“If You Build It They Will Come” – SEO Lessons Learned from an Ecommerce Beginner

Looking to avoid common SEO pitfalls for ecommerce newbies? Take these first-hand pieces of advice from guest blogger, and Volusion customer, Nick from Shirts That Go.

About 4 years ago, I started work on my first ever business and ecommerce store. I am still learning every day and realize I have just started on this fun journey. The idea with this story is to share with you my path so that you can avoid some of the pitfalls and possibly learn something new. Those of you that have been around a while will perhaps get some affirmation or just a few chuckles. Internet marketing is a vast topic and I have not even begun to understand all of it. I do have a decent handle on SEO, though, so I will focus on that.

My concept was around t-shirts for kids and toddlers. As a dad of two young boys I was unable to find them the kinds of vehicle-themed tees that I knew they would have liked. I am talking about transportation stuff like airplanes, buses, trains, trucks and so on. So I set off to work understanding how to set up a t-shirt business and 6 months later, I had the basics of ShirtsThatGo together. Now I just needed an ecommerce platform!

Until that point, I had spent the past 10 years in the IT field, working at several prominent web hosting companies. I was about to become just like one of my customers, and it was surprising how little I knew about how ecommerce works. (When you work in the internet infrastructure business, it is easy to know very little about the finer workings of what lays on top of that infrastructure.)

A friend gave me a tip about Volusion, and it looked ideal, so I got started with the base plan. This really is turnkey ecommerce folks! You should have seen the agony my hosting customers went through back in the late 90s to get an ecommerce store running!

Once I got started, I ran into the following pitfalls, which I encourage you to avoid:

Pitfall #1: A Built Site = Instant Traffic

In the beginning, I was in the “if you build it they will come stage” of ecommerce. This, I think, is common with folks that are new to ecommerce, especially small startups and smaller brick and mortar businesses that are getting online for the first time.  After a few weeks, the site was up and running, and all the pieces (SSL, Payment Gateway, Merchant Bank Account, Shipping, Packaging, and Starter Inventory) were in place.

Here is how the site looked back then:

Then began several weeks of no orders and wondering what I was doing wrong. I did not know how search engines picked up sites, and had no clue about how to optimize my own. (Sound familiar?) For that matter, I knew nothing about Conversion Rate Optimization (CRO), or even my target audience! This is quite possibly the place that most ecommerce sites are born and also die. I believe that many of the sites that fail here can be rescued with a bit of knowledge.

Next, I tried PPC and was excited that this would be the answer. I did get some orders, which helped validate that I was at least on to something with my shirts. Earning that first $1 is critical with any new business! It became clear rather quickly, however, that a positive ROI was nowhere in sight by doing things on my own. I decided I needed help and turned to the experts, which I assumed would be the natural step toward success.

Pitfall #2: Rushing to Outsource

As I was in a big rush for results, I decided to outsource to a SEO firm in India (I could not afford the US-based SEOs).  I had the idea that I could have someone else do my SEO for me, which would be cheaper and more effective.  It turns out that I learned a lot from the firm from India.  Through their efforts, they exposed me to the various facets of SEO.  I took a hands-on approach and was chatting with them every day.  They had a checklist mentality and did some of the usual things you would expect: article publishing, blog commenting, press releases, directory listing, etc.

In retrospect, this firm was using techniques that are no longer recognized as terribly valuable, and some would even consider their tactics as spam. I did, however, learn a lot from them and thought they were great folks, so the efforts were totally worth it. Through their basic link building efforts, my site began to show up for some relevant long tail keywords, which helped my site come to life. Basically they put me on the map!

As time passed, I realized that I could do the same things the SEO firm was doing myself. I was reading a lot and consuming everything I could from the great folks over at SEOMOZ and other pros on the Volusion forum.  Through all the reading and guidance from people I encountered, I started to get this whole SEO thing.

I began to understand it well enough to develop a basic strategy, which was this:

1) Determine my niche

2) Define my niche with a group of long tail keywords (in other words, keyword research)

3) Attempt to dominate my niche, as defined by me, in organic search results (rank in top 5 position for each long tail keyword on my list)

4) Once niche domination has been achieved, begin working on more general terms

I decided to end the relationship with the offshore SEO firm because I had learned what I could from them.  I then found an SEO expert to take me in as a charity case by providing some custom and very low rates.  I was so excited to be getting guidance from a seasoned SEO professional!  This SEO expert helped me get my site dialed in so that it was ready to perform as well as possible, which included the usage of canonical tags.  This guy took me to the next level with SEO, and essentially taught me how to fish.

Pitfall #3: Expecting Others to do the Work for You

At first, I kept wondering when my SEO expert would start link building for me, and then it clicked – he was guiding me on how to build links on my own.  I soon realized that, as the owner of my company, I was best suited for link building.  I am not saying that you must do link building by yourself, but keep in mind, as the business owner you are qualified to do so.

I want to convey a few key takeaways for you all from these experiences.  The pitfalls speak for themselves.  If I could hit the reset button I would do the following:

1) Have a product that you care deeply about.  SEO and all the other things we focus on should all be fueled by that passion.

2) Get a Volusion or other paid consult on SEO

3) Get a Volusion or other paid consult on CRO

4) Decide what to own myself and what makes sense to outsource

When I was starting out, I felt like I could not afford either 1 or 2 above.  In retrospect, however, I spent more money learning things the hard way.  For me, I ended up enjoying the process, but that is not for everyone.


I hope that by sharing these SEO pitfalls that you will avoid these same mistakes and reap SEO benefits faster than you ever imagined.






7 Responses to ““If You Build It They Will Come” – SEO Lessons Learned from an Ecommerce Beginner”

  1. Mark K

    Hi Nick,
    Thanks for the great advise.
    I am now going to use Volusion SEO.

  2. Articles Wiz

    content is king, its worth it to try to buy the best copy you can afford

  3. Phyllis

    Thanks for the tips. I’m like the previous commenter, having built one failed site previously. I didn’t use SEO at all and of course they didn’t come. But I’m trying it again. I’ll certainly take your advice. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Shannon C.

    Great information for this newbie. Thanks!

  5. Teresa Guyette

    just starting here. I have failed once with a website that no one or the wrong ones found. pay per clicks, a bust paid hundreds for bum clicks and no sales. Not looking to fail again. I hope these are great tips and not just another get your money scam. Time will tell.

  6. scott j

    Thanks Nick. Just got my first Volusion ecommerce site live and starting on SEO and building traffic so this is invaluable advice.
    Scott @ AirPlantShop.Com

  7. Eric Gajewski

    The title scared me. I actually tell my new clients, “If you build it, they will NOT come.” It’s a great icebreaker for SEO and/or SEM. By the way, that is a good looking site!


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