BigCommerce SEO Bible - Links, URL Structure and Sitemaps

Manuel C. Published on 08 December, 2011

Links indicate the path to a product in your Bigcommerce store and also send relevant messages to visitors and to search engines too. Here I will outline some basic principles of how links should be treated and used. Also, the tips I'll give here should be used from the very beginning and store owners should know not to make changed unless they really know the consequences.

Links tell a story about you and your store

If you have read the Basic Google SEO Guide then you know that links send a clear message to the search engine regarding the content of the page.
Yes. Even before the page can be loaded crawlers and people alike will know that at link http://store.com/desktop-fan.html they will find fans for your desktop computer. Easy as cake, you would say, but there are many who do not give the proper importance to this small detail.
Before even importing products and deciding what URL the product pages should have you need to understand some basic principles of links:

  1. ALWAYS use lowercase - technically a link like ../tHis-link.html is very different than ../this-link.com. Thankfully the servers are very clever and know that they need to serve the lowercase version (canonical). Still it is better to play the safe card and use only lowercase letters.
  2. use ONLY alphanumerical characters - I know some people like to have links like ../this-(may be)-is-best-link/, but that is not a good idea. Notice that the link before has brackets in it and some spaces. Because of them you will have issues in the store, in Google Product Search and even on some social networks. Do not try to insert ™ (™ - Trade Mark) or ® (® - Registered) or © ( © - Copyright) because a link like ../monorail™.html will be converted to ../monorail%99.html in some of the networks and you may get an error. Use only clean, nice alphanumerical characters in link and you will be safe from the horrors of the internet. A list of URL encoding characters can be found here.
  3. hyphens are used to separate words - a link is easier to understand and you can better use keywords in it if you use the hyphen as a word separator. The link ../myasweomestoreisawesome.html is very hard to understand and, if you want to rank for awesome, then you are out of luck, because that string over there refers to some other keyword. A link like the one before is better used like this: /my-awesome-store-is-awesome.html. Much, much better. People cam memorize it and crawlers understand that you have several keywords in it. A big win. As a side note please do not use underscore () in your titles, unless you want to link two words into one. Google sees ../this_awesome_house.html as one thisawesomehouse, and because of this it is better for SEO to use hyphens. Like Matts Cutts, from Google, explains here it is much better to use ../this-awesome-house.html instead.
  4. when importing products do fill in the best URL for them - I know that if you import thousands of products using a CSV file it is a pain to insert for each one the URL and thus many just import the product with only their names, category and some other details. Please take into account that if your product titles have special characters in them then you will receive errors upon import. It tries to create URLs from them (sometimes it even manages to do that) and you will see a message that links should only have alphanumeric, /, - or . Not more than that!
  5. do not forget the trailing slash / - most people do not give importance if the links they send out are with a trailing slash (/) or not. Well, they should. The link /awesome-product is not the same as /awesome-product/ , but the servers are, as always, clever enough to send to the canonical version, if you set that up. consider adding the trailing slash when you add the URLs in the CSV file for import. A complete explanation of the importance of the trailing slash has been given by Sebastian.
  6. use keywords in the URLs - this is not specific to Bigcommerce, but it helps for general knowledge. Do what it take NOT to use links like store.com/?p=22. You store know what that page is about and where it is. I cannot possibly know form that URL what will be there and neither the crawlers. Text, words, keywords are much better. If that page is about services then simply use store.com/services-pricing-plans. I can even remember the page's URL that way. This is good.

URL structure in BigCommerce

BigCommerce has done a nice thing letting you choose what URL structure you like and even having custom URLs by using placeholders like %productname%, %category%, %categoryname% or %sku%.
Following the rule that the URL needs to be as short, but as descriptive, as possible I would suggest you use the SEO Optimized short version for products, categories and webpages.
In Settings- Store Settings - URL Structure you can choose these settings. Alternatively you can choose a custom URL and use placeholder to have another type of links in the store. Using %productname%/%category% will show the product first in the URL and then the category it's in. Use this if you do not repeat ta given keyword in the title and in the category name.
For example, if the product is named Womens Dress Beige Paris Luxury and it is in the category Women Dresses, better use the short URL version. You do not want to repeat womens dress all over the URL.

Sitemaps and submitting to search engines

One thing to know is that in BigCommerce if you choose to hide a page from the menu it will not show up in your sitemap as well. Still, you need to have all those links submitted to Google Webmasters Tools.
You can see your sitemap by typing /xmlsitemap.php after your store's URL. So, you will access it at: http://store.com/xmlsitemap.php . Be careful not to insert an extra / after the store's URL.
Knowing this you can test your self which links get hidden from sitemap when you hide them from menu.
In order to submit the hidden pages too there is a workaround. normally, when you hide them you are still able to get there by typing the URL in browser's address bar.
So, the workaround has a few steps:

  1. generate the XML sitemap - use services like XML Sitemaps or WebSite Map or see a list of such tools in Google's Wiki.
  2. download the XML sitemap and the upload it via FTP to your /content/ folder
  3. go to your Webmasters Account- Site Configuration - Sitemaps - an insert the link: /content/sitemap.xml. It will take a bit but the links will be submitted. As a side note, you can have the sitemap in whatever folder, but it has to be in your site.
  4. enjoy having those other links submitted to Google too.

Please note that submitting a sitemap to Google does NOT mean that it will index those pages, all your pages or ANY of them. Usually it will index most of the pages, and in the first place it will look at the canonical version of the links.
If you haven't done that already, do not forget to add the following line in your robots.txt file: Sitemap:http://www.oct2011.mybigcommerce.com/xmlsitemap.php
That file is located in Tools- Edit Robots.txt.
That line will show the major search engines where they can find the sitemap. Even is you do not submit the sitemap to Google your site will still be indexed, but with a slower pace. So, submitting will accelerate the process.

Conclusions regarding SEO links and nice URLs

With this the second part of preparing your site for SEO is completed. As I said in the previous articles these are only basic things we need to understand and do in order to be ready to fight our way into the ever changing world of SEO.
The next articles will outline the importance of meta tags, keyword driven titles, Panda updates and, of course, original content.

Manuel C. Published on 08 December, 2011