SEO Considerations for Retailers: The Basics

Many managers of established online retail storefronts are finding that newer competition is overtaking them in search engine rankings for their product keywords.   And others still have yet to crack the top five search engine result pages.    If you’ve found that traffic to you product pages from organic searches is dropping or your product pages simply have never appeared anywhere close to the top of search engine results, you have most likely not yet implemented Search Engine Optimization (or SEO) techniques that have been working for your more successful competitors for years.

I feel the following techniques are the most important initial steps for improving your products’ taffic rankings.

  • If you aren’t currently utilizing Google Merchant Center to upload products, what are you waiting for?  It’s free and very simple.  Regularly uploading product feeds to Google is the easiest way for your products to become potentially accessible from page 1 of a Google search.   The “Shopping Results for” link is usually one of the first five Google entries when product keywords are used.   If you’ve done it right and your product is considered by Google to be one of the three most relevant for the search keywords entered, a link to your product page will appear directly under the “Shopping Results for” link on that priceless first page.   If your product isn’t one of the top three, your goal should be to get on the first page of “Google Shopping”, which is where the shopper is taken when the “Shopping Results for” link is clicked.   The default sort sequence is “Relevance”, but getting close to the top for the second most common sort sequence of “Price: Low to High” would obviously be beneficial.  In a future article, I will delve further into ways to improve products’ Google Shopping relevance and other techniques to get the most out of the Google Product Search.
  • Writing effective product descriptions is a great way to distinguish yourself from competitors who are selling the exact same products.   There are many schools of thought on how long descriptions should be, how many keywords should be used, how often keyword should be repeated, and if the descriptions should be more geared towards the consumer who is actually reading the description or the search engines that are using the descriptions to build search engine indexes.   But there is no disputing the fact that using the canned manufacturer’s product descriptions that are most likely already being used by other sites does not help your rankings.   A 20- or 30-word description that simply gives the product specifications will also not help you stand out.  Take the time to write descriptions that contains at least 50 words and that includes about five important keywords related to the product.  It is okay to repeat a few keywords, but you will be penalized by the major search engines if you go overboard.    Because it may take many weeks or months to re-write your descriptions, start with the products that are visited most, have the highest profit margin, or the highest conversion rate.
  • The words used in the links to each of your products (the product’s URL) are indexed just like the description and the product name.   A link such as http://mysite/product_info.php?products_id=52724 is not going to be effective as http://mysite/Penn-State-Nittany-Lions-coffee-mug-set-p-363.html.   Most shopping cart solutions offer some type of “SEO URL Rewrite” feature, but it often is not used by default.   If your product names are not included in the URL, I strongly suggest that you do some research and determine how you can implement this feature with your shopping cart.
  • As with the product URLs, page titles are also indexed.  The page title may even be important because it also is the title of the entry on the search engine result page for most search engines.   Your page title should include, at a minimum, the product’s name and its category along with the name of your site.   Again, your shopping cart may already include a “Dynamic Product Page Title” feature.   It’s amazing how many sites still have the same static title on all product pages.

There are a number of tools that you can use to to determine the effectiveness of your SEO changes.   Obviously, the true measure of effectiveness would be increases in online sales.  But an improvement in the position of links to your site and your products in search engine results based on keyword searches is the primary goal of SEO.   If you improve your position to the first three pages, increases in traffic and sales should follow.   Use a rank checking tool like SEOBook’s Rank Checker to get a snapshot of your products’ keywords before any SEO changes are made.   This particular rank checker will return your site’s position in Yahoo, Bing, and Google search results if it is in the top 200 for each keyword or key phrase.   You can then get additional snapshots monthly or quarterly so that you can hopefully see the positioning values getting smaller and smaller.   Keep in mind that if you have changed a product page’s URL so that it contains the product name, the entry for the old URL may show in the top 200 at first.   But it will steadily slip off the list because search engine crawlers are no longer visiting that particular URL.   It should eventually be overtaken by the newly named URL, and that entry should settle in at a much higher position than the original.

Internet storefront considerations for manufacturers and distributors

These days, many manufacturers and distributors are looking to the Internet to increase their sales.  An Internet storefront can be a great way to provide your customers, sales teams and business partners with access to your products.  There are some unique challenges for manufacturers and distributors when it comes to selling products online.  How are current distribution channels maintained?  Who will manage the website content?  How will orders flow into the back-office systems?

I have seen businesses struggle with Internet sales projects because of these challenges.  Here are some of the more common challenges that need to be addressed.

The Internet storefront will change your sales channel(s). It will impact someone’s profits.  To open an Internet storefront, the sales channels will need to be addressed.  If you have sales representatives, will they receive the same commission on sales generated  by their customers that order via the website?  Do you have merchants that will see the web store as a direct competitor?  Different pricing structures will be necessary.  Will the shopping-cart software support your pricing methods?

