Would you switch to a new eCommerce platform if you knew it would throw off your entire fulfillment operation?
That’s a rhetorical question; of course you wouldn’t.
But in our experience in optimizing SEO for hundreds of eCommerce brands over the past 11 years, we’ve noticed some similarly poor habits when it comes to selecting an eCommerce platform.
Too often, companies are happy to migrate to a hosted eCommerce platform without any clue how it will affect the SEO strategy they’ve been using for years.
This results in a decision process that becomes upside down. Companies that don’t weigh SEO functionality end up choosing the wrong platform for their SEO goals.
This article is meant to help you mitigate or avoid this mistake.
Rather than finding the platform you like, crossing your fingers, and hoping for the best for your SEO, you can use the information below to try to understand the potential SEO functionality of hosted and self-hosted eCommerce platforms first.
To do that, you’ll have to know the variables you most need to focus on, and how they relate to your decision. Here are some of the essentials:
What an eCommerce Platform Gives You (Or Doesn’t Give You)
The methodology behind this list is simple: There are a variety of different knobs you can turn on within your site to improve SEO performance, such as setting the canonical URL of a specific product page. Whether an eCommerce platform lets you control each of these features will affect your ability to make changes that can improve organic search rankings.
The list here is based on our experience turning these knobs and improving SEO performance from multiple approaches for many clients over the years.
Below, we discuss each site control feature, why it’s important for SEO, and how hosted versus self-hosted eCommerce platforms differ in your ability to control the features.
What are hosted and self-hosted eCommerce platforms?
The key distinction that often separates one eCommerce platform from another is whether it’s hosted or self-hosted.
- Hosted platforms are essentially “turnkey” solutions intended to provide a straightforward infrastructure for your eCommerce.
- Self-hosted platforms, which include many popular open source platforms, are more freeing (and challenging) because you’ll have more control.
- While controlling the development yourself makes it more difficult to get a shop up and running, you’ll have more SEO advantages such as access to log files (depending on which platform you’re using; WordPress may not give you access to log files), easier batch uploading, and control over elements like canonical tags.
- Examples include WordPress with a WooCommerce plugin; Magento; SpreeCommerce; and of course home built eCommerce systems.
Here is how the different styles of platforms stack up with some common eCommerce SEO concerns:
A customer’s bounce probability increases 32% for a page that takes 3 seconds to load over a page that takes just one second to load. But it’s not just about bounce rates anymore. When Google announced that Page Speed would factor in search results, the speed of your site became a major SEO factor.
To accomplish goals like achieving a 100/100 Page Speed score with Google, you need the ability to control many aspects of your site. For example, we’ve experimented with embedding CSS in-line rather than in HTML and loading external scripts asynchronously.
Platforms like Shopify and BigCommerce tend to give you middle-of-the-road site speed; not bad, but not great, either. If you have a smaller store and speed is a chief SEO advantage, you might want to consider that self-hosted SEO gives you much more control through the following variables:
- Leveraging browser caching to incorporate visuals without sacrificing load time. If you’re working on a hosted platform, you generally won’t control this.
- Optimizing your image sizes to minimize load time. Here, almost all platforms will give you that control.
- Scaling images for separate mobile and desktop experiences. Hosted platforms generally don’t give you this ability.
If you’re obsessed with site speed and beating the competition, a hosted platform simply won’t give you the functionality you need.
The trade-off in controlling your own site speed: that you’re also responsible for handling more bandwidth. If your store was suddenly featured on “The Ellen Show,” would you be able to handle the influx of traffic? On a platform like Shopify or BigCommerce, you probably could, and more importantly, getting the infrastructure in place to handle spikes like that is the host’s problem, not yours. (Although you may still need to work with your hosted platforms to ensure you can handle the traffic, it’s generally easier to handle with hosted systems when you do). If your store is self-hosted, you likely need additional preparation time before going viral.
If you ever find yourself with a large swath of redirect, meta data, or product page problems, batch uploading may be the only way to fix each individual page in one fell swoop.
Batch uploading helps fix sweeping problems such as problematic redirect pages or broad swaths of meta tags that need changing. If you can’t batch upload SEO solutions like these without interfering with your site’s functionality, you’re in for some headaches.
For batch uploading on hosted platforms, you’re at the mercy of your plugins. Failing that, a hosted platform will require you to upload each individual file using a web interface. We want to avoid that for obvious reasons.
