E-commerce applications for Web sites can take thousands of hours to build, and require patience and determination on the part of the organization awaiting its "new toy." The end result of such a project can be beautiful, much like a custom motorcycle or hot rod may look to an owner once completed.
Unfortunately, these product-shuffling and category-dealing applications can also wreak havoc for automated search engine crawlers out to index sites leveraging these applications. This can lead to less-than optimal performance for the site's pages within search engine results for related queries.
As with large-scale Web site designs and redesigns, putting SEO off until after the fact can be a costly mistake. An internal case study showed an example where a site owner could have saved in excess of $100,000 by incorporating SEO into the interactive design plan instead of going back and making changes to an existing site to implement SEO best practices.
Over the past few months, our SEO team has worked on redesigns of three sites using IBM Websphere Commerce for e-commerce functionality. We've also advised on Microsoft applications being developed for clients, in order for the end product to be "SEO-friendly."
It's important to clearly delineate between "SEO-friendly" and "optimized," because statements of work have to be explicit in describing the final product. Typically, SEO-friendly means that the application will be scalable should a full SEO initiative be launched in the future. Optimized means enterprise-level SEO was performed during the development of the application, and the finished product is more likely to rank within search engines.
Let's look at three high-level topics to consider if you plan to include SEO in business requirements for the development of an e-commerce application: internal process, out-of-the-box functionality, and content equity.
Unique teams from our Java/IBM Practice and our Search Practice work on all three of the Websphere Commerce Projects, with a little overlap at the management/executive level. Naturally, it's difficult to easily transfer learnings and experiences from one team to another in real time, but the common SEO bond has helped speed up some of this sharing. Post-project feedback sessions are crucial to for future efficiencies.
Each of the project teams has slightly different internal communication dynamics, but one common bond is the use of tracking tasks and their corresponding owners.
Some businesses rely on documentation of business requirements clearly explaining the "what" prior to getting to the "how." If there's no smooth system to ensure that issues are being resolved, it could be a nightmare for a project manager to stay on top of things and properly prioritize. Without this order, it would also be difficult to work in the SEO requirements and best practices because developers who don't have the skill set may overlook SEO ramifications.
Some e-commerce applications developers actually pause to consider SEO, and they're often rewarded when they find that many systems, including Websphere Commerce, have some additional functionality that they describe as "SEO-friendly." Using these out-of-the-box (OOTB) features can certainly be very helpful when it comes to designing a more search-friendly application. However, they aren't silver bullets. Our technical engineer has openly questioned some of the OOTB recommendations of some applications as being potentially more harmful than helpful.
If you plan to use the OOTB SEO features of any e-commerce application, run the ideas past an engineer with deep and current SEO technical knowledge. Although many features are helpful, some are potentially risky from a Webmaster guidelines standpoint. Websphere Commerce has an OOTB URL rewrite that, if done properly, makes the URLs look much cleaner than most WC sites. However, in terms of a continuum, the OOTB rewrite is still several stages away from the optimal optimized URL.
Content is still king, albeit sometimes ruled by his queen, linking. At the root, many e-commerce applications simply collect and distribute related products onto a dynamically generated page. Often, there is no consideration made for HTML content that describes the particular product other than the database-driven short and possibly long descriptions.
Unfortunately, in many cases this content is essentially "stock," and already has been published on countless pages across the Internet. Taking the time to create unique product descriptions can be very valuable.
At the category level and higher, place additional descriptive content on each page. This should help you gain traction within the search engine results for category-type terms.
Content equity is an idea I use to describe how this content actually ends up on a page. Most would think that every bit of content should be able to be controlled (as in the physical placement of the content on the page) by one system. Although in some cases this is true, there are often multiple areas on the backend that could be used to enter text onto the page.
Without getting into the technical specifics, it's important to understand that not all content is equal, and that it may need to get on to the site through a CMS or be coded into the page through a developer.
There are hundreds of considerations when building an e-commerce application, and SEO should be on that list, if you plan to rely on search engine-referred organic traffic. Ideally, the application should be at least SEO-friendly, if not fully optimized, when it comes off the showroom floor.
Many e-commerce topics will be covered at SES Chicago in December during the Wednesday afternoon panel eCommerce 101. Hope to see you there! Frank I imagine you will be ready for a drink after that panel ends around 5:15?
Frank Watson Fires Back
SEO elements haven't always been a priority for CMS programs -- e-commerce and otherwise. Interestingly, some of the smaller programs incorporated them. OsCommerce's use of popularity and categorization helped many sites.
It's good to see that the bigger programs now have them, because, as Chris notes, the installation of a high-level e-commerce site is a major undertaking. Many times, SEO is overlooked because of the sheer volume of other tasks involved.
Web sites aren't a "Field of Dreams," though many think they are. Having the ability to develop search-friendly e-commerce sites built in to the base program is a huge value-add, and one any program that doesn't have them should be adding if they want to be competitive.
Chris, look forward to catching some of the e-commerce sessions in Chicago -- see you there!
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