Episerver is a powerful platform for building ecommerce solutions. Most agencies will proclaim to build solutions with performance at its core, but, performance considerations often get sidelined when the heat comes on in other areas of the project. Pushed to the dreaded ‘Phase 2’.

We’re different. We’ve walked the walk and had those difficult conversations to protect our performance-first morals. If you’re embarking on an Episerver ecommerce project, or phase 2 is on the horizon, here’s a few things to consider:

  1. Information architecture & navigation for users and crawlers
  2. Target long term success with category and sub-category pages
  3. Customer focussed product pages
  4. Product discovery can be your biggest barrier to revenue generation
  5. Use custom sitemaps to measure indexing performance
  6. Avoiding accidental duplicate content
  7. The need for speed for users and crawlers
  8. Using Episerver Find to maximise your internal site search

Information architecture & navigation for users and crawlers

The building blocks of your Episerver ecommerce solution will be grounded in a highly functional and logical information architecture. At it’s most basic an ecommerce site is relatively straightforward:

  • Homepage
  • Category page
  • Sub-category page
  • Product page

The challenge with any ecommerce solution is scale. You may have to deal with a few thousand to a few million products, and they all need a home within your IA.

A poorly structured IA will always come back to bite you sooner or later. Tweaks and minor fixes in the future won’t cut it. It’s best to invest the time early and get it right first time.

You’ll want to involve the right people at the start of this process and keep them involved throughout:

  • Designers / UX
  • SEO experts
  • Product experts
  • Users – to test against

The output from this group should be an information architecture and navigation system that supports the following:

  • A navigation that is easy to use and allows users to logically find products by browsing to relevant categories and subcategories
  • Categories and sub-categories that users are searching for in search engines

When it comes to implementing the navigation system, work closely with experienced Episerver developers to allow future rounds of testing and flexibility for this to be managed within the CMS, avoiding extra development work where possible.

Target long term success with category and sub-category pages

Product pages tend to come and go, but categories and subcategories tend to have much greater longevity. With longevity there is much greater opportunity to build authority, attract traffic and increase revenue over time.

The primary purpose of any category page is to ultimately lead customers towards a product and eventually to purchase. However, category pages need to offer much more than rows of products – using the Episerver product suite to build a memorable and personalised experience which helps customers decide on what’s best for them is where the magic happens.

A category page template should cover all the fundamentals around displaying products, along with the added extras that provides a rich and unique experience that gives search engines a reason to rank your page higher than other competitors only covering the basics.

Customer focussed product pages

When managing a product catalogue that potentially spans hundreds of thousands of products, in most cases it’s impossible to set out to create unique content for every product page.

Having the flexibility to do so is still important and the Episerver CMS and Commerce platforms gives you the option to automate product details pages using a product data feed or to edit manually where required.

Our advice here is to play it smart – if you think you can gain an edge by creating unique content for your most profitable, or high revenue potential products, go for it. By isolating top performing pages, you should have a more manageable group of product pages to test the theory on and see results quicker if your changes have the desired effect.

With multiple competitors potentially using the same product feed data, differentiating your product pages with additional features and personalisation is the ace up your sleeve, all of which can be rolled out in your Episerver CMS and Commerce solution:

  • Adding customer reviews helps convince customers to purchase and adds much needed user generated content to the page
  • High quality images and videos of the products should now be a standard, with some retailers starting to incorporate AR into customer experiences so they can get a real feel for what the product will look and feel like (link to ASOS example - https://fashionunited.uk/news/retail/asos-launches-its-first-augmented-reality-feature/2019061443676)
  • Ways to pay, click and collect and stock availability – finer details that puts the customer back in control of their purchasing journey
  • Personalised recommendations – people also buy, similar products from the same brand – upsell or cross-sell opportunities should be maximised
  • Clear call-to-actions. Be up-front with additional costs and deliveries and remove all barriers to conversion – using Amazon as an example is almost like an over-used cliché at this point, but it always astounds me at how easy it is to order. Once you’ve decided and items are in your basket, one or 2 more clicks and your order is placed before you’ve had a chance to re-think.

Working closely with a team of designers and UX specialists allows these features to be built into product page templates from early in the project and eventually built out within Episerver by developers.

Product discovery can be your biggest barrier to revenue generation

This seems like an obvious thing to say but large ecommerce sites pose a significant technical SEO challenge.

The first step in product discovery for search engines is to crawl through the site (re-enforcing the need for a well-planned approach to your information architecture) and discover product URLs.

After crawling these are eventually indexed by search engines, in most cases, at which point they will start appearing in search results. This process can take anything from almost instantly to months depending on your implementation – some products may never make it into a search engine’s index at all.

If there are difficulties for search engines in crawling your site and discovering product URLs to add to their index, then you essentially remove the ability for these products to be discovered through organic search, which for a typical ecommerce site will provide approximately 50-75% of its revenue.

 There are many ways to optimise the crawling and indexing performance of your Episerver ecommerce site, many of which will need defined in collaboration with developers and an SEO specialist. Close consideration should be given to:

  • The use of JavaScript to render important content and links within it – search engines cannot access this content or links when they first crawl a site meaning it can take longer for them to appear in the index
  • Implementation of canonical URLs across page templates
  • Avoiding crawl traps through facets, filters and sort options
  • Pagination implementation across categories with many products
  • Using robots.txt instructions to preserve crawl budget

Use custom sitemaps to measure indexing performance

XML sitemaps can be submitted to platforms like Google Search Console (GSC) to provide insight into the indexing performance of URLs.

