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ONLINE STORES AND SEO
(SEARCH ENGINE OPTIMIZATION)

INTRODUCTION

Many online storeowners will come running when they see the title of this article. Their online store does not perform well in many cases and you cannot find their website in search engine keyword searches. These online storeowners often assume there is a cause and effect relationship here. In some cases, it may be partially true, but they shouldn't jump to that conclusion too quickly.

Often it's a question of expectations. There are many stories of people who have become multi-millionaires by selling on the Internet. With so many potential purchasers surfing on the Internet, surely sales of appealing products should be assured. Unfortunately this not the case for many online storeowners. In the first part of this article, we will explore some features of online stores and give some solutions that will give better search engine visibility.

However really great sales gains will not necessarily come about merely by applying these solutions. There is a more fundamental weakness of many online stores. This will be explored in the latter part of this article.

SELLING ONLINE ON THE INTERNET

As more and more people rely on the Internet as their window on the world, it is not surprising that companies wanting to sell goods and services are increasingly doing this via the Internet. Who has not heard of Amazon or Ebay? Internet market places cannot be ignored. However there are dramatic differences between visiting a physical store and an online store. In the physical store, you can receive all kinds of information and perceptions. It's a much more limiting experience when visiting an online store as seen through say a 19 inch computer monitor screen? How can the selling process be conducted best via that screen? Let's look at some of the issues involved in that.

ONLINE SHOPPING RATHER THAN ONLINE SELLING

Even more than in the physical store, it's best to see this as an opportunity for the shopper to purchase rather than an opportunity for you the seller to sell something. It's all about who is in the driving seat. It's so easy to click away from a web page that is not of interest. So anyone spending a little time on an online store product page may well have a serious interest in making a purchase. You the seller must make sure that it's easy for that purchaser to get the information they're likely to want. People prefer to be in control so they should feel in control as they move around your online store website.

EFFECTIVE SELF-SERVICE

The other important benefit of an online store is that in effect it's self-service. The purchasers can go at their speed and do not require the expensive involvement of a sales representative or a customer service assistant. In some cases, it may be useful to make available a Live Help feature but this will be used by a minute fraction of visitors if the online store has been well designed.

PROBLEMS FOR THE ONLINE STORE OWNER

Building a physical store and seeing that the goods are displayed on the shelves and counters in the most attractive and effective way is an onerous task. Similarly creating an online experience that can mimic that is a good deal of work. The product name, description, price and shipping details must all be correctly entered into the database or content management system (CMS). There are also a number of behind-the-scene operations that must function correctly to ensure correct deliveries, in-time product restocking and accurate accounting records.

PROBLEMS FOR THE SHOPPER

The problems facing the shoppers are equally onerous. They must learn to use a series of screens to make their purchase. Depending on their needs and the order in which they would like to do things, some screens may appear confusing. They may find some of the navigational choices require careful scrutiny of the screen and a correct choice among slightly baffling buttons. Unfortunately they are often designed by technical experts and are not user-tested by average, non-computer-savvy citizens. It is not surprising that some online stores have a high percentage of abandoned shopping carts by frustrated would-be purchasers.

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TRUST AND CREDIBILITY

For completeness, it should be mentioned that of course the purchase will not be made if the purchaser does not have absolute trust in the seller. Developing that trust in the credibility of the seller will come partly from an online store that functions well without glitches and with no typos or poor grammar. In addition, the functionality of the online store with respect to payment arrangements and the handling of the financial details of the purchaser must be done with absolute security and concerns for privacy.

ONLINE STORE SOFTWARE

Whatever e-commerce/shopping cart software is used, it should ideally be web standards compliant. That means that it will give an acceptable display in all common browsers and for the screen resolutions that most shoppers may be using. It also should result in product web pages that load at an acceptable speed even at relatively low download speeds. After all, a significant proportion of shoppers may still be using dial-up connections. Perhaps the most important criterion is that the web pages of the online store must be impressively user-friendly.

OSCommerce is the most widely used open source ecommerce software and there is good support available through the OSCommerce Forum.

OScommerce

The current variant of OSCommerce that is attracting a great deal of interest is Zencart and again there is an active Forum.

