When Choosing an eCommerce System, Remember the Search Engines

A thoughful and intelligent article from Shannon Watters at Digital Web this week, How to Choose an eCommerce Package, offers some great suggestions on what to look for when choosing software for an online shop offering goods or services or both.

Shannon writes about what she calls the “top eleven things to consider when choosing an eCommerce package,” and it’s difficult to argue with her selections, but I was hoping for an even dozen things to consider – with an addition of how the ecommerce software might interact with search engines.

Of course, an ecommerce system should be easy to use for both shopper and site owner. Updating the software, and adding functionality from third party toolmakers should be a breeze. The software should be able to scale with growth, and it should be easy to use with an analytics package, so that you can measure your traffic and see how visitors use the site.

Shannon’s suggestions regarding promotions and discounts and the ability to offer customer service are spot on. Security is essential, and an intuitive checkout process will be a major determinent as to whether visitors become customers. Her opinions on open source options, and on the community and company behind a software are filled with thoughtful suggestions.

Shannon also tells us of the importance of a content managment system:

Content management is something many take for granted, but it’s one of the most important elements of a comprehensive eCommerce package

By all means, follow Shannon’s suggestions. But keep in mind that finding a search engine friendly ecommerce package should also be on your list of benefits to look for.

Visit the developer or vendor’s website and see if they even mention SEO. Send them an email or call them, and ask about search engine friendly features of the system. Look to see if they have a community forum or support forum, and see if there is discussion of search engine optimization. If you’re planning on working with an SEO for the site, check with them to see what they think of the ecommerce package.

Of course, you can use paid search to get visitors to your site, or television and radio advertisements, or celebritiy endorsements. It’s really nice though when your online shop has the potential to rank well for what you offer, in search engine organic listings.

What kinds of things might you want in an ecommerce package that make it search engine friendly? Here are ten things worth thinking about when choosing an ecommerce package:

1. The ability to write to the robots.txt file, and disallow search engine robots from visiting some files or folders as necessary.

2. Being able to have unique page titles for each page that can describe the content of those pages.

3. The chance to create a unique meta element with a description attribute for each page that can be used to describe the content of that page in a persuasive manner.

4. The opportunity to use search friendly URLs, which don’t contain multiple data variables. You don’t want something that looks like this:

http://www3.jcpenney.com/jcp/Products.aspx?

DeptID=469
&CatID=29841
&CatTyp=DEP
&ItemTyp=G
&GrpTyp=SIZ
&ItemID=0e273be
&ProdSeq=2
&Cat=tees+%26+tanks
&Dep=
&PCat=
&PCatID=28237
&RefPage=ProductList
&Sale=
&ProdCount=32
&RecPtr=
&ShowMenu=
&TTYP=
&ShopBy=0
&RefPageName=CategoryAll.aspx
&RefCatID=28237
&RefDeptID=469
&Page=1
&CmCatId=469|28237|29841

A better alternative might look like this:

http://www. example. com/mens/shirts/prodid/12345

5. The ability to create an HTML based sitemap for the goods or services that the site offers.

6. The ability to create a feed or a text file that can be used for product search engines.

7. The chance to make changes to the HTML of templates, so that you can use heading elements to emphasize product names and other words and phrases that may head content on pages, and use keywords that you may expect your audience to be using.

8. The use of search friendly anchor text in links, in addition to image links if you want them, to point to other pages on the site using trigger words and keyword phrases as the anchor text.

9. Being able to use text in alt elements that provide meaningful alternative text for the images presented (with keyword terms as appropriate.)

10. Avoid using session variables in URLs – a simple text based browser should be able to visit all of the pages of the site. As the Google Webmaster Guidelines note:

Allow search bots to crawl your sites without session IDs or arguments that track their path through the site. These techniques are useful for tracking individual user behavior, but the access pattern of bots is entirely different. Using these techniques may result in incomplete indexing of your site, as bots may not be able to eliminate URLs that look different but actually point to the same page.

Many visitors to ecommerce sites arrive at those sites on pages other than the home page, following links from search engine result pages that describe what they are looking for. That’s something that you want to happen with your online shop, so remember the search engines.

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19 thoughts on “When Choosing an eCommerce System, Remember the Search Engines”

  1. Great blog post. We have been looking at SMB ecommerce packages for two years and it is astonishing how many of them do not have even a few of these attributes. It amazes me how many don’t even understand what you mean when you tell them that their URL’s are not search engine friendly.

  2. Thanks, Tom.

    It’s amazed me that so many ecommerce packages fail to provide the kinds of features that I describe. I’ve seen a few that do, and there are a number of open source systems that can be tweaked to get them to work well.

    But I sometimes run across some that claim to be search engine friendly, and have implemented some of my considerations, without the rest. I would think that it would be a nice distinquishing feature for many systems to be “search engine friendly.”

  3. Hi Reuben,

    You’ve got a number of great suggestions and pointers there, which I think will help folks to take advantage of an ecommerce system that can be effectively crawled and indexed by a search engine.

    All good stuff there. Excellent post.

    Thanks.

  4. Good words. When looking for an ecommerce system to sell your products you need one that gives you full control over being picked up by the search engines. The more you can get from natural organic search the less you’ll spend on paid advertising.

    Many ecommerce systems sound easy to use, and they are, but they lack functionality issues such as search engine friendliness you need to succeed.

  5. Bill, I’m sure everyone would love to hear a short list of those that do. Not expecting to hear it here, not your thing. Two years ago it was pathetic, now it’s just getting sad…

  6. Hi Tom,

    It’s not an area that I focus upon a lot here, but I have worked with my share of ecommerce systems that were less than friendly to search engines, and I still do.

    Perhaps I should start writing about some of the different systems.

  7. This is a great help to those who are seeking to open an e-commerce store. So many vendors (esp. small business owners like me) don’t really know what to look for when opening a store.

    My store host is 3dcart and I chose them primarily because they have all the things you’ve mentioned. Yes, when you browse their services you’ll see that they offer extra packages to “submit your site to the major search engines”. Blech!

    But for those of us who know better, I love my store’s features, like having access to all the html templates and meta information (esp. page titles and descriptions).

    I am extremely pleased with my standings in the SERPs and I know this has a lot to do with it (that and link building, naturally!)

  8. Hi Lori,

    It’s great to hear that you’ve found a system that make it easy for you to meet your needs in making your site, and what you offer easy to find on the Web.

    That’s something that I wish I hear from more folks, including people that I work with. It’s a hard thing for people to hear that they might be better off switching to a new ecommerce platform than trying to improve the one they are one, especially if they’ve spent lots of time and money on the system that they are using.

    I suspect that the line that Sean Connery mouths in the movie “The Untouchables” is probably a cliche these days, but I’m reminded of it when I see many sites. Using a ecommerce system that isn’t search engine friendly is like “bringing a knife to a gunfight.”

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  13. SEO friendly URLs are a must when selecting a shopping cart, but making it easy to enter other information is a must too, like meta data. Just imagine trying to enter SEO data for 10s of thousands of products without the proper tools. That would take forever. Thanks for the article.

    Ron Lawson

  14. Hi Ron,

    Good points. Being able to enter information such as unique meta descriptions on a site with many thousands of pages, in a manner that allows you to either choose between a completely unique description, or allows you to pull in some unique text for descriptions from the pages they appear upon can be really helpful.

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