January 3, 2013, 3:54 PM

Search smarts

Retailers need not fear Pandas and Penguins if smart content drives their SEO strategies.

Lead Photo

To listen to the hue and cry on the web in the wake of a search algorithm update from Google Inc. e-retail marketers might be under the impression that Google employs a menagerie of pandas and penguins as stealth assassins tasked with killing all natural search traffic. While Google doesn't reveal the specific weights and measures of its algorithm, search engine optimization professionals say they get a pretty fair idea of how it works by reading between the lines of free Google Webmaster Tools site reports, which e-retailers can run to understand how traffic arrives at their sites, Google blog posts about the updates and what Google engineer and SEO expert Matt Cutts reveals in his YouTube videos.

The goal of the major algorithm updates of the past few years, which Google engineers named Penguin and Panda, respectively, is pretty specific: To show high-quality, highly relevant search results to consumers. That means web pages that have original and valuable content show up higher in search engine results and consequently get more attention and clicks from consumers. Web pages that the algorithm deems less valuable show up lower and get less attention and clicks. With each additional algorithm refinement—there were more than 20 in 2012—Google is leaving less room for web sites to use tactics, like keyword stuffing, to trick the algorithm into giving pages with low-quality content high placement in search results.

"If you understand what Google is trying to do, you understand that the underlying process is a good process. It ends up helping sites like ours," says Nikhil Behl, CEO of ZooStores.com which sells products in categories like fitness, home décor and outdoor and patio via ZooStores.com and more than 200 related subdomains.

"Our thesis is to create very specific stores that have rich content and tools that match the unique need set of customers shopping for those products. That's also very helpful from an SEO standpoint," Behl says.

But creating content costs money, and web retailers have to understand if the content they're creating is passing muster with Google. E-retailers are taking advantage of tools old and new to keep on the good side of Google and its algorithmic menagerie.

Pick your battles

Behl says ZooStores, which launched shortly after Google's February 2011 introduction of the Panda algorithm, says his sites were not adversely impacted by either Panda or Penguin. In part, that's because many of ZooStores' e-commerce sales take place on subdomains like ellipticaltrainers.zoostores.com that suggest to Google that this is a site that's all about the cardio workout machines known as elliptical trainers. SEO experts say Google's algorithm gives higher authority scores to pages that use such specific subdomains than to more generic web addresses.

But specific URLs will only get a retailer so far. ZooStores.com currently lists for sale some 500,000 products, which is 50% more than a year ago, Behl says. With that many products, the e-retailer simply doesn't have the resources to optimize every product page. So Behl uses his site analytics data to help him prioritize which product pages should be made the most friendly to search engines.

"We look at what's getting the most hits, at what's selling well and sell-through rates. I have a dashboard that alerts me when a product hits a certain threshold," he says. When an alert appears, Behl and his merchandising team add elements like editorial reviews or more original product photos to that page.

Behl takes a different tack at the category level. He says all category pages include features like buying guides or articles that provide information about a particular type of product. A category page for patio heaters, for example, includes an 800-word article that walks shoppers through the options for patio heaters and the fuel they require.

These articles are written in-house by ZooStores' merchandising team. "We never launch a category unless we have some minimum amount of information like this on the site," he says. Just more than one-third of all site traffic comes from organic search today, Behl says.

Lay a foundation

Mike Miller, director of organic search at home improvement e-retailer Build.com, says that even though Google won't reveal details of its algorithm, comparing site data from before and after a tweak can give retailers a lot of clues. "You have to test stuff to see if the way you are doing it is good enough," he says.

He and his eight-person team also do monthly audits using Google Webmaster Tools to check that all new content put on the site includes the elements known to score in the algorithm, such as a title tag relevant to the content on that page. That, combined with ongoing efforts to create original content, means Miller doesn't lose sleep every time an update comes out. "It is about building great content, creating something that people want," he says. "That is the stuff search engines are looking for, and that's what we focus on."

Like Behl, Miller has to prioritize search optimization efforts. "We have 800,000 SKUs. We had to ask ourselves, does it make sense to optimize every product?" he says. While Build.com does write original content for newly added products and is working to improve the content on older product pages, ultimately, Miller says, Build.com is more focused on creating the kind of content that makes consumers happy. And that content also makes search engines happy. It chose to work on developing its library of staff-written how-to articles and videos, which star Build.com staffers. These articles and videos appear on relevant product pages. For instance, a product page for a doorknob includes a two-minute instructional video on installation. "We focus on developing content that relates to customers' immediate needs," Miller says.

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