March 22, 2012, 4:25 PM

Google previews an upcoming change to natural search rankings

Sites that offer too much SEO will be punished, but most retailers might escape harm.

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The next search ranking change from Google Inc. promises to further emphasize strong content on e-retail sites and may also lead web merchants to wonder if they’ll face penalties for doing too much SEO—essentially, over-optimizing in an attempt to appear higher in natural search results.

Search engine optimization remains one of the main thrusts of online marketing, with each advance on the retail side countered by yet another tweak to Google’s ranking formulas—tweaks that often go unannounced. And mystery abounds in the recent announcement from Google engineer Matt Cutts—in a relatively rare preview of a Google search change—that his employer will institute a ranking penalty for sites that are overly optimized.

Cutts gave few specifics about what will change or what he means by too much optimization. “We are trying to … make our relevance better, and we are also looking for those who abuse it, like too many keywords on a page, or exchange way too many links or go well beyond what you normally expect,” he said during a recent session at the South by Southwest music, film and technology festival in Austin, TX. “We have several engineers on my team working on this right now.” He said the changes could take effect within the next few weeks or months.

Any move from Google commands attention. But this upcoming change might not impact many retailers, says Adam Dorfman, partner at SIM Partners, a digital marketing services provider.

“Legitimate retailers with legitimate sites likely have very slim chances of being impacted by this update,” he says. “The goal seems to be to reward sites that offer good content and positive user experiences. People who should be nervous are those pushing the algorithm as hard as possible, operating illegitimate sites that engage in what we’ve known to be wrong for quite some time now—such practices as keyword stuffing or black hat link building.” Black hat link building refers paying other sites for links, while keyword stuff means loading a site with words that operators hope will boost search rankings. Google frowns upon both practices.

The change comes amid other moves over the past year or so by Google that were designed to reward sites that have fresh, updated content and which build credibility by, for instance, attracting links without paying for them.

“What Google is doing is a logical and natural result of the maturing of their algorithm,” says Eric Ward, chief link evangelist at AdGooroo, another online marketing firm.  “Google has an enormous amount of historical crawl data that they can use to determine what we might call a ‘norm’ for any given signal, whether it's keywords on a page, link exchanges, anchor text or other factors.”

As with most changes involving Google’s search rankings, retailers should keep close watch on their search rankings and resist shortcuts, says Aimee Reker, partner, media services at digital marketing agency FRWD. Part of the effort to keep abreast of Google’s constant changes to search is for e-retailers to remain diligent about providing customers with what they’re looking for, she says. “Retailers should focus on creating content that answers the consumer questions asked in search queries and optimizing that content to make it more discoverable and digestible for the engines, devices and consumers,” she says.

April Anderson, industry director, retail at Google, will speak at the Internet Retailer Conference & Exhibition 2012 in June, in a session entitled, “Paid search strategies for the smaller merchant.” The IRCE $200 early-bird discount expires March 31.

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