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Zen Cart Search Engine Optimization Tips

Improving Sales with Zen Cart

Zen Cart is a wonderful software package in many ways, not the least of which is its ability to provide a means for webmasters with limited experience to create their own e-commerce website and to customize it. To gain the maximum potential from your Zen Cart® website, you need to configure your it to optimize the chances of getting good search engine rankings. Better rankings leads to more visitors, which means more opportunities to make a sale!

As a website designer and search engine marketer, I've been working extensively with Zen Cart for several years now, and I've gathered some essential tips to help you make your site perform better in Google, Bing, and the other search engines. The basic methods I describe are easily implemented by any webmaster since they're largely limited to settings in the Admin control panel or other common website maintenance procedures. My Advanced SEO tips require a working knowledge of HTML, CSS, and PHP, but they are well within the capabilities of anyone who's modified a Zen Cart template or installed a module.

In writing this tutorial, I searched Google for other pages on this topic to make sure I wasn't overlooking any helpful techniques. What I found was there were oceans of pages by SEO companies offering their services to Zen Cart webmasters, but only a couple of pages containing practical methods of improving a website's search engine rankings. Even YouTube™ was awash with videos from SEOs that led nowhere. So I decided I would try to make this article as comprehensive and useful as I possibly could, filled with easily understood suggestions that will leave you thinking, "I could do that!" and not "This is hopeless!" I cover a lot of ground here, so let's dig right in!

Zen Cart SEO Tutorial

Zen Cart

Zen Cart will easily allow you to simply upload a handful of products and let you go on your merry way. But if you don't put in the additional effort required to sieze control of your website so that it is optimized for both users and search engines, you're almost certain to fail. A Zen Cart website is (mostly) like every other site as far as the search engines are concerned. It must be technically sound and filled with content-rich pages. Ultimately, you are in complete control of these issues. You are responsible for making sure that the internal coding and HTML mark-up are free of errors, and that all of your webpages contain something worthwhile for users.

As far as the internal coding is concerned, you can generally rely on the code you get from Zen Cart. The package is updated as needed, and most third-party plugins are reasonably well-designed. But the content your website displays to users is your job alone. You must be dilligent in creating good content for every page you make available to visitors - even those pesky information pages like Shipping and Returns, Privacy Policy, and so on. First of all, it only makes sense to give potential customers all of the information they'll want about you and the products you're selling. But you also want to insure that the search engines find that the vast majority of the pages on your site are filled with unique, high-quality content. Optimizing your Zen Cart site starts with the Admin control panel.

Page Titles and <META> Tags

In terms of the search engine results pages (SERPs), you need to create compelling page titles and <meta> descriptions for the main page, all of your categories, and your most important products. The page title and the <meta> description are some of the most valuable pieces of real estate on a page for SEO, so you need to put a good deal of effort into this area of your website to optimize its potential rankings.

The search engines will generally display the contents of the <meta> description in the snippet of text that appears below the page title in the search results when that content is relevant to the user's query (ie. they contain the same keywords). So you want to make sure the description is keyword-rich, but also writtten to entice users to click on your page instead of someone else's. Got a great selection of widgets or great prices? Do you offer free shipping? Make sure you say so in the category's <meta> description. As far as the <meta> keywords tag goes, it really doesn't matter much since only Bing uses it for rankings and they only give it a smidgeon of weight. Just hit the highlights and avoid overstuffing it with keywords.

The home page is the keystone to your website. It's the strongest page on your site and the place where you need to put your best foot forward. Start off strong by using "Tools > Define Pages Editor" to create two or three paragraphs of keyword-rich text that describes your business and the products you sell. This is where you can emphasize your major product lines and cover your target keywords. Say you have a widget store. You specialize in widgets for the home and for the office. Your page title will certainly focus on the word "widgets", but it's the page text where you you can add variations that include "home" and "office" as you describe your products and why people should buy them from you.

