Beware of the narrow-minded coders

or Ignorance is no excuse

Long winded story on SEO-ignorant pommy coders putting their customers at risk. Hop away if e-commerce software vs. SEO dramas don’t thrill you.

Recently I’ve answered a “Why did Google deindex my pages” question in Google’s Webmaster Forum. It turned out that the underlying shopping cart software (EROL) maintained somewhat static pages as spider fodder, which redirect human visitors to another URL serving the same contents client sided. Silly thing to do, but pretty common for shopping carts. I’ve used the case as an example of a nice shopping cart coming with destructive SEO in a post on flawed shopping carts in general.

Day by day other site owners operating Erol driven online shops popped up in the Google Groups or emailed me directly, so I realized that there is a darn widespread problem involving a very popular UK based shopping cart software responsible for Google cloaking penalties. From my contacts I knew that Erol’s software engineers and self-appointed SEO experts believe in weird SEO theories and don’t consider that their software architecture itself could be the cause of the mess. So I wrote a follow-up addressing Erol directly. Google penalizes Erol-driven e-commerce sites explaines Google’s take on cloaking and sneaky JavaScript redirects to Erol and its customers.

My initial post got linked and discussed in Erol’s support forum and kept my blog stats counter buzzy over the weekend. Accused of posting crap I showed up and posted a short summary over there:

Howdy, I’m the author of the blog post you’re discussing here: Why eCommerce systems suck

As for crap or not crap, judge yourself. This blog post was addressed to ecommerce systems in general. Erol was mentioned as an example of a nice shopping cart coming with destructive SEO. To avoid more misunderstandings and to stress the issues Google has with Erol’s JavaScript redirects, I’ve posted a follow-up: Google deindexing Erol-driven ecommerce sites.

This post contains related quotes from Matt Cutts, head of Google’s web spam team, and Google’s quality guidelines. I guess that piece should bring my point home:

If you’re keen on search engine traffic then do not deliver one page to the crawlers and another page to users. Redirecting to another URL which serves the same contents client sided gives Google an idea of intent, but honest intent is not a permission to cloak. Google says JS redirects are against the guidelines, so don’t cloak. It’s that simple.

If you’ve questions, post a comment on my blog or drop me a line. Thanks for listening

Sebastian

Next the links to this blog were edited out and Erol posted a longish but pointless charade. Click the link to read it in full, summarizing it tells the worried Erol victims that Google has no clue at all, frames and JS redirects are great for online shops, and waiting for the next software release providing meaningful URLs will fix everything. Ok, that’s polemic, so here are at least a few quotes:

[…] A number of people have been asking for a little reassurance on the fact that EROL’s x.html pages are getting listed by Google. Below is a list of keyword phrases, with the number of competing pages and the x.html page that gets listed [4 examples provided].
[…]
EROL does use frames to display the store in the browser, however all the individual pages generated and uploaded by EROL are static HTML pages (x.html pages) that can be optimised for search engines. These pages are spidered and indexed by the search engines. Each of these x.html pages have a redirect that loads the page into the store frameset automatically when the page is requested.
[…]
EROL is a JavaScript shopping cart, however all the links within the store (links to other EROL pages) that are added using EROL Link Items are written to the static HTML pages as a standard <a href=”"> links - not a JavaScript link. This helps the search engines spider other pages in your store.

The ’sneaky re-directs’ being discussed most likely relate to an older SEO technique used by some companies to auto-forward from an SEO-optimised page/URL to the actual URL the site-owner wants you to see.

EROL doesn’t do this - EROL’s page load actually works more like an include than the redirect mentioned above. In its raw form, the ‘x123.html’ page carries visible content, readable by the search engines. In it’s rendered form, the page loads the same content but the JavaScript rewrites the rendered page to include page and product layout attributes and to load the frameset. You are never redirected to another html page or URL. [Not true, the JS function displayPage() changes the location of all pages indexed by Google, and property names like ‘hidepage’ speak for themselves. Example: x999.html redirects to erol.html#999×0&&]
[…]
We have, for the past 6 months, been working with search engine optimisation experts to help update the code that EROL writes to the web page, making it even more search engine friendly.

