Google Shuffles Deck on Natural Search Algorithm; Retailers Should be Beneficiaries
Over the past three weeks, there's been a spate of discussion in the search engine marketplace about the reduced quality of Google’s natural search results. The discussion has centered around two key issues:
- The development of sophisticated “content farms,” which, according to The New York Times, are sites that “churn out sometimes mindless articles based on what people are searching for.” They work their way to the top of common searches, frustrating users with irrelevant content.
- The buying of web links to boost page relevancy, something Google believes promotes ranking not based on relevancy but rather on advertisers’ expenditures.
Google announced on Feb. 25 that it's made changes to its natural search results algorithm, which it reports will impact “approximately 12 percent of search queries” (for a full description of the changes, see Google’s blog post on the subject). The changes only impact the U.S. at this time, but will be rolled out internationally at some point, although no time frame was given.
Google’s goal? To improve the relevancy of search results. Findings from Hitwise revealed that users report 82 percent of their searches on Bing in the U.S. are successful, while Google came in with a 66 percent success rate. That's a damning statistic that Google takes very seriously, and these changes reflect its response. For retailers not engaging in nefarious search techniques, this is a boon and opportunity. These changes slant the playing field in natural search towards quality advertisers and away from tricksters trying to make a quick buck.
Since the change, Covario did a quick survey of 20-plus retail customers and saw that 80 percent of them had seen no change in their average Google natural search ranking for their top 100 terms. The other 20 percent saw a 2 percent to 4 percent improvement in average ranking. This is exactly what retailers should expect — so long as they aren't engaging in any of the above practices.
Buying the Farm: A Description of the Issues Being Addressed by Google
The recent algorithm changes from Google are designed to address two key issues: link buying and content farms. Google believes these are artificial techniques for executing search engine optimization to get higher natural search rankings without offering users valid content.
Link buying refers to leveraging services that allow for links from well-regarded sites to be connected to an advertiser's site for a fee, regardless of their relevance. Link buying has been around for years, and Google has made it clear that engaging in the practice is frowned upon. Companies that engage in link buying are subject to penalties if caught. The most famous and recent example is J.C. Penney, which has gotten a lot of negative attention in the past few weeks from both the search engine marketing trade press as well as the national press.
J.C. Penney was found to be ranking very well over the lucrative holiday season on a whole swath of keywords, some related to its business (e.g., dresses) and some not (e.g., area rugs). An investigation found the stellar performance to be the result of an aggressive link buying program by the retailer and its agency, SearchDex.
J.C. Penney has subsequently discontinued the practice and its results have foundered accordingly. Google wants natural search listings to be based on relevancy, not the wallet size of the advertiser. That’s what paid search is for, and Google wants that money to be spent with it, not agencies and link-buying firms.
The other big area of concern for Google is content farms, a 2.0 version of the old link farms that users would find often on search results that would display a long list of links of dubious quality. Content farms are similar in that they leverage a system to track trends in search queries, then either auto-develop or contract with writers to build content that's often irrelevant or low quality based on those top search queries. Google listed a couple of sites that it says are often associated with content farms: Yahoo’s Associated Content, AOL’s Seed, Demand Media’s eHow and Answerbag. Retailers either using these sites directly or having their agencies build content on these sites should expect to see degradations in ranking and traffic.
Most retailers don't use these types of services. In fact, link buying has been dying off over the past few years. The major vendor in this space recently sold its business in an acknowledgement of the increased vigilance on the part of Google to police this type of behavior.
Do the Right Thing: What Retail Advertisers Should Focus On?
What should retailers do? What does Google's algorithm change mean, and how can retailers take advantage?
First realize that most retailers won't be impacted by this other than positively. As stated above, none of Covario’s retail customers have been impacted adversely by the algorithm change, and a few have seen minor gains (largely as content farms that were ranking above them got degraded and relevant content moved up).
Second, there are a few things retailers should do to ensure that they don't have risk associated with leveraging unsanctioned SEO practices either directly or through their agencies. Know that these frowned-upon techniques don't happen by accident. They're the result of conscientious activity on the part of the retailer or its agency. It won't be a mystery to figure out if this is taking place.
Have a meeting with your SEO team to go over these tactics. Is there link buying taking place or not? If so, what are the plans to eliminate this practice as soon as possible? Are there any content farms being used to drive organic ranking? If so, how can you eliminate this practice from your SEO strategy?
Third, it's back to basics. Google, Bing and every other search engine have the same goal: to provide quality content. Google is leveling the playing field for those that follow best practices. It wants the percentage of successful search queries to be as high as possible. Note that both techniques being penalized intend to drive better links to an advertiser's site. It's acknowledged that link strategy is the key driver in improved ranking. How can scalable, successful link building be done properly? It's cliché to say, but it requires building quality content and syndicating it — easier said than done. Though this is an abbreviated list, here are four tips to help make this goal a reality:
- Optimize press releases. Widely distributed, this content can be picked up by reputable sites.
- Integrate links with product providers in the retail space. Brand advertisers tend to have highly regarded sites; build out key connectivity to product suppliers.
- Integrate user-generated content (e.g., ratings and reviews) into landing pages. Search engines are using UGC to re-index content, which improves the “freshness” factor on a site and drives improved ranking.
- Create content that includes infographics, videos, games, web-based tools, unique contests, breaking news, top 10 lists, how-tos, alternative viewpoints, shortcuts, etc.
Google's algorithm change is a welcome opportunity for retailers practicing classic and successful SEO tactics that drive results. Providing useful content and ensuring it can be found, then syndicating it as effectively as possible via social media and link-building (not buying) practices develops sustainable SEO assets that deliver over time and keep retailers from unwarranted risk.
Craig Macdonald is chief marketing officer and senior vice president for products at search marketing solutions provider Covario. Craig can be reached at email@example.com.