Linda Bustos on E-Commerce and SEO

photo of Linda BustosLinda is the Director of Ecommerce Research at Elastic Path, author of the Get Elastic Ecommerce Blog, and conversion consultant to some of the Net’s largest companies. Find her on Twitter @Roxyyo and @Getelastic, or on Etsy.

Interview Transcript

Eric Enge: Welcome Linda, can you provide some background on yourself to start?

Linda Bustos: Sure. I work for Elastic Path and am Director of Ecommerce Research. My primary role is focused on the company’s blog, Get Elastic. I also provide ecommerce consulting services to Elastic Path customers on issues such as online marketing, conversion, usability, and other similar topics. Prior to working at EP, I provided SEO and web usability consulting with a web design company. It is ironic how I fell into blogging because I didn’t like writing, so I hired contractors to do copywriting for our clients.

Then, one contractor brought me to a Social Media Club event, which was around the time social media was becoming popular, and businesses were starting to take note. Also, SEOs were ready to start using social media to enhance marketing and SEO. So, I started a blog about the ethical use of SEO for business and, through the blog, I was noticed by Elastic Path. I then started contributing to their blog and eventually joined Elastic Path full-time and adopted the blog.

Eric Enge: Right. But, you started with a statement that you hate writing. So, does that make you suicidal on your job every day, or have you learned to like it?

Linda Bustos: I’ve learned to like it. What I learned is there is a difference between formal writing and blogging. Blogging is simply wording out all of your ideas, it’s conversational, it’s in a sense informal, and it’s instructional. Whereas before; copywriting was writing formal documents and essays, which is not where my passion lies. So, I believe you don’t have to be a formal writer to be able to publish a blog.

Another piece of irony is that I was going to be an artist if I followed the path I was on when I was in high-school. However, I didn’t continue with it because I hated computers – and to be a graphic designer you need them. And here I am working at a computer about ten hours a day now, and loving it!

Eric Enge: It’s amazing how what you do in school or what you think you are going to do early on changes so dramatically once you get out there.

Linda Bustos: Yes.

Eric Enge: When was it you joined Elastic Path?

Linda Bustos: I started contributing to the blog in 2007, and within a couple of months, by September, I was writing full-time for Elastic.

Eric Enge: Give us an overview of what Elastic Path does.

Linda Bustos: We are traditionally an ecommerce software platform, but we also provide professional services. We’re focused on clients that have unique needs, and that need a very flexible platform rather than software as a service where you simply buy a package of standard features. We’ve embraced the fringe of ecommerce needs, companies with very specialized features that need to be built. Also, in the last couple of years we’ve narrowed our focus to tech verticals such as digital goods, publishing, software, and telecommunications.

We find with the explosion of consumption in digital goods that this is where we “see the puck going” (hockey fans will recognize this as a takeoff on a Wayne Gretzky quote “I skate to where I see the puck going”) in ecommerce, and we want to build our product to serve the needs of those customers. Also, more recently, we’ve extended our consulting practice as well, so I have coworkers on the team, and we are now able to offer a full meal deal, whereas a couple of years ago we just offered software.

E-Commerce Platforms and SEO

Eric Enge: I assume the platform is designed to take into account SEO issues?

Linda Bustos: I think most ecommerce platforms out there are designed to handle SEO these days, especially enterprise platforms from mid-market up. I think they have to have SEO nailed down or else they won’t be able to sell. They have evolved to a place where they give the user control to fix, for example, messy URL strings caused by older ecommerce platforms. So I believe most reputable platforms now provide the tools to make a site SEO-friendly, but I think that the real key is for the client to actually utilize those features. Sometimes you go in and evaluate a site and there are many problems, and then you look at the ecommerce platform. Sometimes it is a limitation of the platform, but sometimes it’s just a really bad implementation of the platform.

Eric Enge: Right. But, don’t you also run into situations where the platform is capable of being SEO-friendly, but you need to configure it properly.

Linda Bustos: Yes, absolutely. For example, let’s take software like X-Cart or Magento that is being adapted by a web development company, or something like Drupal.