Maintaining product information is difficult and time-consuming. When considering the overall project for opening an online store, do not underestimate the scope of work to set up and maintain the product information.  Most businesses have very basic product descriptions that mean something only to the internal staff.  Adding meaningful product descriptions that promote the value of the product and providing quality images is a lot of work.  With new and changing products, the work is never done.  The person or team that produces this content is adding value to the company that goes beyond the website.  It takes skilled staff with excellent product knowledge to build a successful Internet store.

The store will need to integrate with your back-office system. If you are serious about using the Internet as a sales channel, you will need to integrate the store to your back-office systems.  Will you need to maintain inventory levels on the storefront?  Can the inventory be refreshed daily or will you need real-time inventory levels?  How about product prices?  All good shopping carts support multiple price levels, but do they support your pricing methods?

What about special discounts, promotions and surcharges?  Should customers be able to see orders not placed on the website?  There are many additional integration needs that could come into play.  If the store is set up as an island that doesn’t talk to the back-office systems, it will become burdensome and a customer-support nightmare as sales grow.

Who will have access to the store? Depending on your line of business, sales to the public could be excluded.  Should they be?  The public might need a different pricing model, or the website may need to be configured to require a sign-in to view the store.  Give this considerable thought.    Some of our clients do not sell to the public, but will allow the public to see the products they offer without any prices.  If the person wants to purchase online they need to contact a customer service representative to open an account.

While on the subject of customer accounts, consider business customers that have more than one buyer.  Will your store need to support multiple user accounts per business account?

The bottom line. Although the move to Internet sales has a lot of roadblocks, an increasing number of businesses are using the Internet as a successful tool to increase their sales.  There is a significant shift taking place.  Online sales can reduce your sales overhead and allow you to reach customers you wouldn’t normally have access to.  It is a great tool to drive national and international sales.

So How Do I Grow My E-Commerce Business? Part I: E-Commerce Marketplaces

Part I – E-Commerce Marketplaces

The list of Internet stores open for business is growing at a rapid pace. Each one has slight differences depending on your goals. You have the big name store, Amazon, and on-line auction giant, EBay.  So how do you know where to sell your products? Here is a simple overview of some of the top marketplaces and what they offer to you as a seller.

EBay – EBay is a great marketplace if you have unique items you want to put up for auction. You can also offer fixed price sales if your items are widely available. After a sale, buyers give you a feedback to promote your ratings as a seller. Beware as this can be either a positive experience, or a negative one. However, EBay has recognized this and is changing how they measure performance by using a new ‘defect rate’ calculation to measure sellers ratings.   As one of the largest on-line marketplaces, EBay can give you great exposure.                                                                         

Amazon – Amazon is the current leader and is known as the worlds largest online retailer. Most countries have their own domain version of the Amazon marketplace. Here in the US we shop on If you live in Canada, you shop on Amazon.CA, and so on! But even though they are all part of Amazon, each is treated as a separate marketplace requiring you to contract with each entity. Amazon can offer you enormous exposure as well as flexibility in selling your items. Once you list your items in their massive catalog potential customers can do a simple search to find your product!  But keep in mind the search will also find your competitors (including Amazon itself) offering the same items. Competitor prices are displayed allowing buyers to pick who they choose to purchase from.  They also offer various services you can elect to utilize like setting up your own personalized “Amazon WebStore” where you can build your personazlied web page using Amazon templates, or utilize  “Amazon Fulfillment” where you send your inventory to an Amazon fulfilment center and they complete the sales process for you by shipping to your customer!                                                                           

Rakuten – Even though they’ve been around since 1999, this marketplace is not as well known here in the US like Amazon, however, the company has enormous Japanese presence and has become a major worldwide online marketplace for both buyers and sellers. While selling on Rakuten, you don’t have to worry about competing with Rakuten as a merchant like you do on Amazon. They also go out of their way to do a lot of advertising to potential customers about upcoming sales and merchandise available on their site. But, as with all marketplaces, selling on Rakuten could have its downfall. Since many of your customers could be located in a country outside the United States, you will have to consider the high shipping costs as a factor in your selling price, no matter who is paying the shipping cost!                                                                    

Etsy – if you are an artsy, crafty person and make your own products, this is the marketplace for you! Etsy attracts customers from all over the world looking for unique or vintage items making Etsy a great place to set-up shop. But the site has a reputation of only being as good as the customers who sell on the site. You as a seller are responsible to fulfill your orders so your customers come back. You are responsible to keep Etsy as the top known crafters marketplace.                                                                                                  


When it comes to selling online there are endless possibilities and marketplaces. Some old, some new. You may have heard of Yahoo, Craigslist, and Here is a great link to an article posted on last year that gives a very good overview of many of the top contenders:

But have you heard of these smaller stores, which too, offer their own unique reasons why you might want to list your products thru them:,,,

If you are interested in e-commerce marketplaces your personal attention should be given to researching each marketplace for their seller rules and requirements. Each entity has unique fee structures and content requirements that you need to make sure you understand before you sign up in order to establish and achieve your full selling capability.  Be sure to read the Inspire Technologies Blog dated 3/8/2011 “Internet Storefront Start-Up Checklist” for additional information!

