John Andrews is a Competitive Webmaster and Search Engine Optimization Consultant in Seattle, Washington. This is John Andrews blog on issues of interest to the SEO community and competitive webmasters. Want to know more?

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Who needs SEO? Who needs a Competitive Advantage? Zen Cart users.

I just emerged from 3 hours of Zen Cart optimization. Zen Cart is a popular, open-source shopping cart. It’s truly amazing in capability, but like many Open Source projects it is heavily “technical”. I have to give credit to the Zen cart community, however, because the template system is coming along nicely, such that Zen Cart is capable of creating a decent-looking, functioning on line store (in the right hands).

By the way, it’s a lot of work. After my three hours working with the developer, we have the solutions but there still remains a decent amount of work to make sure our deployment is safe from upgrade, relatively portable, and adaptable.

As we went through the analysis I traversed the Zen Cart forums and sites. In my travels I came across many discussions about SEO and Zen cart. Some of those were quite heated. “Who needs SEO?” “Google spiders Zen cart just fine“. “Google has not trouble indexing Zen cart“. Blah blah blah.

I requote my mantra… it’s not SEO, but Competitive Webmastering. To whatever extent you deploy Zen Cart into your commercial market, so can someone else. Selling Vasque Sundowner boots in your Zen Cart? Well, so is someone else. Who will rank higher for a Google search for Vasque Sundowner? That discussion limps along, following a thought path that basically mirrors the belief systems of the arguers…. eventually, if you have the patience, they will settle into some agreement about “other factors” determining who wins the SERP spots, and those other factors (like back links) are recognized as part of SEO, blah blah blah. Eventually, they acknowledge that SEO brings a competitive advantage. So why so much trouble admitting that Zen Cart needs optimization?

Zen cart’s URLs are ugly as sin itself. Clean them up. Use them for competitive advantage (think:: keywords). Manage your search engine spider exposure..use that product-category symbolic link feature to your competitive advantage. It’s search engine optimization involving Zen Cart, plain and simple.

How many Zen cart implementors have the patience to rewrite Zen cart’s URLs? Few indeed. A common approach to SEO for Zencart is to build showcase pages from the product database, existing static and optimized, separate from the shopping cart application. That’s fine, and better than simply optimizing the Zen-Cart application, but why shy away from doing both? The first (creating additional, optimized product showcase pages) is a wonderful addition to your e-commerce site (with a per-page cost, a template design cost, an SEO cost, a management utiity development cost, a maintenance cost). The second (search engine optimization of the Zen-cart portion of the e-commerce site) also brings considerable added value for the zen-cart product pages, for an initial SEO development cost and a minor maintenance cost.
How many shop owners implement Zen cart for their shopping cart? I don’t know, but unless you can afford a custom shopping cart implementation (optimized, of course) you won’t be able to compete with other merchants doing a more optimal job. So first you need to know your market, and if the players in your market are using open source shopping carts (like OSCommerce or Zen cart) then you can, too. And when you do, you will need to optimize because they can, too. And the winner is? Well, it’s not going to be the guys with the Flash shopping carts. but after that the question is really, who will be the most competitive player in the market?

Place your bets.

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10 Responses to “Who needs SEO? Who needs a Competitive Advantage? Zen Cart users.”

  1. MA Says:

    SEO has been argued about for *years* at the Zen Cart forum from its inception, along with many other practical improvements to help create a successful ecommerce application. If you’d stuck with those arguments, as I did for years, you’d come to one conclusion - the Zen Cart developers do not get ‘it’. They don’t get usability, good design or SEO. They’re developing Open Source Software in a closed loop. They know best, not their users.

    “So why so much trouble admitting that Zen Cart needs optimization?”

    There is much trouble admitting Zen Cart is lacking in any area - unless the devs have already admitted it themselves … and they resemble ostriches when it comes to SEO. ;)

    Zen Cart can be successfully optimized using something like the ‘Ultimate SEO URLs’ plugin, just be prepared for plenty of work keeping it all working as new versions are released. Even with that plugin there is plenty of duplicate content (generated by sort pages, alternative product links, etc.) which require addition of ‘nofollow’ to fix.

  2. Need Some Help Says:

    […] installation of Zen Cart. I’ve done a some SEO work for eCommerce sites and was reminded of this article on Zen Cart and SEO . Here’s an good nugget that describes exactly what I thought when I saw your urls. […]

  3. Melanie Says:

    Yes, Zen Cart has ugly urls.. NO argument, but we build quite a few Zen Carts and many rank very well.

    The same good old fashioned rules apply to Zen Cart as any other. Web businesses are not some golden goose, they also require a great deal of work. The biggest issues we find actually infect most shopping cart solutions. Shop owners duplicate their content across theirs and many other sites.

    Too much work to use a clean description, so copy the distributors and compete with the content of hundreds of other vendors. Or the folks who have 5 product specific words on their product pages.

    We see this with all carts.

  4. Raine Says:

    Zencart can sport a full static url structure using add-on.

    Have a look at: http://simple-seo-url.com/

  5. Haroun Kola Says:

    I stumbled across this post looking for info on how to turn those ugly as sin urls into SE friendly urls. Any idea where to look?
    :)

  6. Jammer Says:

    yea, any idea of how to fix beyond the .htaccess manual rewrites

  7. Susie Says:

    Haroun, see the previous post. That’s a plug in that will do it for you. Here’s another:
    http://www.zen-cart.com/index.php?main_page=product_contrib_info&products_id=231

  8. Anthony Lepki Says:

    Probably my best choice for Zen Cart is the ability to structure the code in such a way that is appealing to the search engines. External CSS, javascript and not to mention DIVs.
    Yes it can be time consuming working on the SEO friendly URLs, but at the end of the day, if it helps out perform (out-convert) your competition, the investment is well worth it.
    Compared to other ‘SEO-friendly e-commerce’ solutions, Zen Cart still comes up at the top of my list for customization and seo-ability.

  9. vj Says:

    I have noticed changes in SERP just by changing to SEO friendly URL’s alone.

  10. pengerik Says:

    I’m in the process of opening up my own webstore, and have been sceptical of the URL structure of Zen Cart - but if there really is a way to make them more SEO friendly - that’s great :)

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