ZenCart, Magento and poor SEO – solving the issues

Pixel Ovenmitts from JustMustard.com

Pixel Ovenmitts from JustMustard.com

We’ve been working with JustMustard.com on a very special project involving ZenCart eCommerce software. JustMustard is an online retailer and wholesaler of a variety of very strange and very awesome gifts and presents. We really enjoy working with them. Plus we really want some Pixel Oven-gloves.

However, ZenCart is viewed with both praise and disdain from programmers. It is an excellent off-the-shelf system for an online shopping experience, very secure, and very customisable. However, like most off-the-shelf systems, it does require a lot of work to give the results wanted.

As an aside, if you are looking for a new shopping system, we do recommend looking into both off-the-shelf systems such as osCommerce and Magento against having a custom solution being built. A custom solution can mean better SEO and should be more in needs with your business, and although the costs may appear high and a require a good long-term development team, on the other hand, a generic site needing custom changes later can be expensive or impossible, and is more likely to be attacked and spammed. In JustMustard’s case, we’re finding that ZenCart (after some work) is working very well; but in other sites using a generic site could be a costly mistake..

ZenCart, along with many other eCommerce sites are not set out for great SEO opportunities. ZenCart’s biggest mistake is having duplicate content, since a product can be accessed by many URLs (via the cPath); and often different URLs for the same product is used across the site. ZenCart also doesn’t make any use of the URL for keywords, often making the common mistake of using the querystring for page navigation.

We’ve been able to work with the ZenCart system and rewrite all the necessary URLs, and also automatically use the product title (and optional description) as part of the keywords in the URL. This is simply done using some fairly logical PHP techniques alongside some custom htaccess rules and regular expression matching.

It means a URL which previously looked like this:

/index.php?main_page=product_info&cPath=1_4&products_id=39

Is now redirected, alongside any similar-looking URL, to the much neater and unambiguous;

/product-39/cactooph-toothpick/

The same technique has been applied to product categories, and has been to static product pages too.

If the URL visited isn’t exactly the right one, the script tries to find the product, category or static page, and redirects the customer to the correct URL. The URL includes the latest keywords via the product title; ensuring customers have an informative URL, and search engines have valuable keywords and non-duplicate content.

Scripts like this can really clean up a working website, and really help to achieve both better keyword position and make it easier for your customers to navigate your site; without requiring a complete re-write. Our version will work just as easily for any future product; and doesn’t require any additional effort from product administration.

list of shortcodes on derp.co.uk that come from rewriterules

derp.co.uk: we love rewrite rules!

We’ve done this on every site we’ve set up, and found it helps bundles. Often this is just a few pages, but we’ve integrated this same system on far more advanced websites too – including a complex laptop, battery and power browser system on the laptopshop.co.uk website – a total of over 300,000 pages. We’ve also used rewrite rules to a ridiculous degree on the image site, derp.co.uk

Certainly ensuring non-duplicate content and keywords are important to SEO. Changing all the URLs on your site can be a lot of work to achieve, and it should never be taken lightly, it can sometimes be better to improve slowly and carefully. At the very least, it is essential to ensure all old URLs redirect to the new address and include a sitemap. For a number of reasons, this was a good time for JustMustard.com, and we’ll be keeping a close eye on it and tuning accordingly..

Despite our technique being relatively simple, it requires quite some work before it will automatically with all ZenCart installs, and static pages have had to be arranged using some of our other tools. JustMustard.com was a perfect candidate for this work, but every site we’ve seen has different needs and requirements.

For this reason, we’re not able to provide source code, though we may provide some of our techniques if there’s demand; and we’re always happy to help if you contact us. We hope this is useful and motivating to get those site issues fixed!

Instead, we are happy to discuss similar installations and assistance with SEO and eCommerce.

Adobe Flash or HTML5?

More as more sites are moving away from Adobe Flash; for good reason. Announced today, Slideshare, an online tool for sharing presentations, have completely rewritten their site to use HTML instead of Adobe Flash.

This has meant that their site is now functional not only without the Flash plugin, but also on iPhone, iPad, Android and any other mobile platform that supports HTML5. They’ve also claimed a 30% speed increase; and it is guaranteed to help with search engine optimisation.

So why ditch Adobe Flash? Since the beginning of ‘Flash’ (formerly Macromedia Flash), has been used to irritate and annoy web users through advertising and animation and frustrate programmers; while also used to delight gamers and help designers.

However, is has a few flaws; notably the site isn’t readable by a spider or search engine, and is only available on platforms that support Adobe Flash.

Adobe themselves claim a 99% installation on PCs; much higher than say Java or Quicktime – we’d love to question these figures, and it is simply not available on mobile platforms.

What are the issues?

  • Flash is a proprietary product; the code for how it works is not available, and Adobe do often change their code and update it. It’s also been famed for causing browser memory issues, so much so that Apple declined to have support on the iPhone and iPad.
  • Not only that, but Flash has been a primary target for slipping malware and viruses, especially via social networks such as Facebook.
  • Using Flash tends to break conventions associated with normal HTML pages. Selecting text, scrolling, forms and right clicking are not part of the browser.
  • Flash player has to be able to animate on top of video renderings, which makes hardware accelerated video rendering more complex than a purpose-built multimedia player.
  • Flash is also often blocked in some browsers; and will only play after being clicked.

 

So what are the alternatives? Naturally HTML5 can solve a great number of these issues, while also preserving your site for web spiders and search engines. However, HTML5 does have issues with video.

Adobe seem to be creeping out of the ‘experience’ part of HTML, and is almost always only used for video streaming and games. The reasons are simple, gaming in HTML5 can be complex, and Adobe has been written almost solely for this purpose.