If your business is large enough and you are ready to automate your process into any of these marketplaces, contact Inspire Technologies to learn how we can assist you in “Growing your E-Commerce Business”.

Check back for Part II – Managing Your Inventory

Review of Three Leading Shopping Cart Solutions

The shopping cart used for your Internet store is a significant decision for any online business.  Like the purchase of a brick-and-mortar store, the chosen store software must meet the business’ needs for today and the  for the next few years.

I want to provide a comparison of three shopping-cart solutions.  This comparison is not be a tabled list of features and function, but rather a comparison of three different approaches to shopping carts that fulfill different business needs.

OS-Commerce Magento are two open source shopping-cart solutions and because they are both open source solutions (free).  Some may see them as too similar to be used in this comparison.  But they differ significantly in their  feature set and, in my opinion, their target business.

The third shopping-cart solution is a software as a service solution (SaaS).  A SaaS shopping cart is provided by businesses such as Volusion to provide a turnkey shopping-cart solution.  They include the shopping-cart software, web hosting and support for a monthly fee.  The SaaS model is available for a number of software packages.  As an example, Microsoft will host their Exchange software for email and group scheduling  as a SaaS.   Others offer project-management and contact-management solutions.  Constant Contact is an example of SaaS.

OS-Commerce is a no-thrills  open source solution.  The shopping cart has all the basic features you would expect from a shopping cart such as multiple price levels, support for foreign currencies and a good selection of add-in modules to extend the features when you need them.  OSC is written in PHP and uses the MySQL database, which makes it highly customizable.  So if you want to create a custom feature or interface, it is very easy to change with the right technical skills. Although there is a good number of plug-in modules to extend the features of the core software, not all of the modules will work together, or they may need some custom changes to make them work as a seamless solution.  The software does not require a lot of server power and can be an excellent solution for a startup Internet store or a store with a limited number of products.

Magento is one of the premier shopping-cart solutions. It is available as an open source solution (community version), a professional version and an enterprise solution.  The costs vary from free to an annual  price that starts at around $12,000 for the enterprise solution.  Lowe’s, Ford Motor Company and Dockers  use Magento.   Magento was introduced after OS-Commerce and, as a next-generation solution, it provides considerably more features than OS-Commerce.

Like OS-Commerce, Magento is written in PHP and uses the MySQL database.  Magento’s many  features do have a cost. The shopping cart is more complex and the database resource requires a larger web-hosting server.  Magento will not run well on most entry-level hosting solutions.  To be done right it needs to be on a dedicated web server, which drives the cost up.   The software has an excellent developer community with a wide range of add-on modules to extend the product.

Volusion is a popular SaaS shopping cart.  The feature set will meet the requirements of most small to mid-size Internet Merchants.  The shopping-cart fee is based on the number of products in the catalog.  The more products you have, the higher the price.   Pricing varies from $29 to to $179 per month.  The top-level package will support an unlimited number of products and has a few additional features.

Volusion has some noteworthy customers, such as Disney, National Geographic and Motorola.  The primary reason to go with a shopping cart like Volusion is to have a fixed monthly cost for the shopping cart, hosting services and support.  It removes the need to have a technical person to manage and customize the Internet store, because there is very little that can be done outside of the look and feel of the store.   Volusion wants to be the center of your business.  It  wants to manage your inventory and be the sole repository for your product data.  Data can be imported and exported from Volusion, but the ability to automate the transfers is limited.

Which solution is right for your business?

If you are a startup Internet retailer with a limited budget, consider OS-Commerce or Volusion.  OS-Commerce is fully customizable and can be hosted at almost any web-hosting provider, so it is one of the lowest-cost solutions that can be customized.   Select a SaaS solution like Volusion if you want to focus on running your store and not dealing with backups, website viruses and needing a custom solution.

If your store requires a robust feature set to start with and the business budget will support it, Magento could be a good fit.

If you sell products with multiple sizes, flavors, colors or other product attributes, then OS-Commerce is not a good choice.

If your store will have frequent product changes, inventory sourced outside of the store or daily product feeds to other websites, consider an open source solution that will make these custom changes easier to implement.

Business growth is also a consideration.  If you think your online business is going to grow, consider a solution that will be able to grow with you.  Magento would be my first choice for a business that can afford the financial cost and effort required to get the shopping cart up and running.  It is a good solution that has one of the best feature sets and the ability to grow with your business.