As part of the recommendations suggested by the SEO experts, pages names will become more search engine friendly, moving way from page names such as ‘x123.hml’ to ‘my-product-page-123.html’. […]

Still in friendly and helpful mood I wrote a reply:

With all respect, if I understand your post correctly that’s not going to solve the problem.

As long as a crawlable URL like http://www.example.com/x123.html or http://www.example.com/product-name-123.html resolves to
http://www.example.com/erol.html#123×0&& or whatever that’s a violation of Google’s quality guidelines. Whether you call that redirect sneaky (Google’s language) or not that’s not the point. It’s Google’s search engine, so their rules apply. These rules state clearly that pages which do a JS redirect to another URL (on the same server or not, delivering the same contents or not) do not get indexed, or, if discovered later on, get deindexed.

The fact that many x-pages are still indexed and may even rank for their targeted keywords means nothing. Google cannot discover and delist all pages utilizing a particular disliked technique overnight, and never has. Sometimes that’s a process lasting months or even years.

The problem is, that these redirects put your customers at risk. Again, Google didn’t change its Webmaster guidelines which forbid JS redirects since the stone age, it has recently changed its ability to discover violations in the search index. Google does frequently improve its algos, so please don’t expect to get away with it. Quite the opposite, expect each and every page with these redirects vanishing over the years.

A good approach to avoid Google’s cloaking penalties is utilizing one single URL as spider fodder as well as content presentation to browsers. When a Googler loads such a page with a browser and compares the URL to the spidered one, you get away with nearly everything CSS and JS can accomplish — as long as the URLs are identical. If OTOH the JS code changes the location you’re toast.

Posting this response failed, because Erol’s forum admin banned me after censoring my previous post. By the way according to posts outside their sphere and from what I’ve seen watching the discussion they censor posts of customers too. Well, that’s fine with me since that’s Erol’s forum and they make the rules. However, still eager to help I emailed my reply to Erol, and to Erol customers asking for my take on Erol’s final statement.

You ask why I post this long winded stuff? Well, it seems to me that Erol prefers a few fast bucks over satisfied customers, thus I fear they will not tell their cutomers the truth. Actually, they simply don’t get it. However, I don’t care whether their intention to prevaricate is greed or ignorance, I really don’t know, but all the store operators suffering from Google’s penalties deserve the information. A few of them have subscribed to my feed, so I hope my message gets spread. Continuation

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2 Comments to "Beware of the narrow-minded coders"

  1. Anonymous on 27 March, 2007  #link

    Hi
    I am a user of EROL’s software and have read your posts with great interest over the past few days.
    Like the majority of EROL users we bought the product on the basis that non-technical shopkeepers like ourselves could relatively easily create a nice looking site to sell our products online.
    Since the front page of their site states that EROL is “Search Engine Friendly” it is a little worrying to hear that the exact opposite may be the case.
    Are you able to recommend an e-commerce platform that doesn’t create pages that run against Google guidelines? Remember we aren’t all programmers (that’s why we ended up using EROL in the first place)

    Thanks again for your blog comments. You’ve cetainly given us something to think about.

    Ian

  2. Sebastian on 27 March, 2007  #link

    Ian,

    although Erol’s frontend is not search engine friendly by default, it should be possible to change that. There are Erol driven shops out there which maintain search engine friendly frontends. I think the folks at Erol don’t get the issues, so this can be done by a 3rd party. Perhaps someone in the Erol community could provide the scripts.

    I cannot recommend any shopping cart in general without looking at the store’s needs. Also, SEOwise most shopping carts are crap, chances are you join the next nightmare. So dumping the default frontend in favour of a user friendly as well as search engine friendly product presentation is the best procedure in most cases, and usually the cheapest too by the way, because it saves the investments.

    Thanks for stopping by and let me know what you think!

    Sebastian

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