X-cart logo

The developers may not be thinking of SEO. It may not be that the platform can’t do it, but it’s been customized by somebody.

The developers may not be thinking of SEO. It may not be that the platform can’t do it, but it’s been customized by somebody. And, certainly I’ve come across some CMS systems that have been brutal for SEO, and I can imagine that some of those are still floating out there.

Also, there are a lot of ecommerce sites that have been running on the same platform for five or ten years. It’s quite costly and can be really messy to move from one to another, or to do an upgrade, or to extend features (depending on how the platform is built). So, sometimes you have that kind of a situation where you could fix an SEO problem, but to do that you would have to completely rebuild.

E-Commerce Site Implementation Mistakes

Eric Enge: You may have a publisher who gets an ecommerce platform that is SEO-friendly, but they go into implementation and there are a lot of common mistakes that they make. Do you have some thoughts on that?

Linda Bustos:The biggest problem I see is duplicate content and that’s because the dynamic pages are generated for every single category, or for every single search query with session IDs showing up in the URLs.

session ID example

You can use your robots.txt file to block Google from crawling URLs with session IDs. Or, you can use canonical tags. You also can use rewrites and redirects. For example, if you have the same product under multiple categories, like “Top Sellers”, “Running Shoes”, and “Men’s” you have one product under three different categories.

The search engine will follow each URL, and unless there is a proper redirect or a canonical tag applied to a global alias, you’ll face an internal duplicate content issue that could even affect how many products get indexed. Not taking care of URLs to make them keyword friendly is another problem. Though we’ve been talking about these issues for years, there are still some people not taking advantage of that.

Eric Enge: I’ve seen that with many sites. There is also the problem with pages that have products on them, but they do little to put unique text on those pages. They have here’s the price, pick the color, pick the size if those things apply and then add to cart and not much else.

Even with manufacturer descriptions, having customer reviews can help add unique text and more keywords on the page.

Linda Bustos: Yes, I think that is still quite common. And, it’s tough. If you have a very large catalog, as in the case of electronics retailers, you may want to get the products up on the site quickly and not take the time to craft custom descriptions. With consumer electronics, for example, there are many technical specs, and it can be hard to jazz that up. It’s easier to just use the manufacturer description. But that’s not good for SEO. Even with manufacturer descriptions, having customer reviews can help add unique text and more keywords on the page. But custom descriptions are even more important now in light of Google’s Panda/Farmer updates. Sites that haven’t invested in unique content, though it has been a best practice for so many years, are going to feel the pinch even more than before.

Eric Enge: Using content from other people, such as the manufacturer’s description is definitely a big issue. Do you have any thoughts on good ways to inexpensively generate content? If you had a couple of thousand pages you needed something written for, any tips on how to go about doing that?

I don’t recommend using anything automated. Product description copy needs a human touch. There are many ways you can generate content.

Linda Bustos: I don’t recommend using anything automated. Product description copy needs a human touch. There are many ways you can generate content. If you are a very large site, you most likely will need to outsource it. You can outsource overseas, though language may be a factor because a person’s command of English can vary and the same term could describe different things in different countries (for example a tank top in the US is a vest in the UK).

However, if you hire a reputable company you should get something that is readable and grammatically correct, but always have a native speaker proof-read them. You also want to ensure that the proper keywords are used by the copywriters, and this may be specific to a region (as in the “vest/tank top” example). Another option is to take interns, if you are a smaller company, or hire someone at an entry level – perhaps have an entry level copywriting and merchandising staff.

Eric Enge: College students can be a good source too.

Linda Bustos: You bet. And work at home moms.

E-Commerce and Mobile

Eric Enge: So, there are a few options. Do you see more ecommerce applications going towards mobile devices at this point?

I don’t believe it’s going to be a mobile phone evolution; rather a tablet takeover.