Before you conclude that a plugin is a simple thing, remember that you have to weigh price and the risk of unintended consequences before you acquire a plugin.
I’ve personally come across a plugin that promises to handle everything from batch uploads to redirect analytics. Sounds great, right? More analytics means more insight into your site.
The problem with that plugin was that it would conduct redirect analytics by running traffic through their URL – creating redirect hops through another domain – which is less than ideal for your SEO. I wanted batch uploading; the plugin promised that and a whole bunch of negative SEO consequences I didn’t want.
If you plan to incorporate a lot of sweeping changes that require batch uploading, make sure that your hosted platform has an effective plugin available before you make the switch.
In a self-hosted eCommerce solution, batch uploading will require having a developer on hand who can give you a solution specific to your uploading needs.
Canonical tags help you tell Google which page on your site is the original source of information, or the “master copy” of your page.
Essentially, Google allows you to consolidate duplicate URLs by designating your “canonical URL.” This results in a consolidated site with targeted pages to which you want to direct SEO attention.
Your inability to control canonical tags means you could end up with a large number of pages that Google essentially sees as “canonicalized to themselves” – even if/when they aren’t true canonicals.
You can use canonical tags to essentially tell Google, “yes, this individual page is duplicate content, and the original source of the content can be found over here. But we need this duplicate content to help the customer experience—so don’t punish us with a lower ranking.”
When You Need to Control Canonical Tags
Let’s imagine you run an eCommerce site selling furniture. A customer browses your products and filters out a specific category like “round tables”:
Furniture -> Tables -> Round Tables
This lands the customer on a unique product listing page like /alltables?shape=round.
That’s fine for the customer. But if that page has the same essential content as the /round-tables category page, you risk diluting the content when it comes to Google’s priorities.
In that use case, we would want to canonicalize the “/alltables?shape=round” to the /round-tables category page so the /round-tables continues to garner positive attention from Google.
Keep in mind that with hosted platforms like Shopify, you generally won’t have this control. You may be able to employ fancy workarounds with the help of a senior developer. Failing that, the existing plugins for hosted solutions are lacking, which is why you would need a developer to handle complicated changes.
If you’re a small company, these use cases can be complex and you won’t always have to worry about them. But the more sophisticated your SEO needs are, the more you’ll need this type of control in the future.
Most in SEO are familiar with what control over Robots.txt means, and we’ve previously addressed whether to index internal site search URLs. This is another essential avenue of control for eCommerce, allowing you to guide search engine bots as they crawl your site. The most important function is usually telling search engines where not to crawl, which helps preserve precious crawl budget, and avoid consequences as a result of duplicate content.
Self-hosted platforms tend to give you more control here, allowing direct editing of your own Robots.txt. Platforms like WordPress, Craft Commerce, and BigCommerce will allow you to edit Robots.txt, while Shopify limits your access. If you host your own site, you can expect as much control as you’d like.
Your sitemap is a simple document that you use to show search engines. It’s a literal map of your site the search engines can use for reference.
There are generally two types of sitemaps: HTML and XML versions:
- The HTML version is typically for the user, a list of links (hopefully with an intuitive visual display) to guide them around your site.
- An XML sitemap is essentially the same thing, but formatted specifically for search engines.
Simple enough, right? The wrinkle: you don’t want an eCommerce platform to automatically generate a sitemap that simply includes every possible URL on the site. This might result in a sitemap with the wrong pages, including non-canonical pages, non-indexable pages or pages that are non-functional (e.g. 404 & 500 errors.) We’ve found it important to present a consistent front to Google regarding whether you do or don’t want content crawled and indexed.
Regardless of platform type, the XML sitemap may be implemented by default or may require a plugin.
There are cases for each in each direction; WordPress needs a plugin but it’s a default in Shopify. However, you may need a Shopify plugin to alter functionality since all pages are included by default.
As with hosted eCommerce platforms, you’ll find that the sitemaps can vary wildly in functionality depending on the quality of these plugins. The key is to test this functionality to ensure that only functional, canonical, & indexable URLs are included.
Log File Access
Think of log files as the screens of green code out of “The Matrix.”
Except rather than using this code to watch Keanu Reeves learn Kung Fu, you’re watching every single interaction—bot or human—that happens at your website.
As you might imagine, this data can be essential to SEO. Access to your log files lets you uncover 404 errors, discover where Google’s robots are spending the most time on your site, and retrieve the information you need to edit your sitemaps, your Robots.txt, and your other directives.
