Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Tips & Tricks: Using dynamic 301 redirects to avoid a drop in search engine rankings

Be careful when moving your Web store: it could cause a major drop in your search engine rankings.

Take this example. Company XYZ decides to move their Web store. For instance, they want to switch to a new ecommerce platform (other reasons might be moving to a new host, or a new dedicated server, or a new Web site design, etc.). To minimize downtime, Company XYZ sets up the new store at, whereas the current store is still running at

When they are done with testing, they shut down their old store by placing some links on some of the old store pages and a message on the home page that says that customers should visit to purchase from now on.

A couple of weeks later they turn off the old store since they no longer need it.

Their sales start dropping. Why? Are customers not liking the new store?

No, it's traffic that dropped.

The fact that CompanyXYZ switched domain name was a strategic mistake. In Google's index, the ".net" domain represents a completely new Web site. It doesn't matter that the rest of the domain name is the same. Google views the store as a brand new store, with no history.

How can you avoid this problem? You do need to test the new store using a real domain name. You can't just use an IP address since testing the checkout process with SSL, for example, is not possible with just an IP address.

So what can you do when you do the switch?

Here are the steps you need to take:
  • Point the old domain name to the new store. Of course, this is number 1 on the list. If this is NOT possible, then unless you can use 301 redirects on the old domain name, you are in big trouble and there is not much you can do to avoid the drop in rankings. If this IS possible, you still need to use 301 redirects if some of the old pages are no longer being used. For example, if you switch ecommerce system, the old dynamic URLs need to point to the new ones. (e.g. might need to point to a page that looks different now that you are using a new system, such as You can do this by using dynamic 301 redirects. See below.

  • Understand what 301 Permanent Redirects are. Redirecting is normally a big "no, no" when you talk about search engine optimization, but 301 redirects are search engine friendly, and endorsed officially by search engines. The Web Master FAQs area of the Google Web site contains an article on 301 redirects.

  • Use dynamic 301 redirects. Ask your Web master to help you on this. You can dynamically generate the 301 redirects so that they are product-, category-, or page-specific. When you do that, specific product, category, or other dynamic pages that had been indexed by the search engine will permanently redirect to the corresponding pages on your new store. For example, the page on the old store that described a certain product, will permanently redirect to the corresponding page on the new store. This will help you maintain intact the popularity of individual pages.

This happened to a store that recently moved from Yahoo! Stores to using our ProductCart shopping cart software. They were in the top 10 on Google on some of their most relevant keyword phrases, and now they are nowhere to be found.

Be careful and take full advantage of 301 Permanent Redirects!

Monday, February 19, 2007

Tips & Tricks: avoid security warnings

Does your store use SSL? Probably so. If the answer is "yes", then here is something that you should really try to avoid: security warnings. I see them way, way too often. And they are quite easy to avoid.

What's a security warning? It's an alert window shown to your customers whenever the browser detects that something on the page is not secure, but the URL is a secure one (https). I'm sure you've seen a security warning many times. It looks like this:

It bugs you (and maybe scares you) when you see it... and it bugs your customers too.

How can you make sure your store is free of security warnings? It's actually rather simple. You need to ensure that your Web site does not load any element over the HTTP protocol. If you are loading a page element (e.g. images, CSS and JavaScript files, etc.) using an absolute location (i.e. full URL), you must use the HTTPS protocol. For example, there should be no src="http://... on your page, but rather only src="https://

Where to look? Here are the common culprits:
  • Google Analytics (or another, remotely hosted Web statistics service)
    Make sure that the code snippet that you grab from your Google Analytics account is the HTTPS version, and not the HTTP one. I've seen a lot of store owners make this mistake, because Google by default gives you the HTTP version. The same is true if you are using a service other than Google Analytics. They pretty much always allows you obtain a secure version of the piece of code to be placed on your page.

  • Google AdWords or Yahoo! Search Marketing conversion tracking
    Same thing here. Make sure you get the HTTPS version of your Pay-Per-Click conversion tracking code. Typically this code ends up on the last page of the checkout process, so the bugging security alert won't prevent customers from ordering (they've already placed the order). Still, it just doesn't look good :-)

  • CSS and JS files
    If you are loading an external stylesheet or a JavaScript file, which happens pretty often, make sure that the URL that points to the file uses HTTPS. If you use relative links, you're never wrong (i.e. place those files in a folder on your Web server so that you can just point to them using a link such as src="styles/myStyle.css" instead of src="")

  • Flash elements
    If you have any Adobe (Macromedia) Flash elements on your page, make sure that the code that is added to the page by Dreamweaver or another HTML editor to handle the Flash file does not contain HTTP URLs. It often does.

So check your site (or have your Web designer double-check his/her work). Remove those security warnings: no reason to give your customers one more reason not to stay on your Web store!

