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The Great Canadian PC E-Commerce Showdown

E-commerce and online shopping dominates the time and wallets of Canadians: in 2010, 74% of time spent online was attributed to shopping, the average order size per person was $1,362, and the retail e-commerce market was worth $15.3 billion in Canada.

With numbers like these, it’s no surprise that companies like Amazon, ThinkGeek, and Zappos have flourished on a global scale. Best practices for retail e-commerce design and development are continually developed and published, but we wanted to dig deeper into the SEO aspects of real e-commerce websites and figure out what could be done better. Specifically, we wanted to dig deeper into the SEO practices of Canadian websites, because we believe that we can make the internet a better experience for Canadians together.

For this post, we wanted to take a closer look at four relatively large e-commerce websites that focus on selling personal computers and personal computer parts: NCIX, Canada Computers, Tiger Direct, and NewEgg.

We chose these companies for a few reasons:

  • Strong Canadian presence. All four of these stores were either started in Canada, or are well known by Canadians when making technology purchases. We did our best to gather only Canadian results.
  • Huge product library. The world of personal computers releases many, many products every year and these four companies all list the same products in their websites, giving us plenty of samples to work with.
  • Similar designs, different architecture. All four websites have a similar look and feel for their product catalogue and product pages, but the way that the data is organized and the architecture of the website are different.

At the end of the day, we wanted large Canadian e-commerce websites that were in the same industry, and had room for improvement in terms of search engine optimization.

Table of Contents

  1. Side-by-side Comparisons of SEO
  2. An Expert Weighs In On Design and E-Commerce
  3. Real-World Search Results

Side-by-Side Comparisons of SEO

To figure out the current state of SEO for each of the four e-commerce websites, we examined four aspects of their websites: on-site SEO, off-site SEO, social profiles, and general design. In order to compare them side-by-side, we’ve taken the really important parts for each aspect and organized it into a table to give you an idea of just what the playing field looks like.

NOTE: All of these numbers were generated during the week of July 16, 2012, and may not reflect current numbers. In addition, we gathered a lot of this information through Microsoft IIS Manager’s SEO Tool.

On-Site SEO

NCIX Canada Computers TigerDirect NewEgg
Indexed Pages 97,400 71,200 1,810,000 89,500
SEO Violations 87,444 60,544 136,329 110,280
Content Violations 21,466 43,428 9,681 15,262
Performance Violations 2,376 7,037 12,004 4,132
Standards Violations 427 2,536 1,624 2
<img> Tags With No ALT Attribute 78,194 6,347 52,918 852
Pages with Invalid Markup 21,444 43,413 9,672 15,250
Pages Missing <h1> Tag 1,617 2,552 1,173 690
<title> is Too Long 781 1,759 1,915 1,023
Multiple <title> Tags 425 2 48 0
Pages with Broken Links 42 1,250 2,640 138
Number of Unnecessary Redirects 5,336 40,157 68,568 95,027

Off-Site SEO

NCIX Canada Computers TigerDirect NewEgg
Inbound Links 92,355 29,899 19,587 84,071
Duplicated Sections 136,054 6,377 6,894 50,329
Duplicated Sections Off-Site 81,872 5,276 8,104 63,011

Social Profiles

NCIX Canada Computers TigerDirect NewEgg
Facebook Page Likes 98,346 5,300 13,142 5,880
Facebook Page Mentions 1,600 296 53 38
Google+ +1s 351 20 0 0
Google+ Circle Inclusion 313 17 0 0
Twitter Followers 9,374 1,928 6,192 821
YouTube Videos 271 16 4,102 878
YouTube Subscribers 136,871 166 79,802 110,606
YouTube Video Views 23,044,422 20,845 105,770,603 26,752,176

UPDATE: I overlooked the largest TigerDirect YouTube channel for their social profile because it wasn’t Canadian-only, but they reached out and let me know that it is indeed a mixed market channel, and they are developing their Canadian-only channel as we speak. Thanks for the correction, TigerDirect!

General Design

From a general design standpoint, all four websites are rather similar: heavy on images, grid-style layout for catalogue, front pages are devoted to deals and specials, and products are listed by category. Aesthetics are rather subjective, but I personally think TigerDirect and NewEgg have the cleanest layouts, striking a good balance between white space and information and how they display that information.

