September 1, 2010, 12:00 AM

Mayday! Mayday! Months after a Google shift, e-retailers struggle to regain their rankings

Google’s so-called Mayday update to its search algorithm applies page quality and other attributes to search rankings more than in the past, and retailers are seeing differing results.

Many e-retailers are still trying to sort through the effects of adjustments Google made in late April to its algorithm that ranks natural search results, now often referred to as the Mayday update.

For instance, daily visitors to HamGo.com dropped from 5,000 to 1,200, says Al Benyameen, CEO of the web-only electronics retailer, which recorded $14 million in sales in 2009. But at cleaning products supplier BettyMills.com, traffic went up 33%, says Ofer Sabadosh, president and CEO, who notes that part of the increase may have been seasonal. Online webmaster forums abound with similar stories of fluctuating traffic levels.

The modified algorithm takes overall page quality and authority into account more than before, says Matt Cutts, a Google quality engineer in a YouTube video explaining the changes. Hallmarks of quality include the amount of original content and the depth and age of links pointing to the page. For e-retailers, this means simply having popular search terms on a product page or in page tags won't guarantee prominent placement on Google.com's search results pages.

Product pages buried several layers deep on a site may only have one or two internal links pointing to the page and no inbound links from other sites. If the product description on that page is the same as on the sites of other e-retailers selling the same item, that's now a knock against the quality rating, too. If a page doesn't rate highly enough, it may no longer be indexed by Google at all, search experts say.

"We're at the point where it is important to pay attention to these product pages because Google has said, 'Let's rethink this whole thing. Unless other people say you are OK, then I don't trust you,'" says Tim Kilroy, vice president of natural search at PM Digital, a digital marketing agency.

Improving long-tail results

Especially impacted by the new ranking system are searches for longer phrases, such as "red Crocs sandals." And there are lots of them: 54% of searches in March were three words or longer, says Experian Hitwise, which tracks Internet traffic. "Google recognized that a lot of the long-tail searches pulled up a bunch of cruddy-looking web sites," says Bill Leake, CEO of Apogee Search. "Mayday makes it far more important to do what Google has always said you should do, which is have unique content."

He suggests adding original text and video to product pages, and creating opportunities for consumers to add their own content, such as product reviews or stories about how they used a product.

"The easiest way for any marketer to maximize the value of any page is to engage, to push, to find inventive ways to expose your content in any way," Kilroy says. He suggests e-retailers explore social media and respond to blogs operating in their expertise areas as ways to begin building links back to the retailer's site content. It's these types of activities that generate the inbound links to an e-commerce site that improve quality ratings in the Google algorithm and move a retailer up in natural search results, he says.

Leake agrees. "E-retailers should double-down and invest in link bait," he says. "Links are still the larger part of the Google algorithm."

allison@verticalwebmedia.com

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