In the latest weather report Google’s Matt Cutts has suggested that in 2013 we are going to see an updated or additional Google algorithm that works to filter out poor quality online stores from its organic search results. Filtering out low quality results is nothing new to Google, but it seems that Google now thinks it is time to filter eCommerce sites as well.
Online stores rarely sell something unique so a large number offer items that are near duplicates of what is sold by other stores. This problem is made worse by affiliate program’s easy access to the web and by the less than complex road map to set up an open-source eCommerce platform with some free-lance content.
Google’s own Search Quality Rating Guidelines released in November 2012 outline to human graders what they should look for when considering whether a website is a real merchant site:
- a “view your shopping cart” link that stays on the same site.
- a shopping cart that updates when you add items to it.
- a return policy with a physical address.
- a shipping charge calculator that works.
- a “wish list” link, or a link to postpone the purchase of an item until later.
- a way to track FedEx orders.
- a user forum that works.
- the ability to register or login.
- a gift registry that works.
In addition, Google added:
- A page does not need to have all of these features to be considered a true merchant.
- Yahoo! Stores are true merchants – they are typically not thin affiliates.
- Some true smaller merchants take users to another site to complete the transaction because they use a third party to process the transaction. These merchants are not thin affiliates.
- Many large web retailers offer affiliate programs. Some of the most common examples are Amazon.com, eBay.com, Zappos.com, Allposters.com, Hotels.com, Orbitz.com, and Overstock.com.
Beyond True Merchants
If I were a Google search engineer and I had access to tools and algorithms that are available to filter low quality merchants from top ranked organic search results, I would expect a little more from this update. Then what Matt Cutts said at SMX West would make better sense: Google doesn’t want “low quality experience merchants” in high positions in the results.
What we are really talking about here is another filter, for that is the only way that we know Google has to ensure that sites don’t rank in high positions for any keywords. Secondly, this is about an experience, or the quality, of eCommerce pages. This is so reminiscent of the Panda filter that I instantly jumped to review Google’s own advice for websites affected by the update, in order to determine what makes a good quality website.
I looked back at the Panda questions that Google released on May 6th 2011 to see which of these could be more directly applied to merchant sites. Here I can add a couple questions of my own about merchant sites:
- Would you feel comfortable providing payment information and a home address to this merchant? Does the website look trustworthy? Web users are very good at judging whether to trust a merchant by looking at the site’s design. First impressions come when looking at the design and layout: do I see what I expected to see, and do I want to continue to “invest” time in visiting this website?
Action: Invest in a good design with usability testing.
- Does the website contain transparent information about the company and products through customer reviews? a buyer needs to be able to engage with the company they are about to make a purchase from. Just like when we go into a clothing store to buy something, we like to ask questions and get honest, open answers. On the web the merchant needs to offer potential customers a way to contact the seller. The merchant also needs to let customers write reviews of the products they have purchased, and to post them even if they are not stellar. If customers do not like the products that merchants sell, they need to know when to pull them from their shelves.
Action: Provide clear contact details and heavily encourage user reviews.
- Would you bookmark this site to revisit for future purchases? This is a question of the merchant’s range and visitor’s experience. Do visitors feel that there is a range of goods that might satisfy their next shopping need? Does the site provide information through functionality to enable the user to evaluate a future purchase?
Action: Ensure you have an inventory that matches your competitors and create great content around your inventory.
- Do the product pages provide any additional information, data or functionality to the users to enhance the shopping experience? Duplicate content is fine, but it is not advised to have the same content on the pages that users turn to in order to make decisions about purchasing. If you sell Lego online, it is fine to have a bulleted description of the product offered and a short history of the Lego Company, but neither of these should be substituted for the real actionable content that leads to purchase. The best actionable content is real user reviews because these are the least commercial and most honest information, and exactly what the users are hoping to read.
Action: Don’t highlight duplicated content and instead work to bring to the forefront actionable content that clears the way for purchasing/sharing.
Finding Low-Quality Example Sites
In order to find examples I looked at the online shoe industry and more specifically at a subset of the industry which I assumed to be of low quality. I went with the search term cheap adidas shoes and looked at both the United States and Australia for examples.
Example 1: Shop Shoes 2013 – USA
Look at the first listing here, and you will see exactly what Google has to work with. Shop Shoes 2013 would in my opinion be a classic example of a thin eCommerce site. Shop Shoes 2013 has a design that does not stand out, was probably made very quickly, and was not created to stand out. The only form of contact is via a contact form that sends an email to email@example.com which is an email address not associated with the domain. The inventory seems to meet minimum requirements, but there is nothing that aims to show that it has a wide selection in this category. As a result I wouldn’t expect to return to the site to make a new purchase. Finally, there is no actionable content beyond pictures of the shoes. In other words, the store does not aim to assist me in any purchase.
Example 2: Paul’s Warehouse – Australia
Paul’s Warehouse Australia also has a very standard design with nothing that makes a visitor want to look twice or spend time exploring their offering. Walking into a brick and mortar store and scanning what is on offer is an experience that we really take in. Landing on a page like this is like walking into a store without much window decoration and with the same items that we have seen many times before. Besides pricing there is no information about this product or why it is being offered on this website. Even if a purchase is made, the visit will be short and far from a fulfilling shopping experience. As a result this eCommerce site should not be given a high ranking position.
How it should be done, and why.
One of the websites mentioned in the Search Quality Rating Guidelines as being an example of a strong merchant brand is Zappos.com. It is often an example of how to do things right because it seems to be one of the few eCommerce sites that has invested in creating a good experience for users.
The website is very appealing, and when you enter either through a product page or the index page, there is a lot to look at. Its design draws the user into the shopping experience. Information on a product and company and related products are available to the user through a simple and obvious navigation system. One thing to note – this information is there, but never highlighted.
The contact information is always at the top of the page, and in multiple forms. Phone 24/7, help documentation and even live chatting help for those who simply choose not to read the guides or pick up the phone. I can’t think of another way the company could expect to be contacted!
Zappos’ main text content about the products is an unfiltered view of what customers really think about the goods they’ve bought, and also how the product has lived up to their pre-purchase expectations. We have to realize that visitors are making a purchase of a product that they are unable to touch and try on: they are taking a leap of faith. Zappos does a great job at making that leap as small and easy as possible.
With an update like this coming soon, it is very important for owners of eCommerce sites to pay more attention to the above points. Some of them are going to require additional coding and design costs, but every company facing this new situation needs to look for the low-hanging fruit and update the easiest actions to ensure that the purchasing experience is of better quality than that of your competitors.