Google’s Zebra Update Has Serious Implications for E-Commerce
by Brian Burt
Every time Google opens the gate and releases another update animal, it wreaks ranking havoc. Whether it’s a tiny hummingbird or a cuddly panda, once unleashed, the beast has the potential to unravel the work of online marketing agencies and business owners alike.
Despite our communal protests, I think we, as professional SEOs, grudgingly believe that Google’s intentions are pure: the updates were aiming to improve the searcher’s experience. We all understand this game of cat and mouse – they change course, we figure it out, they update again, we figure it out, and so on forever and ever.
But recently it seems that the modifications are coming too fast, too often, and that many of them also benefit Google’s bottom line. Is that a coincidence or a shrewd business move?
For the answer, perhaps we should look to the latest addition to the Google zoo – the Google Zebra algorithm update. “Zebra,” as it’s come to be known, is an update that takes aim at online merchants. The striped brute has yet to be officially released, but savvy e-commerce sites are already making moves to stay ahead of the ever-changing curve.
Google has had its hand in online shopping for more than 10 years. It may be a distant memory now, but it launched Froogle in late 2002. At that point, it really was only about helping consumers find products – it used its already-existing search index to display product info of any merchants selling that item. Simply said, it was organic.
These unpaid results actually used to be a serious point of pride with the company. When they went public in 2004, the founding letter blatantly stated Google’s aversion to pay-to-play: “Our search results are the best we know how to produce. They are unbiased and objective, and we do not accept payment for them or for inclusion or more frequent updating.”
Fast-forward to 2012, when Froogle changed to Google Shopping and started accepting paid merchant listings. G’s flip-flopping defense? Paid listings will result in more relevant search results from the largest, most prominent sellers. Because screw the mom & pop shops, right?
This change had a big impact on the look of even general web searches for anything deemed buyable. Searchers started to be greeted not only with top & left-side advertisements, but a bar of shopping results with prices and links to product pages… and if you look closely, you’ll see the word, “Sponsored” in the top right-hand side of those listings.
This begs the question: are consumers being presented with the most relevant retailers or the richest ones? And does it serve users to have boutique-sized companies excluded from their search results? These questions are making many internet experts question Google’s motivation behind these updates.
Make Way for Zebra
The first any of us heard of Zebra was an unofficial, somewhat vague announcement by Matt Cutts, back in March of this year at SXSW. His main point was that they wanted to eliminate low-quality merchants from appearing in shopping results.
As you can imagine, assessing an e-commerce site is not simple, and comes with significant challenges resulting from the very subjective nature of the online shopping experience.
Google, however, has pinpointed several factors that, when taken together, give an overall impression of a site’s quality. This means that sites that have achieved organic rankings may be knocked down because they lack certain tools Google considers necessary for a positive user experience.
Regardless of whether you plan to pony up for a shopping listing or prefer to plan an organic plan of attack, you should assess your site according to G’s criteria and start implementing changes that will help you stay in the game.
- Shopping Cart: Make sure that your shopping cart link appears on every page and that it reflects real-time updates as customers add items.
- Brick & Mortar: Shoppers (and Google) feel more comfortable with your shop if you have a physical address where customers can return products.
- User Interaction: Let users get involved with your site on many levels: Start by enabling user registration and login that stores their information. It’s also crucial that you allow customers to interact with one another through forums and public reviews. Also, consider giving shoppers the chance to get questions answered immediately through live chat.
- Review Quality: Google will try to aggregate your site’s reviews by looking at the ratings as well as the authority of the people reviewing – the more active you are in Google Land, the more your value your voice will have.
- Gifts & Wishes: Google considers gift registry and wish lists a valuable component of e-commerce sites. If you don’t currently have these features, consider adding them soon.
- Responsiveness: A site’s responsiveness to both mobile and disabled users is becoming increasingly important. E-stores whose sites don’t function will across multiple screens or settings will not do well with Zebra.
- Robust Descriptions: Another mark of a high-quality site is high-quality product descriptions. In addition to having a plethora of details and specifications about an item, short videos (like the ones on Zappos) will help boost your cred with Google. Think about how you can add text and media in ways that give consumers the best possible understanding of what they’re ordering.
- Go Google-Legit: You’ll get extra Zebra points by letting Google wrap its arms around several parts of your business. Start by applying to be a Google Trusted Store. It also helps to mark all written content (blogs, news, etc.) on your site or other sites with Google authorship that links back to your Google+ page.
- Shipping: As you know from your own e-shopping experiences, it’s important to have a checkout process that calculates shipping charges correctly. Additionally, your site will earn credibility by having tracking capability for customers who want to keep tabs on their purchases.
For any online merchant, these are great pointers for improving your customer’s experience. Almost any product we want is usually available on multiple sites, and shoppers’ decisions on where to shop already come down to these factors.
The only difference is that Google may end up pushing businesses to start operating on this level of vendor excellency out of necessity. Those whose sites aren’t up to par or who don’t pay will surely become buried in page 50 graveyards.
I don’t think you can question the fact that shops that follow the guidelines will improve, but critical students of the internet may question the motivation behind this push.
This latest update may improve the online shopping experience, or it may just be another step towards requiring payment from anyone who wants to be acknowledged by the big man on the internet campus.
After all, if Google doesn’t know you, who does?
Brian Burt, a leader in Chicago web design and national web marketing, created WebRev Marketing and Design in 2008. His passion for the industry and his ability to stay ahead of the curve of ever-changing marketing trends have led to the company’s growing success in the field. Brian is constantly on the lookout for new techniques and technology that will benefit his clients and interest his readers. Additional information is available at WebRev Marketing & Design. Find Brian on Google+ today!