Practical Ecommerce

Shopping Carts And Search Engines

When searching for “educational toys” on Google, at No. 5 on the list you’ll find BrainwavesToys.com—up from No. 78 a year ago. Michael Stebbins, co-founder of the business, employed a series of search engine optimization (SEO) strategies within his cart to achieve this result.

“A lot of people have these ideas that they’re optimizing for an entire site, and oftentimes it’s not about that,” says Stebbins. “It’s really about the fact that any page that you want the search engines to list, including cart pages, must expose the relevant content in a way that the search engines will understand.”

Brainwaves Educational Toys was conceived as a case study for Market Motive, where Stebbins is also CEO. Market Motive is an online subscription service providing search engine SEO and web analytics consulting.

The reasons for services like his are simple. Search engines are the “most valued source of information” for shopping research, according to a survey of 300 active Internet users queried by the non-profit Society for New Communications Research. Meanwhile, for e-merchants already using SEO, 80 percent say it’s their “most popular method” for marketing their site online, according to a March 2008 survey by JupiterResearch. So, what features should a shopping cart system have to adequately and automatically promote a merchant’s products across the web’s search engines?

Customized page titles

“Search engines understand page title tags, meta descriptions and the page content itself,” Stebbins says. “One of the options that many shopping carts have is what goes into the page titles. Obviously you want the key words that are most relevant to that page to show up in the page titles.”

A common mistake ecommerce sites make, Stebbins says, is starting product page titles with the site name. “I made that mistake, and started mine with ‘BrainWaves Educational Toys, Mechanical Toys, Mechanical Flash Light, Super Dynamo.’ What I learned is that it is better to put the key words most relevant to the page first: ‘Super Dynamo, Mechanical Flash Light, Mechanical Toys, Brainwaves Educational Toys.’ Many shopping cart tools give you the option to choose one or the other. The last one will get you higher on natural search.”

Meanwhile, a number of carts offer what’s known as “automatic URL rewriting.” This feature “turns long, dynamic page addresses into static, keyword-filled search-engine-friendly addresses to boost your product pages in the rankings,” reports the website for shopping cart AmeriCommerce. “Most other shopping carts use query string parameters to display every product through one page, such as /Product.aspx?ProductID=2, which can severely limit your SEO rankings. Carts such as AmeriCommerce automatically generates SEO friendly URLs that include relevant keyword text, such as /2-ActualProductName.aspx.”

Customized meta descriptions

Meta descriptions play something of a role in search engine rankings, but not much. They’re the descriptive paragraph found below the page title in search engine results. “In a sense, the meta description is your chance to advertise in the natural search engine listings,” Stebbins says. “Many shopping cart systems take the product description and insert that into the meta-description tags. You want that feature and you want the ability to be able to override it on a one-by-one basis, with the default being the overriding product description.”

Customized photo tags

“The images that you use for your products should use alternative text attributes,” Stebbins says. “This will encourage Google to index your images and make your page more relevant for the key-word term.” Stebbins uses X-Cart, which has a plug-in called XC-SEO. “It automatically takes the product name and assigns it as the alternative text attribute for every image,” he says. “Then you ask Google to index your images from inside your Google Webmaster Tools.”

There are other benefits to having images with text descriptions, including compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and visible placeholders when images fail to load. But for Stebbins, one benefit stands out: “It really adds credibility to your page,” he says.

URL redirection and rewriting

A growing number of carts are making it easy to alter product page URLs, without affecting existing page rankings. Some like Network Solutions’ automatically substitute re-named product pages with a 301 permanent redirect, a code that lets the search engines know that the page has moved and to where. Others offer global URL rewriting for host transfers, automatically pointing search engines from the cart’s old URLs to the new ones, site-wide.

Additionally, Stebbins suggests that merchants pick a URL structure and stick with it site-wide. “Your links should all start with http:// or www and end either with or without a slash,” Stebbins says. “If you choose one form as your standard, then all of your links need to be consistently in that form. That makes the most sense for the search engines.”

Sitemap generation

Many carts now automatically generate a Google Sitemap page, which stays up-to-date at all times, to feed Google a merchant’s products, categories, manufacturers, and content page URLs.

For example, GoDaddy has “a relationship with Google where we’ve integrated Webmaster tools into the product, so you can easily submit your sitemap to Google to allow for indexing,” says GoDaddy COO Warren Adelman. “We’ve made it pretty easy: Customers put in a few criteria and have it submitted to Google seamlessly.”

