December 31, 2011, 12:00 AM

SEO Meets ASAP

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Drs. Foster & Smith, an online retailer of pet products, managed to escape significant harm from Panda and is working to conform to Fresh, says Ellen Burgan, Internet marketing manager. The retailer benefits from its pre-Fresh practice of offering original content in the form of house-written articles about pets and pet supplies. Its marketers also keep an eye on how consumers search for products and adjust the site's product descriptions accordingly. For instance, instead of searching for a product called a "windy city parka," many pet owners simply type in "dog coat," a phrase that the retailer then uses when crafting SEO-friendly copy. The retailer also changes its home page offers and text regularly, she says.

That old wisdom of search engine optimization hasn't changed too much with Fresh, but Burgan says the update, with its emphasis on new content, drives home how important a social media campaign and retailer-produced blogs are for retailers. "Social will have a stronger influence on SEO as we go forward, but a huge stumbling point is the time it takes," she says.

While Drs. Foster & Smith already engages consumers on Twitter and Facebook, the search engine update will require even more posting and communication via those social networks. It also underscores the importance of paying attention to Google+, the search engine's own social network, which it launched last summer. A strong social presence, one that demonstrates a loyalty among consumers that can translates into links, is another sign of good content, and therefore another way to earn the good graces of Google, she says.

Retailers are on the right SEO track if they are putting more effort into social media, another search expert says. "The 'freshness algorithm' is Google's attempt to continue to provide more relevant, real-time results for search queries, further highlighting the need for marketers to accelerate their focus on integrating SEO and social marketing practices to ensure pertinent, up-to-date content is accessible to Google," says Todd Friesen, director of SEO at Performics, an online marketing firm.

Burgan, says retailers can maximize the impact of their content by making sure they have the "social share" buttons embedded on their sites, enabling consumers to pass on appealing content to friends and other shoppers on social networks, which also encourages links and builds credibility. "When people get excited about buying new stuff, you make it easier for them to do so," she says. "And this is more than just SEO. This is about putting up good content that make people like you."

Beyond SEO

In fact, retailers and marketers are increasingly using a variation of this mantra as both social networks and updated content assume more importance within e-commerce: SEO is social media, and vice versa. Or, to put it another way: Good conversation matters in online retailing.

That's the idea behind an effort from musical gear retailer Sam Ash Music Corp. It is encouraging, through $50 payments, the submission of publishable articles that take up equipment advice, tour guidance and all the other things that musicians talk about. The aim is to keep those musicians for longer periods of time at SamAsh.com—and also encourage in-bound links that lift a site's standing in Google's eyes.

"We want to make it more like a forum and turn it into a music Wiki," says Steven Prisco, the retailer's director of marketing. The effort is not being billed as a direct response to Fresh, but it is the type of SEO-friendly endeavor that can help boost natural search rankings and also the retailer's credibility among its core customers. Much like how quickly loading sites can impress customers and search engines, this is the type of improvement that performs double duty. And those are the kinds of improvements SEO experts are touting as Google continues to refine its search formulas, without ever explicitly explaining its formulas to retailers.

Besides participation in social networks, retailers hoping to keep ahead of Google's changes will want to invest in such marketing services as price optimization—technology that can help a retailer better compete with competitors' offers—and display ads based on consumers' behavior, says Eric Best, CEO of Mercent Corp., which helps retailers sell online through marketplaces like Amazon and eBay and comparison shopping engines. "The more frequently a retailer can update ads, price and offers, the more relevant it will be to consumers searching through Google," he says.

Whatever the effects of the algorithm change over the next few months, retailers hoping to keep up or improve their rankings should embrace another concept besides fresh—speed. That means getting fresh content onto a site quickly, such as in response to a flurry of online conversations about an outfit Jennifer Anniston wore at a big event last night.

The recent ranking changes, after all, build upon Google's 2010 completion of its Caffeine web indexing system, giving Google the ability to crawl the web in smaller bites, resulting in quicker updates. The digital world gets ever faster, and consumers demand the latest information. No matter how many tweaks Google makes to its search formula, that's not likely to change.

thad@verticalwebmedia.com

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