You want to set the title, <meta> description, and <meta> keywords tags for your main page carefully. This requires editing one of Zen Cart's files - "/includes/languages/english/YOUR_TEMPLATE/meta_tags.php". Open that file in a text editor (NOT a word processor!). Edit the settings for HOME_PAGE_TITLE, HOME_PAGE_META_DESCRIPTION, and HOME_PAGE_META_KEYWORDS. If your text for these values includes a single quotation mark, be sure to escape that character by preceeding it with a backslash, as in: "\'". Once you've made the changes you like, upload the file to your website and load the main page in your browser to make sure it's correct. Use the "View Source" function in your browser to check the <meta> tags.

One of the major advantages of Zen Cart over the original versions of osCommerce is the built-in capability to set the page title, <meta> description, and <meta> keywords tags for products and categories in the Admin control panel. They're accessed through the Catalog > Categories/Products page. At the far right of each listing, there are four small icons. The right-most icon that looks like a radiation warning sign controls these tags for the individual products and categories listed. These settings will override the default behavior by which Zen Cart generates the contents of these tags automatically, which is often far less than optimal for SEO.

Product and Category Names

If there's one essential SEO tip for Zen Cart, it's that product and category names are important! Product and category names will appear in their respective page titles, which the search engines give enormous weight in the rankings. The page title is also the first thing that search engine users will see in the results, so it's vital that you select these names with great care. You naturally want product and category names to be accurate and descriptive, but you need to focus on the keywords that potential buyers will likely enter into Google or Bing when they're looking for what you have to offer. Category and product names should be concise - rarely requiring more than 3 or 4 words. Use subcategories or the <h1> tag in the page body to add adjectives. See the section on "Website Navigation" below for more.

Product and Category Descriptions

After your main page, your category pages are the next most important for the search engines because they're the pages that focus on specific product types. It's imperative that you write a robust description for each category, consisting of 150 words or more. Include the appropriate keywords, of course, but be sure to also give the page some pizazz so that users will be engaged enough to click through to the individual product pages where you're most likely to make a sale. It's a good idea to embed direct links to your two or three most prominent product pages for the convenience of your users and to convey their added importance to the search engines.

Avoid using the manufacturer's product descriptions - at least not by themselves. The chances are that dozens and dozens of other websites are already using that same text, and the search engines go to great lengths to filter out content that is duplicated on multiple websites. So the best approach is to write your own unique, compelling description for every prouct. But if you feel you must use the manufacturer's descriptions, be sure to enhance them all by adding your own unique text. Don't be shy about telling people why they should buy these products from your company. You can emphasize special features or suggest possible uses. You can add user testimonials or your own story of using the product. Aim for 300-400 words of your own and at least two paragraphs in every product description and you'll do great things for your website's rankings. If you already have several hundred products loaded, this can seem like too much work. But all it takes is ten or twenty minutes every night and you'll soon make great inroads. Start with your best, most popular and profitable products and then fill in the stragglers as you have the time.

Website Navigation

Clear, simple navigation is vital for any website, but the way your pages are linked to each other across your website can have a big impact on your rankings. You should disable all of those superfluous sideboxes that create unneeded links on every page. Sideboxes are controlled at Tools > Layout Boxes Controller. You select the sidebox to edit by clicking on the "E" icon at the right side of the list. To disable a sidebox, set "Left/Right Column Status" to "OFF", and "Single Column Status" to "OFF". When choosing which sideboxes to use, consider the following questions:

Do customers care what your bestsellers are? (best_sellers.php)
Do customers care who's online? (whos_online.php)
Do customers want to shop by Manufacturer? (manufacturers.php)
Did you create any EZ Pages? (ezpages.php)
Did you create any banners? (banner_box_all.php and banner_box2.php)
Does your site support multiple languages or currencies? (languages.php and currencies.php)
Do you need the categories sidebox when you also use category tabs?

