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Open Source Ecommerce Platforms – No Such Thing as A Free Dinner

12 January 2012 BY

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This is my first post here at State of Search, so I’ll start by saying how pleased I am to be part of the clan!

I thought I’d take the opportunity to write about something that’s been on my mind for some time; open source ecommerce platforms and what you need to consider from an SEO point of view. Getting ecommerce SEO right is no mean feat; there are so many challenges involved that can quickly spiral out of control and become the thing of nightmares. So how come there are so many open source platforms available for very little investment that claim to be ‘SEO friendly’ to the point where you won’t need outside help?

This post really isn’t supposed to be a rant, it’s more about laying out some practical advice for anyone considering using a free or low cost ecommerce platform as an alternative to paying a developer to build a bespoke site to your specifications. There are plenty of people that choose to run ecommerce sites as a part time business perhaps grown from a hobby, and as such the start up budget often won’t be enough for a bespoke build teamed up with advice from a top SEO agency. You can bet your bottom dollar that the successful ‘cottage industry’ style ecommerce businesses are the ones where the owners had the foresight to make some SEO considerations at the very start of their projects.

Whatever any company or product might want you to believe, success is not sold in a box and you won’t make your first million online by simply choosing one ecommerce platform over the other. They all need hard work, some more than others.

Researching the Best Platform…

If you’re going down the route of using an open source platform, choosing the right one is a crucial business decision which could make or break your new venture. There are all sorts of things such as ease of use, product uploads, payment gateways and so on that will no doubt be a big part of your decision; but what about the SEO side of things and how well your new site may or may not perform in the SERPS. Let’s get stuck into some details…

Major Ecommerce Related SEO Issues

It goes without saying that one of the first things you should do when choosing an ecommerce platform is to try and find some live examples. It might take a bit of investigative work, but a bit of time spent digging around should throw up some useful examples. You’ll probably want to see how nice they look and how user friendly they are, but what about the SEO factors? I’d focus on investigating some of the major onsite SEO factors such as the navigation, duplication and on-page elements. How do all of these stack up when compared to SEO best practice?

Navigation

A lot of the navigation will be specific to the template rather than the platform itself, but it’s still worth taking a look at some examples to see what’s possible. Navigation is such a crucial element of an ecommerce site; you need to make sure it’s as good as possible for both the users and the search engines. Check the global navigation to see if the sites are relying too heavily on Javascript, and try to spot any patterns; does the main navigation always point to the categories or does it sometimes include static pages as well? See how much variation in the navigation is going on to try and spot how much scope there is for flexibility.

Duplication

Duplication is perhaps one of the biggest challenges when it comes to SEO and ecommerce. Even with just a small website you are going to need to know how to deal with duplication issues, and finding out whether you can fix it should be a crucial part of your decision as to what platform to go with. As a first step I would check common sources of duplication like the pagination on category pages to try and see if the robots noindex tag has been added. Other basic checks could include looking for the rel canonincal tag on the homepage. If you can see these tags in place, you know you have some ability to tackle potential duplication issues.

Page Level Issues

One of the biggest problems with the lower end ecommerce platforms is that some of them follow very inflexible patterns when it comes to the meta data. This can be extremely frustrating when you’re attempting to re-write page titles or meta descriptions to improve click through rates. When you’re looking through some example websites, try to see if you can spot these patterns, or are there any category level pages that break the mould?

Typically you might see something like {category name | brand name } as a category level page title. Is this the same across all category pages and sub category pages? If so then the site owner is either a little bit lazy, or they’ve been restricted by patterns. Also take a look at the meta descriptions, product titles, product image alt tags and other important on page SEO elements to see if they’re pattern based. If you keep spotting what appear to be rigid patterns, then you might be in for a struggle if you want to be specific with your meta data and so on. I’d suggest that this is pretty important if you want to maximise click through rates.

As mentioned above, it might be the case that you’re just looking at the work of a lazy site owner. If you suspect that you might be limited to patterns, it’s worth doing some more investigation to get to the real situation.

Scour the Forums

Most platforms will have dedicated webmaster forums that are extremely useful when you’re looking to solve problems or just doing some research into a potential issue. These forums can be a great way to see how other people have dealt with the issues above, and to try and identify the ‘development limits’ of the platform in question.  I would strongly suggest looking at these forums and searching specifically for SEO issues BEFORE you make a decision and start building your site.

