When Pandas Attack: Online Retailers Need To React

Rob Snell on
  • Categories: Channel: SEO, Panda Update Tips
  • We interrupt our regularly scheduled RETAIL SMARTS column for this special update on extremely rare, but deadly Panda attacks in the retail community…

    So this week, I was supposed to share the results from that 300% sales increase of that leather dog collar with nameplate example from last column, but this is a little more important.

    Stock image from Shutterstock, used under license.

    I was out of the country and out in the jungle the week the Google Panda/Farmer update hit. None of our sites or client sites were really affected, but that meant I had no real information on the direct effects of Panda other than what was reported in the press.

    Less than 1% of Yahoo! Stores were impacted by the update, which makes sense because the update was aimed at content farms, not e-commerce sites.

    As it turns out, several large Yahoo! Stores made the Sistrix list of domains hardest hit, and after a couple weeks, I picked up some new clients and a few other stores shared information with me.

    After digging into all this data for the past 10 days, I’m more convinced than ever that creating compelling content is paramount for SEO for online retailers, which is why I wrote this column.

    Reality: SEO Is Hard For Retailers

    Managing product page content is one of the biggest SEO challenges retailers face, especially for folks who sell thousands or tens of thousands of products. Does anyone expect you to try and write unique content for all these products? (Yes.)

    In this week’s column, I’m going to cover the top mistakes I’ve seen many seasoned retailers make that have contributed to the impact of the Panda update on their stores, as well as how major algorithm shifts seem to expose the weaknesses of different methods of managing all this content, unique or otherwise.

    I’m not sharing domains or company names so I can’t talk details, but these are real stores owned real people — small business folks with dozens of employees selling millions and millions of dollars worth of products to folks all over the world.

    These merchants aren’t spammers in the least bit, and they are trying to do things within the search engine guidelines. It’s been very frustrating watching these guys deal with huge drops in their organic Google traffic, when in their minds, they’ve been playing by the rules all along.

    10 Common Mistakes Many Retailers Make

    These are the main problems I’ve seen across many online retailers, and to protect themselves from major algorithm changes like Panda, they need to address these issues now.

    1.  Little Or No Original Product Text Content

    Some larger retailers have tens of thousands of products with little or no detail on product pages. And when there is content, the text is verbatim from the data feed provided by the manufacturer or other vendors.

    It’s only a problem when dozens if not hundreds of other stores sell the exact same product with the exact same content. Then hundreds if not thousands of shopping portals, affilates, coupon sites, etc. promote the same products linking to the above retailers. If 75%+ of your products are word for word from a data feed, you now have a problem.

    2.  Little Or No Original Category / Section Page Content

    It’s not just product pages. Many category pages on online stores are only a list of product links with thumbnails. Sometimes there will be a sentence or two of unique content on category pages, but that’s not enough.

    On one retailers’ top 100 category pages, only 4% of the text was unique text. The rest was template boilerplate or lists of product links. Bad retailer, no back link for you!

    3.  Same Template. Page After Page After Page

    Lots of stores use the same template on every page. Same header. Same footer. Same 100 text links in drop-downs on tens of thousands of pages. One of these stores had the exact same template on over 50,000 pages.

    I prefer stores with multiple templates, and not just for SEO. Think in terms of departments within a bigger store. If a product category would have its own department in a real store, consider giving that category its own template.

    4.  Really, Really, Really Big Boilerplate Text

    Sometimes I call this the “Ain’t No Meat On That Sandwich” problem. All template. No content.

    An ecommerce site looks a lot more like lower-quality shopping engine sites or content farms when a page has a big template (lots of words), especially on pages that are light on content or have no unique content. If most of the pages on your site are like this, you’re toast.

    Even when you write unique content, the value is diminished when the content is such a small percentage of the page’s total word count. Put that big boilerplate on a diet.

    And write original content for your store on category pages. If a page is a top entry page, the unique content (by count of words) needs to be equal to the the template/boilerplate text.

    For example, if you have 400 words of boilerplate on every page, you owe yourself one hundred 400-word category descriptions.

    5.  Same Run Of Site Links On Every Single Page

    When you have the same template with the same 100 text links to your top categories on every single page, there’s a point of diminishing returns. It’s not 2001 anymore when all you had to do was put you keyword in link text in your run of site navigation, and top rankings would be yours.

    For example, say I’ve got 20,000 links with the anchor “hunting dog supplies,” I think at a certain point Googlebot says, “OK, Rob, I got it. That page is about hunting dog supplies.”
    And don’t have same exact same anchor text in links to a specific page. Have multiple anchor text for text links on your own store for internal link anchor diversity.

    6.  Writing Unique Content But Giving It Away

    This is a new one for me. I’ve always been pretty stingy with my content on my retail stores, and when I did provide feeds for shopping engines, I wouldn’t share every field on every product, especially my custom content.

