Over the last 24 months, many of the world’s largest retailers have started using Conductor Searchlight to scale their SEO programs. As SEO becomes a greater priority for our customers and potential customers, we often get asked what makes a great e-commerce platform from an SEO perspective; so we thought we’d share the top questions to ask when looking for a new e-commerce platform.
We tend to think about an e-commerce system as being primarily concerned with processing online transactions, but deciding on an e-commerce platform can have far reaching implications for natural search visibility. Search industry veterans have surely heard of nightmare scenarios where the wrong choices were made resulting in significant losses in natural search visibility.
With that in mind let’s jump into the questions to ask when researching an e-commerce platform:
- Does it integrate with my current structure and is it written in a similar language to my site architecture?If the e-commerce platform has the ability for your in-house engineering team to maintain its code base, you should keep in mind the skill set of your team. Each year new code is introduced to the SEO industry that helps search engines crawl, index and rank web content. Having the flexibility to have your in-house engineering team modify the code base to stay ahead of the curve and be first to market can generate huge wins.
- What levels of page control does the e-commerce platform offer? What page factors are controllable?Uploading your products into an e-commerce platform will definitely require some manual effort if your listings are to be SEO friendly. Make sure your product team or content managers are able to update content through an admin interface in an SEO friendly way. Identify in advance which common SEO triggers can be controlled. The key ones to keep in mind are URL structure, page title, meta descriptions (and keywords), header tags, canonical link element and image elements such as alt-tags and image titles. The ability to automate these fields based on specific criteria (product name, product ID, part number and so forth) is a must in order to scale.
- How much flexibility does the platform offer for 301 redirects?301 redirects are an endless task for search marketing professionals. Any content management system or e-commerce should provide a way of handling URL rewrites or URL redirection. There will always be a case where a 301 redirect is needed. It may be when a category name is changed based on user behavior or trending, merging two categories together or a change in the taxonomy. Proper handling of 301 redirects enables the platform to scale over time and prevent critical 404 errors from occurring.
- Is there product level microformat implementation?Search engines love as much information as possible to help determine relevant results for a search query. The use of microformats is a great way to provide deeper insight into exactly what each product is. Products with microformats are better positioned for search engines find and apply relevance to specific product level search queries.
- Can I construct categories, sub categories and breadcrumbs?Users navigate deeper into the site and breadcrumbs should be available to the user so they can work their way back to the homepage. These breadcrumbs are often picked up by Google and used as secondary links in their search results as page specific site links.
- Can I overwrite page names and other page assets from their standard taxonomy?Override control is critical for keyword and category optimization as well as creating content for unique landing pages (i.e. a search results page that is actually used for a general “hiking” landing page). The most flexibility with your site comes when child pages can have distinctly different behavior and controls then their parent page or category.
- How will it implement pagination and the uniqueness of each page?Make sure all categories with multiple pages can be rendered as unique pages. In order to scale within the search engines, the site will need a way for web crawlers to find and index more pages. This gets tricky as multiple filters are introduced and pages 1 through 1,000 of a category all share similar page content (titles, descriptions, headers etc.).
- Will it produce a sitemap for you including images and video for each product? (HTML and XML)You need a road map so search engine crawlers can index as much of your site as possible. Get ahead of the curve by including rich media such as images and video. Sitemaps help the search engines crawl deeper product level pages and also act as identifying a tie breaker when there is a potential duplicate content problem.
- How does the platform handle images? Will it resize them for speed? Does it allow for Alt Text?Make sure the e-commerce platform allows for multiple images per product, will resize for speed and allow for Alt text. Both alt-text and page load times are known triggers for SEO performance.
- What type of workflow options and rules does it provide for multiple content managers and merchandisers?Look for a solution that offers detailed workflow management to streamline processes and help you scale as you grow. Administrators should have the flexibility to assign specific rights to individuals including marketing, merchandisers and the SEO managers who will want to make specific page changes at the product level.
- Do I get any sort of inventory control?Will the platform enable a management system to handle inventory control, pay close attention to how out of stock or discontinued items are handled?
- How does the platform search work? Will it return unique URL results?Making sure the search query result set has a clean URL and dynamically created title, keywords, description and headers will be very beneficial. If it’s a proven website visitors generally search for products right when they visit your e-commerce store. One incredibly nice feature is generating a page of the most popular search terms. This will give visitors an idea of what others are searching for and buying (thus increasing your overall AOV and orders) as well as help with SEO as search trends change.
- Is the platform intelligent enough to display similar product options based on what other customers have bought or liked?Showing similar product options is a great way to build out your internal linking structure and helps search engines find more pages on your site by giving them the ability to crawl deeper.
- How fast does the default product page load?When evaluating an e-commerce platform consider taking into consideration the page load time of a bare bones product page. As your store grows and more SKUs are added, search results pages and individual product pages may take longer to load. Slow loading pages negatively impact SEO as well as create high abandonment rate on the pages.
- Does the platform contain a mobile friendly version?Mobile e-commerce is increasing at a rapid rate. It is wise to ensure your e-commerce platform works on mobile browsers and will show up on mobile SERP pages.
- What type of shopping cart functionality does the platform have?The shopping cart UI is a critical part of the conversion funnel. Serving the cart on a secure server with a simple process to check out is critical. The cart should allow for proper cross selling along with clear instructions on how to proceed. Most of the navigational distractions should be removed to prevent people from window shopping at the point of sale.Implementing an e-commerce solution should not take months or quarters. Your in-house engineering department (CTO) should have a vested interest in identifying which solution would work the best. This decision should be based off of available resources, complexity of integration, knowledge level of the internal support team and familiarity of the programming language used.The long-term goal of who will be supporting the back end code, visual design and add-on enhancements is critical for continued success.Be prepared that implementing fully supported solutions will likely cost you more in order to cover the development costs.On the topic of e-commerce and SEO, be sure to check out our recent webinar on E-Commerce & SEO: Holiday 2010 Review & The Top 5 SEO Strategies for Your E-Commerce Site.
Are there other important questions you believe should be asked when looking for an e-commerce platform?