking for ‘hubs’
  • Creation of link bait content in blog (they have a blog, but it is not regularly updated) and outreach to potential linkers in the niche
  • An ongoing content strategy for the blog

A 6 month campaign should see a huge increase in the site’s authority, traffic from the search engines and of course… sales of handbags!

Summing It All Up

The top spots are dominated by big brands, with the most popular form of link acquisition appearing to be sponsored posts on fashion blogs. Technically these sponsored posts are against google’s guidelines when the links do not have the nofollow attribute applied.

While it is difficult to see google penalising these huge household names, they have done similar in the past to big media/newspaper sites etc so it is not completely out of the question.

It would of course be difficult to knock those household names off the top spots, however, it should certainly be possible to get quick movement up the SERPS with some clever white/grey hat link building and making sure on-page SEO is 100%.

Over To You!

What do you think of the methods the brands here are using to acquire their links and rank their internal pages? Would you consider them white, grey or black hat? Is it one rule for us and another for them? How easy do you think it would be to break into the fashion niche? Would it be possible to break up the big brands monopoly on the top positions?

Let me know by leaving a comment below and be sure to subscribe to the blog by email for loads more SEO and internet marketing tips!

Tools Used In This Case Study

My Brain
Open Site Explorer
Moz Analytics
Google Adwords Keyword Planner

Disclaimer: When analysing the links there are some which are disclosed as sponsored, while in other cases I have used my experience to make a judgement on whether the link is editorial or not. I may not be right all of the time and all of the above should be treated as my opinion and not taken as fact.

About the Author

I'm a web developer, programmer, blogger and SEO expert from Glasgow, Scotland, with over 15 years experience in the industry. When I'm not writing about marketing and SEO you'll find me strumming the guitar in my band or listening to Revolver on repeat. Follow me on twitter, connect with me on google+ and add us on facebook to keep up with all the latest trends in SEO and online marketing.

Andy Cockayne - November 22, 2013

Interesting analysis David and just shows you that even the ‘big boys’ haven’t always played the ‘white hat’ game.

That said, it sort of makes me even more determined to clean up my clients link profile and create (or should I say ‘earn’) good quality links!

Thanks for this, I found it really interesting!


    David McSweeney - November 22, 2013

    Thanks Andy, was an interesting one to put together!

Dom - November 22, 2013

The brain, the best secret weapon in all good SEO’s toolboxes:)

    David McSweeney - November 22, 2013

    Amen to that!

Cheezy Nachos - November 25, 2013

David, this is really interesting as sometime ago I had a couple of women’s (affiliate fashion) sites and were fending off the same big boys you mention above for a number of years and No 1 for the respective headline term on an EMD.

I made great money over that period, but was hammered by google in one of their algo updates, (may have been the original Panda?) but lost interest after that and just let them drift…

My sites were No1 because they were lots of unique hand written content, but never did any link building. I have often wondered if I could do anything with them now as I have left them to drift for a year or so, maybe they are irretrievable, but interesting to hear your views on this.

Great post, thanks

Jennifer Kimberley - November 27, 2013

Nicely done. Who knew such authority sites use grey hat techniques.

    David McSweeney - November 27, 2013

    thanks Kimberley

sarah haran - June 11, 2019

i own an actual handbag site,. maybe you can help ….

Comments are closed