Recently one of our partner companies asked me eight questions, some of which seem sometimes simple or obvious, but the more I thought about my experience in the last 20 years in the online world, the more I found to add to any answer. The questions ranged from how to select the right platform for an online business to how to allocate marketing budgets across channels or whether to prioritize mobile over desktop or not. In the end, I wanted to share it, as our partner company probably will be not the only one having questions like these. So, let’s get started:
What Features Should Marketers Pay Attention to When Choosing An eCommerce Platform?
Scalability and fit for your business model. Let me share a story to illustrate these points. Well over 12 years ago, at the dawn of eCommerce in Romania some quite experienced entrepreneurs started five projects in parallel to validate their ideas and to get some market response. So, they opened two eCommerce stores with different products, a dating site, a technology supply site and a social network. Most people in their place would have worried what would happen if things did not work out. But to some degree all their ventures had some success and started to grow. This is where the question turned the other way round: how far can I get with my platform if it has success? Let’s spin the story further to illustrate this point clearly: What happened was that from the first four platforms three had to be re-built from scratch to support further growth – two of them even before the validation was complete. The social network looked like the early Facebook and was neat and nice, but started to get extremely slow once people started really using it simultaneously… It was built quickly, but not lasting. It had to be rebuilt already three months after the launch, before validation was completed. The dating site used an extraordinarily complex algorithm to match partners according to their compatibility, which was completely new in Romania and stirred quite some interest. However, even long before reaching the first 100,000 members calculating these compatibility scores became a technological adventure… the database type used was not the optimal one for such an atypical amount of data, among many other misses. For any other dating site it would have been good though. So, it was rebuilt within the first six months. The first online shop was doing quite fine, it used Magento, an open source eCommerce platform, with many features built in, a living community, so many plugins and themes were available, and it was just easy to get started. The shop did not sell anything out of the ordinary, eyewear and sunglasses, so implementation and customization was straight forward. And because Magento had a plugin for nearly everything it was easy to add new features. The second shop however, also used Magento. Because Magento has functionalities for nearly everything you find in eCommerce it was easy to start the shop and relatively cheap for its scope (still some 30k EUR or so). However, this time it was different: this shop, was a closed shopping club and having flash sales which daily or at least weekly changed. This required a lot of customization and the sheer volume of operations per week may have exceeded the activity of a typical online merchant per season. Also, the shop grew fast and became really popular. It expanded even to over 10 other countries. So Magento’s big plus in the beginning (having so much already built in) now became a big minus: the platform was overly heavy and slowed everything down with functionalities nobody needed for this shop, while other, really unique but important functions this site needed were missing and had to be added by rewriting or amending large parts of the platform. But they had to stay with Magento for many years nevertheless – after all, you cannot just change the entire infrastructure you are sitting on if you have a crazy growth phase. So, what they did was hiring more and more developers and buying more and more servers. Back then, however, it was very hard to find good developers who could work with Magento and the ones available were extremely expensive and well above typical market rates… Eventually, some years later, the platform was changed, with something very custom, especially built for this type of shopping club and their specific workflows, starting with buying, inventory management, content production, the marketing and sales cycle and finally fulfillment and retour. Re-making this lasted maybe two years and costed accordingly: it needed entire extra teams, so current operations were not endangered. It is a crazy exercise to calculate how much money and time could have been saved if a custom platform for this project would have been used from the start… or to think of the lost SEO opportunities in the first years… As for the fith technology platform: it was also mainly eCommerce functionality which was needed, and Magento did a great job here.