If you answered "No" to any question above, you should disable the corresponding sidebox listed in parenthesis. You should go through the entire list of sideboxes, of course, as well as using Configuration > Maximum Values to limit the number of products displayed by the Monthly Specials, Best Sellers, and Reviews sideboxes. Limit Maximum Values > Products Listing > Number Per Page to 10 or 12. A few more pages is better for everyone. There are several other similar Maximum Values "Number Per Page" settings that you should optimize for your website. The point is that you want to focus your site's link value (ie. PageRank) on your most important pages without impairing easy navigation. And all of those additional links dilute the SEO value of every other link on your pages. This is one of the simplest and most overlooked way of improving a Zen Cart website's rankings.

Use your sub-categories effectively. The extent to which sub-categories are suitable depends on both the nature and the sheer number of products you offer. Sometimes it's appropriate to set up sub-categories by brand or manufacturer. Other situations may require subcategories for differentiating product types like the primary material or seasonality. If you're in a very competitive market, you can often find a niche in which to specialize. For example, let's say your website sells mittens and there's a main category for them. But say you have a great selection of hand-knit mittens, and not many of your competitors pay much attention to hand-knit mittens. That would be an excellent sub-category to set up and promote with some direct links. One way to tell if it's time to break up a category into sub-categories is when the primary catgeory contains so many products that few users will ever drill down to the last page of the listings. But you should avoid setting up any sub-category that will tend to contain less than 6-8 products because its category product listing page may end up being too "thin" (ie. lacking quality content).

Use the "Sort Order" settings in the Admin console to insure your most popular products and categories are always near the top of their listing pages. This is much more of a marketing strategy than an SEO tip, but it's always important to keep your eye on the prize by using every opportunity to enhance your sales. When you make it easier for users to find exactly what they want, they're more likely to make that second and third click that leads to more and larger orders.

Zen Cart has several built-in Information pages like the "Conditions of Use", "Shipping & Returns" and "Privacy Policy", all of which should be completely populated with your site's own information before any user or search engine ever discovers it. You edit these pages by selecting Tools > Define Pages Editor. Provide useful and comprehensive information, and include some keyword-rich text on these information pages. I don't mean you should include overt advertising here. But the text should incorporate a discussion of how your product assortment affects your policies and practices. This is another case where it's worthwhile to spend a little extra time to make your site that much better. If the best you can do is a single paragraph of two or three sentences, you should consider blocking it from the search engines in your robots.txt file.

It's a good idea to block (or "disallow") the search engines from indexing your contact page in robots.txt ("Disallow: /index.php?main_page=contact_us"). This will help reduce the level of SPAM Email you receive and eliminate another potentially "thin content" page. If you're having problems with SPAM or your contact form is being hijacked, look into adding Google's re-Captcha software to your contact form. Doing this also means that there is one less page from your site in the search engines that doesn't directly add to your sales.

Zen Cart Modules & Plugins

There are thousands of plugins available for Zen Cart, which can be overwhelming. But there are two that I think every Zen Cart site should include. The first is Ultimate SEO URLs. This plugin creates SEO friendly URLs (the web page addresses) for your product and category pages by turning the standard indecipherable Zen Cart URLs like "http://example.com/index.php?main_page=index&cPath=31" into keyword-based URLs like "http://example.com/fur-mittens-c-31/" which the search engines favor. Best of all, it also uses the pretty version of your URLs in the rel="canonical" tag when a page is accessed with the old, ugly URL so the search engines will automatically update their index to reflect the new version! The key to maximizing the effectiveness of this module is to keep your product titles concise (3-5 words at most) so that the URLs don't appear to be overstuffed with keywords. Other SEO friendly URL plugins may work the same, but I know this one works reliably in all versions.

