When you run an online ecommerce store with a shopping cart, it’s quite easy for your architecture and URL’s to enter into territory that’s not friendly for search engines. Here are some basic tips I recommend for everyone working with an online shopping cart.
Your product pages are the money pages in your site architecture. They are the ones you want to be in the absolute-most-search-engine-friendly format. Many shopping carts will place them in a category directory like this:
However, I recommend a a different structure such as:
I don’t recommend using the department because most stores have a one to many relationship between products and departments. In layman’s terms, a product can be categorized in more than one department. For example, a set of plates could be in the “dinnerware,” “tableware,” or “entertaining” categories. It can also be in the “new,” “seasonal,” or “featured” category as well. When the merchandising side decides to change/add/remove departments, the URL is in jeopardy of changing, and that’s something to avoid at all costs.
Some stores are going completely flat and use no subdirectory. It’s a little risky: you have to watch for naming conflicts, and you lose a layer of control. But it’s not horrible.
I also recommend that you avoid using URL parameters at all on the product level pages. I prefer using 3-5 words for the product name, omitting stop words, and keeping the URL as short as possible. If your marketing or advertising divisions insist on using tracking parameters, write the info to a cookie and 301 to the proper page. Yes the new canonical meta tag will deal with a lot of it, but don’t ignore good site architechture because of laziness.
Unless you have a really good reason for using alpha/numeric ID instead of the product name, I’d always prefer the product name in the URL. Don’t stuff in extra words having the product name in the URL is almost always better than not. Just make sure it persists and doesn’t change if you go from a “blue widget” to a “cyan widget.” If you do change, handle the 301’s properly.
It doesn’t matter what file extension you use (.html, .jsp, .asp, etc) but I prefer to omit file types so you can change programming languages without remapping URL’s or needing to maintain legacy hacks in perpetuity. Rip off the band-aid once, get it over with, fix it right, and move on … ’nuff said.
Try to keep HTML title and page header/titles similar unless you can work in variations. Keep your titles as unique as possible and make your product descriptions as unique as possible. Copy/pasting or importing and using a feed without any re-writing is a bad idea. Reviews or other UGC are a great way to do that. Just don’t be a faker.
Always use a site map with links to your products. If you have a lot of products, use a dedicated HTML products-only sitemap(s). If you have at least 100 products I’d also go the XML sitemap route as well and ping all of the services.
When a product goes out of stock, keep the page up and display a message saying that it’s not available for purchase. The only exception is if you are never going to have the item again and there is no replacement. Serving a 404 is a bad idea. Going back and forth between a 404 when it’s out of stock and standard page when it is in stock is worse than a passive aggressive ex-girlfriend and should be avoided at all costs.
Department and Category Pages
Department and category pages in shopping carts are perhaps one of the biggest SEO obstacles in any ecommerce package. Probably the most important question you need to ask is whether there is any value to the department/category page? If there is no editorial content (text and picture) then there probably isn’t any need to have the page indexed. You just want the spiders to pass through on their way to the product pages, so use a noindex, follow meta tag and matching robots.txt setting and you are all set.
You also want to be careful how you handle the “show all” if you offer that functionality. I’ve seen some experiments in which people feedithe search engines the “show all” version with the rel=canonical tag, but there are no solid answers about how well it works yet (be aware search engines have said they take that as a suggestion and reserve the right to override it). If your department pages do paginate you want the most important items on the top of the first page to ensure maximum crawlability.
I recommend having the title as one link to the product, the image as a second separate link, and the description as third and separate/optional link. I recommend breaking it to give the search engines a nudge to take the title. Use the title as the alt tag for the image (another nudge). I recommend linking all three just as a usability thing. You can test it with a service like crazyegg (disclosure: they are an advertiser, but I’d recommend them even if they weren’t). In every test I’ve seen they always click the pictures and almost always get some clicks on the text under the image. I also recommend putting the price under the image/description (again just for usability purposes).
To recap here are my shopping cart optimization 101 techniques:
- Keep things as simple for a search engine to understand as possible, especially in the URL.
- Keep as much extraneous information as possible out of the URL, writing the extra bits into a cookie if you absolutely need them and performing a 301 redirect.
- Keep URL’s short as possible by including only the keywords that are absolutely necessary.
- Give them the clues they are looking for about what information to attribute to the products through internal anchor text and links.
- Keep product titles and descriptions as unique as possible.
- Rewrite or add content if you need to make it unique.
- Only include department category pages if there is some editorial value.
- Use an HTML and XML sitemap to increase crawlability.