Let’s talk collateral damage, or, the sites that got hit. Whether or not they should or shouldn’t have isn’t the matter at hand. Google’s official position on the matter is that no algorithm is perfect, but in this SEO’s eyes, I think there’s a little bit more that we can take away from here.
Google controls the lion’s share of search in this country and we all know this. In fact, most of us utilize Google as a tool on a daily basis. We search for movie times, gifts for our Mom, directions to a vacation destination, or even just that totally random information that gets stuck in our heads. You know what we do. We surf. I do it a lot, especially when Brent makes the declaration that he thinks a famous movie actor is dead and I have to show him that he is, in fact, alive and making movies.
Anyways, back to search. We use it on a daily basis and as a result, it’s become a powerful place for people to do business. A lot of money can be found in the search and online retailing industry. Consumers searching for something to buy can usually be found trolling Google for product reviews, prices, different color varieties…you get the picture.
So, it’s no wonder that so many people put their marketing weight into search in order to compete. It’s a tough marketplace out there and certain industries can be downright cutthroat. Money, time, and/or effort has to be spent on strengthening search presence. But when it comes to choosing WHAT strategies are actually worth investing in, this is where things get tricky. I’ll get to that in a bit, but first, let’s look at what makes doing business online different.
It Pays to Be Different
Let’s say you’re a site owner that sells hand carved coconut shells. You make them yourself and started this business first as a hobby. In fact, you used to carve coconut shells with your grandfather every weekend. After some time, friends and family started requesting orders for coconut shells and BAM! Suddenly you’re a business owner. So you take yourself online. You’re not the greatest copywriter of them all, but you’ve got a pretty interesting story behind your brand, so you write authentically about why you started your business. You tell people how you carve your coconuts and what inspires you. You share your successes and appreciation for their business with every Facebook status update and tweet. You don’t do a high volume of transactions yet, but people who buy from you tend to be repeat customers. Your selection is really small and the prices are a little high, but in your mind, people are getting something special.
Now, picture this: you’re now another site owner with thousands of products. You don’t actually make them, but instead, you’re a drop shipper. Those product descriptions telling people about your products? They came from the manufacturer. It would have taken too long to write something unique. And the story behind your brand? Well, you’re not quite sure how it all started, but one day, you decided to open an online store and it’s been a wild ride ever since. You don’t really do Facebook or Twitter – you’re not really sure what the point is. But you’re big and affordable and you sell a lot of products to a lot of people.
Now tell me: which site would you rather do business with?
Getting Into Business
I’ve seen people getting into online retailing for all of the wrong reasons. There’s a sad number of people who believe that once you put up a site, people will come. This isn’t the .com of dreams. It’s a real business. It has a storefront. It has a brand. It requires work. But most importantly, it requires marketing to make things happen.
BOTH the coconut carver and the drop shipper are examples of the collateral damage the Panda update caused. Business owners (yes, people like you) who had websites of all different shapes, sizes, and types were affected. Just check out the Google Forums and you’ll see everyone from large , ecommerce furniture stores to small, holistic medicine information sites were affected. Some of the reasons why were discussed in my last post (thin content, duplicate content, spammy SEO tactics, etc.) but I think it’s more important to take a look at what the sites were doing before Panda. Did they have a marketing strategy? Were they putting too much stock in SEO? Were they even trying to market at all?
Varying Your Marketing
Now with the two site scenarios we described above, we saw one that had a lot of products and one that had a great story behind it. The cool thing about marketing is that BOTH sites can end up being successful if the right approach is taken. It would take some time and strategy, but it’s doable. Now, with Panda, we saw sites taken down some notches. Some only got knocked down a few results. Others got buried. As for who is surviving, only time will tell, but I tend to think that sites with varied marketing approaches are holding on a bit stronger.
SEO is a huge part of getting found online and I can bet that most ecommerce store owners put at least some thought into what they should be doing for SEO. But I don’t think it’s wise for a site to put all of its marketing weight behind one tactic, especially if it’s an established business. If you were a brick and mortar store, would you throw all of your advertising budget into just doing print ads? Marketing has to be varied and targeted. You just have to see what works and where you’re getting a return on investment. SEO can be tough in that aspect. Tactics like PPC have a much better chance of getting the attention of a customer who is further along in the buying cycle. SEO may attract the larger numbers, but there are some less qualified visitors coming in too. Not to mention, calculating ROI on SEO can be a bit of a challenge.
But what if a store owner only has a limited budget? What if it’s not economically viable to invest in multiple tactics? Some businesses may only be able to start out with focusing on one tactic. I guess in this case, I would say that if you absolutely must do only one thing, make sure it’s the right thing and then be disciplined enough to use some of those early profits to diversify marketing as soon as you can so that you’re not relying on one tactic forever. Knowing the right thing is the tough part, but I think if a business understands its audience well, finding that right tactic might be easier than one thinks.
It’s About Paying Attention and Being Flexible
My two cents? If you’re an ecommerce store owner that was affected by Panda, I think it’s time for you to examine your overall marketing strategy. Where could you be spending smarter? What areas have been neglected? Where do you need boosts? The most successful businesses are mindful of the needs of their audience and the health of their marketing efforts. Using that knowledge, successful businesses are flexible in mindset so that they are more nimble and responsive to changes than any other competitor. Ultimately, it’s not just being flexible that counts; it’s what you do with that mindset.
Panda is a wake up call to businesses that have dabbled in marketing but have never fully committed. It’s a reminder that you have to be focused, organized, and willing to put in the effort to be different. It’s also a sign that it takes more than a storefront to do business online. You need:
- Content that engages and offers value.
- A trustworthy brand.
- A presence in the search engines as well as social media.
- Varied marketing efforts.
I put flexibility as the last point because it’s the one that I’d like people to walk away from this article with. Being flexible makes your business sustainable. Whether you sell furniture or carve coconuts, you need to be flexible to the changes in the business environment. Maybe change will come in the form of an algorithm update. Maybe it will come from a shift in public perception. Maybe it shows up as a law. There’s one thing for certain: change will come and you have to be ready for it.
- The Social Connection between Google Panda and Google +1 (searchenginewatch.com)
- AdWords: Yet Another Problem With Google’s Panda Update (seobook.com)
- Fat Pandas and Thin Content (seomoz.org)
- The effects of the Google Panda update – new data (econsultancy.com)
- Why Search Engines Should Use Social Signals as Ranking Factors (searchenginewatch.com)