SEO for Developers

Brian Adams
May 21, 2019 · 9 min read
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As an ecommerce developer, you know that SEO is important for driving traffic to the sites you build, but SEO also might not be your primary concern. SEO is a discipline that encompasses both content marketing as well as the technical side of web development, and so there’s shared ownership across marketing and web development teams. But the technical decisions that you make when building an ecommerce site can have a sizeable impact on search rankings, so it’s important for developers to understand the basics of SEO.

In this blog post, we’ll define some of the terminology around SEO, like On-Site versus Off-Site. Then, we’ll run through a few of the key points to consider when optimizing sites for SEO and outline best practices for building discoverable sites. By the end of this article, you’ll take away some actionable technical SEO tips to make your client’s site rise above the competition.

What is SEO?

SEO (search engine optimization) is an extremely valuable practice that can result in delivering more traffic — and possibly higher quality traffic — to your website through organic search. Generally, this is done by improving where your site shows within the list of results that a search engine returns for specific keywords/phrases.

There are a lot of items that can go into a full SEO strategy. Search engines use hundreds of separately weighted factors to calculate if and where your site will display within its result pages. However, all of these factors can be split between two larger strategy buckets: 1) On-Site SEO and 2) Off-Site SEO.

On-Site SEO refers to the items within your site that can be optimized, such as site markup, content quality and page speed. Off-Site SEO includes external factors that go into your rankings, such as backlinks, social metrics and content sharing.

For the purposes of this article, we are going to focus on On-Site SEO and how developers can work with the different items that go into this bucket through the BigCommerce platform.

SEO Checklist

It’s worth noting that everyone is doing the same things to optimize their SEO. This means that you need to do these same things better than your competition or find a strategy that sets you apart from your competition.

Content, Content, Content…

First off, content is king. Generally, coming up with product descriptions, landing page content, blog posts, keyword research, etc. would not be classified as a web developer’s responsibility. However, this is one of the most important aspects of an SEO strategy, so this is an area that you should be familiar with.

For example, when customizing your web page titles and meta descriptions, the content used should fall in line with a predetermined keyword strategy. The information that you see in the results of a search engine query are the page titles and descriptions of the top results. That makes title tags and meta descriptions critical to SEO but they also make your site look a lot more interesting compared to the rest of the results when used properly.

A good general rule to follow is to make the content as high quality, descriptive, and user friendly as possible. Also, try to avoid duplicate content; for example, a product description that’s been copied and pasted across multiple similar products. Try to be as relevant to the page’s subject matter as possible and always try to use unique content.

For a product page, you have many areas of opportunity to tailor content to the page’s purpose, such as the Product Name, Description, associated Images and Videos, Custom Fields, Product Reviews, etc. This also goes for attributes attached to each of those items, such as making sure you have descriptive descriptions for your image alt tags.

Creating unique content can be difficult at times, especially in scenarios where you have products that are very similar. It is always a good idea to promote Product Reviews on your products to help create product specific unique content.

URL Structure

When creating a URL structure for a page, you should make sure a user can understand what your page is about by looking at the URL. So, including the main keywords and removing the less descriptive words is important. You should avoid overloading URLs with a specific keyword as well. Adding the same keyword multiple times in the hope of increasing your ranking chances will only lead to a spammy URL structure which could work against your goal.

URL structures, while not required, should be consistent for management purposes. Search engines will see two URLs with the same words but with different capitalization as two separate URLs. This is the same for URLs that use the same keywords but are separated using hyphens vs. underscores. Canonical URLs and 301 redirects, discussed in following sections, can help manage some of these use cases but trying to stick with a consistent structure should always be a priority to ensure efficient indexing of content.

Generally, you should try to avoid unnecessary special characters within URLs, if possible. However, special characters definitely still have their place within URLs parameters for a variety of valid reasons. These parameters can be useful to send users to a specific section of a page, filter content, etc. When using URLs with parameters like this, you should always consider whether each URL should be indexed independently or not.

You will also want to keep your higher valued keywords earlier in the URL and avoid wasting any space because Google will truncate your URL in the search engine results pages, usually around 512 pixels rather than by a specific character count. Other search engines will truncate results as well so a good rule of thumb is to keep your URLs as short as you can and make the best use of the real estate that you have available.

BigCommerce keeps URLs SEO-friendly by using a lower case, hyphen separated structure that allows you to specify keywords along with short term or long term keyword strategies. The platform also handles 301 redirects and URL canonicalization which we will discuss in more detail in the upcoming sections.