We use a customisable Episerver plugin for sitemaps which gives CMS editors greater control and flexibility when setting these up. Commerce sitemaps can be used within the plugin which allows users to select the category or subcategory node within an Episerver Commerce product catalogue, which will then generate a sitemap including all the products found within that category.

Once your sitemaps have been created in the Admin section of the Episerver CMS platform, you can submit these to GSC and monitor how many product URLs from each category are actually being indexed.

These sitemaps will then help identify any categories that are having crawling or indexing issues which can then be resolved. With more products being indexed by search engines, there is greater opportunity for your products to be found and generate revenue.

Each sitemap can have a maximum of 50,000 URLs but tests have shown that using smaller sitemaps can help improve indexing performance - we recommend keeping sitemaps to a maximum of 10 - 15,000 URLs.

Avoiding accidental duplicate content

Every product and category should only be available at one URL. One area of duplication to be wary of is when products can be found in multiple categories.

If your URL structure follows this pattern – i.e. www.domain.com/category/sub-category/product - a new URL could be created for the same product within each category it is found.

There are a few options to control this. Selecting a primary category and using this as the canonical URL for the other categories where the product is listed, or using a different URL structure for product pages – i.e. www.domain.com/product - will allow this URL to be used in multiple categories without duplication issues.

Defining the preferred approach with your development team early in the project allows the chosen URL structure to be setup within the Episerver CMS and Commerce platforms. When the product data is then imported URLs are built around the rules that were initially set.

A more subtle duplication issue can occur when setting instructions around the use of www, https, trailing slashes and case sensitivity in URLs. If we use the following list of URLs as examples:

  • https://www.domain.com/category/product
  • https://www.domain.com/category/product/
  • https://domain.com/category/product
  • https://domain.com/category/product/
  • http://www.domain.com/category/product
  • http://www.domain.com/category/product/
  • http://domain.com/category/product
  • http://domain.com/category/product/

There are now 8 versions of this product page, rather than 1.

Add to this the issue of case sensitivity (domain.com/Category/Product) and the problem grows further.

Scale this across an ecommerce site with 1 million product URLs and there are now 8 million product URLs for search engines to deal with (remember how we talked about product discovery being a barrier to revenue generation). Search engines have limited resources to crawl and index your URLs – wasting time crawling un-necessary duplicates isn’t the best way to use their time.

How can you fix it?

When you have defined your preferred URL structure with the development team, sitewide redirect rules can be implemented within the config file of your Episerver platform which will redirect all other versions of the URL to your chosen structure. That way search engines can only ever access the version of the URL you want to be crawled and indexed.

Consistency is also important – when you have chosen your URL structure make sure this is what is used in navigation links, canonical URLs, sitemaps and hreflang (if relevant when operating at an international scale).

The need for speed for users and crawlers

The need for faster loading pages is a topic that has been covered extensively over the last decade. A quick re-cap:

  • Better user experience – no-one wants to wait around while pages load in vital content
  • Improved conversion rate – slow loading pages will cause less people to buy your products
  • Improved volume and rate of crawling – faster loading pages means search engine crawlers can find more pages when they visit, as well as confirm to search engines that the site is in good health and they aren’t stressing servers by requesting lots of pages as they move through the site

Most of the optimisation strategies will need to be built into your Episerver implementation by developers, and there are some useful plugins available to implement the basics around image and resource compression and re-sizing.

More advanced tactics around things like asset caching, deferring the loading of non-essential assets until the user needs them and using HTTP/2 to deliver resources can all be configured for a leaner and faster loading page.

Using Episerver Find & Perform to maximise your internal site search

Your internal site search is a treasure trove of information which can relay vital information that can play a key part of your wider SEO strategy.

Data we have analysed shows that over 50% of users have engaged with site search before going on to complete a purchase, so it’s a hugely significant part of most user journeys.

Episerver Find is an enterprise search solution that provides a customisable and powerful platform to meet your site search needs.

Features like best bets (match top search queries with the most relevant and profitable products), spell checking and suggestions and full access to search data in the back-end, make Episerver Find a powerful tool in your arsenal for on-site optimisation.

Layer on top of this Episerver Perform and you have a personalised Find solution that starts to generate search results that feature recommendations based upon users previous browsing and purchasing habits, while staying relevant to the search query.

Using this data in your SEO strategy allows you to identify top performing product searches and help influence your decision on where to spend marketing budget to try and increase visibility and sales of popular products.

This data can also help influence future changes to your site structure, helping to bring categories and products higher in the IA when we know users are actively searching for them.

To conclude

The Episerver suite of products is a powerful and flexible platform that puts the power of choice into the hands of developers, designers, marketers, digital and platform specialists.

While the potential to perform is available in abundance, careful planning is required throughout any ecommerce design and build project to define requirements and build these into the solution from the ground up.

Some of our Episerver ecommerce implementations have saw revenue increases of over 75% in the first 12 months – those difficult conversations and maintaining a performance-first approach pays off in the long run.