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We live in a world where eCommerce has become a serious challenger for dominance over traditional sources of goods and services. For several years its popularity has increased as technology developed and consumer behavior changed. The global pandemic of 2020 accelerated the rise of eCommerce to a speed and a level which could not have been predicted the year before. Lockdown sent consumers online in their droves. The return to approximate normality hasn’t reversed this.
There is a huge choice of eCommerce platforms to choose from. Some of them are virtually off-the-shelf packages that allow you to start trading almost immediately, although you do have to accept certain limitations in terms of flexibility. Others, such as WooCommerce, require you to do a fair amount of technical work in setting up, running and customizing your storefront. In the second category you’ll have much more control over how you present yourself to the search engine crawlers (primarily Google of course).
Of the myriad platforms available, Shopify has established its place at head of the pack. In fact, although it might not yet have spawned a verb in the way Google has done, for increasing numbers of businesses and consumers Shopify is virtually synonymous with eCommerce.
There is plenty of debate about the merits and demerits of Shopify compared to other platforms of its kind but it has rightfully earned its reputation for exceptional multi-channel retailing and ease of use. However, although it has over a million and a half subscribers worldwide, we’d hesitate to describe it as the perfect solution. There are several reasons for this, but right now we’re concentrating on the implications for your SEO and organic search strategies in choosing Shopify.
When you set up your eCommerce site using Shopify, the first thing you need to do is select your theme. An eCommerce theme is a store design built by the platform provider which its subscribers install on their site to provide all the functionality they need to trade efficiently. Home page, menus, product pages, blogs, checkouts and more are all pre-set with a unified look that gives your site a sophisticated, professional appearance. You have various options beyond the default settings but these stop a long way short of genuine customization. For many users, this modest flexibility is perfectly acceptable, but it does have an impact on your SEO performance, especially if you decide you want to change your theme and give your site a revamp.
Whatever theme you use, whether pre-fabricated or one you’ve built yourself, bear in mind that your theme accounts for approximately 50% of the SEO process. It is the single biggest influence on the organic performance of your site. Since the search engines are the highway to your door, the route you take is critical. Here are just a few of the most significant limitations of using and changing your Shopify theme.
Search engine crawlers respond to logical site structures, which is why the inclusion of a site map is important. For an ecommerce site the clearest, simplest and most intuitive model is this:
This perfectly replicates the arrangement of a physical store which leads you step by step from the general to the particular.
The Shopify model is different and there’s no way for you to adjust this structure and add the last step. Instead, the ‘category’ pages are set to /collections/category-name and there is no option to create a sub-category within the root collection. You’ll find that product pages often have duplicate URLs and it is only the longer URL [B] that links back to the parent product, enabling special sub-categories like ‘new in’ and ‘sale items’ without duplication, which is frustrating for users. However, it does mean you miss the opportunity to add thousands of unique URLs which the search engines could use in indexing your site and increasing traffic.
This model applies to content pages and blog posts. There is nothing inherently wrong with this structure, but it does mean you have to tailor your content to a fixed structure without the freedom to arrange pages exactly as you might wish. If you have particular SEO-related reasons for customizing this structure, then Shopify won’t be suitable. You have to weigh up the convenience against the lack of control.
Images are very useful for attracting the attention of the search engine crawlers and their impact is enhanced by optimizing their URLs and file names. In a purpose-built ecommerce site this is simple to do. With a Shopify theme, the images are sourced from the company’s own content delivery network so you are limited to the ability to set your own alt-tags, which gives much more restricted flexibility. It isn’t fatal but neither is it ideal.
With Shopify you can use the content management system to optimize single page collections but if you try to add the filters which customers use to whittle down their search to specific products, there is a real danger that they will be deterred by the duplications that could ensue. Shopify’s tagging system arranges product collections with pre-set filters which you can’t edit. In extreme cases, this can lead to your site having thousands of URLs from filter page duplicates which can seriously impair SEO performance.
