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Danny Goodwin

Matt Cutts: Merchant Quality to Affect Google Search Rankings

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google-shopping-cartGoogle's Distinguished Engineer Matt Cutts has hinted at an upcoming Google update that is aimed at protecting searchers by lowering the rankings of merchants.

It's all still pretty vague at this point, but here's what Cutts said Friday at SXSW, according to SEL:

We have a potential launch later this year, maybe a little bit sooner, looking at the quality of merchants and whether we can do a better job on that, because we don’t want low quality experience merchants to be ranking in the search results.

Beyond that, we have no additional details from Google at this time. 

Search Engine Watch contacted Andrew Davis, Director of Marketing at CPC Strategy to gain some more insight into how Google has been using merchant quality signals. Davis notes that many of these are "unconfirmed assumptions from dealing with the shopping engine on a daily basis for more than 6 years":

  1. Google Shopping places a relevance score on merchants that relates to how complete a merchant's data is (how much information a merchant provides Google in the data feed), how fresh that merchant's data is (do they submit a new data feed each week, each month, or daily?), and how long a merchant has been listing on Google Shopping (has this merchant been live on Google for one day, one week, one year, or five years?)
  2. Google Shopping's Google Trusted Stores program is a clear indicator of a quality merchant under Google's ranking algorithm. Eligibility requirements include 500 orders shipped per month, more than 90 percent shipped on time, and excellent customer service (likely equivalent to 95 percent or higher seller feedback on Amazon.)
  3. Brand weight (big brands float to the top). If a first-time shopper on Google Shopping sees two stores, one, Walmart, a store they've shopped inside before, and another, Joe's Shirts, which they've never heard of or interacted with, which has 0 Google Seller Ratings, Google is likely going to rank those stores in the order which they believe will provide a good consumer experience. Google also has no data on Joe's Shirts without any Google Seller Ratings, another knock against them.
  4. Google Seller Ratings is the obvious way Google could influence merchant rankings in SERPs. It's a mature program, and a straightforward one.
  5. Ranking online stores that have nearby stores higher may be another way Google can influence these rankings. Though the connection between store quality of service if an online store has a brick and mortar isn't exactly clear, Google could use it as a signal to determine online store ranking.
  6. Selling Brands. Sellers that sell well-known brands may get a bump in rankings because consumers are familiar with those brands, and Google may assume if a seller has access to certain high-quality brands that the merchant is a quality seller as well.

Perhaps another piece of this merchant quality search ranking puzzle will be Google Shopping Express, which is reportedly aiming to compete with Amazon Prime. Davis noted that how fast a merchant can fulfill orders could end up becoming a factor in the future.

We also know a few more things about what Google defines as a good merchant based on Google's Search Quality Rating Guidelines (PDF), which was recently made public for the first time. From section 4.1.2 Recognizing True Merchants:

Features that will help you determine if a website is a true merchant include:

  • a “view your shopping cart” link that stays on the same site. 
  • a shopping cart that updates when you add items to it.
  • a return policy with a physical address. 
  • a shipping charge calculator that works. 
  • a “wish list” link, or a link to postpone the purchase of an item until later. 
  • a way to track FedEx orders. 
  • a user forum that works. 
  • the ability to register or login. 
  • a gift registry that works.

Please note the following:

  • A page does not need to have all of these features to be considered a true merchant.
  • Yahoo! Stores are true merchants – they are typically not thin affiliates.
  • Some true smaller merchants take users to another site to complete the transaction because they use a third party to process the transaction. These merchants are not thin affiliates. Many large web retailers offer affiliate programs. Some of the most common examples are Amazon.com, eBay.com, Zappos.com, Allposters.com, Hotels.com, Orbitz.com, and Overstock.com.

This wouldn't be the first change aimed to banish low-quality merchants from prominent positions in Google's search results.

Following a scandal involving one merchant (who eventually was sentenced to 4 years in prison) who used negative publicity to rank higher in Google's search results in 2010, Google Fellow Amit Singhal, in announcing an algorithmic change, stated that "being bad is, and hopefully will always be, bad for business in Google's search results."

Last year at SXSW, Cutts hinted at a coming algorithm update to punish sites guilty of "over-optimization", which fueled tons of speculation and dread until Google launched the Penguin update last April.

What do you think we can expect when Google launches this merchant quality update?


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