I also advise installing CKEditor for editing in Zen Cart. It gives you good control over the HTML code used in product and category descriptions. If nothing else, it allows you to compose distinct multiple paragraphs that will tend to be seen as higher quality content by the search engines. And just by paying a bit more attention to these descriptions, you'll tend to actually create better pages than if you just typed in some bare-bones verbiage in plain text. In addition, your product pages will have more visual appeal automatically. Appealing pages that are filled with carefully crafted descriptions means visitors will tend to spend more time on your site, which increases the likelihood they'll place an order. And increased sales, after all, is the object of the exercise, right?

Image Handler 4 is a nifty plugin that allows you to add multiple images to every product. It highlights your carefully-crafted images on the product listing pages with rollovers, and creates smaller images for the thumbnails which improves page loading speed - especially on category pages. There's a great deal about how Zen Cart deals with images that I think is terrible, but this plugin adds many valuable features while remaining compatible with Zen Cart's native image handling methods. And beyond the additional eye-appeal it provides, using this plugin lets you use larger, higher-quality images of your products which will tend to rank better in image search, which is another avenue of free, targeted traffic. If you're concerned about theft of your images, you can use Image Handler's watermark function or my PHP Automatic Watermark Script.

Security

Thankfully, the developers of Zen Cart have made a very secure product and they continue to improve it. In some areas there's a bit of overkill, but by and large they've done a fine job. So you have little reason to fear that your site will be hacked directly. But you do need to make sure that your Admin and FTP passwords are difficult to crack. Be sure that you renamed the Admin directory to something non-obvious, and don't give it away by mentioning that directory in your "robots.txt" file. Do your due dilligence and install anti-virus software on all of your computers to prevent a computer virus from stealing your access credentials. All of Zen Cart's security precautions are useless if you're careless with your Admin and FTP log-in information, and all it takes is being sloppy with your anti-virus protection. Don't just assume your anti-virus is working because you haven't noticed any problems. Take the time to regularly check that it's installed properly and updated with the latest version. All of these programs come with their own control panel. Just launch it once a month or so and scrutinize the status indicators for notices of version updates or (Heaven forbid!) a real problem.

Keyword Research

It's well worth your time to do some simple keyword research. Create a list of your targeted keywords and phrases and enter them into Google and Bing. As you do so, keep an eye on the search suggestions that appear as you type in a new query and the list of related searches at the bottom of the search results page. This is free data about what users frequently enter into Google when their query includes your target keywords. You're bound to find words and phrases that you can include in your product and category descriptions that will help you attract more search engine traffic. You can often find that your modest website can compete with the big kids when you target some longer keyword phrases that are popular, but under-served by other websites.

Be sure to sign up for Google Webmaster Tools and Google Analytics to monitor your progress. Google Analytics requires installing some JavaScript on your pages, but it's easy enough. The best place to put the JavaScript is to add it to "/includes/templates/YOUR_TEMPLATE/common/tpl_footer.php". Webmaster Tools will let you see how often your pages have appeared in the search results and what keywords were used for those searches. Analytics tells you more about where your website's traffic is coming from, and user behavior data like how much time users were spending on your site when they got there. You should also sign up for Bing Webmaster Tools which offers similar services for that search engine.



Advanced Zen Cart SEO Tips

This information is for webmasters who are comfortable with editing the files in Zen Cart. If you're new to editing the Zen Cart files, be sure to make a back-up copy of your "/includes" directory before you start modifying these critical files.

Page Loading Speed

There's only a small ranking boost to be had by speeding up your website as far as your rankings are concerned, but nothing sends users away faster than a slow loading page and on many servers, Zen Cart can be positively glacial. There are lots of simple ways of speeding up a website. One of the best places to find out about these methods is Google's Page Speed Insights. There you'll find a tool that will not only test your site's page loading speed, it will also offer suggestions for ways to improve it. In the meantime, here are some things you can do as a Zen Cart webmaster.

