June 5, 2012, 1:00 PM

IRCE 2012 Report: Yesterday’s SEO tricks may hurt retailers today

Quality content, consumer engagement and speed are what Google wants.

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“Google is watching deeply what is going on on your site,” said Ben Kirshner, CEO of Elite SEM.

The rules of search engine optimization and search engine marketing have changed and are still changing, speakers said this morning at the Internet Retailer Conference and Exhibition 2012 in a session entitled “Not Last Year’s SEO: New Rules to Raise Rankings.”

“Google is watching deeply what is going on on your site,” said Ben Kirshner, CEO for search engine marketing vendor Elite SEM.

Google, the speakers in the session said, has learned some lessons over the years about the tactics web site operators were using to game the system. Now, the speakers said, the highest ranked pages will be the ones with genuine and useful content, quality links, consumer interaction and a good user experience.

For example, Kirshner says over-optimizing pages with too many keywords or poor quality links is now more often spotted by Google and will hurt an e-retailer’s rankings. Adding links—both external and internal—has long been a tactic to boost page ranking, but Google now looks carefully at the quality of those links, he said. To get quality links that will help and not hurt natural search rankings, e-retailers should turn to business partners such as manufacturers, suppliers and bloggers, Tim Kilroy, director, business development, at online home goods retailer Wayfair, said. “Don’t buy your links. Make your links count. Dramatically,” Kilroy said.

Retailers also may want to consider linking to their own blogs or Facebook pages, getting their products reviewed and linking to those reviews, and adding links to non-competing but related sites, said Kevin Hickey, vice president of marketing at Online Stores Inc. For example, a retailer that only sells sunglasses might link to an e-commerce site that sells beach towels and sun hats. Another tactic that has proven useful for Hickey is to buy old sites with similar domains and redirect those sites to his.

He also said his company, which sells many seasonal items such as American flags, often adds a burst of links right before a big holiday, such as the Fourth of July, to boost its page ranking. Varying link text is also key, he added, in order to show Google that the links take visitors to different content.

In addition to link quality, Google and other search engines are taking a harder line on content. They will ding companies with copy that contains too many keywords or seems as though it is only written to boost search engine rankings, the speakers said.

Hickey recommends peppering pages with keywords sparingly—using about 2% to 5% of copy on keywords. While Kilroy said to focus on content, not keywords.

“Opine, blog, say something worthwhile,” said Kilroy, who has three employees who focus solely on writing content. “Don’t write for SEO. Make your writing great.”

Kilroy added that clarity is also a key factor in search results. Google likes sites that have clear architecture and are easy to navigate, he said. Search engine crawlers need to be able to find items easily, he said.

“If someone is looking for a green coffee table, make sure your site search and Google can find it,” he said. “There is no room for guesswork. Search engines are marvelously bad at guessing.”

A clear site that is easy to navigate ties in with user experience, which the speakers all said search engines are focusing on more now as well. All agreed that Google penalizes for slow page loads. Hickey estimates that page load time accounts for about 10% of Google’s page ranking algorithm.

Engagement is also key, the speakers said. With the new Panda update for Google’s search ranking algorithm, engagement and brand with a site matters greatly, Kirshner said. The longer the time a visitor spends on site, the more pages she views and the more actions she takes, such as clicking on a link, the better Google will view the site, Kirshner said. Page bounces will hurt a site’s ranking, he added. He estimates around 10% of Google’s algorithm is based on consumer engagement with a brand—both on and off its site. And he believes that will play an even larger role in the future.

For example, Google likes when visitors share retailers’ web pages with their friends, Kirshner said. He said e-commerce sites should look at page shares to see what consumers are interested in and boost engagement even more.

He cautions, however, that just as Google is seeking useful content and links, Google is likely seeking genuine engagement with brands.

“If 1,000 people like you on Facebook, but no one is engaged and another site has only 200 fans on Facebook but are more engaged, Google will see that,” he says.

Kilroy of Wayfair said polls and questions work much better for social engagement than simply announcing a sale, for example. He said questions like, “What color would you paint this room to spice it up” work much better than “Herman Miller chairs are now on sale.”

“Get your customers liking, following and tweeting about you, and engaged with you, Kirshner said. “That is how Google will look at you as an authority in the long run.”

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