ZENcart

If your preferred web designer has developed effective online stores with good references then you may decide to go with their customized approach. Alternatively you may choose to go with one of the named brands of online stores. Here are some of the better known ones in alphabetical order and there are many more:

Any good installation will ensure user-friendly input of new products. Another important problem arises where other languages and accents are involved since these are not always handled well. Getting online store web pages to be search-engine visible can then be quite a major task in some cases.

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TECHNICAL PROBLEMS FOR SEO

Search engines try to index as many web pages of online stores as they can. This is done by search engine spiders or robots that are continuously surfing the Internet to find whatever product web pages they can. Unfortunately there are many ways an online store can create technical barriers that block or confuse these search engine spiders. Here are some of the more common ones:

  • FRAMES - If a website is in frames, then the contents of the store will not be indexed or may be indexed in a non-usable format. There is no excuse for using this outdated technology, since the same look and feel can be achieved with more recent programming techniques that do not suffer from the same vices.
  • Session IDs - In some cases, the URL of the web page for a particular visit may include a session ID. This gives problems for the indexation of the website by the search engines.
  • Dynamic URLs - With very large online stores the long URLs that may be created by dynamic serving of web pages, sometimes including ?s, may cause problems for the search engines.
  • Redirects - In some cases, there are automatic redirects from the initial URL to more complex URLs and this again can cause problems.
  • Cookies - In some cases, an online store can only be used if cookies are accepted by the visitor. This may cause a problem with search engines.

A good summary of these and other issues as they relate to Google can be found in the Google Webmaster Guidelines. There are technical solutions for most of these problems. Applying such solutions removes the barriers and so is an absolutely necessary step. However such solutions alone are not sufficient to give good keyword rankings for the online store product pages.

SEARCH ENGINE VISIBILITY FOR ONLINE STORE PRODUCT PAGES

Online store product pages are web pages and have the same challenges that any web pages have to rank well in keyword searches. It's a question of the information content on the web page and also of the inlinks that 'point' to the product web page from other web pages. The latter is particularly important for Google, although they use the term 'back link', which is less clear than the term inlink. Each of these will be covered in the two following sections. However before that, it's important to realise how search engines 'see' online stores.

Search engines do not in fact see websites as a whole and thus do not see the online store. A search engine indexes individual web pages and each web page in a sense stands alone. If your online store web page includes only the information provided by the manufacturer, then your product page looks no different from similar web pages put up by other online stores for that product. There is no reason why any given product web page should be higher or lower than any other web page for the same product. The order in a keyword search will be largely random.

To give the search engines some reason to rank your product page higher than another, you must put in some original content or original links that make your web page more relevant and support a higher ranking for that particular keyword search.

SEO CONTENT

Since an online store product page is a web page, the factors that influence keyword ranking are no different than for any other web page. If you have full flexibility, then you should look at all aspects as set out in this SEO Key. If the CMS (content management system) is more limiting then at least the Title, the Description and the heading on the product page should be customized to present a 'unique' appearance. Unless this is done, it may be that the web page is not included in the search engine database since it will be viewed as a copy of other web pages already in the Index.

It is important to realize that the search engine uses only the information content and picks up nothing from any images or Flash content on the web page. A useful analogy for the search engine spider is a human visitor with a visual handicap. Accessibility is the process of making web pages suitable for visitors with visual handicaps and the same principles help with search engine ranking. If you 'listen' to your web page using a screen reader as used by people with vision problems, then you will get a pretty good indication of what the search engine spider can retrieve. This technique is one advocated by Matt Bailey, who is a particularly strong advocate for accessible web pages.

SEO INLINKS

Product web pages can also be helped by arranging inlinks that point to the web page. Particularly important product web pages can even have a direct link from the online store Home page. Another useful assist is to indicate the permalink for any product web page at the bottom of the page. This may encourage others who wish to refer to that particular web page to provide a direct link to it from their own web page or blog.