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Google Checkout: should you add it to your store as a payment option?

Well... yes. Here is why.

By now you're probably familiar with Google Checkout. If not, read the intro on Google, and buy something using this service to really see first-hand how it works.

As an Internet shopper, it makes sense to me to be able to just log into my Google account and shop at different stores without having to re-register. It also makes sense to me to be able to hide my e-mail address from the merchant. On the other side, I don't like the idea that the folks at Google know about every product that I have purchased and where. Hey, good and bad like with anything else.

Why do you need to add it to your store as a payment option? The reason is that this is not the right question. The right question is... why not?

Google has huge pockets, so they are marketing their new payment system in a way that is as aggressive as you could ever imagine. They are paying ecommerce software developers to include it in their products (which we at Early Impact did in the fall), they are paying customers to use it (rebates on first purchase available at many stores), and they are giving merchants free transaction processing for 2007 (so you save around 2% * sales, compared with the same sales processed via another payment gateway).

PayPal is reacting to this by more aggressively marketing their competing service, called PayPal Express. Still, Google Checkout is quickly gaining marketshare (see JP Morgan study that says that it had around 6% in 2006, but it's probably much higher now).

Note, the service has many limitations: no batch processing, limited functionality when it comes to shipping calculations, not available outside of the US, and many others. Check with your shopping cart software publisher to see the exact limitations that apply to your software (if you are a ProductCart user, see Using Google Checkout with ProductCart).

If you are looking for a shopping cart that is compatible with Google Checkout, here is the current list.

My suggestion: activate it on your store. If it doesn't work for you, you can always turn it off. But why give customers a reason to shop elsewhere if they want to earn their bonus (currently $10) by using Google Checkout on your store?

And I'm sure that later in 2007 there will be many more customers that will want to use Google Checkout for all sorts of other creative reasons that Google will come up with. If I were you, I'd add it to the payment options.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The niche is the trick (second part)

In the first part of The niche is the trick I started making my point about why I strongly believe that small businesses should target a very specific market when embarking on an ecommerce project.

I talked about the first reason why I think this makes sense: when you build a store that goes after a niche market that you're an expert in, you're almost automatically gearing yourself up for better search engine rankings (and therefore more visits, customers, and sales). Go back to ONE: Niche = SEO to see if you agree.

Let's keep going. Here is the second reason why I think targeting a niche is key.

TWO: Niche = Your Budget
That is: targeting a niche is likely more compatible with your ecommerce budget. Ok, are we done with these cryptic paragraph titles? Not yet: I like them because they're easy to remember.

Anyway, here the point is that if you are a small business, you typically have a small business budget for your ecommerce store (if your uncle is a billionaire you can stop reading). So don't try to compete with Office Depot,, or Macy's. It's much better (and more profitable) to sell 20 products and do it right, than trying to sell 20,000 products and do it poorly.

Why is this a budget matter? Because quite honestly running a store that features 20,000 products can require technology and human resources that are beyond your budget. Don't get me wrong: it can be done. There are many store that use our ProductCart shopping cart software or competing systems like X-Cart, MonsterCommerce, Storefront, etc. to sell thousands of products online. The businesses that do it right typically have years of experience in selling stuff online and find their way around technical limitations. But generally speaking, less is more!

You typically have $10,000 to spend on your online store (maybe less), not $1,000,000. There are many reasons why a small biz ecommerce Web site doesn't cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and "scalability" (big buzz word) is one of them.

Here are a few thoughts on why targeting a niche (and therefore a limited number of products) is more compatible with your budget:
  • Content, content, content
    If you are a small business it's typically easier to compete on service than on price. Service on the Internet means - among other things - lots of good information for people to make good purchasing decisions. That's what your store visitors are looking for. It's hard for you to have the best price out there... and you don't have to be the cheapest guy around. As mentioned in Part 1, one of the ways to get people to come back to your store is definitely to have great content that they love to read. That is: become the "go to" Web site in your niche. And it's much more doable to write detailed product descriptions, articles, and "how-to's" when you're dealing with a manageable amount of products, rather than with 50,000 SKUs.
  • Store management tools
    At Early Impact we have spent (and keep spending) a ton of time building into our ecommerce software tools that help businesses cut down on repeat tasks and be more productive. For example, in the latest version of our software we added AJAX-driven product search tools to most of the store management features, so you are rarely faced with ugly, long lists of products to sort through (e.g. adding quantity discounts to a product: search -> add discounts; adding product options to 5 products at once: search -> add options; etc.). Many of our competitors have done the same. Still, you should not expect from a small business ecommerce system the same scalability that you find in tools that cost 100 times as much (otherwise we'd charge the big bucks too!). Will your system help you effectively setup and manage cross-selling relationships among 20,000 products? Probably not. Keep that in mind.
  • Performance
    Many small businesses don't have the budget to run their Web store on powerful, dedicated servers. The cost of doing so is coming down (which is great), but we still see the majority of our customers running their stores on shared Web hosting accounts. And, more importantly, on shared database servers where their store database is hanging out with dozens (sometimes hundreds) of other databases. Well, a storefront search against a database of 1,000 products is less demanding on the server than a search against the same database with 30,000 items.
  • Expectations
    Your customers don't expect you to have the inventory found on a huge ecommerce store. If they need Staples, they're going to Staples, they're not coming to your store. They come to your store for other reasons: content, customer service, unique products (not in order of importance). They don't expect you to be Amazon, but they do expect you to be an expert in your field: good information, good advice, good products. It's like when I go buy wine at a small wine shop vs. a big grocery store. I'm looking for a good suggestion on a Napa Valley zinfandel (hey, we're in California), not a huge selection of 100 zinfandels: I don't care that they carry 100, but I do expect them to have picked a few good ones, and know all sorts of interesting details about them.

