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Digital Marketing

Stephan Spencer on eCommerce and SEO

photo of Stephan SpencerStephan is a co-author of “The Art of SEO” published by O’Reilly. He founded the SEO firm Netconcepts, acquired by Covario in 2010. He is the inventor of the SEO technology platform GravityStream. Stephan is a contributor to Practical eCommerce, MarketingProfs, Multichannel Merchant, and SearchEngineLand, and a sought-after speaker for the DMA, AMA,, Internet Retailer, SMX, SES, O’Reilly/TechWeb, PubCon, IQPC and IIR, among others. Stephan blogs at,, and Google, I Suggest.

Key Points

As always, Stephan makes a number of key points. Here is the short summary of the major points made in the interview:

  1. eCommerce sites often use product descriptions provided by the manufacturer and this leads to major problems. Many other sites will use those same descriptions, making the pages essentially duplicates of one another.
  2. User reviews are a great way to differentiate your site. Third party review solutions include Bazaarvoice and PowerReviews.
  3. The default solutions for implementing reviews traps the content in Javascript. To get the benefit you need to implement code that extracts the comments and places it on your site in search engine crawler visible HTML text.
  4. If needed, find a way to incent reviews on your site to build up review content volume.
  5. Zappos believes that a well written bad review provides more sales benefit than a poorly written good review.
  6. Many eCommerce platforms remain weak at SEO, and the more you spend, it seems, the worse they are.
  7. Get an experienced SEO to help you evaluate eCommerce platforms to make sure you start with a good one, and that it is properly configured.
  8. Pagination remains one of the big issues on eCommerce sites. If you have many pages, show more pagination links to get content closer to the home page, but without going overboard.
  9. Breadcrumb navigation is important too and helps establish relevance and context for users and search engines.
  10. Minimize use of parameters on your URLs, and use hyphens between words.
  11. Link building is a critical activity, and try to get links to your deep pages.
  12. Creative video is one great strategy for link building. Remember YouTube is the #2 search engine and is also the #2 social media site.
  13. If you change eCommerce platforms, make sure to 301 redirect the old URLs to the new ones.

Full Interview Transcript

Eric Enge: Can you talk a little about what the typical eCommerce issues are from an SEO perspective?
Stephan Spencer: Yes. We have a number of SEO issues that eCommerce sites face. One is duplicate content because they use the same manufacturer supplied product copy that many other sites use. They need to differentiate their copy from their competitors. They either need to paraphrase that copy, rewrite it, significantly augment it, or use a mash-up to incorporate additional content such as product reviews.
User-generated content is a great way to differentiate your pages from your competitors, especially if they have thin pages and not much more than a product description and pricing. You can add additional user-generated content to pages in the form of product reviews or incorporate content from forums if you have a discussion forum as part of your site.

The power of product reviews

Eric Enge: Can reviews play a role?
Stephan Spencer: Yes, but one thing eCommerce sites and online retailers do not realize is that third-party review services such as Bazaarvoice and PowerReviews won’t necessarily provide a search engine friendly solution for them. The review services offer an easy to implement a JavaScript based solution that the publisher can add into their product page template, and the publisher thinks they are done.

that wonderful user-generated content … is trapped within JavaScript and not getting picked up by the search engines.

Power ReviewsHowever, that wonderful user-generated content that’s being contributed to the site by their customers is trapped within JavaScript and not getting picked up by the search engine. I should mention that these services are coming up with their own search engine friendly solutions. For instance, I know PowerReviews now offers a service where you pay extra fees and they give you a feed which you can then add to your pages as HTML code.
If you don’t want to pay the extra money you can do your own home-grown solution where you continue to use Bazaarvoice or PowerReviews. You execute the JavaScript and pull out the user-generated content and put it back into the page as HTML code. We did this with our GravityStream proxy-based SEO solution at NetConcepts (now part of Covario). We executed the JavaScript, pulled out the UGC, and then put it back into the page as HTML.
Stephan Spencer: There is another way product reviews can help your site. Suppose customers use different terminology than the retailer. For example, the retailer might use “hooded sweatshirts” as their product name, but the customer’s market speaks in terms of “hoodies.” Another possibility is customers are abbreviating or misspelling these words. “Under Armour” might be in the product copy, but the consumer is typing in the abbreviation “UA.”
So, if customers are using the terminology “hoodies” and “UA” in the product reviews, that gets picked up by the search engines and makes a page relevant to those additional words as well.
Eric Enge: The challenge with product reviews, is you must have enough traffic to draw the reviews.
Stephan Spencer: If you don’t have a lot of traffic then you need to get creative and incentivize your customer base to submit reviews. It’s not that different from a restaurant on Yelp who pushes their customer base persistently to submit a review.
Eric Enge: What type of strategies would you recommend for incentives and what are some creative ideas for people?
Stephan Spencer: You could do some sort of gift card or a special order code that gives a discount. You could do a contest where they might have the possibility of getting something or winning something. I think monetary incentives, or the potential for monetary incentives, work well.

