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Decoding the Purpose of Product Identifiers in SEO

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When browsing products on an ecommerce store you will probably have noticed a range of strange numbers – long strings of digits that seemingly have no use. These numbers do indeed have a use and are most likely the product GTIN or SKU number.

In this guide, I take a look at the purpose of product identifier numbers, what they mean, the different types, and how they are essential to your ecommerce SEO.

Product Identifiers - A Basic Definition

Think about this, your company has hundreds of products – some of which are simply minor variations of main items. How do you distinguish easily between the products and how can customers hope to find what they are looking for with so much variance?

Enter the product identifier. The purpose of product identifier values is to give each product a unique number so it can be irrefutably distinguished from other products. There is no confusion – X product has Y product identifier, so it’s different from product Z.

The universal product identifier is the GTIN which stands for Global Trade Item Number. This is a global standard developed by the international organisation GS1. Within the GTIN range, there are several formats and regional variances but the underlying point is that it assigns a product a unique code typically between 8-14 numbers. 

Regional GTINs include:

  • Europe: EAN – European Article Number
  • North America: UPC – Universal Product Codes
  • Japan: JAN – Japanese Article Number

Other types of product identifiers are used internally, the most common of which is the SKU which I discuss in more detail below.

Why are Product Identifiers Important for your eCommerce Store?

So, we can see that the GTIN is a generic unique reference number to identify a product and this differs depending on your geographical location. With that out of the way, why should you care and how can they benefit your eCommerce store and SEO?

They help customers find specific products

From a customer perspective, the purpose of product identifier numbers allow specificity and help them find exactly what they want. 

I’ve done this plenty of times. For example, I might see a product in a store but not want to buy it immediately. Instead, I make a note of the product identifier such as the SKU and then search for it online to see if I can find a better deal!

An SKU or GTIN makes sure customers have the exact product they want.

They allow Google to better understand your products

Google essentially recommends the use of product identifiers and we all know that if Google recommends something then we should do it!

SKUs and GTINs help Google better decipher your products, categorise them, and set them apart from your other offerings. This is especially important for companies that have huge product libraries – it just makes the information easier to digest.

Your products may not appear in Google Shopping feeds

If you submit your product to Google Shopping and it doesn’t have a GTIN you will typically get a warning and this is something you want to avoid. 

There is a much greater possibility that your product won’t appear in Google Shopping feeds and gets penalised because of the lack of a GTIN and this is why it is an important part of product page SEO.

However, this is also situational and not every product indeed requires a GTIN. Typically, products sold on a global scale, or those that will be used with barcode scanning require a GTIN. 

In contrast, bespoke products such as handmade items or single-production items may not require a GTIN. An SEO agency for ecommerce websites can help understand if you need a GTIN or not and how to obtain one.

SKU vs GTIN - Understanding the Difference

So far I’ve been concentrating on the GTIN identifier but there is also the SKU to consider. SKU – Stock Keeping Unit and it’s a unique product identifier that’s meant to be used in-house so companies can easily distinguish between their products and keep track of inventory.

GTINs such as UPCs remain the same globally. For example, two companies may sell the same product and they would have the same UPC. However, they would have a different SKU as this is a number that is used internally.

We can take a look at the Lego store for a better understanding of this (I’m doing this really because Lego was my favourite childhood toy!). Each Lego building set has an SKU or item number. This is an internal product identifier. 

For example, the Lego Harry Potter Hogwarts Castle and Grounds is SKU #76419. It also has a GTIN of 5702017413228 which remains the same regardless of the store. In contrast, if you looked at the product on two different toy retailers such as Smyths or Argos they would probably have their SKU as well as the GTIN and official Lego SKU!

Product Identifiers Help SEO and Product Searchability

As you can see, product identifiers are incredibly important not just for SEO, but to make your products easier to search for and to distinguish from one another. If your products have GTINs then you must make use of them so that they appear in Google Shopping results.

Similarly, internal SKU numbers help keep track of inventory and allow customers to search for specific products without getting confused.

Article by:

Joshua George is the founder of ClickSlice, an SEO Agency based in London, UK.

He has eight years of experience as an SEO Consultant and was recently hired by the UK government for SEO training. Joshua also owns the best-selling SEO course on Udemy, and has taught SEO to over 100,000 students.

His work has been featured in Forbes, Entrepreneur, AgencyAnalytics, Wix and lots more other reputable publications.