All eCommerce sites should embrace SEO principles. Complying with Google’s best practice guidelines improves the likelihood that you’ll rank higher in search results, which is a good thing.
However, these rules aren’t set in stone. Occasionally the search engines will update their algorithms, and this can render existing techniques obsolete.
So you can’t quite “set-it-and-forget-it”. SEO isn’t future-proof. You have to be prepared for updates, so that you can adapt and adjust accordingly.
Easier said than done when you’ve got a busy eCommerce business to run!
Beware of the Panda
The Google Panda update in 2011 demonstrated how a major algorithm change can drastically impact the rankings of millions of websites. This saw the search engine cracking down on sites with poor or duplicate content, demoting many overnight. eCommerce sites took some of the hardest hits.
Businesses relying on flimsy on-page content or generic descriptions went from the first page to nowhere in the blink of an eye. This had a major impact on sales and revenue for a number of retailers. Panic ensued.
Search Engine Watched featured a story in which a furniture retailer saw a million daily visits vanish overnight and asked Google Webmaster Central for assistance.
This is is just one in a long list of struggling eCommerce sites. What would you do if your traffic halves from one week to the next? What would you think? Unless you’re already intimately familiar with search engines and how they work, and you know about their their algorithm updates, you’re in for a rude shock. Fewer visits mean fewer sales.
It happened before, and it will happen again
Panda isn’t the first time that Google has decided to mix things up a little. Back in 2009 there was the Brand Update, which made it easier for larger, more established businesses to rank higher within the search index. This hurt smaller online retailers.
Again, there’s nothing that businesses can do about this. Google are the masters of their own destiny; they can make major changes whenever they choose. Their top priority (beyond ensuring positive returns for shareholders) is to deliver the very best search results, which effectively gives them free reign to do as they wish, so long as they deliver their promise to their users. Consequently, we are all at their mercy as long as we choose to use them as our preferred search engine.
Don’t Forget the Result Pages (SERPs)
Algorithms aren’t the only things that change. Adjustments to the way in which search results are returned can also impact a site’s visibility. Search engine results pages (SERPs) are constantly evolving to incorporate new features.
In recent years, Google has made massive adjustments to the way local results are shown, incorporating videos and social results. Unsurprisingly, this has a major impact on organic results.
When images and videos were first introduced in SERPs, sites that were ranking in third or fourth positions were suddenly being nudged below the fold (i.e. searchers would have to scroll down to find them). This reduced visibility and sometimes negatively impacted the click-rate of some sites.
Things haven’t always been bad for the little guy.
Smaller eCommerce sites were given a boost by swathe of local search changes in 2010. If you were optimizing your site to appear for a particular location and had signed up for Google Places (or the Bing equivalent), visibility for your listings would’ve increased significantly.
It’s a zero-sum game (but it’s an expanding pie!)
In terms of PageRank, SEO is a zero-sum game – so when some sites gets a major boost, others must necessarily fall behind. (The number of people searching globally is increasing though, so it’s possible for you to see your hits and sales go up even if you lose PageRank.)
It’s impossible to predict precisely what a search engine is going to do next (unless you’ve got insider information, maybe), but you can respond swiftly when changes are made. Ensuring optimal visibility is essential for any online business.
Google rankings aren’t set in stone. You do have to work on maintaining and improving them as you go along.
Search engine algorithm updates should inform your future optimisation efforts. What works one year may be redundant the next, so keeping a keen eye on what Google are doing could well save you time and money in the long run. Quality content and a usable, engaging site design are always going to be important, just as competitive pricing and excellent service will ensure your customers keep coming back.
No site is infallible (JC Penney learned this the hard way when they were punished for utilizing link schemes). So get your techniques right and your knowledge up-to-date to remain competitive in an increasingly crowded market.
Tactics can get outdated, but principles are eternal. The core fundamentals of SEO remain constant – make a great site that is clear, navigable, understandable with great content (or products, if you’re a retailer) that people will want to link to.