However, when it comes to site architecture, they are vastly different. None of them are structured particularly well, especially in terms of SEO, and it’s apparent in the URLs. Here’s an example for all four when we navigate into the “Hard Drive” category:

Store URL
NCIX http://ncix.ca/products/index.php?minorcatid=109
Canada Computers http://www.canadacomputers.com/index.php?cPath=15
TigerDirect http://www.tigerdirect.ca/applications/Category/guidedSearch.asp?CatId=8&name=Hard-Disk-Drives&cm_sp=Masthead-_-Computer%20Parts-_-Spot%2007
NewEgg http://www.newegg.ca/Store/Category.aspx?Category=15&name=Hard-Drives

Note how all four websites use dynamic URLs, which is understandable for a website of their size, but terrible from an SEO standpoint. Digging deeper, here are the URLS for “Western Digital 2TB Caviar Green”:

Store URL
NCIX http://ncix.ca/products/?sku=62047&vpn=WD20EARX&manufacture=Western%20Digital%20WD&promoid=1261
Canada Computers http://www.canadacomputers.com/product_info.php?cPath=15_1086_210_212&item_id=039034
TigerDirect http://www.tigerdirect.ca/applications/SearchTools/item-details.asp?EdpNo=1421256&CatId=4357
NewEgg http://www.newegg.ca/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16822136891

NCIX and Canada Computers don’t even include the keyword “Hard Drives” in their URL, while the keyword is wrapped in a lot of other numbers and filler words when looking at Tiger Direct and New Egg’s. All the URLs above make it incredibly difficult for search engines to understand what the page is about.

These product URLs are much worse than the category URLs because now there is only 1 occurrence of the brand name, and no occurrences of the product name whatsoever. All four websites list by some sort of item ID or SKU, and that is a sign of bad site architecture.

Our suggested URL structure, for this particular situation, would be this:

http://companyname.com/[product-category]/[brand-name]/[product-name]-[product-specs]

So in the particular case of the “Western Digital 2TB Caviar Green” hard drives, the URL would look like this:

http://companyname.com/hard-drive/western-digital/caviar-green-2tb-64mb-3.5in-sata3-6gbs

With a URL like that, you have a category keyword, brand name keyword, and product keywords that would all be seen as far more relevant compared to “item_id=217682664″ or any other similar iteration.

As for the product pages themselves, they are all once again very similar in terms of layout and design. Prices are prominently displayed along with product images, and a call-to-action to make the purchase. I will give kudos to NewEgg for placing all of the valuable information first: right underneath the product price and image, there are three tabs that let you quickly take a look at additional content like videos, the technical specs, and the product reviews. The other three websites seem to push related items, related deals, or related combo packs over any other information.

SEO Conclusions

  • All four websites have a variety of violations related to SEO, content, performance, or markup that affect the overall usability and discoverability of the websites.
  • NCIX and NewEgg have the strongest backlink profiles, but also quite a bit of duplicated content.
  • NCIX definitely has the strongest overall social profile, blowing everyone out of the water (in Canada) in terms of followers and likes, as well as engagement.
  • NewEgg’s YouTube channel deserves special mention because they have consistently posted videos for the past 3 years. However, they are definitely not Canadian only and are skewing the results a bit.
  • Duplicate content can be found, in abundance, in all four websites. This is partly due to using the content that manufacturers give them, but also because there are a few pieces of content and widgets that they have created that appear everywhere.

An Expert Weighs In On Design and E-Commerce

I wanted a more in-depth analysis of these e-commerce websites from an expert, so I asked Matthew Bertulli from Demac Media to weigh in on the situation. Demac Media is Canada’s largest Magento gold partner, and they’ve created many e-commerce websites for brands of all sizes.

Here’s what Matt had to say:

The first thing that jumps out to me is that NCIX is the only one who is using a fluid layout for their site. It doesn’t look pretty, but I’d guess that their target audience has high average screen resolution and as a result this layout works really well for browsing their catalog. NCIX is selling to the person who knows the exact part they are looking for. They make no bones about it. Just look at any of their main category landing pages / listing pages: the items are listed out with tiny images in linear form with the most popular at the top and the rest grouped by brand underneath without any images at all. Makes finding what you came for pretty damn fast.

TigerDirect changed their site recently and the new design is a much needed improvement, especially in navigation. Of all of the sites, I find their main navigation to be the most intuitive. That’s part design and part organization.

Newegg is a strange beast. Their home page and the rest of their site are actually two different widths. Not something you see often…I can’t actually remember the last time I’ve seen this. It’s also weird to see their main navigation as a left hand “super menu”. I find this strange as well given that most eCommerce sites use a horizontal super menu.

