The View from England

Magento, Multi Store and SEO

One of the biggest challenges to Search Engine Optimisation for any Ecommerce site is the range and variety in the stock. All SEO tutorials and teach yourself books seem to assume you are selling a small range. Typically ‘widgits’. They talk about doing keyword analysis on widgets, finding the most popular searches regarding widgets, and writing widget stuffed text on your homepage to emphasise what the site is all about. The problem is that most Ecommerce stores sell a lot more than one product. Indeed we tend to have thousands. Sometimes it is impossible to define your entire range in a simple key phrase, let alone a phrase that people will use to actually search on.

It starts with the site navigation. As in any shop, the products need to be neatly ordered, categorised and placed such that they are easy to find by any visitor. This can be harder than it sounds when you have a diverse range of stock. The problem starts with the top level of categories. It has been said that you should have about 4-6 top level categories. Indeed with many Magento templates with horizontal navigation at the top of the page, you really cannot have much more than 6 top level categories.

If you find it hard to split your product range into 6 top level categories, without creating artificial, non obvious categories, then imagine the confusion your visitors will have trying to work out where to find what they want. Further you need to avoid deep nested categories. You do not want a menu structure where your visitor has to drill down level after level to find any products. Likewise you do not want huge categories with hundreds of products which stretch out over dozens of continuation pages. Another common problem is that with highly ambiguous top level categories, it is always difficult to guess where to place some products, and you end up putting them in two or more categories. Thus creating a potential duplicate content problem.

So what is the solution?

With Magento there is an obvious solution – Multi-Store. This is where you split your inventory up into two or more stores, all being run from a single Magento instance. The advantages are obvious. You have a single administration, a single list of orders, and a single hosting plan. For both visitor navigation and Search Engine Optimisation, the advantages are even greater. By splitting your inventory into more focused areas, you can much more easily target the necessary keywords and phrases. For example, I sell Movie and TV memorabilia and Action Figures, a very wide range of inventory. On inspection however about 40% was all Dr Who merchandise, so I split that out to a second store, called www.doctorwhoonline.co.uk. This immediately simplified the category tree and halved the number of categories required on each site. It also removed the confusion and lack of focus.

By having a site dedicated to a single subject, I can use less categories. Each category can be better named and more obviously define what it includes. This helps both customer navigation and SEO. Having naturally named categories means that they include the main keywords. The category titles can be much better written with SEO in mind, and the category descriptions can be both relevant and keyword rich. In short, the whole site and the categories can be focused on relevant key words and phrases that your customers would actually use.

There are numerous blogs and forum posts describing the various ways in which you can create multiple stores within Magento. All from a very technical angle. None of them take into account the practical realities of Ecommerce. Rather than go into the pros and cons of each highly technical method, I will detail how I set up my shops, and why.

First I use Cpanel hosting. This restricts me to a single dedicated IP address. So I host my main site (kultureshock.co.uk) as the main CPanel site. Then I set the other sites as add-on domains. This means that every site gets their own range of e-mail addresses. This is important because it gives you the ability to have straight forward addresses like sales@yourdomain1 and sales@yourdomain2 each with their own signature (and possibly promotional offers). It also allows the ability to easily have separate newsletters etc for each domain.

Second I purchase a single EV SSL certificate. No matter how you take your payments I am a believer that you should ALWAYS have a secure encrypted checkout. You should value your customers enough to allow them the privacy of an encrypted connection when they enter their personal details. I also believe that an EV certificate is worth the extra money, as the green bar is very reassuring and when you highlight it, it says that the identity of the site has been verified. This helps conversion rates.

Then I use a common theme on all the sites to ensure a common look and feel. I use different top banners, logos and different colour heading and action images (buy now buttons, search icon etc.) but overall it is clear that each site have a common ownership. This helps establish the overall brand. This is important because the one limitation of a single IP address and a EV SSL certificate is that there can only be one checkout url, or you have to get an enormously expensive multi domain EV SSL certificate.

By establishing a brand (your main website) you can have a common set of terms and conditions, a common returns policy, a common guarantee etc. It can also help give the impression that by having one umbrella website, with specific stores beneath, you are a large and thus established and trustworthy organisation. This too helps conversion. These common pages should either be linked with a no-follow, or have a caniconal tag refering the url back to the main site. You do not want google to start to consider that your web sites have duplicate content.

So when you ask your host to help you set up the multi-store environment, you must tell them to use the add-on domain method for http and the sub-directory method for https. By setting it up this way my visitors go to www.doctorwhoonline.co.uk and see the Dr Who theme. When they purchase they checkout via https://kultureshock.co.uk/doctorwhoonline/checkout… still showing the same Dr Who Theme, just with that slight URL change at the top.

The important thing to note is that the URL change should not be a surprise. That the brand should clear, and that the customer should not have any reason to doubt that they are still secure.

This method, although technically awkward to set up, is so flexible that you could do it in any kind of hosting, from shared up to dedicated, using Plex or Cpanel. Thus you can keep using it as you grow. Also there is no theoretical limit to the number of stores you can add on. There is however a practical limit. Although you are using a single instance of Magento, additional stores do add to the processing overhead.

The key to spliting your inventory into multiple stores has to be from the customer point of view. You have to take a good look at your inventory and decide how your customers would view it and whether there is a natural split. What you MUST avoid is putting the same products in two stores. This will give you a duplictate content problem with google and one of your sites will be downgraded. What you want to achieve is for both sites to be on page 1.

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