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SEO: the Secret Weapon in the E-Commerce Wars

Dylan Downhill and James Peggie
Elixir Systems

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 search engine optimization (SEO) 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:

  • 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.
  • Implementing sitemaps that allow search engines to index the entire site, even when cookies are required to access certain parts of the site.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Implement analytics to understand traffic, reporting and visitor conversion patterns.
  • 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.

The Results

Natural optimization for an e-commerce site can have a truly profound impact on the performance of the website and profitability of the business.

A major supplier of car and truck accessories reduced PPC increased visitors, and profits while reducing their PPC ad spending by $6000 per month. They achieved these results in less than three months by applying web and e-commerce analytics to an existing paid placement campaign, and then applying what they learned from the analytics in their e-commerce search engine optimization strategy. After 6 months their PPC sourced revenue and their organic sourced revenue were equal and their overall advertising spend was decreased by 30%.

A distributor of rugs and carpets, who had previously worked with two other "regular" SEO firms with only minimal success, implemented these e-commerce optimization techniques, and increased revenues 200% -- after only three months!

Conclusion

As PPC ad prices continue to rise, savvy online retailers e-commerce site owners providers need to take a fresh look at how much true success they actually gain from their PPC campaigns, and evaluate (or re-evaluate) possible gains from integrating organic search optimization, too.

Optimizing an e-commerce website is different than optimizing a content-only site. While there are many SEO consulting firms all over the world who can work wonders with regular sites, there are only a few SEO practitioners who have expertise in e-commerce optimization. Be aware of the difference when selecting a firm to work on your e-commerce site.

Taking steps now to optimize your e-commerce correctly for natural search engine rankings can increase your profits, and help you gain a competitive advantage over most online retailers who are still using only PPC campaigns.

Dylan Downhill is the CIO and Technical Director and James Peggie is the Director of Marketing for Elixir Systems - a search marketing agency located in Scottsdale, Arizona. www.elixirsystems.com

 

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