Extra Points for Spelling!

Eric Enge: Did you see recently that Zappos is fixing typos in their reviews?
Stephan Spencer: No, I didn’t know that.
Eric Enge: Yes, they do and it stirred up controversy because, of course, it’s no longer the “pure review,” it’s getting some editing. There is some data that suggests typos and bad grammar in reviews may be more important than whether it’s a positive review or a negative review.
Stephan Spencer: So, is it a good thing or a bad thing?
Eric Enge: Typos and bad grammar are bad things. So, you can have a well-written review that’s negative, and it will help you sell more than a poorly written review that’s positive. Amazon and Zappos are both doing different things in this area and it is pretty entertaining.

SEO issues with eCommerce platforms

Eric Enge: What about the eCommerce platform itself? Are there still issues with eCommerce platforms doing nasty things that make SEO more difficult?

It’s rare for an eCommerce platform to be really sophisticated at SEO.

Stephan Spencer: For sure. It’s rare for an eCommerce platform to be really sophisticated at SEO. It seems the more money you spend on an eCommerce platform the less SEO friendly the solution is, which is counter-intuitive. An open-source solution such as Magento Commerce or OS Commerce tends to be better optimized out of the box than WebSphere, GSI, or one of the other pricy solutions. It’s kind of funny. There is always an opportunity with a very expensive, yet not fully optimized, solution to fine tune it and make it optimal.
There are a number of different areas to optimize the platform. They include everything from the internal linking structure, to the URL structure, to the HTML templates. Those are a few examples of areas to optimize.
With regards to the internal linking structure, there is navigation. The main sort of navigation structure is breadcrumb navigation and pagination. All of these need to be optimized. With pagination, for example, it is suboptimal to have only a few products per page, let’s say ten products per page, and have a great many pages of pagination and not have many links to get to those pages.
You have to go many clicks away from the home page to get to a particular page of pagination and to get to that product which is featured on that page. That is really bad for SEO. Whereas, if you had a great many products per page, let’s say ninety-nine products per page, and you had pagination that allowed you to jump back and forward and to a certain page number, that would be better. If it gave you a group of pages to select from, for example, five or ten, as well as previous and next, that would be a better solution for pagination in terms of SEO.

Evaluating an eCommerce platform for SEO friendliness

Eric Enge: If someone is evaluating an eCommerce platform, or simply starting to decide, what tips would you give them on how they should make that decision? Not everybody is going to have a way to get under the covers and find out what’s there.
Art of SEO
Stephan Spencer: In the Art of SEO, which is a book we coauthored, with Rand Fishkin and Jessie Stricchiola, there is a section on CMS issues and how to judge whether that potential solution is going to be good, or not good, in terms of SEO. There is a list of requirements which are the must-haves, and there are also nice to haves, which are not essential but highly desirable.
An example is the URL structure. For example, you don’t want too many parameters in the query string portion of the URL or, ideally, no query string, you want keywords with hyphens separating the keywords rather than underscores, and not too many hyphens. That’s the ideal scenario. You don’t want ten hyphens, you only want to a few. Reviewing those best practices is a good basis for your decision-making on the eCommerce platform.
Eric Enge: How would the average publisher be able to answer those questions, or have this table of things to look for? Do they ask a salesperson? What ideas do you have for how they would track that?
Stephan Spencer: The ideal scenario would be to work with an SEO consultant and have the consultant advise you as you go through the selection process and say, “these are the issues I have with these five different platforms that you are looking at, that you are considering for your new platform.”
They’ll be able to help not only with the selection process but once you’ve selected the eCommerce platform. They can work with you as you are implementing the platform. They can help, for example, with defining the functional requirements of the eCommerce platform because there will be a lot of capability for customization with many of these platforms.
Let’s consider two sites with the same platform. One site is suboptimal and the other is well-optimized. The difference with these sites is that one was implemented with SEO in mind, and the experts were engaged in the process to make sure it came out search engine optimized.
It can bake in all the customization that will make the site sing to the search engines in terms of pagination, URL structure, breadcrumb navigation, and so forth. Other stages in the process where the SEO consultant can assist are the sitemap, the wireframes, the visual mockups, and the development site as it is being worked on. During these various stages, they can weigh in with their input and guidance to say “this needs to be fixed or this is gone off on the wrong track.”
Of course, they stay involved through to launch and ideally post-launch as well. You need to make sure things aren’t broken once the site is finally presented to the search engine spiders and you need to continually optimize. Your website is never finished and SEO is never finished.

