How to choose which eCommerce platform is best for your SEO strategy
Would you change your eCommerce platform if you knew it’d derail your entire fulfillment operation? Neither would we.
So why would you choose a platform that does more damage than good to your site’s SEO (search engine optimisation) performance?
Too many businesses move to a hosted platform with no knowledge on how it’ll affect their SEO strategy - and risk choosing one that actually stands in the way of their goals.
As an eCommerce agency with our own eCommerce stores, we’ve seen lots of eCommerce businesses make the same mistake (hell, we probably did it at the beginning). So we wanted to help guide business owners like you in the right direction.
In this blog we’ll talk about the key things you need to consider from an SEO standpoint when choosing an eCommerce platform, including:
Why there’s no ‘best’ website platform for SEO
The 2 categories eCommerce platforms fall under
The 8 most important SEO factors consider when changing platforms
How to make the best choice for your business
Popular eCommerce platforms
Spoiler alert: there’s no ‘best’ eCommerce platform for SEO. There are different SEO pros and cons to every platform which vary for every eCommerce site.
But how you plan to use your platform will play a big part in your decision.
It’s also worth noting that SEO shouldn’t be the sole deciding factor. While this blog focuses on how a platform can work with your SEO strategy, it also needs to work with your overall business goals and day-to-day things (like shipping and processing, inventory management etc.).
Otherwise you could end up with a platform that does wonders for your SEO, but produces a load of new problems when you’re trying to fulfil your increased orders.
And let’s not forget about cost. Think about your budget and what features/capabilities you’re getting for your money. You want to pay for something that gives you what you need, so understanding the cost upfront will help you decide whether a platform’s right for you or not.
Want to cut out the research and have someone else do it? We can recommend the best website platform for your SEO needs with an in-depth audit of your site and an understanding of your eCommerce store’s goals. (FYI we own and operate our own eCommerce stores). So if you’d like a professional opinion, simply get in touch.
In the meantime, we’ll go through some of the most popular platforms used among eCommerce businesses - which break down into two categories: hosted and self-hosted.
Hosted platforms are designed to provide a straightforward infrastructure to your eCommerce site.
Easy to use
Provide site stability (you don’t have to worry about servers or hosting)
Quick to implement
Simplifies eCom-specific features (like inventory management, shipping integration etc.)
From an SEO point of view, they sometimes give you limited control over individual variables (like Robots.txt).
Examples of popular hosted platforms:
Self-hosted platforms give you more freedom over your site, but are often more challenging than hosted platforms. As the name suggests, it’s up to you.
You have more control over your site (like SEO, access to log files, canonical tags etc.)
More difficult to get your shop up and running (which leaves you open to errors)
If you lack the necessary SEO knowledge, you might have to hire a specialist (or work with a team like Contrast)
Examples of popular self-hosted platforms:
8 important SEO factors to consider when choosing an eCommerce platform
Instead of choosing a platform that looks good and crossing your fingers, it’s best to understand an eCommerce platform’s potential SEO functionality before committing to it.
Of course to do this you need to know the SEO variables to focus on and how they’ll affect your decision.
There are lots of things you can do within your site to improve its SEO performance. For instance, fixing faceted navigation issues (like setting canonical tags to eliminate duplicate content). Ask yourself: can my eCommerce platform control features like these? Because ideally you want the ability to make changes that can improve your organic search rankings.
We’ve compiled this list based on the multiple approaches we’ve taken in adjusting and improving the SEO performance for our clients, as well as our own eCommerce stores. We’ll go through each feature, why it’s important for SEO and which eCommerce platforms let you control these features.
1. Site Speed
57% of mobile customers will abandon your site if they have to wait 3 seconds for a page to load. But bounce rates aren’t the only thing to think about. The speed of your site became a big SEO factor when Google announced that Page Speed would affect search results.
To get a high Page Speed score with Google, you need to be able to control multiple aspects of your site. Want to get a headstart on how to improve your site’s speed? Check out our Core Web Vitals Guide.
Hosted platforms like BigCommerce and Shopify tend to give you mid-tier site speed - it’s not the worst, but it’s not the best. So if you’ve got a smaller store and speed is a key SEO advantage, you might want to look into how self-hosted SEO gives you much more control through variables like these:
Leveraging browser caching to include visuals without sacrificing load time
Scaling images for separate mobile and desktop experiences
Optimising your image sizes to reduce load time (this can be controlled in most hosted platforms too)
But if your absolute top priority is site speed and outperforming your competitors, a self-hosted platform is probably for you, because a hosted platform just won’t give you the functionality you need.