Canada Computers isn’t doing anything spectacular. It doesn’t even look like they are trying that much compared to the other 3. What stood out to me the most was that their category landing pages / listing pages only show 4 rows of products by default. That’s pretty light for a site with as many products as they have. We’ve tested this on many of our own properties and showing more product by default is more than likely going to result in better overall conversion. Theory has to do with less clicks to find product (i.e. paging, having to search and/or filter too much).

Creating great eCommerce sites is difficult. You’re constantly balancing innovative user interface concepts with proven, rock like structures (i.e. – the horizontal super menu structure). The thinking goes something like this: don’t show the visitor something dramatically different than they see on other major sites they are most likely visiting. For example, high fashion brands are notoriously bad at eCommerce, they are more concerned with their brand than they are with the shopping experience of visitors on their site.

Outside of the generic social buttons on each product page, I wouldn’t say any of these sites are doing anything innovative with social commerce. They aren’t even on the same planet as someone like Fab.com. Perhaps their customers aren’t great for social? Maybe they’ve tested deeper social integration, maybe not. All 4 sites present like VERY traditional online retailers.

In general, these companies have an extremely difficult job. All 4 sites have tens of thousands of products, which would present even the best in the business with a challenge of effective organization / structure. All 4 sites are in a business with notoriously bad gross margin. This in turn means their budgets for everything are thinner than many other categories of product.

Matt brings up the balancing act that e-commerce websites must perform, between new and innovative user interfaces and proven concepts. I think that is an important consideration for any and all e-commerce websites: how do you stand out from the competition and give yourself exposure without scaring away shoppers?

If you want to get an idea of the e-commerce landscape in Canada and what the current trends are heading, check out Demac Media’s Canadian eCommerce Benchmark Report for Q2 2012!

Thanks for your input, Matt!

Real-World Search Results

Of course, we have to examine the real-world search results in order to observe how their on-site SEO, off-site SEO, social profile, and general website design translate into rankings. We did a series of searches for five products in different categories, and grabbed the position that each company was found in.

For the below rankings, I used Chrome in incognito mode for the exact phrases as listed, and grabbed the highest position for each particular company. If they did not rank within the first 5 pages, I counted it as not available.

At the bottom of the table, “Average Relative Position” denotes the position of the search result for that company compared to the others that we were testing for. The lower the number, the better that particular company did against the rest.

NCIX Canada Computers TigerDirect NewEgg
Hard Drives
“OCZ Vertex 3 120GB” 12 11 9 2
“Western Digital 2TB Caviar Green” 3 34 29 7
“Seagate Barracuda 1TB” 4 N/A 11 1
“Western Digital Scorpio Black 750GB” 4 N/A 41 2
“Kingston SSDNow V200 64GB” 2 9 7 1
Processors
“Intel Core i5 3570K” 14 8 7 2
“AMD A8-3870K” 26 12 N/A 17
“Intel Celeron G530″ 29 N/A 18 3
“AMD Phenom X4 9850″ 3 N/A 9 8
“Intel Core i5-2310″ 8 16 11 4
Motherboards
“ASUS P8Z77-V” 36 35 9 8
“Gigabyte GA-X79-UD5″ N/A 18 42 4
“Asus P8B75-M LE” 4 3 N/A 2
“Gigabyte GA-990FXA-UD3″ 19 3 9 2
“Asus M4A89TD” 24 23 N/A 4
RAM
“Corsair XMS 8GB” 3 N/A 5 1
“G.SKILL Ripjaws X 8GB 2X4GB DDR3-1600″ 4 6 N/A 2
“Kingston HyperX 4GB” 3 14 15 2
“Corsair Vengeance 16GB” 42 9 4 3
“Crucial Memory 2GB” 30 20 6 3
Average Relative Position 2.8 3.1 2.95 1.15

The results are rather clear: NewEgg is dominating the rankings for every single product we tested.

Conclusion

Throughout the research process of this post, I formulated my own thoughts and assumptions on what the search results and rankings would look like, based on the overall designs and social profiles. I internally placed a greater emphasis on three things: backlink profile, social profiles, and good design. However, I ignored a very important aspect: technical, on-site SEO.

