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The Six Pillars of E-Commerce Web Sites

The Six Pillars of an E-Commerce Site

Much of this can be applied to any type of site, but my focus will be specific to E-Commerce web sites. I’ve never put these concepts down on paper before, so I will likely be making changes over time as I refine my ideas. I believe this list covers the essentials to E-Commerce success – if any of these areas are weak, it will affect the others and the ultimate success of your site.

  1. Keyword Research:
    You must know what words people are using when trying to find what you’re offering. Frequently experts in a business use different terms than a layman would. The concept of the long tail is alive and well here, and pays excellent dividends. Chances are there are thousands of keyword phrases that would be worth pursuing. Many keyword research tools like this one will also help you figure out which have the most search volume, which will be a crucial factor in how you set up 2, 3, and 4.
  2. Content & Conversion:
    It won’t help you much if you get 5k visitors/day if they all leave immediately. Readable, compelling, original content will be key to success in the future. This takes work, no doubt about it. Talk to your customers, poll your customer service people for common questions, and look at your competitors. Content can be pre-emptive answers to common questions (e.g., a site that sells flowers could make an article about how to set up delivery, how long to expect the flowers to be fresh, or how to best feed them). Content can also be ‘infotainment’. Write an article on an interesting topic that is also educational. If you sell car parts, create articles about the history of a certain car or about the evolution of the tail fin.Your visitors can be divided into segments – shoppers, browsers, window-shoppers, etc. E-commerce sites naturally appeal to someone looking to buy, but adding content is a way to get visitors who are not yet shoppers. Show yourself to be an expert in your field, not just another reseller. If you convert your traffic well, advertising pays for itself a lot faster. You can bet that if the search engines can figure out a way to judge how long someone stays on your site, they will use that to adjust their rankings (if they aren’t already). Good content will be the key to becoming an authority in the field in the eyes of the search engines (and users). This will be an important topic going forward, and you must have good original content to become an authority. I’ll have to write more about what it means to be an authority later.
  3. Site Structure and Internal Linking:
    This is also referred to as information architecture (IA), and it’s one of the more neglected aspects of site design. It’s crucial that a lot of thought goes in to how you organize your content into a category structure that is intuitive for your users and helps your search engine placement. Your top tier categories should be between 5 and 7 optimally, and the deeper a user clicks into your site, the more choices you can give them.Studies have shown that users are willing to click more times to get to their desired content if they are confident that they are on the right path. It’s better to have more choices or a deeper category structure than to have ambiguous or confusing category names. Naming your categories should draw on your previous keyword research, with the most important terms seeing use in category names. It’s hard to make too many generalities about site structure, since it depends so much on the breadth and depth of the content.
  4. External Linking: Link popularity will always be important on the web, and not just for search engines. It’s a fundamental tenet of the Internet that people will naturally link to good content, which is why #2 is so important. If you have an interesting article, chances are good you will get inbound links to it over time without even trying. The text of the link pointing to a page is a very important indicator to search engines what the page is about. Strive to include your most important keywords (that you discovered in step 1) in your link text.External links fall into three categories: inbound, outbound, and reciprocal. Inbound links are web sites that link to yours without your linking to them. Outbound links are from your site to another who doesn’t link to you. Reciprocal links are when 2 sites both link to each other. Each plays a role to your site’s success.

    Inbound links will be considered ‘votes’ by the search engines. It’s like the site linking to you is confirming that you are good web site that has valuable content. These are the most coveted of links. Work to get links from sites that are in your topical area – if you sell computers, a link from Dell will be worth much more than a link from a carpet cleaning service. I do not recommend buying links, as search engines are incredibly sophisticated and I wouldn’t be surprised if they could detect link sellers. Not to mention it’s unlikely that the link would be from an on-topic site. The Page Rank value in your toolbar means little to achieving search engine rankings. Directories are a great place to start – here is a great list. Getting good inbound links is one of the toughest and most important parts of improving your rankings, and it takes time.

