If you were visiting a new city, you would hope your travel agent would suggest restaurants with good atmosphere, good service, and good variety—not a vending machine at a gas station. Google wants to be a good travel agent. When you perform a search, you’re really asking Google to present a choice that is perfectly suited to your interests and needs. We call them search engines, but we really want them to be magic. We don’t want Google to give us a hassle, or a plethora of options to sift through—we want answers. We want Google to read our minds and make life easier.
Google updates it’s natural search algorithms hundreds of times a year to help meet these expectations. As SEOs and business owners, it is our job to help Google with this burden. It’s expected that the more our intentions are amiable, the more likely Google will take our hints. The more we push against Google, the less likely we’ll have any long term natural search success.
The ecommerce space is already pretty tricky, full of technical obstacles (sometimes due to some less intuitive dynamic platforms), ROI goals, and plenty of competition. With Google’s ongoing evolution, it’s important to take an honest look at your online store. Is it merely a vending machine? Think about it—a vending machine gives us a window into a flat product collection. We’re also given buttons for selecting a particular product, and a mechanical payment system. The most exciting part of this shopping experience is waiting for the delivery of the product. As far as good experiences go, this is pretty low on thrills. There typically is no better way to “connect” with a vending machine. Browse, choose, pay, wait, receive and walk away. Will you return? Probably not, unless it’s your last convenient choice.
Google’s algorithms look for the contextual relevance, trust and authority that it just can’t get from vending machine type website. If this lo-fi experience is the only thing you’re providing your online customers, you’re likely not pulling in the amount of natural search success you could be obtaining. The shopping experience benefits when it becomes more stimulating and personal. No matter what they’re in the market for—from food, to clothing, to hardware—a consumer is happier with their purchase when they’re engaged. Search engines know this. Since they’re already bringing the traffic to you and making themselves part of the equation, they want to benefit from the customer’s happiness as well.
I like to equate it to my local Hallmark store. When I go in to buy that last minute Mother’s Day card, the store is routinely full of customers engaged in different activities. Most are also last minute shoppers. Some are privately browsing through cards, while others are openly communicating. Some will be talking to the staff to get recommendations, while others may be sharing thoughts with other shoppers—usually quite vocally. No censorship. Even the physical layout of the store helps guide me to the particular areas where the products I’m looking for are located. It’s very logical. No matter the intent or level of engagement, the customer is literally housed in an environment that’s helping to stimulate their purchase.
Vending machines don’t provide this three-dimensional feeling—not even close. A vending machine can add fancy video touch screens and imagery, but though it might be warming up customer connectivity, it isn’t efficiently changing the experience. Online, you can add beautiful graphics or Facebook or Twitter links to your online vending machine, but that’s only a step in the right direction. This won’t help influence Google.
Get your customers talking through your site. Get them engaged. Give them plenty of good things to read. Don’t make them look very hard for it either. If you won’t add HTML text to your webpage (because you think it’s ugly, or takes too long to write and implement), then you’re refusing to give Google what they need. That’s a huge mistake.
If you are thinking, “wait—this sounds a lot like usability,” you’d be right. Today’s SEO is extremely integrated with usability and appearance. In e-commerce, SEO is more than just rankings and traffic. Or even revenue and ROI. It’s the full experience from the initial search. Today Google is providing webpage snapshots. An SEO needs to be involved in the look and feel of the page (and that snapshot); in the end, it all becomes a component of the clickthrough rate.
How To Transform A Vending Machine Into A Store
Navigation is always important. Granted, your internal search may be the most used tool on your site, but for those who prefer to browse, they’re very interested in your navigation. Is it robust and concise at the same time? Are you providing other avenues of custom navigation on specific pages? Take advantage of the highly visible real estate on your site and create link blocks when you want to help target your most relevant products (spending time in your analytics can give you a great sense of what’s important to your customers). Sub navs or link blocks are great for both search engine crawls and conversion rates.
Text is your chance to communicate with customers and search engines. Don’t hide it. Let it live. Let it breathe. Tags only get you so far, and help you more with the actual clickthrough. Once the customer is in your store (presumably on the best landing page), it’s still the job of modern SEO to move them through the sales funnel. Keep them engaged so they don’t click back within 2 seconds and refine their search. Part of dominating the search engine result pages is keeping your searchers from seeing your competitors.
Social content is huge. But customers have a sort of “social icon blindness” when it comes to Twitter or Facebook buttons. If you’re going to have a Facebook and Twitter account, or any social account for that matter, make sure you emphasize why these pages exist. Create a reason to be followed and friended, and hammer it home on your site. But even better than having open dialogue on other sites is having open dialogue on your own site. If you have a product, give the customers a chance to engage with it. Open forums for conversation—and not just with reviews. Ask customers to send in pictures of themselves using or wearing the products. Let them create the product shots. Let them touch and feel it, and give them the power to share with your other customers their experiences. If it’s negative, don’t worry—in many cases negative conversations convert very well. What one person considers a bust, another considers a find.
In the end, the best suggestions for your store are going to come from you. You know your customers, and you know your products. Don’t stop brainstorming on cool things to entice a shopper. Maybe they won’t all be hits, but something is bound to pay off better than what you have now.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.