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.

Thad Rueter

Senior Editor

Lead Photo

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.

Comments | 2 Responses

  • I'm one of the small book sellers whose dream of having a small book store has been destroyed by Amazon, our present economy, daily deal offers, and drastic price cutting. Given a fighting chance to stay in business, without having to become an Amazon reseller; I will fight to the death to protect their right to destroy my business. That is the American way and there is no point in fighting progress. After 50 years of working for big companies and the military I just want to run my own show. I'm all for this if Amazon stops coming back #1, and sometimes #2, #3, #4 and #5 for almost every organic search that I make. They already buy the top of the page and are now appearing at the bottom as well. Their book descriptions are copied from the publisher but they still grab the top organic search spots. And, when you click on their link, they sometimes don't have the book. They refer you to one of their resellers who has one or two used copies at prices starting at one penny. Google has set the standard for search for many years. Like others I have always trusted them and the results that come back when I do a search. Profits are important, but I hope they get back to placing integrity first instead of what appears to be giving preference to the companies who spend the most advertising money.

  • Well most people shouldn't even worry about this because I doubt there is much we can do to change anything. It should only effect the smaller companies that cannot afford to compete without the help of cheap SEO companies. Your big companies knew this was coming for a while and have already adjusted their content. They hire only the best SEO companies and have real people writing content... hundreds of them. This will not help smaller retailers, but give an even bigger boost to the giants. It may cost them more money to write better content but they can afford to do so. Your mom and pop book store doesn't stand a chance. To Google's defense there is no algorythm for "fairness". If there was, it would be random so that your smaller and un-optimized site can rank once in a while. Just like the normal rankings, SEO companies will find out exactly how many times they can mention the keywords that they need before being penalized.

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