December 20, 2003

The Ruby Slippers of Search

(Read in entirety at Multichannel Merchant. Published 2003)

If consumers find e-commerce appealing because it helps them find and buy products easier and in less time, then your Website is no longer the shortest distance between points A and B; Google is. During the past few years the Google search engine has emerged to dominate the land of Oz that is the search engine market space. Google’s deals to distribute search results to the likes of AOL and Yahoo! have established a breathtaking critical mass worth more than 80% of all Internet search.

At the same time that Google has become prominent enough to be transformed into a verb (who hasn’t “googled” the name of a friend or a foe?), thousands of retailers eager to cut costs have been working hard to make millions of products available over the Web. The result is akin to one giant database with every product anyone should ever want to buy. While no single company yet contains this database, Google’s share is an estimated three times larger than any other company’s, based on our analysis of the visibility of the top 100 catalogs’ e-commerce sites. (This analysis is detailed in “The State of Search Engine Marketing 101,” a report produced by Netconcepts in association with Catalog Age.)

Of course, there are other search engines to consider. Each has its own quirks, but generally, designing a Website to be Google-friendly makes the site friendlier for other crawling engines too. And diversification is important, as Inktomi expects to be integrated into Yahoo’s results. MSN’s crawler, known as MSNbot, has been scouring the Web to prepare for an MSN-Google clash of the titans. And open-source projects such as Nutch promise to open up the inner workings of a new scalable Google-esque engine.

The fact is, Google has become an ad hoc market “operating system” for architecting your information. As a merchant, you can simply tune your site to the Google algorithm and convert your thousands of dormant product pages into an enormous, energized sales force. Once unleashed, these product “experts” can be programmed to automatically hunt the Web for you, find only the most qualified customers, and sell for free.

The notion of an e-commerce site itself becomes entirely fragmented, as every page becomes a potential entry point and selling opportunity. In other words, an e-commerce site is no longer a collection of 10,000 product pages that users linearly navigate. Rather it becomes 10,000 microsites, each of which must be programmed to reach and sell to its respective keyword markets. The selling strategy has gone granular.

Many e-commerce executives realize that so-called natural, or unpaid, search results represent an attractive opportunity for incremental sales. But they believe that the yellow brick road to Google visibility is littered with barriers. This is not entirely true. Indeed, you can sell without marketing costs. How? By capitalizing on your natural resources: the product-selling content that you have already created and invested into your Website’s makeup.

It is here that the line blurs between Website design and e-commerce marketing. It is here your supply chain can be connected to a fluid demand chain to sell instinctively, without friction. While ad costs increase and profits fall short of potential, an eruption of serendipity is just waiting to be pricked out. No Toto, we’re not in Kansas any more.

Phase #1: Becoming visible

There are really four phases to optimizing for Google. The first brick of the long yellow road is getting all your product inventory crawled and indexed by Google. This is the major stumbling block for most large merchants. Our research found that 95 of the top 100 catalogers have less than 5% of their inventory loaded into Google.

Search engines, including Google, are unable to “spider,” or automatically find and search through, database-driven product pages. Dynamic, database-driven pages typically include “stop characters” (“?,” “&,” “%,” among others) in their URLs. But Web servers or platforms (including WebSphere, Blue Martini, and OSCommerce) can rewrite the URLs to make the dynamic content “static” to both engines and users. Depending on technological constraints, a URL like “” could be made static along the lines of “”

Just because Google can index pages, however, does not mean it will. Pay attention to the link architecture of your site to make sure Google has access to 100% of the inventory. Dozens of major marketers still use JavaScript rollover menus to conserve space. But Google cannot execute these scripts or crawl the links contained in them. The same holds true for Flash navigation, drop-down menus, and other design elements. The URLs must enable Google to crawl; the link structure must ensure it.

Phase #2: Being found

Merely having inventory loaded in Google means little if those products are not easily found by the human beings who carry the cash to make a purchase from you. A variety of factors influence the positioning, but the greatest leverage comes from learning to wield your PageRank — Google’s measure of the quantity and quality of the Websites linking to you.