At PrecisionCart, “we have a site map generator that produces a static page with links to each item in the shopping cart,” says Ken Marcus at PrecisionWeb, the cart’s developer. Page titles on the site map are pulled from item names. “Merchants also might create a page outside the shopping cart, using either static-item or single-line code inclusions that automatically query the cart and display either whole categories or single items.”

All the merchant has to do is add a link to the sitemap on the home page, and search engines will find it through their normal spidering process. Additionally, “most search engines these days can index a dynamically generated page,” Marcus says.

Automatic keyword writing

A number of carts now offer automatic keyword writing. Leave each product’s keyword section blank, and the cart will input relative terms.

Fast, friendly design

Website design templates using tables tend to block some search engines, while design elements controlled by cascading style sheets (CSS) tend to be easily spidered. Look for carts offering CSS formatting where coding is kept to a minimum through ASP.NET, where any JavaScript is condensed and where large header blocks are eliminated.

Inbound link generation

Inbound links are a strong determiner of both incoming traffic and credibility, two factors in search engine rankings. Merchants using PrecisionCart that “don’t really show up well on the search engines, end up getting most of their sales through the Froogle feeds,” says Marcus at PrecisionWeb. “They use the feeds, not SEO, as their way of getting out there.”

Look for carts, like AmeriCommerce, offering automated product feed submissions, affiliate program tracking and an external site “add to cart link generator.” Amazon.com feeds are another way to facilitate incoming leads, says Chris Forbes, publisher of the ecommerce site MinistryMarketingCoach.com. “If you start thinking about Amazon as a search engine, this is like having your own page in a search engine,” Forbes says. “You can hyperlink your site, or show a picture of your site, directly from the Amazon page, plus you can write a review for your site at Alexa.com and reviews at Amazon for your products. It actually starts pulling your domain and your name up when people do certain keywords.”

Blog and comment space

”A new tool offered by carts is blog space,” says Sean Dupuis, owner of Sheepskinandthings.ca, an ecommerce site. “We have a lot of people asking questions, and we’ll post a question on our cart’s provided blog space. If we have new items we’ll post them there too. It increases traffic because a lot of people will do a search and the blog will show up more readily. People will click on that link and up pops your site.”

If you have a web store, and still don’t have a blog, consider adding one. Blogging can help you grow sales in a variety of ways, from better organic search engine rankings thanks to regularly-updated text, to further establishing a merchant’s site as a destination in their industry, to creating a more personal relationship with customers, writes ProductCart’s Massimo Arrigoni at his Early Impact blog.

ProductCart’s new E-Commerce Widget For Blogs lets merchants “easily and quickly” take products from their store catalog and show them on their blog, says Arrigoni. “If you don’t use ProductCart, ask your ecommerce provider if they have something similar or if they can create it in the near future. It’s not that difficult to design and it can be quite helpful.”

As for Stebbins, with BrainwavesToys.com, “those are the kinds of things I was looking for when I looked for a shopping cart that would work,” he says. “The reason that I chose X-Cart is that I could modify all of these things if I needed to. The downside is that I have to modify all these things if I need to, while if I had gone with a hosted cart like Yahoo! Stores much of this would have already been taken care of for me … But I would have a little bit less flexibility.”

After one year of effort, his front page search results have proven Stebbins point. “This stuff works,” he says.

Jennifer D. Meacham
Jennifer D. Meacham
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Comments ( 5 )

  1. Legacy User June 19, 2008 Reply

    GREAT article. Very useful advice. Precisely the type of knowledge that a specialized SEO agency would charge big bucks for!

    — *Joanne*

  2. Legacy User June 19, 2008 Reply

    Great article. Thanks!

    — *Payam*

  3. Legacy User June 19, 2008 Reply

    At our company, we're trying to leverage SEO as a means to improve overall sales of our collaboration product. Thanks for the advice!

    http://ecommerce.mediachase.com

    — *Richly Chheuy*

  4. Legacy User July 2, 2008 Reply

    Thank you all for your comments. I wanted to pass along some additional information I just received from MonsterCommerce.com's product manager of e-commerce, J.D. Pohlman. It provides more insight into the customized page title option offered by some carts. Here's his comment:

    "I wanted to let you know some items we do a little different for the URL rewriting. We automatically generate the URL based on the product name, and do not use the identifier in the URL. Most companies that rewrite the URL stick the identifier in somewhere. We also give the ability to customize the URL by giving our clients the choice of using dashes for spaces or not. Our clients can also customize the URL to be whatever they want after it’s automatically generated by us, and we automatically do a 301 redirect when that URL changes. I just wanted to give you some feedback on how we do things with the URL."

    Hope this helps….

    — *Jennifer D. Meacham*

  5. Casey September 1, 2008 Reply

    Very informative article! Thanks!

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