We very frequently receive RFPs (requests for proposal) from e-commerce sites. The application behind the e-commerce store, often referred to as a shopping cart application or product database, can be an off the shelf product such as osCommerce, MonsterCommerce or X-Cart to name a few. Or it can even be proprietary, custom developed by a web programmer. No matter how the e-commerce site is powered, there are specific features that we look for in order to know if we will have full liberty to optimize the site so that it has the best opportunity to position well in the organic search results. Some applications already have SEO friendly features built in but many do not. Therefore if you own or are getting ready to set up an e-shop, make sure your product database has the following SEO friendly features.
1. Title Tags – Does the application allow for unique title tags?
There is nothing worse than to come upon an e-commerce site in which all the title tags are the same. The application allows you to place whatever title tag you want but it is repeated throughout the site. Why is this bad? Because title tags are one of the most important contributing factors to how pages rank in the SERPs (search engine results pages) and therefore should not only be unique for each page but be relevant to the page as well.
Not only should your e-commerce application allow for unique title tags, it is an added bonus if they can be automatically generated based on the category or product name. Be careful here to combine smart keyword research in forming category names and product titles. For example if you are selling the Bose Lifestyle 35 Series II home entertainment system, you might list it like this:
“Bose LIFESTYLE 35 Series II Black DVD Home Entertainment System”
The problem with this example is that no one searches for Bose systems in that fashion. A few might but the majority would search for “Bose home entertainment system.” A better title would be:
“Bose Home Entertainment System – LIFESTYLE 35 Series II Black DVD”
In this example you provide the keyword phrase that people are searching for but at the same time include the model number so they know they are finding the correct product.
2. Meta Description Tags – Does the application allow for unique meta description tags?
Yes search engines do still recognize and index meta description tags. While it is true that the majority of organic search listings contain a snippet of text derived from content off the page listed, engines do use the meta description tag as one of the factors that determines positioning and will display them as descriptions from time to time.
You therefore want an e-commerce application that either allows you to add your own unique meta description tags or better yet, automatically forms them from the first paragraph of content describing the category or product. The latter is better if character limits are set because it automates the whole process. This is especially useful if you have thousands of products as you won’t have to manually write meta descriptions for each item you sell.
3. Navigation – Is navigational structure dynamic or static?
Depending on whether your navigation is graphical or textual, you will want to utilize either alt attributes behind a hyperlinked graphic or the anchor text in a textual link to help SEO purposes. The text in either of these formats helps define the pages they are linking to. Most e-commerce applications that auto-generate navigation do so in text format. In this case the actual anchor text will be whatever you decide to name the category or product. Knowing how navigation is generated will help you plan your SEO strategy accordingly.
4. Navigational Breadcrumb Trails – Are they available and if so, are they dynamic or static?
What are navigational breadcrumbs? They are a navigational technique used in user interfaces whose purpose is to give users a way to keep track of their location within programs or documents. Breadcrumb trails typically appear at the top of pages, above the content but below the header (as they do in this blog). They are important for SEO because they not only make use of descriptive anchor text that help define pages they are pointing to but help search engines find and index interior pages that may not be part of the main navigation. You want to select an e-commerce application that dynamically generates these, especially in cases where you are dealing with a large quantity of products.
5. Site Map – How is site map formed, if there even is one?
If your site contains more pages than can accessed through main navigation, you will want to have a site map that provides categorized access to at least every main section of your site if not every page. Now if you have hundreds or even thousands of products, you are not going to necessarily want to list all of those on one single site map. You can however provide access to the categories they reside in and then either rely on additional site maps, product list navigation or even your breadcrumb trails to help engines find interior pages.
If this process can be automated by your e-commerce application, all the better. This especially holds true for large product databases. You could easily generate a site map manually but it makes for more difficulty in keeping it up to date when adding, removing or even modifying products. The majority of site maps that are dynamically created by e-commerce applications generate textual links which again provide helpful anchor text in defining the pages they link to.
6. URLs – Are category, product and even product detail page URLs search engine friendly?
What do your URLs look like? Do they contain session IDs that change upon every unique visit? Do they contain an endless string of variables? If so, they are not likely to get indexed by search engines. This is why it is important to select an e-commerce application that generates search friendly URLs. The following examples would NOT be search engine friendly:
The first example contains a session ID. Typically these will change with each visitor and therefore search engines don’t like to index them otherwise they would have many occurrences of duplicates pages in their indices. The second example passes too many variables. The common rule is to not have more than 3-4 variables if you want the page indexed. There are ways to work around these scenarios. For example, with session IDs simply don’t require them with search engines. Set them with cookies (which engines refuse) but still allow pages to load even if someone has cookies disabled. For URLs that pass too many variables, utilize mod rewrite to change the URLs at the server level to something that search engines will accept.
So there you have it – some of the things we look for in e-commerce applications. If your app does not have these capabilities, most often they can be programmed in if the system has been custom designed. However with some off the shelf products, this can be more difficult task to implement. Of course the very best scenario is to perform due diligence before you implement an e-commerce application. That way you can either buy a ready made product that works along with SEO techniques or program an application while implementing an SEO strategy at the same time.