The Opportunity

It has been well documented that consumers use search engines to research and buy products online. They read reviews and descriptions, analyze ratings, and research pricing as they compare products and vendors. A successful e-commerce site must offer a positive customer experience and build trust. However, in the nitty-gritty world of online retail sales, probably the most important success factors are the accessibility of the product and price.

It follows then that high rankings in the search engines are essential to the success of an e-commerce site, because high rankings make the products more accessible to the online shoppers. The site should rank highly not just for the general keywords that describe the business, but, ideally, all of the words that describe the products sold on the site.

The Challenge

There are two primary methods to achieve high rankings in search engines. One is to optimize your website naturally, i.e. organically, so that search engines rank it highly for your important terms on their search results pages. The second way to achieve high rankings is to buy Pay-Per-Click (PPC) ads that appear on search results pages.

Which method drives the best traffic for online retailers? According to a recent study conducted by Jupiter Research and presented at the Search Engine Strategies New York Conference in March, 2005, “6 out of 7 clicks from the organic listings as opposed to Pay-Per-Click listings.”

Clearly, high natural listings in the search engines are key for a successful e-commerce site.

In spite of this fact, many online retailers still focus exclusively on PPC advertising to drive traffic to their sites. The explosion in the popularity of PPC advertising for e-commerce sites is likely due to a variety of factors, including the ease of setting up campaigns, competitive peer-pressure, and the ease of budget approvals based on the lure of quicker returns on ad spend. The rewards of organic site optimization, although greater than PPC, appear over a longer period of time.

For an e-commerce business, a PPC-only strategy is a short-sighted solution that has known pitfalls, too. As competition increases, PPC ad prices also increase, which erodes profit margins and forces the e-commerce business owner to increase their PPC budgets just to keep up.

Many experienced practitioners have problems optimizing for online retail sites because they lack the necessary programming skills to optimize dynamic pages from shopping cart software. Un-optimized dynamic pages are often invisible to search engines. To compound the problem there are hundreds of different types of shopping cart software, each of which has different optimization requirements.

The Solution

To successfully optimize an E-Commerce site for search engines requires specialized techniques and processes that are above and beyond regular optimizations performed for non-commerce sites.
These include:

o Development of web server output filters that enable Title and Meta tag reconfiguration even if the shopping cart application doesn’t allow it. These filters can be applied to PHP and IIS with amazing results.

o Implementing sitemaps that allow search engines to index the entire site, even when cookies are required to access certain parts of the site.

o Optimizing product and page titles and descriptions to match the phrases that consumers actually search on. For example an online store in Thailand was selling Kaw Kwy statues. After research it was found this phrase was not a popular search term. Further investigation found a more common search term for Kaw Kwy – ‘Fake Ivory’. After changing the product names, titles, and descriptions, the client started being found for his products and selling them.

o Develop product feeds to the major shopping engines such as Froogle, Yahoo Shopping, and BizRate to ensure maximum exposure for the products at prices far below current PPC ad prices.

o Undertake usability research and analysis so you know how people are really using the site and where they are abandoning the site or your shopping cart.

o Implement analytics to understand traffic, reporting and visitor conversion patterns.

o Implementation of other SEO tools such as paid inclusion (including Yahoo’s SiteMatch) to increase the frequency of spidering if there is a constant stream of new products to your E-Commerce site.
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