    One of my new retailers has lots of unique content, but when we searched for some of his sentences on pages that were bitten by the Panda, we found these exact phrases on dozens and dozens of shopping sites and affiliates’ pages all over the Web. Many times, the better shopping portals outranked him for his own content!

    When retailers share all of their original content via feeds for shopping and/or affiliate folks, there’s the serious danger of Google seeing that content as “low quality,” probably because it’s on so many different sites.

    Don’t share your best quality content with affiliates or shopping stores because the worst are just going to whore out your content, stick it on multiple doorway pages based around popular / valuable keyword phrases, and hurt your SEO efforts.

    When you do write compelling content, keep it for yourself!

    7.  Great Unique Content Buried On Pages Not In The Index

    Sometimes there are pages buried so deep in your site, Google will never find them. These pages just don’t have enough PageRank to get indexed regularly, much less to rank for more competitive phrases, so any unique content on these pages is wasted.

    Put your unique content on pages that matter — the top 100-1000 entry pages from Google organic traffic. These pages are in the Google index, rank for somewhat competitive keywords, get clicks from real visitors, and drive revenue to your online store.

    8.  Unique Content Hidden From Spiders

    One client had a lot of user-generated product reviews, but it was hidden from spiders because it was delivered via javascript. Google can’t give you points for content it can’t see.

    Another had reviews stuck in an iframe from one of their subdomains. The result was that search engines can get to it, but don’t credit the main domain for the content. Since this subdomain had no authority, the reviews didn’t rank on their own, and the links back to the product pages didn’t even pass anchor text.

    Display customer reviews on product pages using simple HTML that can be spidered and indexed by the search engines so you get credit for all your customers’ love.

    9.  Multiple Pages On The Same Domain With The Same Content

    Maybe this is the old duplicate content problem. This retailer had the same unique content, but he placed it on multiple pages selling different products, resulting in multiple pages on the same site competing against one another for the same keywords. This couldn’t be solved with a simple 301 or canonical URL.

    Another retailer had section pages that displayed full product descriptions on the category level, and these competed directly with the product pages.

    I prefer to show snippets on category pages, just like a Google SERPS snippet. Give me a 90-character snippet of the text under thumbnails. For example, Yahoo! Stores have the ‘ABSTRACT’ field which works great for this.

    Have one page with one URL for each piece of content.

    10.  Competing against yourself with multiple subdomains

    Another store had their own static search engine results pages displaying the full product description but on their subdomain. Several companies selling custom store search products sell these pages as way to generate “search engine friendly pages,” but the reality is that you’re competing against yourself and devaluing your content.

    I’ve been talking about these exact issues for over six years. So what do you do when you’re doing some or all of the above? I’ll tell you…

    What To Do For Your Online Store Post Panda

    Is your online store getting attacked by a Panda? Don’t panic.

    First, look at a tool like Google Webmaster Central. See if you’ve even been bitten by the Panda or if it’s something else. If you don’t show a huge drop-off in impressions and clicks starting February 24, 2011 – then maybe it’s something else.

    Panda Bites A Few Online Retailers


    Second, look at a drop in revenue, not traffic. Lots of these folks bitten by Panda  lost up to 40-60% of their Google traffic, but lost less in revenue. Maybe the quality folks at Google knew what they’re doing if those visitors you lost didn’t really convert.

    Next, make a damage assessment. Was every page affected? It helps to know that some pages got hurt worse than others. Look at organic entries before and after the update to see where you got burned. Do you see any patterns?

    Even though everyone in the press was saying this was a domain-wide penalty, on multiple sites I looked at, pages with content shared on multiple sites got hit much worse than pages with content that was only available on the store’s domain.

    Now, take out the trash. You know that you have some low quality content on your store. Nuke it. Seriously. Get rid of it.

    One one site we made a list of any trash pages that had external links and/or sales. We’re recycling these URLS, add content, and get some good links. Nuke the rest.

    Finally, work with what’s left.

    Prioritize your pages based upon revenue. Your Top 100 Google Entry Pages probably drive the most traffic and revenue your a site. Identify your top 100 best-selling products.

    • Make sure these pages have unique text, written for humans, but uses keywords and modifiers specific to that one page.
    • Make sure these pages load fast. Think 100K total file size or smaller.
    • Make sure these pages are extremely relevant to the searches that drive traffic to those pages.
    • Make sure these pages get links from the homepage,  run of site navigation links, and deep embedded links inside page text on other.
    • Get links on other sites to these top 100 pages..
    • Make sure the TITLE and the H1 and the ANCHOR TEXT are a little different. Don’t just use the manufacturer supplied text. Actually write something that makes sense.

    The moral of the story? Don’t look like a content farm when Google’s out hunting for content farms. And avoid scary Pandas.


    About The Author

    Rob Snell
    Rob Snell owns Gun Dog Supply, an online retailer of dog training collars and teaches retailers about conversion optimization and SEO for e-commerce at RobSnell.com. You can follow him on Twitter @RobSnell.