Link building to eCommerce sites

Eric Enge: Link building to eCommerce sites can be somewhat challenging.

You need to look at building deep links to the content, and products, and categories rather than simply sitting back and waiting for the links to come.

Stephan Spencer: Absolutely. You need to look at building deep links to the content, and products, and categories rather than simply sitting back and waiting for the links to come. You also need to try and get links that aren’t just coming to the homepage of the eCommerce site, but also to the category-level pages and product pages.
Gummy Bear
If you have someone who is creative on your site who can help make that page sexy, I think that’s critical. A great example of an eCommerce site that’s done a fantastic job with creating product content that’s quite viral in nature is a site called Vat19. They have this $5 gummy bear and they leverage YouTube effectively with regards to their online marketing.
It’s quite an entertaining video. They have a series of these videos on YouTube that they’ve done fantastically well with and have quite a following.
I don’t know if everybody reading this interview realizes this, but when you include a URL in a YouTube video’s description it will turn into a clickable link. It will be a no-followed link, but it will be a clickable link so you get direct click-through traffic from that.
If you have a microsite with a collection of all your videos on it then you will inevitably end up getting people linking to you – bloggers, journalists, and so forth. And, the linkerati will opt to link to your site, not just the YouTube video or YouTube channel.
Eric Enge: So, one strategy is to put the first hit video on YouTube and all the sequels on your site.

YouTube is the #2 search engine and it’s a very powerful social network.

Stephan Spencer: You could do it like that, but I wouldn’t advise it for a few reasons. First, YouTube is the #2 search engine and, second, it’s a very powerful social network and has capabilities such as Favorite-ing, and Likes, and Dislikes, and Most Viewed, and all those things that help a video go viral (note from Eric: It is the #2 social site).
If you only do the first video on YouTube, you miss out because all the other videos won’t show up in the YouTube search results. So, you are missing out on getting some visibility from the #2 search engine. Also, you won’t have the opportunity to take advantage of the social capabilities that are present in YouTube but are typically not present on your own site.
You are not going to have that same potential for people to Favorite and Like the videos. There are other capabilities of YouTube, like captioning, that you want to take advantage of as well.
I would work hard to promote your site, or sites, in YouTube so that in addition to people linking to the YouTube videos or your YouTube channel, you also get them to link to your commerce site or microsite.

eCommerce Platform Recommendations

Eric Enge: Are there platforms you recommend that are strong for SEO and for eCommerce platforms?
Stephan Spencer: Magento Commerce is quite strong from an SEO standpoint. Also, it is open-source which I like. I am also big on WordPress, for example, an open-source blogging platform that can be used for a range of different types of sites, not just for a blog.
ATG is an expensive platform. You can get it to be optimized in terms of the final product by working with an implementation company and an SEO consultant who work in concert to build out a custom, well-optimized implementation of ATG.
Eric Enge: If someone has an old legacy platform with problems, there really isn’t much they can do other than get an SEO consultant to dig in and help them work through it.

it’s crucially important that you properly redirect all the old URLs to the new ones so that you don’t end up squandering hard earned Page Rank.

Stephan Spencer: Correct, and if you are going to transition from one platform to another, it’s likely to change all the URLs where the content of your site is located. If that happens, it’s crucially important that you properly redirect all the old URLs to the new ones so that you don’t end up squandering hard-earned PageRank. People are linking to deeper level pages and those end up returning 404 errors that are going to zero out that PageRank from those links.
Eric Enge: Thanks Stephan!

Other Recent Interviews

SEO by the Sea’s Bill Slawski, June 7, 2011
Elastic Path’s Linda Bustos, June 1, 2011
SEOmoz’ Rand Fishkin, May 23, 2011
Bing’s Stefan Weitz, May 16, 2011
Matt Mickiewicz, January 8, 2011
ex-Googler Adam Lewis, October 10, 2010
Wordtracker’s Ken McGaffin, August 16, 2010
Bing’s Mikko Ollila, June 27, 2010
Yahoo’s Shashi Seth, June 20, 2010
Majestic SEO Briefing, June 14, 2010
SEOmoz Briefing, June 9, 2010
Localeze Briefing, June 2, 2010
Google’s Carter Maslan, May 6, 2010
Google’s Frederick Vallaeys, April 27, 2010
InfoGroup’s Pankaj Mathur, April 5, 2010
Matt Cutts, March 14, 2010

Eric Enge

Eric Enge is part of the Digital Marketing practice at Perficient. He designs studies and produces industry-related research to help prove, debunk, or evolve assumptions about digital marketing practices and their value. Eric is a writer, blogger, researcher, teacher, and keynote speaker and panelist at major industry conferences. Partnering with several other experts, Eric served as the lead author of The Art of SEO.

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