In short: a platform which is good for one business, may not be the right fit for the next. This is why our advice for anybody starting to build a digital business is to do the unpopular work of being really clear about the final goal, but also workflows, support, marketing needs and anything else specific to your business. Write it down, document it and then check each platform if they are a good fit for these needs, or if they turn out to be more like a quick fix solution. If you plan to take a local business such as a bakery or small niche business like a winery or some jewelry online – chances are good that an existing platform will be the right fit. It may not be 100% but 90% good and the remaining 10% can be easily customized for a reasonable price – if you make sure in the beginning that there are enough developers available to work with this platform in your budget. But if things are getting larger or have special features, it really pays off to take the extra time. Make sure you also have an answer for questions like these:
Where should this business be in 2 or 3, in 5 years and from 10 years from now? Is it a popular niche store? Local, national or even international? How many employees will work there and what are their roles? What exactly do they have to do on the website? Frontend? Backend? How many items are to be showcased on the website? How often do they change? What are their special, unique characteristics (e.g. a book store will want to have a “look inside” function, a fashion website needs size charts and pharmaceuticals have to have the prospect at the ready, while making sure it is always up to date). Do you need to integrate an ERP and/or any other external systems? How will fulfillment look like? A marketplace does not need to bother so much on inventory and fulfillment, but it may be wise to solve these problems for their customers: the merchants paying the »rent«. Also, creating customizable and SEO-friendly landing pages for marketing and traffic acquisition becomes a big focus here. Marketing and marketing needs are anyways very important: We see time and time again that operators of classified websites or marketplaces have unpleasant surprises when they realize that the platform they have chosen was actually not built for this kind of functionalities, assembled using a bunch of plugins and now have the decision to face to either completely rebuilt the platform (or write at least an own plugin) and lose time and money when they actually want to speed up, or to just lose the game by giving up on SEO or search engine marketing…
How Does An eCommerce Platform or CMS Influence SEO Success?
Again, allow me a short answer and then a long explanation to it. In short, the platform is the foundation of your business online, and from an SEO point of view maybe even something like the roots of a tree. Most of the time not visible, but essential for life.
So, to continue from our first question and to spin the implications further: In SEO we have around 200 factors which influence the ranking of a page in Google – to use a commonly reported number. But we can boil this conveniently down into three large areas
- Technical: Accessibility and Indexing and Optimization functionalities – so the ability of a search engine to find your website, all relevant parts and offers on it, and to present the content in a favorable and easy understandable way
- Content: This does not mean only written texts, but especially in eCommerce also your offering. If you offer what people search for – great! Now we just have to describe it in a way searchers can find it
- Authority: 20 years ago Google revolutionized the search engine world by disrupting the way how it sorted results. Before putting a relevant result on page 1 it also started to make sure that this result is a trusted, well respected website which answers the search for most users. This may not be all the time perfect, but worked so well, that Google drove nearly all other search engines out of business
So, the technical part is here the foundation, and a necessary condition for Google to find its way along. Most eCommerce platforms get many parts here right today, it is rare that a platform in 2020 has overwhelming or fundamental technical flaws. Optimization potential, however, have most implementations. Paramount to check are not only the typical factors such as mobile friendliness, meta tags or customizable and SEO-friendly URL (to name just a few) but if you can build all special pages you will need (for every brand, product type, Q&A’s, for specific searches typical for your niche… Here we start to blend in with content, which is the second necessary condition: content, often is built in years, expensive to produce and constitutes the offer Google should be sending their searchers to: so if you sell telephones you will not want to have only the product pages for each individual phone, but also category pages for all brands, phone families and even each series within those. Or if you are a classified job board, you will not want to have the specific jobs only, but also specific landing pages for every type of job in every possible location, for every employer and so on. The ability to create these specific landing pages in a search engine friendly way can save literally millions in marketing spent if planned from the very beginning. It makes a huge difference for the growth prospects of any venture to plan these right from the start and ask for these features in an SEO-friendly manner.
Still, truth being told, SEO is a long-term game, so most newcomers in the very first year will not have spectacular results – exceptions exist, but in most cases the competition is already immense and strong. This is because with the platform and the content we got only two necessary conditions covered, we still miss the third and sufficient one: Authority. A new site needs to acquire authority first (sometimes estimated to make 70% of the ranking result), which takes time if you are not already a big brand with preexisting website, which just happens to start selling online now. In either case, just because authority is so hard to built up and content so expensive to produce – you really want to make sure that platform is an optimal fit for your content and uses the existing authority well. Most merchants and websites – if they have some traction and content – naturally built authority over the years. What we see very often happen is that at some point they decide for a redesign, or a complete migration to another platform and then literally lose a large part of their authority and with it – traffic – in some days or weeks because of the relaunch, and ultimately very simple, technical reasons. This is completely avoidable, and the reason why we stress the importance of selecting the right platform from the beginning. If a relaunch/migration is necessary, it is best to get an SEO team experienced with such migrations on board, before the new platform is chosen and before the migration happens.
