Google’s search algorithm is an ongoing challenge for anyone selling online.
Google is in a constant state of flux. Not only is it difficult for brands to understand how to maximise the visibility of their websites among the growing online audience, but with the frequent changes to its algorithm and the constant development of its numerous tools it can be almost impossible to stay up to date. Drapers takes a look at some of the most recent Google updates and asks why they are important.
Penguins and Pandas
Two of the most significant updates made internally by Google have been Penguin, designed to crack down on questionable link-building strategies such as buying website links in bulk, and Panda, which was first rolled out in February 2011 and updated to version 4.0 in May.
Ben Potter is commercial director of digital marketing agency Leapfrogg, whose clients include Agent Provocateur and Lulu Guinness. He believes these changes represent Google’s most aggressive attempt to clean up its search results: “These updates have had a significant - and in my view, positive - impact on the discipline of search engine optimisation, or SEO. While it is still possible to adopt many of the techniques Google is seeking to eliminate, such as buying links, doing so presents a far greater risk of being caught.”
The Panda 4.0 update highlights the increasing importance of content marketing and penalises websites that provide poor-quality content through Google’s complex algorithms.
“Content such as fashion tips and advice is perfect to develop a content strategy,” says Ben O’Neil, search manager at digital media agency 7thingsmedia. “And don’t stop there - share this information on social media and create Slideshare presentations to keep your fashion-led audience engaged.”
There is a big opportunity to gain more visibility by ensuring every page of a website is search-engine friendly, well written and optimised.
Alexandra Gaiger, digital marketing architect at specialist fashion and travel digital marketing agency Thoughtshift, says: “In the same way you refill shelves as stock runs low, you need to give product pages care and attention. Make sure the photography is great, sizes in stock are showing, delivery and returns information is easily accessed and product reviews are there for customers to see.”
Online clothing boutique Forever Unique, which works with digital marketing agency Digital Next, has modified its content strategy in response to Panda 4.0.
Head of digital Owen Pouncy says he has seen its organic search ranking increase as a result, bringing with it a boost in sales: “It’s more important than ever for websites to have a content strategy and 100% unique content.”
In August last year, Google introduced Hummingbird - an entirely new algorithm that complements the Panda and Penguin updates.
It is designed to better understand the context of the entire search query rather than individual words, something Google calls “conversational search”, and to handle voice search as people increasingly use mobile devices to go online.
Toby Logue, director of accessories at luxury gifts retailer Black.co.uk - which also works with Thoughtshift - says the change aims to encourage best practice: “Hummingbird places more emphasis on conversational search queries such as ‘how’, ‘why’ and ‘what’, and the user intent behind those searches. The importance of this update will become more pronounced with the rise in voice recognition and semantic search.”
He says before Hummingbird, Black.co.uk produced style and product guides, and tips focusing on a specific keyword and its variants for each article. Now it looks at its key product categories and reviews historical search data to provide insight into the types of conversational search questions asked and how to answer them.
“For example, rather than creating one piece of content for a cashmere shawl we produce three pieces, each of which is designed to address common search queries about the product, and link them together,” Logue says.
Another key change is how Google Shopping, which is the way retailers advertise their products through the search engine, works.
A year ago, Google began charging retailers to appear in its Shopping listings. Product listing adverts are charged on a pay-per-click (PPC) basis, so retailers are only charged if someone visits their website by clicking on a Google Shopping advert.
As with any PPC, businesses set the price they are willing to bid for each click, but they can no longer be listed on Google Shopping without paying.
Potter believes this change has had a positive effect: “Our clients are seeing excellent returns. Google users don’t tend to travel too far down the results page when searching these days, yet the top of the results are increasingly dominated by paid-for listings. You might have a strong organic presence but chances are your listing is below the fold, limiting visibility and customer clicks.”
This has turned Google Shopping into a channel brands cannot ignore, as the results often appear at the top of search listings. While a paid listing on Google Shopping does not influence the main organic results - there is no relationship between the two - Google often pulls the Shopping results to the top of its main listings when it is relevant for the search query; for example, when someone searches for a particular product, such as a ‘Karen Millen dress’.
Pouncy agrees the change has been good, believing it has become a key opportunity for online retailers, especially in the fashion industry: “Google Shopping has been an extra sales resource for us. Although extensive testing was required to achieve optimal listings and conversion rates, we are certainly seeing the benefit of the testing in our referral traffic and sales.”
In April 2014 the new version of Google Analytics - a set of tools to help companies analyse site visitor traffic - came out of beta mode. Called Universal Analytics, it uses a tracking code that gives retailers the ability to track a user’s behaviour across different devices.
As Mark Lillicrapp, technical director at digital agency Propeller Communications, says: “Google has rewritten the way data is collected and now refers to ‘sessions’ and ‘users’, not ‘visitors’ and ‘unique visitors’.”
In Google Analytics, if a visitor was using different browsers or devices to visit a website it was tracked as multiple unique users. Universal Analytics introduces a user ID, allowing companies to track the same individual between multiple devices.
“[Setting an ID] can be done if users have signed into your website or accessed it via email marketing,” says Lillicrapp.
Universal Analytics also makes it possible to import offline data and conversions - for example, point-of-sale data.
Potter says the update is especially relevant for retailers operating across multiple channels who want to join the dots: “For example, if a customer uses a voucher code in store, the transaction could be sent in real time to Universal Analytics.”
A further change is Google’s gradual removal of access to keyword data, part of its consumer privacy strategy. This means companies are no longer able to see which keywords are driving traffic to their websites via Google - instead it simply reports ‘not provided’. This was first applied to organic search in 2011, and since April has applied to paid clicks on Google AdWords adverts.
Logue says in May 2013, ‘not provided’ represented 27% of all Black.co.uk’s organic keyword searches, a figure that had risen to 80% by May this year: “The removal of this data makes it harder to analyse the performance of target keywords and therefore to optimise landing pages for those words. The lack of data also impedes our ability to monitor new keyword opportunities.”
As a result, Black.co.uk changed the way it analyses search data to monitor performance, focusing more on traffic sources to specific landing pages and monitoring user experience on these pages.
A little research goes a long way when staying on top of the fast-moving Google machine, Potter says: “There are some free resources offering excellent advice, such as Econsultancy.com and Clickz.com. It is also advisable to read Google’s Webmaster Guidelines, which are essentially a list of dos and don’ts when it comes to your website and in particular SEO.”