Take the time to learn how to optimize your images so that the small sized ones used for thumbnails look good and that the medium and large sized images have reasonable file sizes so they load quickly. If you use Photoshop©, use the "Save for Web & Devices" function in the File menu to save your images. For .jpg images, a quality setting of 75-80% will do fine in most cases. For .png images, use the 256 color pallette to reduce file size. If the number of products in your catalog grows beyond 200-300, you should move your images into subdirectories by category. Zen Cart pages tend to be heavy with images for things like New Product and Specials boxes, so you can avoid forcing the server to have to make dozens of searches through long lists of images for each page by keeping them all in a single directory. Just be sure to use the "Upload To Directory" option when you add new products.

Merge your common stylesheets. Zen Cart checks the /css directory for stylesheets on every page load. Even simple templates will often include four or five stylesheets, and you can speed up your site by combining some of them into a single "stylesheet.css" file. CSS files for Zen Cart are rarely dependent on the order in which they're loaded, so you can usually lump the common ones together without any problems. The easiest to merge are "stylesheet.css" with "stylesheet_classes.css" and "stylesheet_css_buttons.css". Just be sure to delete the unused files once you've created the new master stylesheet. You can do the same thing with JavaScript files if you're knowledgeable. But JavaScript files are more prone to conflicts and other problems if they're not merged with care.

Avoid templates that use a custom mega-menu to replicate sideboxes or creates link-heavy footers. If you're simply in love with a template that suffers from either of these two drawbacks, then the only solution is to edit them yourself to mitigate the problem as much as possible. If you're truly adept at PHP and HTML, you might also edit the Information sidebox module ("includes/modules/sideboxes/YOUR_TEMPLATE/information.php") to provide only the links that you believe are important for your users.

Off-Site SEO

There is a limit to what effect you can have on your website's rankings by tweaking the site itself. Yes, we're going to talk about links. Links are simply vital to your site's performance in the search engines. It's rare for small E-commerce sites to attract a significant number of natural links from other sites. Websites that are dedicated to providing information have the advantage here because other websites may well want to refer thier users to them. Such links are often referred to as being "editorial links" because the link was posted because the linking webmaster thought the information site's content had value for his users. Editorial links are the best quality links you can have for rankings for this reason. While the users of e-commerce websites are not always in a position to easily post an editorial link anywhere unless they blog or post on some kind of review website, it's still a good idea to ask customers to link to your site in their blogs in your Thank-you/Order Confirmation Email. Friends, family members, and business associates are also good sources for links when you're just starting out. When you send a Thank-you Email to customers, be sure to ask them to post a link on their blog or Facebook™ page, or tweet their appreciation of your service on Twitter™.

So, as an e-commerce webmaster, you need to be proactive in attracting such links. The usual starting point is online directories or link exchanges, but you have to be careful about those methods since Google started to downgrade sites that rely on them too much. When it comes to getting the word out about your site, social media is your friend. Make a Facebook™ page for your company and dedicate some time each month to posting about your products. Twitter™ is good for shouting about your sales and new products. Pinterest® is a great venue for promoting products that aren't often searched for by users, but are eye-catching enough that they spark immediate buyer interest. Social media posts won't directly boost your rankings, but they will help build traffic to your website which will build links indirectly and, of course, increase sales.

Offering custom coupons or gift certificates to through websites that discuss the kinds of products you sell is a tried-and-true method of generating links. Bloggers are ripe for this kind of thing because they constantly need new content and they want their blog to be known as a place people can find good deals in order to increase their own traffic. Some bloggers will review a product if you send them a sample, but you should only do this once in a great while. But by promoting your website through other websites, you'll not only build direct traffic, you'll also improve your rankings over time.

Enable and encourage product reviews, but manage them closely. This is a "two-fer". Not only is the reviewer more engaged with your site and more likely to re-visit, but shoppers love to read what other people have to say about a product before they buy. This principle also applies to the discussion of social media above. But you have to watch the reviews for SPAM and profanity, not to mention negative comments. Increasing user interaction with your website will always help build traffic.


This page was last updated on June 13, 2015.


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