The only caveat in controlling your own site speed is: you’re also responsible for handling more bandwidth. For example, say your store was suddenly featured on ‘This Morning’, would you be able to handle the influx of traffic?
BigCommerce and Shopify probably could - and it’d be their issue, not yours.
But if your store is self-hosted, you’d no doubt need extra preparation time before such high exposure.
2. Batch Uploading
Ever come across a load of redirect, meta data or product page problems? Batch uploading might be the only way to fix each individual page in one go. Because if you can’t batch upload SEO solutions like these without meddling with your site’s functionality, things are going to get frustrating.
You’ll have to rely on plugins for batch uploading on hosted platforms. Failing that, a hosted platform will need you to upload each individual file using a web interface - which we want to avoid altogether.
But a plugin is simple, right? Not always. Remember that you have to balance the price and the risk of unintended consequences.
For instance, you’ve got a plugin that said it would handle batch uploads and redirect analytics etc. But it carried out redirect analytics by running traffic through its URL - creating redirect hops through another domain. The result? It hurts your SEO.
You wanted batch uploading. The plugin gave you it, as well as a load of negative SEO consequences you didn’t want.
The message here is: if you’re planning to include lots of site-wide changes that require batch uploading, ensure your hosted platform has an effective plugin available before you switch over.
If you’re operating off a self-hosted platform, batch uploading can be easier providing you have a developer on hand to help.
3. Canonical Tags
A canonical tag is a way to tell Google which URL is the ‘master copy’ of a page. It’s like saying: ‘Hey Google, this is the page I want you to rank. Yes, the other pages are duplicate content, but we need them to help customers find what they want, so please don’t screw us over with a lower ranking’.
If you don’t control your canonical tags, you’re likely to end up with lots of pages that Google sees as ‘canonicalised to themselves’ - even if/when they’re not true canonicals.
For example: you run an eCommerce site that sells cycling accessories. A customer searches for ‘bike pumps’ and filters the products under £17, then sorts them by ascending price:
The canonical tag is in place to say: ‘yes, this URL exists for users, but please don’t index it. The bike pump category page is the sole priority here Google, don’t worry about wasting your time here’.
With hosted platforms like Shopify, you won’t really have this control. Or their existing plugins are lacking and require a developer to handle complex changes. You might be able to work around it with the help of a developer, but if you’re working to a budget, it’s not always an option.
If you’re a small or start-up business, these use cases can be complex and you won’t always have to worry about them. But the more sophisticated your SEO needs are, the more you’ll need this type of control later down the line.
Robots.txt is a file on your site that essentially acts as a guideline to tell search engines what to look at and what to not look at on your site. In turn, this helps to use your crawl budget more efficiently (instead of wasting it) and avoids duplicate content.
Self-hosted platforms tend to give you more control here, providing direct editing of your own Robots.txt.
And hosted platforms like BigCommerce and WordPress allow you to edit Robots.txt, but Shopify limits your access.
5. Sitemap Generation
Your sitemap is just that: a map of your site’s important pages. And search engines can use it for reference.
They can be broken down into two types: HTML and XML versions:
A HTML sitemap is for users to help them find the page on your site they’re looking for
An XML sitemap is the same thing, but specifically designed for search engines
Regardless of whether you do or don’t want your content crawled or indexed, you must show a consistent front to Google with an accurate XML sitemap.
You don’t want your eCommerce platform to automatically generate a sitemap that includes every URL on the site. You might end up with a sitemap that includes all the wrong URLs, like non-canonical pages, non-indexable pages or non-functional pages (eg. 404 and 500 errors).
Whatever your type of platform, your XML sitemap might be implemented by default or require a plugin.
There are cases for each option. For instance, WordPress needs a plugin, but it’s a default in Shopify. Or you might need a Shopify plugin to edit functionality because all pages are included in the sitemap by default.
Sitemaps can vary massively in functionality depending on plugin quality. So the key is to test this functionality to make sure it only includes functional, canonical and indexable URLs.