There’s a stark difference between hosted and self-hosted eCommerce SEO when it comes to log files. You’ll generally have full access when you host yourself (with the exception of WordPress, which may not give you access depending on how you host); with hosted platforms, you’ll generally have either zero or limited access to log files.
In fact, it’s sometimes so hard to get access to your log files that BigCommerce once told us we needed a legal order to have log file access. That’s not a joke.
How you break up your individual product pages will have a major impact on your SEO.
Failure to properly paginate your category pages can result in PageRank dilution. This means that you may spread valuable authority across multiple pages when you’d prefer to keep it focused on one important page. To fix this, you’ll need control over your SEO pagination practices:
Ideally you’ll want to use SEO best practices like rel=”next” and rel=”prev” to show bots what’s happening. Regardless of the type of solution you have (self-hosted vs. hosted platform), getting the details right here can be complicated, especially when plugins are involved. Make sure you test your functionality prior to going live and fix any issues you come across.
For example, one common plugin—an infinite scroll plugin—can be great for the user, but can interfere with your pagination. Be wary about implementing an “Infinite scroll” feature on an eCommerce platform until you’re sure how it might affect your SEO and conversion rate.
If you need to implement custom pagination solutions to optimize your SEO, you’ll find that you might need more control.
Content Marketing and Blogging
There’s good news here for anyone who doesn’t already do a lot of blogging: you can use platforms like Shopify and BigCommerce for limited blogging needs and you likely won’t run into many problems.
The bad news: if you have a huge amount of content to migrate or plan on making blogging a major part of your ongoing strategy, and especially if you like to customize your blog and content significantly (certain pop-ups, certain styles, etc.), you’re probably going to want to use WordPress.
Why is this a problem? If you’re using a hosted eCommerce platform already, it may require you putting your blog on a subdomain, which would dilute the effectiveness of your content (and the pages they link to) for SEO. This is a real challenge for those with a robust content program that want to move to Shopify and BigCommerce, where the subdomain workaround is the only real solution available.
After all, what’s the purpose of content marketing? If you receive a lot of links, you want that viral “win” to give your page a lot of search engine authority. Spreading this authority too thinly across your primary domain and subdomain can decrease the returns from all your hard work.
Software breaks. Sometimes, it breaks in unexpected ways. That’s the nature of software.
A stage environment lets you make changes in a “safe” environment, running QA tests to ensure that any changes you made work as expected without breaking anything else on your site. This way, you won’t introduce new issues on the live site where both your site visitors and Google might see them. It’s a lot more work to fix these issues when they’ve gone live than if you identify them beforehand.
Setting up a stage site is possible with any type of site you have. But it can be somewhat more challenging depending on your platform or host. Sometimes, it can also be more costly. With some fancy footwork, you can set up Shopify for a stage environment. For BigCommerce, the costs and complications tend to be high enough to make it infeasible.
With self-hosting, more control over the stage environment can sometimes reduce costs over platforms like BigCommerce and give you more control.
How to Choose an eCommerce Platform
Here’s a brief rundown on a few of the questions you’ll need to ask before migrating:
- Control: How much do you need and how much do you want? Controlling your canonicals, your pagination, and your Robots.txt can have a dramatic impact on your SEO.
On the other hand, having more control can mean more opportunities to make big SEO mistakes if you don’t know what you are doing.
In other words: “with great power comes great responsibility.”
Self-hosted platforms are easy & stable and do most of what you need, while limiting your ability to shoot yourself in the foot.
But that’s the tradeoff: “can’t shoot yourself in the foot” also means you can’t really be excellent. And if you—or someone you work with, like Inflow—knows what they are doing, this can be limiting / frustrating (like a life on training wheels).
- Your infrastructure: Do you have the development team that can give you workarounds that support faulty plugins? Do you need regular access to your log files? If so, you might want to think about self-hosting.
- Your strategy: Where do you most anticipate receiving organic search traffic? Be honest with your priorities. For example, if you don’t have definite plans for ambitious content marketing strategies, you may get away with using the blog functionality of Shopify or another hosted platform.
The key takeaway: ask these and other similar questions first.
Don’t decide on a platform just yet. Decide what you want. If you know your priorities, you’ll save yourself constant SEO headaches in the future.
Note: Do you want to get clarity on the best SEO solutions for you? We can help you make these key decisions. Contact us here.