Shopping Carts and SEO

Shopping and the Web. They go together like Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Well, maybe not quite, but Internet shopping is one of the fastest-growing industries in the world.

It's fairly easy to set up shop and sell almost anything from bananas to banana boats on the Internet. Browse through the shopping section of Google (Froogle) or Yahoo and you can see the amazing variety of products that are available.

Click on a few of those links and take a look at the address bar on your browser. Many online stores use some kind of dynamic system for generating their pages. This means their product information is drawn from a database and dynamically displayed.

Dynamically displayed pages look something like this:

http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&lr=&q=shopping+cart&btnG=Search

You will notice that there is no extension which would indicate a static page.

Is there a problem with dynamic pages? From SEO perspective there is a real problem. Search engines have trouble indexing dynamic pages, especially with multiple variables.

Here is what Google has to say about dynamic pages:

"If you decide to use dynamic pages (i.e., the URL contains a "?" character), be aware that not every search engine spider crawls dynamic pages as well as static pages. It helps to keep the parameters short and the number of them few".

Shopping carts that use a lot of parameters will have trouble getting indexed by search engines.

The Solution?

A client recently approached me to provide a shopping cart that would allow his products to be indexed properly. In addition, he had special requirements for the size and the cost of the shopping cart. The cart needed to be as inexpensive and as small as possible.

My client had previously been using PayPal "Buy it Now" buttons but disliked the way the customer was immediately taken to the PayPal site. He felt that would discourage people from making additional purchases before checking out.

I investigated the various free shopping carts like Zen Cart, osCommerce, and AgoraCart. They all offered some sort of SEO modifications, but they were too large to fit in my client's limited hosting account.

Digging a little further, I came across Commerce.cgi -- a compact, fully customizable shopping cart. But free version did not offer the features that my client desired. The pages are dynamically generated, and there is no support for PayPal.

However, for a $50 lifetime membership, he had access to the member's area which provided extra scripts for PayPal integration. There is also a very interesting script for making dynamic pages appear static.

This script, called Search Engine Advanced, uses the Apache mod_rewrite function to change requested URLs. I checked with my client to see if his Apache server supported mod_rewrite, and that was in luck. All systems go!

Installing the Commerce.cgi script was quite straightforward, and I could easily adapt the templates to match the style of my client's existing web site. Once the cart was installed and running, I tried adding the Search Engine Advanced hack. There were a few complications, but the support staff at Commerce.cgi helped me sort it all out.

The results are very pleasing indeed. All the dynamic pages appear as static, and Google, Yahoo and MSN have started to index the site.

You can see the site up and running at Tea From Taiwan - specializing in hand processed oolong tea.

I would highly recommend Commerce.cgi for anyone looking for a highly configurable shopping cart. It is suitable for small to medium sites and offers great support through their BBS.

Copyright 2005 by Ross MacIver

This article may be redistributed freely on the Internet or in ezines as long as the resource box and hyperlinks remain intact.

Ross MacIver is the director of Best Online Content. We provide quality content for your web site and offer a full range of design and SEO services.

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