(As featured in BrightonSEO magazine, 2016)
A little background
At the beginning of 2016, 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 used 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.
Before the campaign, I had not been heavily involved with these types of web services. I had only heard of Wix and Weebly because I researched them in the past for potential projects.
The most common 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 ideally avoid if you want 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 optimise it.
Even though the website used Squarespace, I was confident that I could produce results that were similar to my other clients running 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 usability best practices achieved through design convergence.
At the start of the campaign
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 of that post being made, 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 site that’s a lot better for SEO compared to what I had read about Squarespace so far. Soon enough I was able to confirm my suspicions…
Within an hour of analysing the system 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. I made the client aware of this and adjusted the budget accordingly. With the restrictions identified, I planned to spend less time doing on-site optimisation and more time publishing content.
A few months into the campaign
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.
What’s about to follow is a run-down of the most critical issues I came across. I’m also going to explain the benefits of resolving them to show why they’re not ideal for search performance and usability.
One of the more immediate issues I discovered “out of the box” with Squarespace 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 a new sub-domain, secure.squarespace.com. This means I am unable to fully monitor 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 choose between having an out-of-date template, or sacrifice not being able to A/B split test to improve call-to-actions.
The above also leaves me unable to fix numerous HTML errors in the template code. The benefits of which can help page rendering times, reduce the chance of misinterpretation by search crawlers, and maintain display parity for future Internet browser versions. There were also issues where there were 2 H1 tags on each product page for the site title and product name.
Most of the above HTML issues are based on the template you choose. But still, the fate of your SEO performance being in the hands of your aeshetic tastes is still a hard pill to swallow.
There are also auto-generated Meta descriptions. In my opinion this is worse than having a blank description. Also, Squarespace generates the Meta description using the entire body of text that describes the product. This text is not only used for the Meta description, but also for the OpenGraph description and Twitter description. The result of which is HTML code inundated with text that’s not doing anyone any favours.
Fortunately, event tracking is possible now that Google Tag Manager exists. But before GTM you had to rely on implementing “onclick” attribute code. Previously this would not have been possible with Squarespace unless template updates were disabled.
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, with no option for Paypal integration.
After all that
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 of running our strategy. The power of Meta data!
This might sound great, but after 7 months of the campaign starting, the client already needed to re-develop the website so it ran on its own platform. After such a short period of time, it should make you think:
Will the low costs associated with using a service like Squarespace be worth it in a year or two from now for your business?