So, this is to say, the eCommerce platform, is the foundation or even the “roots” of any online business, and not just another technical detail. All SEO, but also other online marketing efforts such as Advertising, PPC, Analytics and conversion rate optimization rests on it.
Concretely, What are the Most Important SEO Factors for a New Website in 2020 and the Next Two Years?
So, let’s get a bit practical now after illustrating the importance of selecting the right fit. From a technical point of view this is straight forward and universal:
- SEO friendly URL
- Sitemaps xml
- Control over all meta tags on every individual page if necessary:
- Structured data support
- HTML5 and coherent usage of headings
- Control over image alt tags and data
- Mobile friendliness, if there exists an App – making the app searchable and integrate App and website
- PageSpeed – as an SEO factor often overestimated, but for onsite conversion crucial
Mobile friendliness is maybe the most important point here. Depending on the niche the vast majority of traffic is mobile nowadays, but many business owners still start to plan and design their website with Desktop in mind. The truth is that most users never will see the desktop version.
From a content point of view this is again very specific to each business. Most of the times some informational content is helpful, but on the other hand not every local service provider or craftsman can be a thought leader on the internet. Still, clear and detailed descriptions of all products and services provided are important.
For marketing and tracking purposes we want an integration with a tag manager tool, an analytics solution, often additional tracking tools such as for UX and something for A/B testing. Sometimes platforms come packed with functionalities like integrated newsletter, own analytics solution and so on. This often seems convenient at the beginning, but in the long run we have seen specialized services who focus on doing one thing extremely well doing better than what we may call »swiss-army-knife-solutions« of the internet .
What are Some of these SEO Best Practices that are a Must? For Example: How to Optimize Pictures, their Descriptions, and Content on Your Site?
When it comes to SEO it was and remains paramount to be very explicit about your offer. Traditional brand marketing tries to sell a benefit and communicate with slogans like “Taste the feeling” in order to create demand. But the job of SEO and Search-Engine-Advertising is to capture already existing demand, so you got to speak at least partly the language of the searchers: so, if you sell soft drinks – you name them, if you sell laptops – you tell them, instead of writing in big letters on your website “Best prices in town” and then hope that the pictures around will make it clear to what products this slogan actually applies. This works on the homepage, but not on Google, where people see only small preview texts. This does not mean that you should not do the branding, but that you need to do both. Describe your offering, services or products, categorize them, describe every category and every product, include as many details as possible and add additional materials such as images, video, brochures. Images should have also a description each, so a Search Engine understands its relevance for the page / offering better. Images have a huge potential for optimization. The content of the site should be well categorized, in most cases a silo-form is the most appropriate form of information architecture. A page for every product or service. This is really important, but sometimes new site-owners see this as redundant. They start with the idea, that people enter the website on the homepage, read what is there and then navigate to the relevant offer. While this can happen, it ignores all the people searching for a product using a search engine and from there, entering directly on the best fitting page. But this also means, you need to have such a page in the first place. Because if done well, over time most visits start to come organically from search directly to the offer and not over the homepage.
What is the Share Between Desktop and Mobile in 2020 and Where to Focus Your Attention and Investment?
Some general statistics for Romania show up to 54% of mobile traffic (tablets included) vs. 46% of desktop traffic. But what we see with our clients is more like something around 80% of mobile traffic for most sites. For news this may even exceed 80%, most eCommerce is between 70% and 80%. B2B may be lower, here we have seen for example 60% and for some very specialized industrial niches, we have seen even as low as 30-40% mobile usage. But this is the absolute exception. It is important to notice though, that for many sites conversion rates over desktop are still higher. So mobile is an important channel for discovery, in our experience, it converts very well with users who have an app installed, but desktop remains an important channel for conversion.
