The Internet is the retail industry’s biggest new frontier. Online retail sales are expected to touch $329 billion by 2010, according to Forrester Research. That is a huge market by any yardstick. But any online retailer hoping to get a slice of that big pie will face one major hurdle on the path to customer acquisition: making their dynamic, database-driven sites search engine friendly.
It’s a no-brainer that search engines such as Google drive a majority of the traffic to web sites. And if online retailers want to attract huge volumes of prospects to their sites, they must have a strong SEO/SEM strategy.
That’s easier said than done. Shopping sites are by nature dynamic and database-driven. That’s the only way they can remain user-friendly. A shopper visits a site, chooses a few parameters and variables and is shown a page of products that match his or her criteria.
But search engines use software spiders not humans to crawl and index web sites. And though search engines have, over the years, become better at indexing dynamic pages, they are still known to stumble at this hurdle.
What exactly is a dynamic page? A simple definition is that a dynamic page is one that does not exist till a user or an agent submits certain parameters or variables to a database. For instance consider a page on an online shopping site that has three drop down boxes. One contains a list of product categories such as shoes, clothes, toys etc; a second has a list of locations such as Kolkata, Mumbai, Chennai etc; and the third has a price range (under Rs.1000, between Rs.1000-2000, over Rs.2000). If you choose ‘Shoes, Mumbai and Under Rs.1000’, you will get a page that lists products that meet your selection criteria.
The problem is that a search engine crawler will never be able to input those variables. Therefore, as far as the search engine is concerned, the dynamic page simply does not exist.
So how can sites with dynamic content get listed and ranked highly on search engines. Here are a few ways in which you can tackle the issue:
Create static URLs: To begin with convert dynamic URL into a static one. Search engine crawlers cannot read – or choose to ignore — query or database characters like `$’, or `?’ , aptly described as `spider traps’. There are many ways in which you can convert your dynamic URLs into static ones. It’s best to consult with your SEO partner on what is the best way in which you can do this.
Create information-rich static pages: Create a browsable directory of product or category-specific. Link them to dynamic pages. Optimise these static pages for you key terms and then submit them to search engines. But handle this carefully. Many webmasters create static shadow pages, and are penalised by search engines for spamming.
Create content-rich catalogs of your products that include reviews, ratings, user feedback etc. Such content-rich pages are not only search engine friendly, but they are also very user friendly.
Consider paid submission: Online shopping sites could also go in for paid inclusion in search engines like Yahoo! with `Trusted XML feeds’. This way, they’ll be able to submit dynamically generated pages, which crawlers never visit. It’s important to remember that while this ensures that web pages are indeed indexed on the search engine, it does not guarantee where they appear. So there’s no getting around it: web sites have to be well-optimised so that they figure on top of the search results.
Get your products into comparison and shopping engines: More and more online shoppers are using comparison and specialized shopping search engines such as Froogle. Get your products listed on them.
While SEO optimisation is indeed critical, it’s by no means the end of the story. Online merchants must build sites that are customer-friendly and not just search-engine-friendly. If a shopping site has good information, great deals, and a reputation for speedy delivery and quality products, it’s bound to attract a lot of custom. If it doesn’t, it won’t be able to sell much, SEO friendly or unfriendly.