As an example, I would head over to a forum and start searching for things like ‘duplication issues’, ‘adding the no index tag’, ‘canonical tag’, ‘editing meta titles’ and so on. This should start to give you a pretty good idea of what sort of SEO related issues might come up, and how easy it is to resolve them.

Developers

Once you’ve chosen a platform to use, you’re going to need a developer to build your template and get the website up and running. Even if you buy an off the shelf template, the chances are that at some stage you will need the assistance of a developer. It’s well worth doing some rooting around to see how many developers exist that are familiar and can work with the platform of your choice. Searching forums should give you an idea of who might be around, or you could head over to websites such as Odesk or Peopleperhour. Chances are, if it’s a popular platform such as Magento, there are likely to be quite a few developers around who know the platform inside out.

Start getting some quotes and firing some SEO related questions at them to see how good they are. Hiring an SEO savvy developer who knows how to squeeze every ounce of potential from your ecommerce site will definitely go a long way to making your new business as successful as possible.

The best advice is to read up on ecommerce SEO and see how the various platforms stack up. Imagine your worst SEO nightmare and see if you’d have the ability to fix it. Remember that despite what they claim, all open source platforms will definitely need development work to get them to a good SEO standard; sometimes to the point where it might be better and more affordable in the long run to get a bespoke site built.

As with anything, it’s about being realistic. If you want to be the next Amazon then it’s probably time to get your wallet out and forget about doing this on a budget. However, if you want to run a small part time business with low start up costs, an open source ecommerce platform could well be a good option for you; just do some homework first!

AUTHORED BY:
h

Jon is an SEO Consultant at SEOgadget, a digital marketing agency specialising in conversion rate optimisation, large scale SEO, keyword research, technical strategy and link building in high competition industries.
  • http://www.barryadams.co.uk/ Barry Adams

    Great post Jon, and welcome to the team!

    “Hiring an SEO savvy developer who knows how to squeeze every ounce of potential from your ecommerce site will definitely go a long way to making your new business as successful as possible.” – very very true. We build most of our ecommerce sites on Magento and we’ve found that you do need a very skilled & experienced developer who knows their way around the system to get the most out of it. (Luckily we have such a bloke, and no you can’t have him! Ours! Hands off!)

    A mediocre developer that might not know the CMS inside-out will probably miss a few tricks when it comes to optimising the site – not just for pure SEO but also on various other aspects. Site speed especially can be an issue with Magento and similar broad use CMS platforms, so you’ll need someone who can tweak the site for optimal performance.

    Also, be careful with extensions/plugins. They might seem like easy fixes for some (SEO) issues a Magento site might have, but sometimes an extension can cause more problems than it fixes….

    • http://www.gosearchmarketing.co.uk Jon Quinton

      Hi Barry, thanks for the welcome!

      Sound advice; I think too many people don’t realise how key a good developer is, even with an ‘off the shelf’ platform. Would be interested to hear more of your thoughts about Magento…let’s grab a beer at Think Visibility!

      Jon

    • http://www.gpmd.co.uk Paul

      Great post, I completely agree with the points you’ve made and have experienced a lot of technical SEO issues over the last few years.

      We tend to do a lot of work with Magento too and we’ve had to resolve a lot of technical issues that were influencing our rankings. I certainly wouldn’t have been make these changes without a couple of really good developers that understand the CMS – talented dev’s are often under-appreciated in SEO.

      I think that Magento is a really, really good e-commerce platform, but I’ve found that there are a lot of things that can have a big impact on SEO if they’re not monitored/addressed – I used to hate it as in the past we’ve face lots of problems, things like trailing-slash canonical issues, session ID’s, filter pages, random duplication, issues with rewrite rules, redirect problems etc, but I love it now.

      • http://www.gosearchmarketing.co.uk Jon Quinton

        Hi Paul, good to hear about your experience with Magento. IMO as long as the issues can be fixed, there’s no real issue. However, from using some of the lower end ecommerce CMS’s in the past; there sometimes is no way to fix the problems…that’s when things get bad!

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