6. Log File Access
An access log is a list of every interaction - bot or human - that happens on your site.
And this data = crucial to SEO.
By accessing your log files, you can uncover 404 errors, find out where Google’s robots are spending the most time on your site and pull through the information you need to edit your sitemaps, Robot.txt and other directives.
With log file access, it’s pretty clear cut between hosted and self-hosted eCommerce platforms. With self-hosted, you’ll pretty much have full access (minus WordPress which might not give you access depending on how you host). With hosted, you’ll usually have limited or no access at all to your log files.
7. Content Marketing & Blogging
If you don’t do a lot of blogging, platforms like BigCommerce and Shopify are great for limited blogging needs. And they’re generally problem-free.
However, if you’ve got a massive amount of content to migrate or intend to make blogging a big part of your strategy (particularly if you like to customise it a lot), then WordPress is your best bet.
The downside is if you’re already using a hosted eCommerce platform, you may need to put your blog on a subdomain (which would dilute all your SEO efforts for both the content and the pages it links to). So if you’ve got a sturdy content programme and want to move to BigCommerce or Shopify, the subdomain route is the only real solution available.
Worth noting: when you receive lots of links, you want its success to give your page a lot of search engine authority. If you spread this authority too thinly across a primary domain and subdomain, it can undo all your hard work.
8. Stage Environment
Ever made a change on your site and subsequently broken something? A stage environment can protect you from this.
A stage environment is an exact replica of your site, only it’s hidden and acts as a ‘safe space’ for you to run quality assurance tests - without the risk of breaking something on your live site.
You won’t introduce any unwelcome issues on the live site where both your customers and Google might see, and you can fix any that do appear before they’ve gone live.
While it’s possible to set up a stage site, it can sometimes be challenging - and costly - depending on what platform or host you’re using. With some artful maneuvering, you can set up Shopify for a stage environment. Whereas for BigCommerce, the costs and complications are often so high it makes it impractical.
With a self-hosted eCommerce platform, more control over the stage environment can sometimes lower costs over platforms like BigCommerce and give you more freedom.
How to choose the best eCommerce platform for your site
As you start searching for your new eCommerce platform, here’s our recommended step-by-step process to help find the right match for you.
Step 1 - Think about your overall business needs
Once again, while SEO should play a role in your choice of platform, it shouldn’t be the only thing that drives your decision. SEO is just one part of your business strategy, so don’t be blinded into choosing a platform that only serves your SEO and neglects your other needs.
Your platform’s functionality needs to support your business requirements and suit your budget. So make sure you think about what eCommerce features you need from a site platform (things like inventory management, order fulfilment, shipping and processing etc.).
Step 2 - Know how much control you need (and can handle)
We’ve talked about how controlling your canonicals, pagination and Robots.txt can have a big impact on your SEO. But more control can also mean more opportunities to make costly SEO mistakes if you don’t know what you’re doing.
In short: the more control, the more responsibility.
Hosted platforms are straightforward and do the majority of what you need, while restricting your ability to mess things up. But if you (or someone you work with, like Contrast) knows what they’re doing, this lack of control can limit your site.
Step 3 - Assess your current infrastructure
If you’ve already got a development team in place, a self-hosting platform is probably your go-to. Providing you can rely on them to fix errors quickly and efficiently (like faulty plugins, or frequent log file access), then the control trade-off might be worth it.
Alternatively, if you don’t have a development team, a self-hosted platform might be too challenging. You’re probably best suited with the safety, security and ease of a hosted platform.
Step 4 - Consider your SEO strategy
The final step is to look at your overall SEO strategy. Ask yourself where you most expect to receive your organic search traffic from, and how an eCommerce platform might affect that.
And be honest with your priorities. If you don’t have ambitious content marketing plans, you can probably get away with using Shopify’s blog functionality or another hosted platform. After all, if your SEO needs outgrow that platform’s capabilities, you can always move to a different one (something that we’d be happy to help you with).
Remember: an eCommerce platform isn’t for life, it’s to serve your current needs.
Still unsure which eCommerce platform is right for you?
If you’re still um-ing and ah-ing over which eCommerce platform is best for your SEO needs, take some more time to evaluate your SEO strategy and goals. Once you’ve nailed down your priorities, you’ll save yourself from headaches in the future - and the decision will be much easier.