Ecommerce Platforms: an SEO’s nemesis?
God-bastard-dammit. Another day, another client. Another website that “can’t be changed”. Another calamitous drop in rankings caused by a weakness in site architecture and a lack of support for content delivery.
I have a drink of tea and sigh. It’s another e-commerce platform.
On paper, a platform offers something great: the opportunity to roll out a fully functional e-commerce store in as simple and cost effective a way as possible. The payment and admin systems have all been developed prior to the signing of a contract and the cost base for future development is split across many clients (and in truth will be borne mainly by the biggest clients then rolled out as a free or cheap extra to everyone else as it gets worked into the code base).
For new entrants into a market, it is a beguiling proposition. A platform will often work out cheaper in development costs and is quicker to bring online. Sometimes lots of the sticky stuff – payment gateways, stock control and logistics integration – comes as part of the bundle as optional modules and so the ease and rapidity of deployment looks like a no brainer compared to the effort required to spec out and oversee a bespoke build. Especially for businesses new to the internet.
But strategically, a shared ecoms platform is a poor choice. Here’s the cynic’s view in graphic form. Long, weary rant after the jump
The SEO Perspective
There is almost no site in existence that couldn’t do with a little more work on the SEO front. Sometimes that’s because of the varying preferences of different SEOs (“you like subdomains, I like folders” etc) but often there are a million small ways to make enhancements to site and no SEO will see them all.
But what happens when the site isn’t strictly your own property? On a platform, any change made to one site can potentially affect dozens of other sites because the heart of a platform is a shared code base.
Another client – on a different platform – cannot have unique content at category level. It “has to” spill across the pagination and every so often we’ll find it skulking on a product page or another part of the site where no-one was expecting it due to the tortuous internal logic of the platform.
For reasons that seem obscure, it is eventually decided that rel canonical can be implemented. Personally I still harbour doubts about the solution and the execution – especially when a couple of keywords continue to drop. But hey – it’s a platform and this is what they’ve got.
Another client. Massive problem. They want to re-organise their categorisation and move some stuff down into sub-categories. The SEO checklist is pretty simple and reads thus:
- 301 old pages to new ones
- Page titles, content and meta descriptions to be unique at sub category level
Neither of these things is deemed possible. I mean… WTF? Not even page titles?
You and I both know that the change is entirely possible – it’s just another database call. It’s just the platform developers don’t want to have to figure out a way of doing it because they’ll have to (all together now) give it to everyone. And my client is just one of many. While they are a big name in their own right, it’s fair to say that others on the platform are even bigger.
From the platform’s point of view, the importance attached to this one minor change for one client among many is going to be pretty low. From the client’s point of view, making these category changes could have massive negative effects. The business strategy, SEO and the supporting technology should all be pulling in the same direction.
Instead, we are forced into just giving the client unpalatable advice that says: “you can’t do what you want to do without a negative knock-on for SEO”. Which is a lousy message to deliver and doesn’t reflect well on anybody and leaves the client in no-man’s land, trying to weigh up a decision that shouldn’t even exist.
While SEO is my primary beef, I also worry about shared platforms from other perspectives.
We quoted for web development work and had to drop out of the running because we couldn’t commit to meeting the deployment date. The client went with a platform because – according to theory – you just stick a front end on, fill the database and you’re good to go. In fact, the site was launched 8 weeks late!
By the sheerest coincidence we’re in preliminary talks with a company who launched on the same platform. Their website too came in 8 weeks behind schedule. Go figure.
The “quick deployment” idea is often a chimaera. The site still needs designing. Despite the one-size-fits-all claim, there will be customisations. You are just one client among many and so can’t have that much sway on development timetables if a bigger customer comes banging on their door with demands for changes.
While that might be equally true for bespoke builds, an agency will inherently have more flexibility than a platform – and the logic of cashflow means that a big chunk of upfront development for a new client should take priority over tinkering for existing clients, giving you much more clout.
The Long Term
I once was in discussion with a platform provider to become their in-house SEO – taking one key client and then rolling out changes across the entire platform. During the interviews, it was explained to me that the customer base was almost guaranteed to stay:
- The contract had a long notice period (I think it was either 9 or 12 months)
- The customers were getting everything to run their business – from payment gateways to order fulfilment – which made it a logistical nightmare to leave, purely from a practical perspective
I’m sure that makes sense for the owners of the platform, but for a business it’s a pretty awful thought that getting away from a platform might take over a year and incur big costs: you would be paying retainers and such at the same time as paying for a new build alongside it (and more if you need new logistics integration etc).
Despite ragging so heavily on them, ecommerce platforms have their place. If you’re a small company or sole trader then an out-of-the-box solution can be the easiest way into the market place. If you’re an established name then it borders on lunacy to go down this route. Go bespoke. Please.