What are Typical SEO and Performance Marketing Budgets for Average eCommerce Retailers and Other Online Ventures, When Starting Out and Ongoing?
Meaningful budgets to start out vary heavily with many variables, such as niche, competition. After all, a marketing plan and budgeting is an entire discipline by itself. Having said this, in Romania, the least amount we see frequently allocated for a new, medium-sized eCommerce venture is between 5,000 – 7,500 EUR per month, split among the most prominent channels like PPC advertising and remarketing, ads on social media, mostly Facebook, SEO and maybe also affiliate. Classic media buying plays often a minor role for budgets this size.
For bigger ventures, we often see budgets around 10,000 EUR/month among the same channels. However, if a newcomer wants to go against the really big guys, they should be aware that some of them spend easily 100,000 EUR per month on performance marketing alone and that they may even have a separate budget for classic brand marketing. Romania had an incredible growth in this sector in the last 6 years.
Sometimes amazing things can be done with small budgets. But after monitoring the market for over 12 years in Romania, I have the general impression that most companies with small budgets to start with don’t get far because they never get the critical mass or momentum for a sustainable growth. But it really depends, we have seen cases where a very profitable B2B business successfully uses performance marketing as a single channel to grow to five figures in monthly revenue (EUR) and still do not exceed 700 EUR in costs per months, agency fees included. We also have seen very successful SEO campaigns with decent budgets up to 1,000 EUR which brought a new site within a year on the top within their niche with over 50k organic visits per month. But these are exceptions, not necessarily the rules. This is why we always start new projects with an audit.
It is Unlikely that an Online Retailer in 2020 will Have a Monopoly in a Certain Niche. There is Already Plenty of Competition Out There. How Can a Retailer be Noticed and Stand Out?
The best thing is to have a good product that people like and which you have somehow exclusively. In fashion this is your brand, the quality of the products and the lifestyle the brand transmits. Same goes for cosmetics, jewelry, gourmet food and drinks. Here it is relatively easy to stand out from a marketing point of view. But for items such as books which can be bought everywhere and are everyway the same (or phones, laptops…) you need to come up with something else: price is important, but also service, delivery and retour. All these are reasons why people buy at amazon. Because they know they get the best products with the best service, as fast as possible and with minimum risk. Such merchants are your real competitors if you sell commodities. So, you need to come with something on top to cope with their operational excellence. This can be either some innovation which alters the product (maybe a special service on top, bundling) or a plus in customer intimacy (customization options, free consultation with the product and so on). Also really specializing in your niche can work well: etsy.com with its handmade product only approach (and its strict enforcement) really managed to take that market share from ebay away and defend it.
What ROI – Return On Investment Can an Online Business Expect From 100 Euro or 1,000 Euro Promotion Budgets? How Should Such A Budget Be Allocated: Social Media, Search Engines or Newsletters?
Typically marketing budgets up to 1000 EUR are best spend on advertising – either on social media ads or search engine advertising – this depends on the service. In general, lifestyle products and services work very well on social media, while many useful commodities, B2B products and services work better with search engine marketing. With this kind of advertising, the feedback is fast, and ideas can be validated: is the audience the right one and a profitable one? Are these keywords well converting or not? Also, if the campaign is profitable, profits can be reinvested, and you get an idea how much this can be scaled. If you decide to start SEO after this initial validation, you can redirect efforts from the beginning in the right direction and minimize waste. With SEO being a long-term game which requires in many cases some months or even a year of pre-financing it becomes even more important to know where you target at. This is why we prefer to work with either well-prepared and equipped startups or with growing companies who already have a working business model. These are usually the best candidates to profit from a sound investment in SEO.The rewards for them tend to be huge: Most consumers still prefer organic results over advertising, which means that the traffic potential for an organic result on the top of page 1 is many times larger than for paid ones. So, it is not uncommon to get five to ten times the traffic from an organic listing as compared to a paid listing, while the ongoing costs for an SEO campaign are usually much lower than for such an CPC campaign. The ROI for SEO thus should be higher as for PPC – five to ten times are not uncommon – but those are generalizations. Best is, to check separately for your individual case.