A lot has happened in digital marketing in the last year, and if retailers go about business as usual, they may miss out on revenue and customer retention opportunities. To help online retailers navigate SEO challenges and spot new opportunities, this post lists four significant ways search has changed over the last year that affects online retail strategy.
1. Things, Not Strings
The phrase “things, not strings” was first used in a blog post by Amit Singhal, SVP, Engineering at Google, when he announced the new Knowledge Graph:
Take a query like [taj mahal]. For more than four decades, search has essentially been about matching keywords to queries. To a search engine the words [taj mahal] have been just that — two words. But we all know that [taj mahal] has a much richer meaning. You might think of one of the world’s most beautiful monuments, or a Grammy Award-winning musician, or possibly even a casino in Atlantic City, NJ. Or, depending on when you last ate, the nearest Indian restaurant. It’s why we’ve been working on an intelligent model — in geek-speak, a “graph” — that understands real-world entities and their relationships to one another: things, not strings.
On its face, the post announces a new feature in the SERPs: the Knowledge Graph.
But a read between the lines shows that what Google is really telling us is that they have gotten much better at understanding context — parsing out the meaning behind the query, having evolved from doing a basic textual lookup of query terms in their web index.
There are several implications for this, each of which could be a blog post on its own. One key implication, which we’ve mentioned before but bears repeating, is that Google expects marketers to adapt to this change. It expects site owners to think about and respond to searcher context rather than the old contextless way of surfacing content in search.
For example, a searcher who searches [living room design] is not looking for a product page with pricing information. They are in a research mode and are looking for content that explains how to design a living room, like a blog post, video, or even an online design tool.
Increasingly, in a post-Hummingbird world, context matters — and Google is only going to get better at identifying those retailers that are creating content and practicing SEO with context in mind.
2. Schema Markup
Schema.org is a shared markup vocabulary (between Google, Bing, Yahoo and Yandex) that publishers can use to enhance search results. There are many different types of markup that are available, and there are specific markups that are relevant to online retailers:
The image below shows an example of schema product markup in the SERPs. In the example, electronics retailer Best Buy implemented ratings, reviews, price and inventory status markup for the query [Western Digital TV Live] (a digital media streamer device).
This additional visual info makes a purchase research process easier for the buyer by aggregating valuable purchase info in the SERPs and, more importantly, it is shown to increase click-through rates. Some studies show an up-to-30% increase in CTR for schema-enhanced search results over standard results.
Interestingly, in writing this article, my non-scientific research process of looking for schema instances in the SERPs showed there is plenty of room for retailers to be early adopters and capture searcher attention. It took quite a few purchase-centric queries to find SERPs with multiple schema product elements implemented. (My initial searches returned a few results with a “straggler” element implemented, but none with multiple elements like the example above.)
Now is the time for retailers to implement schema.org markup and reap the increased click-through rate benefits of enhanced SERP elements. Ultimately, enhanced SERP elements will become “table stakes,” and those who have not implemented it will suffer lower CTRs. For now, those who can get ahead of the curve have a competitive advantage.
For more info on how to get started with schema.org markup see this article: Schema.org: Effort, Impact and ROI.
3. User Experience
Another theme that is getting increased attention for retailers this year vs. years past is user experience. At the recent Pubcon internet marketing conference, Matt Cutts, Google’s Head of Webspam, made several references to user experience. (I took the following picture as he came out on stage and marketers swarmed around him.)
He stated that Google is doubling down on discovering and penalizing pages that are ad heavy above the fold.
He also cited the user experience benefits of an upcoming Chrome form autocomplete feature and cautioned site owners on overdoing “infinite scroll” at the bottom of their site. Google has the ability to see when searchers bounce from a website in the search results and respond appropriately in the rankings, and poor user experience is a contributing factor when visitors bounce.
Reading between the lines, it is reasonable to conclude that Google is increasing mindshare around user experience issues. There are a lot of smart people at Google, and they are essentially telling us that they are devoting time and energy to figuring out how to make the search engine recognize sites with a positive user experience and penalize those without.
For online retailers, this means ignoring user experience is risky. Whether or not you are directly responsible for your site’s user experience, you should be thinking about it or championing it.
4. The Revival Of Ranking Data
No discussion of what has changed for online retailers this year vs. last would be complete without addressing the proverbial elephant in the room: the loss of keyword traffic data.
There are many implications for the loss of keyword data. The one cited most often is that SEO has shifted from a keyword focus to a content focus, and along with it, KPIs have shifted from keyword performance to page level performance.
I’d agree that the focus has shifted from keywords to content and would also propose one additional by-product of the loss of keyword traffic data: the resurgence of ranking data.
Now, before you craft a strongly worded comment that includes phrases like “personalization of the SERPs,” “useless rankings,” and “what are you smoking???”, hear me out.
When we had access to keyword-level traffic data, it served as a top-of-the-funnel purchase/conversion indicator. That is, keyword traffic data was an indication of how “micro topics” (keywords) were performing in the SERPs.
Now, with the loss of traffic data, search ranking data has become a proxy for a top-of-the-funnel view. It does not replace the content-centric, page-level-performance view, but it will complement it by providing a top-of-the-funnel “micro topic” (keyword-level) perspective. It is an additional KPI and input into measurement of your content’s performance and becomes more important by virtue of Google’s subtraction.
And, since we don’t have access to our competitors’ web analytics platforms (unless you are the NSA), competitor rank data can serve as a strong proxy for where you stand relative to your competition, at least from a search perspective.
So, in light of the loss of keyword traffic data, consider if search ranking data can take on new meaning and utility for your online retail strategy.
Changing With The Times
If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading. -Lao Tzu
Looking back over the last year, it’s clear that a lot has changed. Among other indicators, the Hummingbird update reveals how Google has become more intelligent about parsing user intent. That means that the opportunity to take advantage of markup in the SERPs has never been greater, user experience is top-of-mind, and the data we’ve long been used to has changed.
As we make our way through 2014, consider if there are ways in which your retail strategy can change for the better.
A version of this article originally appeared in Search Engine Land.