Changing Your Theme
So far we’ve discussed some of the weaknesses inherent in using any Shopify theme. Many of these can be accommodated by adhering to Shopify’s structure and not trying to make it do things for which it isn’t designed. However, it’s unlikely that any ecommerce business will be content to retain the same look year after year, and most store owners understand the benefits of a redesign. Besides which, there may be other reasons to consider changing, such as a desire for improved mobile responsiveness, faster loading speeds, better security, compatibility with third-party apps or simply to add new features that your existing theme doesn’t offer. We’re constantly told that search engines respond to updates and new content, but there are several elements of your site that can be affected by switching from one Shopify theme to another.
So, does changing the Shopify theme affect SEO? The first point to make is that you shouldn’t switch unless you are sure the new theme will at least match your current theme’s loading speed and, ideally, exceed it. Google has explicitly stated that speed and the other core web vitals such as cumulative layout shift and first input delay, are now major factors in achieving the highest rankings. If your new theme looks fantastic but underperforms in these areas, your ranking level could be damaged.
Custom SEO Changes
There can be many site-specific dangers in changing your Shopify theme. These generally occur if you’ve made changes to the theme’s defaults to enhance your SEO performance, so if you’re dead set on switching, you need to be aware that it could be a complex exercise. Here are five of the most important considerations.
Store Name in Title Tag
When you set up your first theme, Shopify automatically adds the name of your store to the title tags of your web pages. Many businesses prefer to replace this with keywords targeted at more important queries which will give high search rankings. This is relatively easy to do by adding custom code to the theme.liquid file and removing the store name. However, this change will not be preserved when you switch to a new theme, so you’ll need to go down the custom code route again or lose the SEO benefits. This applies to any custom code that you may have added to adjust Shopify’s automatic settings. It can be a time-consuming process but it’s the only way to ensure continuity.
Canonicalized Product URLs
Shopify assigns two URLs to each product, one which places it under products and the other under collections. The first of these is the original or canonical version while the second is a duplicate or canonicalized version. Canonical URLs are the ones which send the correct instructions to the search engines and canonicalized URLs simply cloud the issues. In order to optimize the SEO of your original theme, you may have made changes to the theme files, but again, these will not be carried over to your new theme so every change will need to be repeated.
As we mentioned earlier, structured data – site maps, for example – is very important for attracting the attention of the crawlers, getting your site indexed, increasing visibility and improving your click-through rates. Shopify’s pre-set structured data hasn’t been fully upgraded to comply with Google best practice and older themes may be particularly out of date. Any changes you’ve made to these settings will be lost when you switch. Once again, you’ll need to repeat all of these amendments in the new theme.
When you first set up your Shopify theme you’ll have seen that it has a pre-set navigation bar design. This is another element to which you can make some rudimentary changes and you’ll probably have done this to improve customer access to collections and products. If you switch to a different theme, you’ll need to start again, making sure that all your crucial links appear in the new navigation bar, arranged in the correct hierarchy. This will ensure consistency in both the experience of your users and the ability of the search engines to crawl your site and maintain your place in their index.
Even themes that look similar are designed differently. Each one has its own template for content, which makes it easy for you to drop text into boxes, resizing them and moving them around to create the visuals you want. However, if you switch to a different theme, the content that looked perfect in the earlier theme may look skewed in the new one. Even simple things like the category description, which appeared at the top of the page, might move to a different position. It will still be there, but not necessarily where you want it. Of course, you could rebuild your site entirely in the new theme but that is a bigger job than simply doing a thorough check, using the preview function, on how everything will look so you can make the necessary amendments.
So, does changing the Shopify theme affect SEO? Yes, without doubt. It is a consequence of the user-friendliness of any Shopify theme that once you’ve started using one, the process of switching is full of complexities and potential pitfalls. Shopify is an excellent platform for an ecommerce business that wants to get started quickly and avoid the costs of bespoke web design and coding. Its disadvantage is that there is rarely full interchangeability between the different themes. This is partly due to the fact that many themes are submitted to Shopify by third-party designers and are not automatically compatible with others. The advantage of this is the apparently limitless choice of options offered by the Shopify platform. The disadvantage, as we’ve seen, is that changing your mind means changing a lot of other things too, if you’re going to avoid compromising your SEO performance.