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ONLINE STORE INTERNET STRATEGY

If you've read along to this point, you may be feeling a little dispirited. If your own online store has many competitors, then it sounds as though you're almost committed to a type of trench-warfare or hand-to-hand fighting as you attempt to get every one of your individual product web pages to rank higher in keyword searches. The problem is that it is relatively easy to set up an online store and there are few barriers to entry. So there may be many competitors and organic search engine optimization may prove to be very difficult. It's no wonder that many online stores decide to go for sponsored advertisements and PPC (Pay-per-Click) ads on the Search Engine Report Pages (SERPs). That's not necessarily a bad thing, but the reason why it's come down to this is that perhaps we haven't done the right strategic thinking.

An important dimension here is the Product-driven versus Customer-centric scale. Many companies, who believe they are selling good products, spend most of their energies trumpeting the strong performance and features of their products. Other companies try to get into the mindset of the potential customers and understand the benefits that these customers are seeking. Those benefits often result not only from the products themselves but involve the associated services that the company provides. This total benefits package is what the potential customers are seeking. This viewpoint is a customer-centric viewpoint.

If the online store believes it is only selling products, then the purchaser will choose based solely on the company's product web page versus the competitors' comparable product web pages. If the decision is made based on the total package of benefits, then this decision can only be taken after viewing a number of web pages that help to define the total package that will be received.

Another factor is the type of potential purchaser we are dealing with. If someone does not know the names of possible suppliers, then a keyword search for the product of interest will suggest a short list of possible suppliers. By comparing how the different companies offer the product then a selection is made, often on price, provided the online store seems trustworthy. That is the kind of situation being considered in the earlier part of this article. Of course we must have a slice of those potential first-time purchasers, but we know the battle is fierce.

Once the purchaser is in the online store, he or she can be encouraged to do a little exploration. If the online store has something special about it, then the purchaser may in a sense 'buy the store' before in turn buying the product from the store. Equally a repeat buyer who has had a good first experience may well use their bookmark to return to the online store. Or perhaps they may have been referred by a friend, and come directly to the online store.

So here we have a different strategy. Making the individual product pages rank well with search engines has its place but it is intended to capture part of the first-time buyer market for the individual products. For others we will attempt to market the online store as a place to go to look for the products you need.

MARKETING THE ONLINE STORE

Marketing the online store as a preferred place to shop online brings into play the full range of strategic considerations. For example what does a SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) suggest when viewed from that customer-centric viewpoint. How does our online store compare with its competitors? How can it stand out from the crowd?

THE ONLINE STORE BRAND

A useful approach is to try to establish a brand for the online store. That is something memorable to establish a strong hook for the purchaser to remember. A brand works best when it implies a promise to the customer of what product experience and benefits will be delivered. Another way of explaining that is what is called the USP (Unique Selling Proposition). That defines something that is attractive to the purchaser, which they would like to have and which is unavailable from anyone else.

Once it is clear why purchasers should buy from the company rather than from the competition, then additional web pages can be added to the online store to demonstrate the USP. Since the benefits package is something potential customers would like to have, then keyword searches for that package should bring potential purchasers to the online store. The Internet Marketing strategy should be ensuring that more and more people are aware of the online store and the USP it offers.

As always, the beauty of marketing via the Internet is that what is happening can be measured in great detail. How is the search engine optimization for the individual product web pages bringing potential purchasers to the online store? How are they converting to actual purchasers? How is the marketing of the online store as a whole bringing in prospects? How do they convert to purchasers? Based on results, the action plan can be adjusted to improve performance.

CONCLUSION

Ensuring online store product pages rank well in search engine keyword searches is possible with some effort. There are some technical flaws to avoid, but thereafter it is akin to the normal processes of getting high rankings for web pages. That is an important part of running a successful online store.

What should not be forgotten is that a proportion of first-time buyers and many more repeat buyers are seeking certain product benefits. A strong brand identity for the online store may well attract more of these away from the competition. The ideal strategy puts energy and effort behind both of these initiatives.

If you require help with this, then SMM will be happy to help you figure out your best approach. Our help can be configured to meet exactly the needs you have. Our strengths, experience and creativity can complement those of your company. So write us a Message today on what you're looking for without obligation.

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Added to site 7 April 2006
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