Linda Bustos: Yes, absolutely. I think mobile commerce is still fairly small compared to what it’s going to be. But, I don’t believe it’s going to be a mobile phone evolution; rather a tablet takeover. In Q4 of last year, for the first time more tablets were shipped than PCs, and it’s not just tablets that people are going to be shopping from, but gaming consoles, televisions and devices that we haven’t even dreamed of, which will be Internet enabled and therefore ecommerce enabled. The iPhone is great, but I don’t believe it will drive mobile commerce. Users want to be able to read product descriptions in their entirety and be able to zoom in and navigate the site, which can be tedious on a phone, even on the best designed site. Shopping is much more enjoyable on larger devices.

However, this may introduce a nightmare. We used to complain about testing a site in Firefox and in Internet Explorer, and maybe if we had time left over, looking at Safari. Now, we have thousands of devices with different specs, screen sizes, operating systems, browsers, and features. These devices don’t just have the mobile Web, but also applications. This introduces a lot of complexity. Businesses need to decide whether they will develop one site for all devices, optimize for the major ones with different style sheets, how many devices they will optimize for, and whether they will create companion applications – and for which platforms. We talk about long tail of keywords, but there is a long tail of devices to develop for.

Mobile commerce is important because eyeballs are shifting from the computer screen to these devices. Every ecommerce business will need a mobile strategy, with mobile resources, mobile testing, QA and mobile analytics.

Eric Enge: Have you dug into the mobile analytics picture at all?

Linda Bustos: Traditional analytics tools are all offering features where you can see mobile stats on there. But, there are new vendors popping up, like BangoMobile Analytics that can offer deeper insights. For example, whether the user is on a Wifi connection or whether they are on the 3G connection. Another biggie is in-application behavior, where Javascript tagging doesn’t fly. I predict these companies are either going to get acquired by Adobe (Omniture), Google, and the like, or they are going to become a bolt-on that everybody needs to have.

Eric Enge: Right. One of the nice things about the mobile environment is the process of telling where the user is located is a lot more precise than doing geo IP lookup. It is more precise, so if you have physical stores you can tell how far the user is from them. Let’s chat a little bit about social media. Do you have some thoughts on how that plays for ecommerce sites?

E-Commerce Sites and Social Media

I tend to be more on the pessimistic side of social media marketing, not so much because I don’t think it has value, but because I don’t think that it’s a major revenue driver.

Linda Bustos: I tend to be more on the pessimistic side of social media marketing, not so much because I don’t think it has value, but because I don’t think that it’s a major revenue driver. However, I am all for having user generated content on your site, or even hosting community on your site. And, I am all for taking your brand presence into the place where people are normally hanging out.

So, Twitter, Facebook, and niche social networks can work for retail, and so can social shopping and sharing sites like Polyvore and Kaboodle because you can seed your own products into them. Just being there is good, and that can be an extra result that shows up in search engines as well, get you some more exposure, and people can “Favorite” your items through these shopping portals as well.

Facebook commerce is making advances, and a lot of big brands are actually building stores to shop within Facebook. A common question is, are people going to be using Facebook Credits to purchase? And will people prefer to actually shop within Facebook, without leaving Facebook? I’m not convinced we are there yet, and I don’t think the development time to bring a presence into Facebook is necessarily worth it right now. Porting in your store means you are managing another channel. It may need its own customer service, web analytics and site optimization. So, unless you have a lot of money to spend, I am not bullish on the Facebook shopping.

I do think that having Facebook Like buttons, and Twitter Tweet This, and Google Plus One buttons on a site is a quick win, and everybody should use them. It’s good passive word of mouth to allow visitors to be evangelists for you, and it’s also good for SEO. We know these social links have value now.

However, I’ve seen some social fads rise up and then fade. Around 2007, retail blogs were the big thing. That year I went through the Internet Retailer 500 list, and I found that there were only seventy-five that had retail blogs in 2007. And, more than half of those have been abandoned or taken down now.

It really didn’t turn out to be the magic bullet for social media marketing. Another “hopeful” was co-shopping, where you would put in a tool and somebody could invite their friend to come search the site the same time as you. It never really got off the ground. And, while that seems cool and novel, it’s just not the way that people want to shop online. I believe we are going to see many new things pop up, they may or may not prove effective.

