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Don’t Build an Ecommerce Site Without These 7 Principles

If you’re about to start an ecommerce site, you have plenty of downside. For starters, there is a ton of competition in just about every niche. Even if you have great products, you still need to stand out among your many competitors. Just having a great product is not enough.

There is plenty of upside, though, especially if you’re just starting off. You have an advantage over every other ecommerce site in your niche: you don’t have to deal with an old site that has plenty of bugs and errors. With a fresh slate, you can construct your site to not only work with current standards, but make it adaptable to any future changes.

Online store

Follow these seven principles and you’ll put yourself on the right path for ecommerce success.

1. Carefully plan the site architecture

Before you write create a single product page, your first step for creating an ecommerce site is to carefully plan the architecture. You’ll probably want to make a diagram, like this one at Creately, before you actually start implementing any kind of structure.

The key is making sure that you have a known number of subcategory drill-downs. You can get heavy-handed here and go on forever. So know your limits. If you don’t want to drill down into six subcategories, you don’t have to do that. By diagraming and planning early, you can make sure that your site is set up exactly how you want.

While this will help you with your launch, the greatest advantages come down the road when you start to add more products, or perhaps more subcategories. If you have a carefully planned architecture, you don’t need to worry. All new subcategories and products will fit in a logical place.

Hastily launch an ecommerce site without this kind of planning, and you could create an absolute mess. That’s how otherwise good ecommerce sites fail.

2. Make popular subcategories accessible from the homepage

Proper ecommerce promotion is all about product placement. Put the right products on the homepage and you can help drive sales. You could spend a year learning about product placement and still end up guessing half the time. Product tastes can change on a dime, so you’ll always be experimenting.

Another challenge can be ensuring that the right subcategory pages are accessible from the homepage. Sports ecommerce sites have the greatest challenge here. Take the Steelers site for example. They want to make it easy for people to find the jerseys of their most popular players. Yet to get there, normal site architecture dictates two clicks — one to the top players page, and then into the individual player.

To create an easier experience for users, they placed listings for their very top players within the Jerseys category drop-down on the homepage. So if you’re looking for a Roethlisberger jersey, you can get there in one click. Making things easier for users is a surefire way to increase sales, so funneling them to popular subcategory pages is essential.

Steelers online shop screenshot

3. Use the canonical tag for any sorting features

The best ecommerce sites let users take control. Just look at Bodybuilding.com. They let users sort in every possible way: by goal, by category, by brand, and by ingredient. Fit people love using the site not only because of the low prices, but because they feel like they’re in charge.

When you allow so much user control over sorting and categorization, you leave yourself wide open for duplicate content issues. Thankfully, Google has supplied a way for ecommerce sites to avoid this. By implementing the rel=”canonical” tag, they can make sure that the search engine only sees one version of the page, while users can see as many as they want.

If you want to sort their energy products by product name, you’d get the URL http://www.bodybuilding.com/store/goalenergy.htm?sort=productName. If you look into the source code, though, you’ll see the properly implemented canonical tag:

<link rel="canonical" href="http://www.bodybuilding.com/store/goalenergy.htm" />

While the search engine will find /goalenergy.html?sort=productName, it will not index it. Instead it will understand that it is just a sorted version of the main /goalenergy.htm page.

4. Beware unintentionally duplicate pages

While avoiding duplicate content has become gospel, that doesn’t mean it’s easy to execute. Ecommerce sites have intricate architectures. It’s easy to create a structure whereby two subcategory pages contain similar, if not the same, content.

Let’s say you own an apparel store. You have main category pages for men’s, women’s, and children’s clothes, but you also have them for t-shirts, shoes, bottoms, and jackets. This can lead to duplicate pages when you try to drill down into subcategories.

For instance, if you click on the women’s category, and then t-shirts you’ll likely end up at shop.com/womens/tshirts/. What if you instead click on t-shirts and then click on women’s? Will you end up at shop.com/tshirts/womens/? If so, you’re in for a mess of duplicate content issues.

At this point you have two options. You can decide which page you prefer and link only to it. So when you click on t-shirts and then click on women’s, it will instead take you to shop.com/womens/tshirts/. That can be a bit confusing if the user is paying attention to URLs. But it’s typically a low-level concern.

The other solution is to extend your use of the canonical tag. You’ll use both shop.com/womens/tshirts/ and shop.com/tshirt/womens/, but you’ll implement the canonical tag on one of them. So on shop.com/tshirt/womens you’d put the following in the header:

<link rel="canonical" href="https://shop.com/womens/tshirts/" />

Bluefly.com takes care of this wonderfully. They have both Men and Shoes category pages, but when you find the links under either, they both point to /mens/designer-shoes/.

Bluefly shoes page screenshot

5. Make sure HTTPS is available sitewide

Do you absolutely need HTTPS available on your homepage and product pages? No. Browsing those pages does not require a secure connection, since you’re not dealing with personal and sensitive information. But that doesn’t mean you can just forget about HTTPS on those pages.

Google’s most recent update to its HTTPS guidelines suggests using relative URLS in site structure. That means when you click on a non-HTTPS link from an HTTPS page, you’ll be directed to the HTTPS version of the linked page. That will cause errors, either a 404 or worse, a security warning.

On top of that, implementing a secure homepage shows users a sign of trust. Depending on your browser, you might even see the company name before the URL. At the very least users will see a green lock icon. In both cases, trust is conferred to the user. For lesser-known ecommerce sites, this can be the difference between winning business and losing it to a larger competitor.

6. Optimize your 404 page

Like it or not, your site is going to generate errors. Perhaps having an item out of stock causes a 404 page. Maybe there’s a bad link coming from another site. Maybe Google is indexing a page that never existed. (It might seem outlandish, but this happens all the time.) In that case, users will land on a 404 page.

A 404 page can mean a quick exit from your site. The user didn’t find what he or she wanted. Time to go look somewhere else. That is, unless you step in and help them out.

There are many ways to address 404 errors on ecommerce sites. Read up, and study everyting you can. The last thing you want is for your 404 page to lose you a customer, potentially for life.

7. Ensure basic SEO elements are built in

This shouldn’t have to be said, but after all the ecommerce sites I’ve seen it most certainly does. You don’t need to be an SEO whiz to start an ecommerce site. But you do need to implement the very basics. This means, in general, three elements:

Title tags. These are the most important SEO elements of any page. The title tag tells search engines what the page is about. Without a proper title tag, your site might not even appear in the top 100 search results.

H1 tags. Each category and subcategory page should have an H1 tag on it, describing the precise content on the page. You don’t want to put an H1 tag on your homepage, since your homepage is about many products. But if you have a men’s shoes page, you absolutely want to indicate, through an H1 tag, that this is a men’s shoes page. It’s best to not use branded terms, since you’ll be using branded terms in the title tag.

Ample content. If you just have product listings, and then a list of features on product pages, your site will not stand out. Ecommerce sites distinguish themselves by providing content to users. This might be an elaborate, readable product description. It might be category descriptions. Maybe you add product manuals and reviews to product pages. Whatever the case, make sure you add content that stands out. Otherwise you’ll blend in with every mediocre ecommerce site.

Ecommerce analysis

There’s a lot to digest, but no one said that creating an ecommerce site would be easy. With tons of competition, it’s indeed very difficult. But if you follow these seven principles, you’ll get off to a good start. That’s all you can ask for in this internet economy.

About author

Joe Pawlikowski
Joe Pawlikowski 9 posts

Joe Pawlikowski owns and has worked for a number of startups in the last seven years. He keeps his thoughts on marketing and blogging at JoePawl.com.

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