    Outbound links are links you place on your site to others. Many people are afraid to link to other sites, especially if they are in their topic area. What could be worse than losing a user to a competitor that you’re linking to? Maybe you’ve even heard that you lose Page Rank by linking to other sites. Both are true, but not as bad as they seem. PR doesn’t matter that much as long as it’s over 2 and less than 7-8. Above or below that and it plays a big part, but most of the web is inside that range, and you won’t drop a level by linking to some sites.

    Let’s think like a search engine for a moment – one of your jobs is to detect authentic sites from ‘spam’. One tactic is to detect what is natural for a site. If a site is good, it’s natural for people to link to it spontaneously (i.e., not purchased or reciprocal). It’s also natural to link to other sites that are relevant to your own. Say I write an article about say, SEO. It would be natural for me to link to other resources that my readers might find useful. Search engines know this, and you can bet they look for it. By not linking to anyone else, you are hurting your search engine rankings.

    Reciprocal links have been much ballyhooed as of late, and some even claim they can hurt your rankings. No one can prove this one way or another, but I don’t believe it can hurt. Reciprocal links are as natural as anything else on the web, and it would be silly to punish people for it. Of course, many people exchange links merely for the search engine benefit, so expect these links to be worth quite a bit less than a one-way link. I wouldn’t spend a great deal of time on this, but it’s a good idea to link to other good, relevant sites that might help your users. If you sell only patio furniture, it would be nice of you to provide links to good hardware, lumber, or other related sites.

  5. Tracking, Testing & Analytics: You must know what your visitors are doing on your site, where they are leaving from, and what works. The only way to know the changes you are making are an improvement is to track and test your important changes. Google Analytics is now free to use, and is better than other hosted stats packages that run hundreds of dollars per month. It allows you to track conversions, split test content, and track funnel navigation (drop-off during a process, like checkout). Before making any proposed site change, ask yourself if there is a way to quantify the effect. Guessing is not a good idea.
  6. Advertising: Assuming you have done the first 4 steps, this will be a rousing success. You know what keywords to bid on in pay per click engines like Google adwords and Overture (Yahoo!). Your site converts the traffic well, so the advertising pays for itself quickly. Finally, you are tracking the success of every advertising campaign, converting it to a simple equation like ‘I spent $100 in pay per click for $852.10 in sales’.

But where’s the SEO? Well that’s the good and bad news. The good news is that SEO is inseparable from the above aspects of creating a good web site (except advertising I suppose). That’s right – if done properly, you won’t need to do anything outside of the above to succeed in the search engines. The bad news is that there’s a lot of subtlety to the best way to implement every one of these pillars, and it would take a very long time to go into it all. But, never fear: this is the Internet. The information is out there, people are just giving it away! If you want to dedicate a lot of time to learning more, I would start with Webmaster World and just start reading.

If you don’t have quite that kind of time, you can still have quite a bit of success in the less competitive areas on your own. Consultants like myself can help point you in the right direction, help you write content and titles, find directories and other places to get links from, help with keyword research, you name it. Just make sure to get some references and check their current clients’ success. There are quite a few charlatans out there willing to promise the moon, so beware. No one can promise natural rankings, and some apparent guarantees just mean they will keep trying, not that you get any money back.


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I have been working with computers and web sites for 20+ years, and have enjoyed mastering many areas of technology. I have been building websites for about 15 years, and working with NetSuite for more than 10. I have worked with dozens of small and medium-sized companies in that time, helping them to understand and leverage the latest tools to grow their business. My business is all about helping you to maximize your business, and I prefer to establish long-term relationships with clients who are dedicated to embracing smart ways to optimize and expand their business.

2 comments… add one

  • Ramona April 17, 2013, 7:20 pm

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    • David Norris April 24, 2013, 8:53 am

      Sure, feel free to quote any article you like, with attribution.

      -David

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