Eric Enge: One of the problems with blogs is that people found out that if they were to make a go of that then it’s a lot of work. It’s not something you can dip your toe in the water, and this is something that I advise people who are looking at social media strategies. You can do some really interesting things if you put your mind to it in social media, but you have to be committed; it’s an awful lot of work. And, one thing I like Twitter or Facebook for is that it’s certainly a way to get feedback from people, from real customers. You can get interesting feedback by putting questions out to people and conducting polls. You can announce new products and get a little buzz going. I agree with you, I just don’t see it so much for direct commerce.

Linda Bustos: Yes. Even for customer service, I think a lot of people are actually just going straight to Twitter and adding the @ sign. They are actually using that channel directly as a shortcut to asking customer service questions or complaining.

Unique Selling Propositions

Eric Enge: Your most recent post was about PPC value propositions or selling propositions. I would like to get your take on the kinds of mistakes people typically make or often make in regard to how they position their pages when people get to them, and how they can fail to express a value proposition.

Every page needs to have the value proposition, not just the landing pages or homepage.

Linda Bustos: Every page needs to have the value proposition, not just the landing pages or homepage. I often see on retailer sites that they actually do have a unique value proposition, but they put it on the about us page. Often times, coming up with a unique and compelling value prop is the hardest thing for a marketing department to do, especially if you sell things that other people sell. Free shipping offers are not a unique value proposition. They are not compelling, it’s just common place now. So, it’s hard to find something that’s really unique. It also doesn’t mean we have the best customer service, because you must be able to backup and quantify what your value proposition is.

And, usually retailers are just average; and this is not putting anyone down, but it’s hard to do something that nobody else can copy. If you don’t have one unique value proposition, then even a collection of value propositions — three or four things, which in combination nobody else does — may suffice. Or, perhaps you are the only one business clearly communicating it – so it becomes a unique value prop perceptually.

Every single page needs to have value props clearly presented in a persuasive way – especially your shopping cart page. A recent Forrester Shopping Cart Abandonment Survey found that sticker shock is the #1 reason for abandonment. Of all of the top reasons that carts were abandoned, none of them had to do with web usability or site design or anything that’s on the page.

They all had to do with whether the customer was ready to buy, and whether they were willing to accept the actual price of the product. We are sometimes all-too-focused on big red buttons and big green buttons, or reducing checkout steps when really we should be addressing the real question that the customer has to deal with, do I want to checkout today? You must reinforce the reason why they shouldn’t abandon and start looking at other sites to see if they can get a better deal. If you are a manufacturer selling direct, you should reinforce that they should checkout from you today instead of going down the street to the local Best Buy to do some comparison shopping.

Offer them a compelling reason why they should buy today, a sense of urgency, and value propositions for owning the item today. Not next week. Not thirty days from now.

Eric Enge: One of the things that Amazon does that’s nice is you get a certain amount of the way down the pipe, and they tell you when you can receive delivery by. It’s not the selling proposition of the product, but it’s giving you an incentive to close the deal now. So, there are those kind of value propositions too that I think you can play into it, or there is the principle of scarcity right too, where it’s only four left, so, buy now before it’s out of stock. Do you have any interesting examples of value proposition problems you want to mention?

Linda Bustos: Definitely. One example is mistaking a mission or vision statement as the value proposition. Avoid “We want to be the #1 seller in widgets” or, “we believe in this and we believe in that”, which should be internal stuff you present to your investors, not customers. You really need to focus it around customer needs and what they care about. And, keep it in context of the purchase and why they should choose you. You are not converting them to want to join your team or to believe in what you believe in.

Another problem is burying a good value prop behind About Us or other footer links. It’s also important to maintain consistent offers and value propositions between all your advertising, email campaigns, pay per click, and offline promotions. Re-state on the landing pages the exact offer and value proposition that that person is going to expect. I think that maintaining that scent and context is important.

Eric Enge: Yes, if someone sees an ad, clicks on a Google AdWords ad, they get to a landing page, and the thing they were enticed within the ad doesn’t actually show up on the page they land on, and they say must have shown up in the wrong place, I am out of here.

Linda Bustos: Exactly.

Eric Enge: Thanks Linda!

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