As for video; there are few options. Due to various disagreements, there is no single standard for HTML5 video – unlike for Flash Streaming (which uses FLV).

The current HTML5 draft specification does not specify which video formats browsers should support. Web browser are free to support any video formats they feel are appropriate. Originally Ogg Theora was recommended since it is not patented and wouldn’t require licencing.

Most browsers will support Ogg Theora, but Safari and Internet Explorer require manual installation of the codec to support playback. Other alternatives such as H.264 are supported in these browsers, but aren’t available at all in others.

A quick guide, from Wikipedia is below; it’s easy to see why so many sites still use Adobe Flash for streaming.

Browser Formats supported by different web browsers
Ogg Theora H.264 VP8 (WebM) Others
Internet Explorer Manual install 9.0 Manual install No
Mozilla Firefox 3.5 No 4.0 No
Google Chrome 3.0 No (removed at 11) 6.0 No
Chromium r18297 No r47759 No
Safari Manual install 3.1 Manual install Manual install
Opera 10.50 No 10.60 No
Konqueror 4.4 Manual install Yes Manual install
Epiphany 2.28 Manual install Yes Manual install

Microsoft Windows 8 Developer Edition

Without wanting to turn into a review site; we’ve taken a look at Microsoft’s new Operating System – Windows 8; and we’re genuinely impressed. The beta is available to all, and is valid until March 2012. You can download it directly from Microsoft.

It’s not recommended that this is installed or upgraded on a live machine (and always make backups); it’s likely that it’s almost impossible to downgrade. We’re swapped to a new and blank hard drive on a AM3 Quad Core with 3GB RAM. The system requirements are 1GHz CPU, 1GB RAM and 16GB Hard Drive space.

After a very familiar installation screen, almost identical to Windows 7; the user is presented with a simple black screen with white text showing the current action and percentage – no progress bars here. The new font is clean and crisp; although some have criticised its simplicity; it’s fast and easy to read.

The Metro interface is generally smooth and fast, familiar of JQuery – and likely uses it. Under high load it can stutter, but not so bad as to make it unusable. There’s plenty of Metro tiles included, and the larger download has Visual Studio Express to allow developers to make their own. We’re yet to have time to play with this yet, but hope too soon.

They’ve taken heed of the problems with Vista, and stuck truly to improving on the Windows 7 experience for the home user. Behind the new glossy-style Metro screen; is the familiar Windows, with a few subtle changes in Explorer.

Windows 8 Metro Interface

Windows 8 Metro Interface

The explorer interface has had a face-lift, as previously discussed – and thankfully have taken notice of the complaints and allowed the Office-style Ribbon to be minimized as shown here:

Screenshot of Explorer 'Ribbon' collapsed and uncollapsed

Yes, the new Explorer 'Ribbon' is collapsable

The new Metro interface is an unusual learning curve – many of their user interfaces are slightly different; for changing settings, are counter-intuitive – or cause issues. One we’ve found is using Remote Desktop, it’s difficult to use the Start button since the new ‘Metro’ menu pops up when the mouse is in the bottom left.

Metro also offers a web browser in the form of Internet Explorer 9; however since it’s based as a Metro tile; it will be interesting to see if other web browsers are able to integrate so well into the new interface. Whether they’re able to or not, it might be one of Microsoft’s methods to try and bring confidence back to IE.

There seems few other changes, at least in this release. The new ‘Metro’ interface is undoubtedly going to be controversial; and we’re concerned about the use of Internet Explorer; but Windows 8 certainly seems to be a new direction for Microsoft.

Microsoft to ‘ribbonise’ Windows 8 File Manager

Microsoft have posted an insightful article regarding their decision to add a Microsoft Office-style ribbon to the File Manager toolbar.

As usual, Microsoft go into some detail as to why this choice has been made. The article describes the most commonly used file buttons, in order, as paste, properties, copy, delete, rename, refresh and cut. These will now be shown in a large bar across the top in five categories – File, Home, Share, View and Manage.

Screenshot of Windows Explorer in "Windows 8"

Windows Explorer in "Windows 8"

Already aware of skepticism; it appears Microsoft are adding this as an additional method of getting to the already-available tasks; while also intending to add some new features. It can be seen from the screenshots, Microsoft may be removing the zoom feature and instead returning to the familiar Small Icons, Large Icons, Details and List that has been around since Windows ’95.

Some criticism has already arisen – the screen estate used purely for the ribbon is large, especially given some of the small screens for Netbooks. It appears Microsoft has chosen a deliberately narrow and long screenshot to help hide this.

It also features content tabs; which appear a useful addition to a new user:

Screenshot of Library Tools in Windows 8 File Explorer

Library Tools in Windows 8 File Explorer

Screenshot of Picture Tools in Windows 8 File Explorer

Picture Tools in Windows 8

But is Microsoft targeting the wrong people with this move? Surely most existing Windows users will shy away from it? I suspect many of us hope this will be an option.

Naturally this has ramifications for user interfaces on websites too. With Google Analytics and Heatmap software such as ClickHeat (open source, GPL); it’s easy to see which features your visitors are using most – but – like Microsoft, be aware that a significant change can easily alienate your user base.

It has also been announced that the new Windows 8 will feature a smartphone-style menu with panels; with (it seems) the normal ability to run software but with a smaller footprint of the Windows interface; improving battery life and speed. The rest of the interface will appear (or may even) be a separate application. This sounds very similar to the window manager system in Linux, and could be a good move to having a faster, stripped-down OS with the remaining features loaded on demand.

Full article on the ribbon can be found in this MSDN Blog post, and the new UI is described in Designing for Metro.

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