If you focus on a niche market, typically that means that you are focusing on a somewhat limited amount of products (not outdoor gear, but kayaking gear; not electronics, but smartphone accessories; not furniture, but teak patio furniture; etc.).

A store that carries a manageable amount of products is likely more compatible with the ecommerce tools you can afford and the human resources you can dedicate to running the shop. What "manageable" translates to depends on your experience running an online store and on the kind of products you are selling. My suggestion: start small (up to a few hundred products), then expand your product selection as your sales grow.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

The niche is the trick (first part)

Small business ecommerce: it's amazing how literally hundreds of thousands of businesses all over the world, every day, sell their products and services using a tool that a decade ago virtually didn't exist. At Early Impact - the company that I co-founded several years ago - we have the privilege of seeing companies start from scratch and grow an online business, in a ton of different industries, selling all kinds of stuff, every day. It's truly fascinating... if you care at all about this ecommerce thing, that is.

This is my first post here. So let's not waste time and get right to it. The trick to being successful selling online is focusing on a niche. That's it. Focus on a niche market, and you chances of being successful go way up. Interested? Read on.

Targeting a niche means you don't sell office supplies: you sell sexy office supplies for women (in case you are wondering, that's a "real" target market: I didn't come up with it, the ladies at SeeJaneWork did - and they sell a ton of those pink binders!).

Focus, focus, focus. Narrow the list of products (or services) you want to sell. Become the expert. Become one of the gurus in your market. It'll pay off big time.

Let's dig deeper. Why is focusing on a niche so important? I'll give you 5 great reasons. Let's start with number one. Then I'm going to shut down the computer and read a book. And I'll add the other 4 (or maybe more) in future posts. No marketing trick to have you come back to this blog. I just can't write all that in one post.

ONE: Niche = SEO
What the heck is that? Target a niche, and - believe me - it'll help tremendously with your SEO efforts. SEO is an Internet buzzword that many of you know already. If you don't, it stands for Search Engine Optimization. That is: you'd better get your Web store to show up on search engines if you want to be successful.

Well, guess what? Focusing on a niche can be a crucial part of your search engine optimization strategy. Why? Because when you focus, you focus on something you know and care about.

So you'll write articles, product reviews, how-to guides, tips & tricks, frequently asked questions, maybe even a blog! And when you do that, you're working on the most important element of your SEO strategy: lots of quality, keyword-rich text for your Web pages.

Of course good search engine rankings are the result of a lot of other things. The structure of your Web site, the way your Web pages are written, the external (links from other domains) and internal (links within your site) popularity of your pages, etc. etc. But the truth is: good content triggers interest, which triggers links, which triggers visits, which trigger sales. I've seen it so many times. And even if you stop at the "trigger links" step, that's crucial, as you well know: get good quality incoming links, and your Web store will start climbing up in the search engine rankings.

Selling baby products is tough. That industry is crazy competitive. What about organic baby stuff? That sounds more doable if you are a small business with a limited marketing budget. The nice folks at Better For Babies really care about organic baby products: look at all the stuff they write on their Web site. Search for "organic diapers" on Google and they're in the top 10 results (at least when I checked :-). Can people read there and then shop elsewhere? Sure. But many will stay and shop. And the online store is very likely to grow and prosper. And that's exactly what we see happen over and over here at Early Impact.

So to recap: you are a small business, you've got an online store (or starting one) and a limited marketing budget. You've got to focus on a niche. One reason is that...
  • You're likely going to focus on stuff you know and care about
  • You've got the knowledge to add lots of good information to your Web store
  • You'll naturally spend time adding all kinds of content that shows you know your stuff
  • Your store visitors will like what they see... and search engines too!
  • Niche = SEO

What do you think?

Number 2 comes in a few days...