Ecommerce & SEO
The purpose of any business website is to promote a product or service online.
The purpose of an ecommerce website is to take it one step further and to allow your visitors to purchase your products or services directly from your website. This model has many great advantages over the non-ecommerce website in that it allows for the generation of revenue with little-or-no time spent in selling past the cost to have the website designed and maintained, and it does not require the visitor to call you during business hours thus helping secure the sale to an impulse buyer. If your website provides all the information that the buyer would want, you can save significant money in sales time spent in that the visitor can find all the information they need to decide to buy from you without taking up your time or that of one of your sales staff. But ecommerce sites have a serious drawback as well; very few of them can be properly indexed by search engine spiders and thus will fail to rank highly.
A non-ecommerce website may have the disadvantage on not being able to take the visitor's money the second they want to spend it, however if it can be found on the first page of the search engines while your beautifully designed ecommerce site sits on page eight, the advantage is theirs. The vast majority of visitors will never get to see your site, let alone buy from you, whereas a non-ecommerce site may lose sales because they don't sell online but at least they're able to deliver their message to an audience to begin with. So what can be done? The key is in the shopping cart you select.
SEO & Shopping Carts
The biggest problem with many SEO-friendly ecommerce solutions is that they are created after the initial product. Shopping cart systems such as Miva Merchant and OS Commerce are not designed with the primary goal of creating pages that will be well-received by the search engine spiders. Most shopping cart systems out there today are not in-and-of-themselves even spiderable and require 3rd party add-ons to facilitate even the lowest form of SEO-friendliness. The money you may have saved in choosing an inexpensive shopping cart may very well end up costing you your business in the long run, especially if you are using your shopping cart as the entire site, which we have seen may times in the past.
What Can Be Done?
There are essentially two solutions to this problem. The first is to create a front-end site separate from the shopping cart. What this will effectively do is create a number of pages that can be easily spidered (assuming that they're well designed). The drawback to this course of action is that your website will forever be limited to the size of the front-end site. Which brings us to the second option: choose a search engine friendly shopping cart system.
Finding an SEO-friendly shopping cart system is far easier said than done. There are many factors that have to be taken into account including the spiderability of the pages themselves, the customization capacity of the individual pages, the ease of adding products and changing the pages down the road, etc. While I've worked with many shopping cart and ecommerce systems, to date there has been only one that has truly impressed me in that it is extremely simple to use, it allows for full customization of individual pages and the product pages get fully spidered to the point where they have PageRank assigned. A rarity in the shopping cart world.
Easy As Apple Pie
Mr. Lee Roberts, President of Rose Rock Design and creator of the Apple Pie Shopping Cart, was kind enough to take the time to speak with me regarding how he developed his system. Trying to get an understanding of how this system was born I inquired as to what differentiated their system from others. Without "giving away the farm", Lee pointed out that his system was unique in that the search engines were a consideration from the birth of this project. Rather than trying to jerry-rig a system that was already in place, he initiated the development of a system whose first task was to allow for easily spidered and customized pages. A significant advantage to be sure.
In further discussions he pointed out a few key factors that should be considered by all when choosing a shopping cart system. While more advance shopping cart systems that provide for SEO-friendly pages may seem more expensive, they save you the cost of developing a front-end site, maintaining the pricing on a static page if one goes that route, and of course - if all your site's pages are easily spidered and you can then have hundreds of additional relevant pages added to your site's overall strength and relevancy you have a serious advantage in the SEO "game". If a shopping cart system costs you an extra $100 per month to maintain but it's use provides you with an additional $5000 in sales that month did it really "cost" you $100?
What Lee has effectively done is to provide a shopping cart system that enables search engines to fully read and index every page. Additionally (and perhaps because of his history as an accessibility expert) the system is extremely easy to work with as a user and as an SEO. And of course that's our primary concern at Beanstalk.
It is not to say that the Apple Pie Shopping Cart is end-all-be-all of SEO for an ecommerce site, if it was Lee wouldn't be in the process of building a new version that will include many new features for Internet marketing and tracking, and we would be out of work. That said, if you've got an e-commerce site or are looking to have one built, one must consider what type of marketing strategy will be taken with the site and if SEO is one of those, insure to find a system that provides the same advantages as this one.
It may cost a bit more up front but doing it right the first time is far less costly than building a site that can't be marketed properly and to it's maximum potential.