Search Engine Optimization for Ecommerce Sites

If you run an ecommerce site, then you know that it’s important to make sure that your products show up in the organic search results ahead of your competitors–especially if your competitor is selling the same products. Optimizing your ecommerce web site for the search engines can be tricky at times, so we’ll examine what’s really required in order for your products to rank better than your competitor’s products in the organic search results.

Optimizing an ecommerce site isn’t that different than optimizing any other type of web site. In order for a page to rank well in the organic search results, the page needs a few things: a good title tag that includes the keywords you’re targeting (typically the product name), good content on the page that includes the appropriate keywords, and links from other web pages to that web page. And in order for the page to remain in the search engines’ indexes, the page cannot be a duplicate of any other page on the internet.

Search Engine Friendly
What does it mean when I say that your site is search engine friendly? I’m referring to a web site that can be easily crawled by the search engines without being restricted by cookies, redirects, session IDs, and long URLs with lots of parameters in them. To find out if your site is already search engine friendly, go to Google and perform site:www.yourdomain.com search. If you know you have 100 product pages on your web site and Google is showing all of them, great. But if Google doesn’t appear to be indexing all of your product pages then there’s a reason–and most of the time there are issues with the site that can be fixed.

If you have a shopping cart on your web site then you’re most likely using a shopping cart that can be changed to be more search engine friendly. Many popular carts like OSCommerce, Miva, X-cart, and Monster Commerce, are already search engine friendly or include some plugin or additional features that can make it more search engine friendly. You’ll need to figure out which shopping cart you’re site is using and see if you’re using the latest SEO-related plugins or add-ons.

The URLs of your site should not include variables, parameters, or session IDs. If you have question marks in your URLs and/or if you have page URLs that change every time they’re visited, then that needs to change. You should be able to pick out one product page on your site, visit that URL directly, and that page should come up–and it shouldn’t change or give an error or “not found” message. Like I mentioned earlier, many of the common shopping carts include plugins or “add-ons” that will make the required changes. If you’re not using these plugins or “add-ons” then you might consider installing them or moving to another shopping cart.

One of the most common search engine “unfriendly” issues I see when I start to analyze a web site is a redirect from a web site’s real home page to another page on the web site. The real home page of your site is www.domain.com. It’s not www.domain.com/somepage.html. The mistake or “problem” is when a visitor goes to www.domain.com and it redirects to another URL. There should never be a redirect–your home page is your home page. In fact, all web server software has some way of “telling it” which page is the default home page for the site. So, even if your shopping cart software doesn’t use index.html (the most common default home page) it’s possible to change your default home page to whatever it needs to be–and you could even change it to mycleverflashyhomepage.html. In any case, when you go type in www.yourdomain.com it shouldn’t redirect to anything else. Why? Your real home page (www.yourdomain.com) is your most powerful page, especially because more people link to your real home page and not your “other” home page (e.g., www.yourdomain.com/homepage.html). And if you never allow anyone (or any search engine) to get to your real home page, then you’re literally shooting yourself in the foot–you’re not taking full advantage of the “power” of your real home page, the one that has all the links going to it. (And, if you’re wondering, web pages that have more links from other web pages are more “powerful” when it comes to search engine rankings. We’ll talk more about links to pages later.)

Duplicate Content
One reason why product pages on ecommerce sites appear in the search engine indexes and then disappear is because they’re duplicates. You may not think your product pages are duplicates of one another, but the search engines (mainly Google) often does. By using a unique title tag, meta description and meta keywords tag on every page of your site, you’ll have a better chance of those pages not being considered duplicates. Furthermore, if you include unique product descriptions (not the generic ones provided by the manufacturer of products), as well as other unique elements on every page, your pages won’t be duplicates of other pages. It’s important to note that when Google compares one web page (as a whole) to another web page (as a whole) and if the majority percentage of those pages contain the same content, then those pages will be duplicates. Google will keep the first page they find and “throw out” all the other duplicate pages they find. Generally speaking, I like to use the figure of 25 percent–a page must be at least 25 percent different than any other web page on the internet in order to be considered a unique page.

If you’re selling products that your competitors are also selling, then your product pages need to be different than their product pages. In many cases, the generic product descriptions of items are provided by the manufacturer–so it’s too easy to use the description that is provided. However, if you used the same product description that every other online store that sold that product used, your product page wouldn’t stand out. It might even be considered a duplicate page if the majority of the content on the page is the product description. So, you must include other additional information on the page–try rewriting the product description or, if you do not have the time or manpower to do that, add a product review, links to related products (links to product pages with other colors, sizes, similar features), or perhaps a testimonial about the product.

Having a unique domain name is important–I prefer to host an online store on a separate web hosting account rather than using an online store such as the Yahoo! Online Store. I often advise retailers to stay away from the canned online stores mainly due to the fact that you’ll have more control over your site and your store in general, especially if you want to customize it and/or add additional content to your website such as a blog or other static informational html pages. Keep in mind that it’s important to choose one domain name and stick to it. If you own more than one domain name or use an online store that includes a subdomain as its address, then all other domain names you own should redirect to your main site using a 301 Permanent Redirect. Additionally, if you remove a product from your site then it’s good practice to redirect that page to another similar product page using a 301 Permanent Redirect.

Product Pages and Search Engine Rankings
Let’s say, for example, that your ecommerce site is selling the exact same product as your competitors. When it comes down to the actual organic search engine rankings, the product page that has more on-topic links and a better optimized title tag tends to rank higher. So, it’s important that your title tag contain the search term or product name that someone will search for–and your product page must have links from other pages on your site (ideally from other related products) and from other web sites. Since your home page is typically your most powerful page, it’s important to feature your most important products on your home page so that those product pages will have a link from the home page. Adding a ‘related products’ type of navigation on your product pages will help the visitors stay on your site (in case they want to another size, color, or product with similar price or features), as well as help your product pages get more internal links. Keep in mind that you can also control the actual link text of the links in that area as well, so you might want to use link text that is similar or the same as certain keyword phrases you’re targeting for rankings.

Additional Content
You don’t have to be limited to the shopping cart as the only source of content on your web site. Although the shopping cart is installed, it’s still possible to add regular static html pages or other content such as a blog to your site. Adding additional content can be a good way to add links to your product pages, especially if you decide to add a blog that features certain products on your site. Informational pages about the products you sell, including articles about how to use those products or background research information can often be helpful to potential customers, as well. With the manufacturer’s approval, you might even be able to include information such as user manuals (or information from them) on the site. Or you might choose to include recall notices, product reviews, testimonials, or a product message board/forum discussion for your customers. It’s this additional content that can lead to more links from other web sites as well as areas where you can embed links to certain product pages. Press releases about new products you’re selling and other company news can be helpful for more exposure and more links, as well (add press releases to your own site as news and distribute your press releases on other sites such as prweb.com). Additionally, it’s important to watch your web site’s statistics and keyword trends, as they can often lead to ideas for even more content or similar products that visitors are looking for but are not finding on your site.

Whether you’re just starting out as an online retailer with a few products to sell or you’ve been selling thousands of products online for many years now, making sure your ecommerce site is optimized for the search engines is a must. Online shoppers are using the search engines to compare product features and prices, and if your online store’s product pages aren’t positioned in the top search engine results you’re missing out on a lot of potential online sales. By making a few minor changes to your existing site or making sure your new ecommerce site is optimized properly, you’ll get more search engine traffic which will ultimately lead to more sales.