Canonical URLs

Canonical URLs are pieces of metadata within each page template that are used to tell Google and other search engines which URL should be indexed and ranked.

Canonical URLs will ensure that the search engines see all of these URLs:

www.domain.com/mycategory
domain.com/mycategory
domain.com/mycategory?sort=newest
www.domain.com/mycategory?utm_source=1

And index them as a single page — www.domain.com/mycategory--within their search results.

The use of canonical URLs is always recommended, so BigCommerce generates these for you and makes sure that they are included within the metadata for all pages across your site.

301 redirects

A 301 redirect is a permanent redirect that lets search engines know that they should pass the rank and value of page to a new page that has been created. For example, if you have decided to replatform, your URL structure may be different on the new platform. You’ll need to create a redirect from the old pages so you do not lose any rankings within the search engines.

BigCommerce allows users to import 301 redirects in bulk, if needed, making it easy to create these redirects when a store first launches. BigCommerce will also create new 301 redirects automatically when any updates are made to the site’s taxonomy, URL structure, etc. so that you will not have to worry about creating redirects every time a change is made. All 301 redirects can be managed directly within the Control Panel as well.

Robots.txt

A robots.txt file indicates whether search engines can or cannot crawl parts of a website. You can create instructions that “allow” or “disallow” user agents to crawl and index pages or areas of your site. This file can be used for more than just SEO purposes, as you can apply these instructions to all user agent bots, but let’s focus on SEO use cases here.

A major use case is to block a sandbox store or a store in development from search engines to prevent content from being indexed before it is ready. Blocking specific areas of the site that you do not want indexed, such as file directories, account areas, or syndicated content, are all viable use cases as well.

301 redirects and Canonical URLs can be used to attribute a page’s value to a different URL, however, the pages will still be crawled. Using the robots.txt file will stop search engine bots from accessing and crawling certain pages or areas of your site altogether.

This has value from an indexing standpoint as well given that search engine bots have a limited amount of time to index your site. Using this file appropriately will help ensure that search engines are spending as much time as possible focusing on the pages you want to be crawled and indexed.

BigCommerce allows direct access to the robots.txt within the Control Panel so that you can utilize this file for a variety of use cases. We recommend you check out our documentation on robots.txt best practices before editing this file as it can have major effects on how search engines index your site.

Page Load Speed

Google has indicated that site speed and page speed are factors that goes into their ranking algorithm. This makes sense given that Google and other search engines want to serve up the best results possible, which includes taking into account a good User Experience.

These reasons have led BigCommerce to take page speed very seriously. Ensuring a quick server response time as well as using a CDN with image optimization are just a few things that we offer all merchants using our platform.

We also take extra measures to ensure that the themes applied to a store render efficiently. It is still always recommended that as a developer, you should always use best practices when customizing your themes to ensure that the theme still renders as efficiently as possible.

This is one of many tools that you can use to test the speed of your site:

https://www.seoreviewtools.com/google-pagespeed-checker/

Mobile Responsive and Google AMP

Mobile Responsive sites are almost a requirement given that over 50% of web traffic is done through mobile devices. This will also have an effect on your ranking with search engines. Mobile optimized sites are preferred by search engines to display within their mobile search results. For this reason, BigCommerce themes are all mobile responsive and are also enabled with Google AMP.

In the same way that you should make sure customizations to your themes are optimized for page load speed, developers should also ensure that customizations to themes are mobile optimized for your mobile SEO strategy.

This is a tool that Google provides where you can measure the responsiveness of your mobile site:

https://search.google.com/test/mobile-friendly

XML Sitemaps

An XML sitemap is a list of all the pages and files within your site along with information that describes the contents of and the relationships between each of these items. This is a way for you to tell search engines which items within your site you think are most valuable to crawl and index.

BigCommerce will automatically generate a sitemap for you that you can find at www.yourdomain.com/xmlsitemap.php. It’s best practice to always submit your sitemap to webmaster tools for each of the search engines when launching a new site, to ensure they have a map of your site’s structure.

Conclusion

There are A LOT of items that go into a full SEO strategy. The purpose of this post is to shed some light on areas where developers can focus to ensure that a company’s site is inline with their SEO strategy. The items discussed here are just part of a full SEO strategy, but will help to ensure that your site has the technical components involved with being search engine-friendly.

Interested in learning more? Check out a few of the links below for some recommended reading on SEO best practices:

BigCommerce Developer Blog

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