You’ve probably heard the mantra “content is king” when it comes to search engine optimization. It’s certainly true that compelling content can help boost rankings in unpaid search results, which are also called “natural” or “organic” listings. But there’s an important caveat: not just any content will do.
In fact, merchants who shovel content online indiscriminately in the hopes of boosting their rankings may do more to harm than help their brands. In its quest to deliver the most relevant results for users, Google – which is far and away the dominant search engine, with 67.5% market share - is continually refining its parameters to elevate authentic, authoritative content in search results and banish dubious junk sites.
Specifically, Google’s algorithm has been programmed to reward:
- Authenticity. A major 2011 update dubbed Panda, followed by numerous ongoing tweaks and updates, attempts to distinguish between sites offering deep, original content and those “content farms” that employed repurposed or re-posted material, or junk articles written solely to attract inbound links. A more recent update in the fall of 2012 accounted for copyright violations, further rewarding sites that provide original, or at least properly-attributed, content.
- Recency. In late 2011, Google released a “freshness update” that rewards content likely to be more recent, based on factors such as when a page was first indexed, how old it is relative to the other potential search results, and how much of a document has been updated.
- Inbound links. In an attempt to further reduce the influence of junk link networks and other “webspam,” as Google calls it, the 2012 Penguin update takes into account the nature and number of inbound links to sites, with the aim of penalizing purchased links and other link schemes.
These changes have significantly impacted eCommerce merchants. The Panda update, for example, reportedly affected just 12% of all searches, but according to a survey on SEORoundtable.com, 35% of the sites affected by Panda were eCommerce sites. Merchants relying on manufacturer content and those whose product lifecycles don’t require frequent updates may find themselves particularly challenged to create and maintain relevant content.
But the good news is that investing in content not only feeds search engine algorithms. Relevant, authentic, fresh content makes for a more appealing shopping experience overall, driving engagement with the brand and, ultimately, sales. And merchants needn’t feel obligated to create vast new content sections; by putting the customer at the center of their content strategy and building content by extending and improving existing offerings, they can score SEO wins. Consider the following techniques:
Be first and best with original product content. Brand manufacturers and other merchants who repurpose product content for affiliates, such as Amazon.com’s Marketplace, should factor timing into their schedules so they can post to their own brand sites first. They should also ensure that their product content goes above and beyond what’s available elsewhere, establishing their brand sites as the authoritative source of information for products.
Bedding manufacturer Cuddledown’s product descriptions are partially replicated on Amazon.com — but the original listing is more extensive, and the merchant goes on to provide videos, extensive buying guides and even an interactive “pillow picker” found nowhere else.
Take ownership of manufacturer product content. Merchants who rely on manufacturer content can render it original by tailoring the information, language and tone to their audience – which not only benefits SEO, but makes for a better experience for shoppers, who will connect more readily with product information attuned to their needs.
Manufacturer Prana provides Amazon with a bulleted list and text that point out salient features such as “stretch jersey” and “internal shelf bra to hike in comfort and style.” Recreational women’s apparel merchant Title Nine’s product description speaks even more directly to the audience’s lifestyle. The description begins by mentioning hostelling, backpacking, car camping and continent hopping – appealing to the site’s core customer base of active, well-traveled women – and goes on to describe the dress’s “drapey, curve-caressing allure” as well as its “washer – and backpack – friendly” fabric. The description even notes “Patchouli optional” as a means of conjuring the freewheeling, gypsy spirit of the dress.
Make the most of user-generated content. Recent product reviews or posts to a question-and-answer support forum provide a steady stream of fresh content and demonstrate that the site is an active hub of enthusiasts. Merchants should not only solicit participation widely – for example, with a post-purchase email campaign inviting customers to contribute reviews – but they should highlight the resulting user-generated content prominently across touchpoints. Beauty merchant Sephora features its “Beauty Talk” section prominently, linking to its thousands of bulletin board posts from the global navigation via the “advice” link. Posts are displayed with the most recent at the top, and are simultaneously displayed on the eCommerce site and the merchant’s Facebook page.
Employ deep links into content from social media outposts. Google’s Penguin update seems to penalize sizes whose inbound links always point to the home page or to any one particular URL — so devise a linking strategy that showcases a variety of content deep within your site. While merchants can’t control how other properties employ links, they can maximize the SEO power of their own social outposts by using them to showcase product-level content, discussion forum threads and individual blog posts.
Adding to the effectiveness of this strategy is the fact that social media is thought to play an increasingly important role in SEO rankings. In 2011, page-level social media mentions were thought to make up 7.22% of the search algorithm, compared with 5.30% in 2009, according to SEOMoz’s survey of ranking factors. And the majority of SEO experts polled for the survey said social media signals would grow to be a top ranking factor in the future.
Sport Chalet uses its Facebook page to expose a variety of shopping content, such as an expert guide to SCUBA gear with links to SCUBA products. The SCUBA category earns the top listing on Google for “scuba sports gear.”
In short, merchants can devise a winning SEO strategy by creating content that highlights the unique appeal of their brand – content that is a natural fit with their brand identity. By creating authentic, fresh content around products and making the most of user-generated content and social outposts, merchants can not only improve their natural search rankings, but create a better shopping experience.
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Sr. Internet Strategist, MarketLive, Inc.