A Compatible E-Commerce Solution for Your SEO Campaign
The most ambitious Internet retailers tend to aim for sprawling electronic retail websites that may look pretty but that's it
By Scott Buresh and Greg Flynn
The most ambitious Internet retailers, hoping to emulate the style and online influence of Amazon.com and other recognized brands, tend to aim for sprawling electronic retail websites that may look pretty but accomplish little else. If all the push is towards what appears on the front end instead of a concerted effort in choosing a reliable e-commerce solution from the get go, these decisions can ultimately impact the long-term success of any SEO campaign.
Most Internet retailers opt to use an out of the box e-commerce solution, eliminating the need to build something more suitable from the ground up. Out of the box software, however, may lack some of the flexibility that is required to implement a robust SEO campaign. On the other hand, building a fully customized e-commerce platform can be outright expensive. In an ideal situation, you will want to look for something that is somewhere in between. To help you bridge the gap, we've identified four major requirements when shopping for a suitable e-commerce solution that's compatible with your SEO campaign.
The Proof's in the Code
Ideally, we would always like to have the code available for us to modify if needed. This constant accessibility allows us to set up server behavior recommendations as well as change the way that things work or function in order to ensure that they are more effective for your SEO campaign. Many vendors will not give out their codes unless you pay them a premium, sometimes upwards of $10,000 per site using that code only, and many vendors may be reluctant to allow even that option.
Customizable Product Administration
Sometimes we run across platforms that allow us to customize certain attributes of pages from the back-end administration, including Title tags, Meta tags, and body content. This is a great advantage when working with an e-commerce solution that does not provide any sort of code access, as that provides the only way for us to "individualize" the hundreds of dynamic pages that may be present on your website when working on your SEO campaign.
Occasionally, however, the administration sections for your e-commerce solution are not all that robust, and once we have proper access to the underlying code, we have to develop code "hacks" in order to get the recommendations for your SEO campaign onto the website. For instance, when adding these "hacks" to client websites, they often take the form of what appears to be a small configuration file with our recommendations attached to variables. And depending on the page, our configuration file will spit out the proper recommendations for that page, manually adding them where they need to go. Unfortunately, this is usually only accomplished with direct access to underlying code in your e-commerce solution. Furthermore, if direct access is not given, we're often stuck between a rock and a hard place.
A Linux-Based OS
Until IIS can handle .htaccess files (tiny files allowing a wide range of flexibility for your website), an e-commerce solution that runs under Linux is highly desirable for myriad of tasks, such as flattening URLs. Some Windows applications have found ways around this, but they are usually not very aesthetically appealing and don't function as well as a simple rewrite would. Linux, our operating system of choice, is able to run more applications, and the operating system and associated software are much cheaper than their Windows counterparts.
The .htaccess file is a very powerful tool that is becoming more and more popular in the creation of a suitable e-commerce solution. Part of its power comes from its ability to "flatten URLs" - for example, it takes http://www.example.com/products.php?id=437 and changes it into something more friendly, like http://www.example.com/products/Yellow-School-Bus/437/. By flattening the URL, we make it easier for search engine spiders to crawl the website - ridding ourselves of dynamic querystrings, which, oftentimes, the spiders have difficulty crawling. Furthermore, flattening URLs allows us to add keyphrases from your SEO campaign into the URL to make them even more attractive to the search engines. And even though the URL may appear to be different, because of the .htaccess file, it will work exactly as it did prior to the flattening process.
Another key advantage of Linux is the ability to implement 301 redirects rather quickly. One of the most trivial tasks is to redirect the non-www to the www version of a website (for instance, http://example.com to http://www.example.com) - which can be completed entirely on Linux in just two lines that are added to an .htacess file. Implementing this on IIS (Windows) turns out to be an arduous task that involves having root access to the server, which is not often granted by hosting companies.
Flexibility is Key
Often, an SEO company will need to change how a page is displayed or what is displayed and when, perhaps in order to boost rankings and traffic for your SEO campaign. This is where the flexibility of the software comes into play for any effective e-commerce solution. For instance, there is an e-commerce solution that can provide header, footer, and page templates directly through the backend administration.
However, there are some vendors that prefer to lock away the templates by hard-coding them into the site code. The real paradox is when they won't give you access to the code to modify these things for yourself. This kind of inflexibility can spell disaster for any SEO campaign.
Avoiding Long-Term Hassles
At this point in time, there aren't any specific recommendations to give on a top performing e-commerce solution as nothing we've come across thus far is anywhere near perfect. Unless your company has an in-house SEO technician, you'd be wise to engage a knowledgeable SEO company to avoid the headaches that come with finding out that you've spent a significant amount of time and money on an e-commerce solution that does not offer the flexibility needed for a successful SEO campaign.
If you end up choosing an e-commerce solution that doesn't meet the requirements outlined above, you may just end up with a half optimized site that fails to achieve the rankings and traffic you've been hoping for at the outset of your SEO campaign.