Google’s democratic method of determining relevant sites is based on link popularity. PageRank aggregates ranking power for you. Influenced by your internal link structures and external link partners, it is the lever by which you can lift the position of thousands of product page rankings with the least amount of effort.

Since most other sites link to and from home pages, Google considers these pages the pinnacle from which PageRank flows into the deeper layers of a site. The way you structure your hyperlink URLs, the words you use inside the links, and the words surrounding the links all influence how relevant in Google’s eyes the page being linked to really is. For instance, if you wanted your site to rank highly for the competitive “women’s plus size” keyword market, you’d need to include that phrase in the hyperlink text found in the site navigation menus, breadcrumbs, and other internal links that point to the plus-size category page.

Two other elements that influence rankings are the keywords you use and the structure of those pages. Each SKU page should be structured to dominate its keyword market, to sing its “song” better than any other related page on the Web.

While Google doesn’t publish a manual for how to rank highly, more than 30 factors have been identified as influential in how Google views your page structure. Some very basic questions to ask yourself here: Are you using HTML tags that Google considers important? Are your product descriptions rich with keyword text? Are scripts and style sheets and table layouts working against you in the background to depress the position of the content? Is the copy that contains the dominant keywords located in the optimal position on the page? If not, how will searchers be greeted with a compelling sentence in your Google listing description?

Pay attention to the keywords themselves. You must determine if product names and descriptions do indeed reflect natural vocabulary or marketing jargon. For instance, one shopping engine lists five times as many search matches for “winter jackets” than for “winter coats.” Yet research shows that consumers search twice as often for “winter coats” than for “winter jackets.”

Phase #3: Winning clicks

Once you get your product page “salespeople” in front of a prime audience, it’s up to them to start selling. If your pages are positioned on the first page of search results, the competition set is usually narrowed to nine other listings. The next step is to convince the searcher that he should consider — and click to — your product. Your listings should start working for you to disqualify suspects while qualifying and compelling prospects to click open your catalog.

But remember, your listings must sell on their own now. You can’t assume the searcher is familiar with you. You can’t assume he’s looking for you. He’s not. He’s looking for the best value. Do you offer the widest selection? Free shipping on orders over $100? The lowest price? This listing should work to convince him to buy from you. Whatever the reason, it must be clear in the link description.

Be sure to include qualifiers in your description text. If you sell office products, you probably don’t want your listings attracting back-to-school shoppers. Part of the description, then, should emphasize your business-to-business focus.

You need to strike a balance between words that will appease the engine for your topic and those that will entice users who find that page. Stuffing keywords into your pages may help them rank better, but they may sacrifice the warmth needed to convince someone to click open your site.

Phase #4: Converting visitors to buyers

Searchers click on at least four listings, according to BizRate, that appear among their search results. So you want your landing pages to win the sale faster than those of your competitors.

Of course, that’s easier said than done. If this page is the only impression the customer will have of you, what should it say? Usability must be intuitive and functional. Does the design speak ease of use? If you are competing on selection, are you helping to make connections by showing related products or items other consumers have purchased? (Such cross-selling and upselling product recommendations also provide Google with more content to crawl through.) What about guarantees or other ways to reduce risk for these strangers? Are there keyword-rich testimonials or discussion forums to help win over the standoffish searcher? Why not try closing the sale by serving up Google searchers a special price if they buy within the next 30 or 60 minutes?

For nonproduct pages, a different competitive threat exists: Google itself. Suppose the consumer is searching for power drills. If he finds a power drills subcategory page from Sears in the listings and clicks on it, that page must convince him that he can find the drill he needs easier at than at Google. What draws people to Google is its superior organizational value. If your page doesn’t convince the searcher that you offer more organizational value, your trusted source of referrals quickly becomes your enemy.

As search becomes more embedded into consumer buying behavior, Google’s success provides both a framework and a reason for thinking about search engine friendliness as an integral part of Web design, rather than as an afterthought. You need to take a new, more holistic look at your e-commerce site to guarantee that search engines can pay dividends on your natural resources for a long time to come. The good news is that most retailers already have the natural resources needed to capitalize this opportunity.

See, you’ve been wearing the ruby slippers all along. You just didn’t know what they could do for you.

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