May 27, 2010, 3:15 PM

Inside the Black Box

With Google constantly changing its ranking system, there are a host of new ways to win at SEO.

Google Inc. is continually tweaking its search algorithms, the formulas that rank organic search results and determine whether online retailers will find their sites and products displayed on the first few pages or buried in back, well beyond the patience of many consumers.

Retailers face a never-ending struggle to exploit the approximately 200 "signals" that Google says govern search results. With Google sites accounting for 65% of the 15.4 billion U.S. searches in March, according to web measurement firm comScore Inc., retailers that fail to make their sites friendly to Google's site crawlers increase the odds of being ignored by shoppers.

"Showing up high in natural search results is always an arm race," says Sean Cook, CEO of ShopVisible LLC, a firm that helps online retailers move up in search results. "Retailers are always scratching and clawing to be in the coveted top five results because that's where the traffic is and where the conversions are." He estimates that at least 90% of clicks come from first-page search results.

The rules of the game
The rules of the Google game are changing rapidly, as the dominant search engine incorporates more results from social networks and online video, and makes results more personalized and local. For instance, some search experts say linking strategies have become a more vital part of persuading Google that a web page is important.

Up to 50% of the variables used to rank pages involve linking, up from about 25% to 30% in 2008, estimates Craig McDonald, senior vice president and chief marketing officer at search strategy firm Covario Inc. And Google's recent emphasis on real-time search results that incorporate feeds from social media and include video results will require broader search optimization efforts from retailers, experts say.

But not all changes are crucial. For instance, Google announced in April it would begin considering how fast a page loads in determining its rank. But Google subsequently blogged that relevancy remains by far the most important factor, and that only 1% of search results are likely to be affected by site speed.

Google also disclosed in December it would begin personalizing search results for all users, not just those signed in to G-mail and other Google services. It's not clear how much this will affect the results Google displays, according to Danny Sullivan, editor-in-chief of the Search Engine Land blog and a long-time observer of search engines. "For many queries, there will continue to be 'normal' results until Google harvests enough information to start personalizing them," Sullivan says.

Those developments will have to be watched. But there is enough known about some other changes from Google—and how consumers use Google—to yield these five tips from experts on how to show up higher in Google search results.

1. Think like a consumer
It's not just Google that's changing. The millions of consumers who search on Google are changing, too, and one way is by using more precise and longer search terms. The average length of an online search query has grown from under 2.9 words in July 2008 to 3.15 in February 2010, according to comScore Inc., which tracks online consumer behavior.

That opens up an opportunity for niche e-retailers, focused on a smaller set of products than bigger rivals, to improve their Google standing by addressing the terms consumers use when searching for certain products, says Nathan Safran, senior research analyst at search engine optimization technology firm Conductor Inc.

That's what PetMedPros has done to draw attention to the pet medications it sells, competing against a raft of well-established web retailers. Realizing that many consumers were not just entering the term "endosorb," an anti-diarrhea pill for dogs, but "endosorb tablets," PetMedPros added more references to Endosorb tablets on its product pages. Similarly, it beefed up product pages with many references to "generic droncit," instead of just "droncit," a tapeworm medication.

Both changes moved PetMedPros onto the first page of Google search results for the more specific searches, says CEO Dan Root. "We did this because we were a small fish in a big pond and we weren't selling anything because nobody noticed us," Root says.

Search engine consultants and the search engines themselves offer tools that help retailers track what terms are leading to sales of particular products. Among the free tools most often recommended by search experts for this research is Google Analytics.

Dan Olson, CEO of search optimization firm DIYSEO, advises retailers and their web experts to focus on the traffic sources and search engine areas of the service to get a better sense of the terms searchers are using. "I like to review the keywords and look at the performance for each keyword as well as any goals set up in the system," he says.

2. Make URLs Google-friendly
Fred Hord owns three sites that sell bridal and prom shoes, MyGlassSlipper.com, BridalShoes.com and PromShoes.com, and he launched new versions of the sites in February 2009, after a six-month, $65,000 overhaul.

One of the most important improvements was changing URLs from a string of symbols to phrases that include keywords, which can boost the sites' rankings in Google natural searches. Product page URLs that in the past would include a string of symbols such as question marks, now feature easily identifiable terms such as "white," "wedding," "shoe," "special" and "occasions."

On MyGlassSlipper, the main site of the three, all URLs now include "wedding" and "shoes," because those terms are so critical, he says. Brand names also now appear in the URLs, says Hord.

The work helped lead to an immediate boost in Google search rankings, he says. Shoppers searching for products Hord features now often find at least one of his sites listed on the first page of Google search results, sometimes even in the first spot. "I went from deep page results, page four, five or 10, to sometimes number one across the board," he says.

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