December 31, 2011, 12:00 AM

SEO Meets ASAP

Panda-taming search experts freshen up content to appease Google's new demands.

Lead Photo

Under Chinese tradition, 2012 ushers in the Year of the Dragon. For retailers and marketers hoping to boost their natural search rankings in the coming months, this new year could be dubbed the Year of Content.

The relationship between original, updated and popular content on an e-commerce site, and potentially higher search rankings for a brand, merchant or product page, is hardly unknown. What's new for 2012, however, is how Google Inc.'s latest major update to its search algorithm—those mathematical formulas that carry so much weight in digital marketing—is pushing retailers to offer stronger content on their web sites, update that content more often and encourage those in-bound links that signal page quality to the search engine.

Retailers with relatively little original content are scrambling for more, while those web merchants that have long had staffers producing how-to articles, product demonstrations and the like are working toward improvements. Not even the most agile online retailer can just sit by and hope Google smiles favorably upon it, not with the latest major update—launched last fall and commonly called Fresh—promising to affect 35% of all search results, according to the search engine, which accounted for 65% of search traffic in November, according to comScore Inc.

"Google is getting smarter about how it crawls pages and updates rankings," says Seth Besmertnik, CEO of Conductor Inc., a web marketing firm that specializes in search engine optimization, the art and science of moving up in natural search rankings frequently referred to as SEO. "Now Google is so fast, it wants its rankings to reflect that. Retailers will have to rethink pages that don't change."

First came Panda

The Fresh update from late last year was foreshadowed early in 2011 by another update from Google called Panda, which the search engine estimated would affect 12% of searches. The update was designed to punish what Google views as low-quality web sites, which includes those with unoriginal content, such as retail sites that rely on the same manufacturer product descriptions that many other e-retailers display. It also sought to downgrade sites that web users seemed to find of little value.

Google is notoriously vague about how it determines which sites are well regarded, but SEO specialists say an e-commerce site is likely to be downgraded if it fails to attract links from reputable sites, without paying for them. Paid links are worse than no links at all—if a retailer gets caught by Google. Both Overstock.com Inc. and J.C. Penney Co. Inc. were penalized by Google last year for soliciting paid links; Overstock later reported that the downgrade in Google's search rankings cost it 5% of its revenue during the several weeks when the penalty was in force.

While many retailers reported only some impact from Panda—home improvement retailer Build.com, for instance, says its search rankings were affected no more than 5% either up or down—a few suffered. OneWayFurniture.com said its traffic plunged by two-thirds after the update nearly a year ago, thanks in part to the manufacturer-supplied descriptions the retailer used on its site instead of original content. The retailer has worked to improve its rankings by hiring four copywriters to write original product descriptions that contain keywords that consumers use when searching for products. The retailer also tweaked its site to remove content that caused pages to load relatively slowly—another negative signal that can depress a site's position in Google organic search rankings.

Those lessons still hold for retailers' search engine optimization plans under the Fresh update. But now retailers will have to do even more than they did to protect themselves from demotions in search rankings under Panda. After all, Google says that Fresh is meant to help shoppers find the latest product information—and that points to all kinds of content-related improvements for e-commerce sites. That includes, for instance, a steady stream of new user reviews on product pages. "Merchants should rethink both their own product descriptions and also make sure that user reviews are happening whenever possible, especially when they are good reviews," says Kevin Lee, CEO of search marketing firm Didit.

Lee advises retailers to continually update content, starting with best-selling products and pages that already rank high in search results. "A balanced approach will be to add user reviews to existing content and rotate new reviews in regularly," he says.

Fresh wisdom

Retailers generally can report few solid results, positive or negative, from the Google freshness update, and say a sharper picture is unlikely to emerge until sometime toward spring. But early results from SEO software firm Searchmetrics suggest that Overstock.com Inc., whose home page frequently changes with new offers from the mass merchandiser, boosted its search rankings in the first weeks after the algorithm change last fall. Overstock declined comment. Other big winners include traditional news sites, celebrity news sites and sites that feature a lot of video, all signs of Google giving more credit to constantly updated content.

Mike Miller, Build.com's director of organic search, says he expects the effects of the Fresh update to really kick in around April or May, after Google finishes testing the changes. But retailers need to prepare their content efforts now. By studying what consumers search for, along with comments left by consumers via Facebook, e-mails and even phone calls to sales agents, Build.com learns what topics are top of mind—topics that change with the seasons, such as popular projects for this winter or next spring, along with installation and other advice. "We take a lot of feedback from consumers and create content around that," Miller says.

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