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Sink or Swim: SEO Challenges for Retailers

Posted on 1.02.2014

via Website Magazine's Mastering Search channel

There are three types of people in this world — those who dive in head first, those who test the waters and those who sit on the steps too scared to jump in.

Many retailers fall into one of those categories when it comes to how they approach their company’s search engine optimization.

Increasingly, however, many Internet retailers are dry as a bone — sitting on the steps — deciding to ramp up their digital advertising spend because they think their sites will never rank organically. Sure, there are constantly shifting technologies, interplay between different channels and consumers’ changing behavior to muddy the waters, but all retailers really need is a little push.

Uncle Dave & Keyword Not Provided

Some people have — or have least heard of — an uncle who taught his niece or nephew how to swim by simply pushing him or her in the pool. The idea is that the kid will sink or swim. If Uncle Dave, we’ll call him, wasn’t positive that the child would pop up to the surface, then he never would have pushed him or her in. Like Uncle Dave, Google pushed retailers into the pool, even if they weren’t ready. 

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In 2013, Google shifted to encrypted search, which strips away 100 percent of the keyword insights that search marketers had become so reliant on (like swim floaties). This is because Google was confident “good” retailers would pop up and learn to swim. The folks at BrightEdge see this transition as a positive one. Keyword not provided allows brands to remove their dependencies on keyword level data and improve their SEO initiatives by focusing on page quality and conversion-based data. This doesn’t mean, however, that the process is easy. BrightEdge CEO and Founder Jim Yu advises that keyword not provided requires marketers to press the reset button on their search strategies and focus on content-centric approaches.

What does a “content-centric approach” really mean? For starters, it means more companies are forced to become information publishers as content plays an increasingly central role in marketing strategy. Now, chances are, most retailers have been engaging in content marketing in some fashion for years — by publishing content like gift giving guides, blogs, catalogs, etc.

Today’s Internet retailers looking to top the search engines, however, must move beyond creating content on a whim to actually understanding what customers want to consume. Merchants should analyze any available website data to understand what customers are querying based on metrics like page popularity, bounce rates and other indicators that show users are or are not finding what they are looking for. Retailers should create content around those successes and failures.

“To understand and measure the performance of your content, it’s important to analyze search engine rank, social interactions, site traffic and conversions,” Yu said. “Google analytics is a great way to gain a light understanding of your content’s performance, but more advanced analytics platforms are necessary to truly see content’s impact and optimize accordingly.”

Community Pool

For merchants jumping into the SEO pool, it can feel like they’re competing at an Olympic level. According to Yu, generic keywords are highly competitive and expensive, which means smaller merchants must take a different approach to win the gold. Customers’ reliance on mobile devices presents the perfect opportunity for local merchants.

Bing and Google are increasingly looking to deliver locally relevant results to users. Fortunately, searches made via mobile devices often have local intent. Merchants should focus on touchpoints where their brands may be interacted with, according to Rio SEO VP of Local Search Solutions Bill Connard. This can include optimization for local landing pages, iOS applications, local directories and in-car navigation devices.

When discussing directories, in particular, it’s extremely important for retailers to manage their information to include correct operating hours, physical addresses, phone numbers, etc. Ultimately, however, brands should be more concerned with their own branded local search terms, according to Connard, so they can acquire the traffic that may be directed to those other directories. In other words, rank higher than Yelp for key phrases such as a “business name + location.”

“Managing review sites and directories are important but not as important as having local branded search in place because you are losing traffic to directory sites,” said Connard.

This brings us to Google Carousel, which has changed the search game for marketers in a big way, according to BrightEdge’s Yu. Rio SEO’s Connard also agrees that retailers will see that Google Carousel is triggering local branded searches that were not triggered in the past. Essentially, Google Carousel eliminates the local listings “pack” and replaces it with a horizontal bar of image-based local results at the very top of the search results. For example, if a searcher queries, “pizza places in San Diego,” the top results likely belong to Yelp, but a “carousel” of pizza places near San Diego, CA appears above the organic results. Once a searcher clicks on one of those results (like this editor’s all-time favorite Bronx Pizza), a search engine results page (SERP) will appear around that business and only that business as pictured here. The question becomes, how do retailers ensure they are not losing traffic to the likes of Yelp or Foursquare? These are Yu’s recommendations to leverage Carousel to improve site traffic:

1. Don’t leave it to Google to determine information about your business; set up a Google Place for Business and a Google+ page to provide the best information about your business.

2. Ensure images are high resolution, unique and ordered in terms of your preference.

3. Encourage customers to review your business on Google+, because research shows that reviews play a crucial role in Carousel placement.

(Note: Don’t end up in Google’s bad graces, check out 10 terrific — and totally white hat — ways to generate user reviews at

Paid Lessons

Internet retailers are ramping up their digital advertising spend because many think it’s increasingly difficult to rank their sites in the search results. And despite the fact that constantly shifting technologies, interplay between different channels and consumers’ changing behavior can seem like a challenge, retailers can dive right in, with better SEO results to show for their nerve.

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