At the beginning of the year a business owner approached me by a client’s recommendation. The owner runs an e-commerce store selling antique jewellery sourced from Britain’s auctions.
Their online store uses SquareSpace, a web service that lets customers run e-commerce on a pre-built system for a monthly fee. The aim of a service like this is to save time and development costs when compared to hiring a web developer. It allows you to choose from a selection of modern looking templates, provides functionality for uploading products and has it’s own interface for tracking sales data.
The biggest reason for using such a service comes down to having a tight budget and needing to get an e-commerce store online as quickly as possible – reasons you should try to avoid to maintain project integrity.
In online reviews, the pros and cons of each system are nearly always the same: plenty of templates to choose from, an easy-to-use interface, and good support through a ticket system or community forum. This is fine for a standard user, but as a technical SEO person I’m more interested in what’s under the hood and how well I can fine-tune it.
Even though the website used Squarespace, I was confident that I could produce results that were similar to my other clients that ran independent websites. I was optimistic because technical SEO is now more important than ever and web services have come a long way in the last few years. This is especially true due to recent mobile-friendly requirements and good UX achieved through design convergence.
Before I proposed what the campaign should entail, I did the usual research of analysing the website, looking at current traffic figures and orientating myself with how the business operates.
During my research I came across a thread on moz.com from 2014 that discussed how SEO-friendly Squarespace is. Even Rand Fishkin said that it’s more SEO-friendly out of the box than WordPress. And this was two years ago!
My optimism had improved further. After two years Squarespace must have really hit the nail on the head by now. In the back of my mind though, I felt that given a couple of hours I could set up a WordPress install that’s 100% better for SEO compared to what I had seen from Squarespace so far. Soon enough I was able to confirm my suspicions…
Immediately I began to realise the limitations of Squarespace and how some of the technical tasks planned for the project would have to be reined in. With the restrictions identified, I planned to spend less time doing on-site optimisation, and more time publishing content.
As time passed, issues continued to be discovered. Now, to be fair to Squarespace and their community, they did manage to resolve many of the points raised. At the same time though, there are still caveats that are unlikely to be resolved any time soon.
Here are a few of the most pressing issues.
“Out of the box” there was a canonical URL issue with the homepage. The client’s website is accessible via www.clientwebsite.com and www.clientwebsite.com/home. This is not possible to fix via their URL mapping feature either, odd.
User journey tracking is limited. Halfway through the checkout process the user is taken to an external URL, secure.squarespace.com. This means I am unable to fully understand how visitors are interacting with the checkout process.
Modifying the code of the site in Squarespace isn’t possible without turning off template updates. Either choice forces a compromise. You either have to choose between having an out-of-date template or sacrifice not being able to A/B split test to improve calls-to-action.
This also leaves me unable to fix numerous HTML errors in the template code. The benefits of which can help page rendering times, reduced chance of search engine misinterpretation, and maintain display parity for future Internet browser versions.
There are auto-generated Meta descriptions. Arguably worse than having a blank description. Meta description are generated using the entire body of text that describes the product. This text is not only used for the Meta description, but also the OpenGraph description and the Twitter description. The result of which is HTML inundated with text that’s not doing any favours.
There are plenty of other niggles: Hidden HTML generated for features not enabled. Products that load slowly in the back-end due to no pagination. There are also occasional payment failures blamed on the bank, and no option for Paypal integration.
From my experience, it only adds around 20 hours to a project for me to get a similar website up and running with WordPress. I feel that web services like Squarespace are not something I can recommend when I fear of the possible drawbacks to a business when it inevitably has to grow.
Fortunately, this particular Squarespace website had no previous SEO done to it, so search visitation still managed to increase by 100% after 3 months. The power of Meta data!