NCIX was a relatively strong performer, with an average relative position of 2.8, it means that they were in second place to NewEgg, which has a massive brand in the US and has a very strong social profile as well. However, they barely edged out TigerDirect (2.95) and Canada Computers (3.1) in relative positioning, and there were plenty of products where they completely bombed in rankings.

One thing is abundantly clear from my above research: on-site SEO is a necessary step for doing well with search engine optimization.

All four websites have thousands and thousands of pages for categories, products, special deals, and every other miscellaneous page under the sun. A single technical issue can become duplicated on every single page of your website, causing thousands of violations like image tags not having alt attributes, or having multiple title tags on a page. These issues create negative repercussions when it comes to website visibility, crawlability, and user experience.

Correcting such a simple aspect of your website would create a cascading effect, where search engines would view it in a more favourable light (due to better relevance, context, and user experience), leading to better rankings in search results, which would lead to greater traffic coming to the website, and greater revenue from the additional traffic making purchases.

At the end of the day, these four companies are all leaving money on the table by ignoring simple technical issues with their websites.

At Powered by Search, we’re all about improving the online experience for Canadians, so that we can all win together. We hope to do more of these deconstruction and analysis posts on a regular basis in order to help guide Canadian companies in the right direction when it comes to website design, information architecture, and search engine optimization. More importantly, we want to generate a discussion on what could be done even better.

Thanks for reading, we would love to hear your feedback in the comments!

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About the Author

Jon Lim is a digital marketer based out of Toronto, Canada, who is deeply passionate about using technology to make the world a better place, creating content that is valuable and worthwhile, and constantly learning to become a better person. His personal blog can be found at JonLim.ca
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  • Wilson

    Great analysis! But from a cost-benefit perspective, my hypothesis is the costs outweigh the benefits of SEO for these companies, hence the lack of effort.
    These businesses cater to not your average Joe PC users. I don’t think consumers in this market go to Goggle, type in a product name and look for a retailer who carries it. From my personal experience, whenever I’m looking for a computer part, I never search in the order: Goggle > Product > Company. It’s the reverse: Company > Product (see who has the lowest price). Or it’s direct product link from a forum thread from RFD. 

    My 2 c

    • http://jonlim.ca/ Jon Lim

      Thanks Wilson!

      In regards to the consumer process for these parts, I cannot claim to know the truth behind the process without having access to their analytics.

      However, as a not-so-average PC user, my process for purchasing still went through Google to pick out the product listings that fit my factors (price, mostly.) At the same time, the search on the company sites can occasionally be poorer than just straight Googling for the product, so I wouldn’t make the assumption that there’s a single funnel on how products are bought by users.

      • Wilson

        Good point Jon. Google does a better job at searches (faster, more accurate)   most of the time.

        • http://jonlim.ca/ Jon Lim

          Most of the time. ;)

          Having the most relevant results is part of the reason I wrote the post, because with better technical, on-site SEO, search engines would definitely serve up those more relevant results, as opposed to the riff-raff that can find its way into the results.

          In addition, there are those price comparison websites that do a fantastic job, which also are listed prominently in search engine results!

  • Wilson

    Great analysis! But from a cost-benefit perspective, my hypothesis is the costs outweigh the benefits of SEO for these companies, hence the lack of effort.
    These businesses cater to not your average Joe PC users. I don’t think consumers in this market go to Goggle, type in a product name and look for a retailer who carries it. From my personal experience, whenever I’m looking for a computer part, I never search in the order: Goggle > Product > Company. It’s the reverse: Company > Product (see who has the lowest price). Or it’s direct product link from a forum thread from RFD. 

    My 2 c

    • http://www.jonlim.ca/ Jon Lim

      Thanks Wilson!

      In regards to the consumer process for these parts, I cannot claim to know the truth behind the process without having access to their analytics.

      However, as a not-so-average PC user, my process for purchasing still went through Google to pick out the product listings that fit my factors (price, mostly.) At the same time, the search on the company sites can occasionally be poorer than just straight Googling for the product, so I wouldn’t make the assumption that there’s a single funnel on how products are bought by users.

      • Wilson

        Good point Jon. Google does a better job at searches (faster, more accurate)   most of the time.

        • http://jonlim.ca/ Jon Lim

          Most of the time. ;)

          Having the most relevant results is part of the reason I wrote the post, because with better technical, on-site SEO, search engines would definitely serve up those more relevant results, as opposed to the riff-raff that can find its way into the results.

          In addition, there are those price comparison websites that do a fantastic job, which also are listed prominently in search engine results!