Google Zebra a “Merchant” of Doom

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Editor’s update: The Google “Zebra” update is both rumor and an SEO inside-joke. As of today, there is no Google Zebra update. The myth arose after comments Matt Cutts made at a conference regarding merchant quality. It was dubbed “Zebra” because Google seemed to favor black and white animal names for their algorithm updates aka “Panda” and “Penguin” (the recent Hummingbird, not withstanding!). But jokes aside, the recommendations in this article by Michael Campolattano are valid (on a case by case basis). Sorry for any confusion.

Recently, a certain search engine’s algorithm updates have not been so nice to most of the web. These Agents of G.O.O.G.L.E (yes I’m a Marvel fan!) arrive quietly, then tear relentlessly through the fabric of our very SEO souls! And what makes these updates even more frightening (and creepy) is these kill shots come in the form of cute and cuddly animals. I mean who would be afraid of a cute little Penguin…awe…or that cuddly Panda? And when was last time crowds ran screaming “The Hummingbird is coming…run for your lives!”? Never!

Well, the animal pain train is on its way again and this time its newest addition comes directly from the plains of Africa – code named  “Zebra” or as I like to call it “Your eCommerce store is toast…losers”!  Really, G.O.O.G.L.E should stop patronizing us and start giving these updates appropriately scary names like Gargoyle or Dragon, Sabertooth or Piranha! How many people would try to game the system when G.O.O.G.L.E Piranha is on its way? The question is, who will G.O.O.G.L.E Zebra hoof stomp with their so-called “Merchant Quality Update”?

Who is Google Zebra? And What Does it Want?

Google Zebra

Essentially, agent Zebra is G.O.O.G.L.E’s latest algorithm update who’s mission is to clean up the eCommerce community and rid the world of low quality merchant scum! With online shopping growing exponentially each month, it was only a matter of time before G-Men developed plans to capitalize on our online shopping addictions. I know this is labeled a “Merchant Quality Update” but make no mistake, this is the beginning of Google picking off organic results like witnesses in a Gambino trial, hence protecting their paid media empire and forcing everyone to incorporate SEM into their strategies.

G.O.O.G.L.E is speeding towards a system of unintentional SERP results based on relevant, high quality sites that offer value to its given market, abolishing the very thought of keyword focused rankings. Most of us are huge supporters of this idea since 70% of the web is spammy garbage anyway. We are not, however, as oblivious as Daddy-G thinks. Now I understand that things change in any industry and given that ours is very young, I get that the SERPS are bound to be updated.  However, SEO’s have watched organic listings dwindle so much over the past 2 years that today organic real estate makes up only a whopping 13% of a SERP! So you can understand how a lot of us get an uneasy feeling by this benign “Merchant Quality Update”.

Valuable above the of the fold real estate still features the normal 3 paid ads, but now (not surprisingly), it is joined by a plethora of G.O.O.G.L.E paid shopping ads.

Here is a G.O.O.G.L.E search for “Android phones” in 2011



and here is a search done in 2013:

I am not trying to insinuate that this won’t make shopping easier, I’m just pointing out that it makes my moral compass spin like I’m flying over the Bermuda Triangle.  If I was an eCommerce site owner, I would be very nervous about all of this. Especially since a few of those right side G.O.O.G.L.E shopping ads happened to be “G.O.O.G.L.E Trusted Sites”. I suspect that very soon, eCommerce sites are going to have pay to play. What if you don’t feel like paying the big bad G-man his money and want to get some traffic and sales yourself? Well, that’s a great attitude and I’m gonna tell you what essential items you should packing in your “Merchant of Doom Preparedness Kit”!


Merchant of Doom Preparedness Kit Contents


Recognize & Utilize the Content You Have       
Besides filling your blog with topically relevant articles (which you need to do), focus on your products and their descriptions. If G.O.O.G.L.E is indexing each product page, make sure you have robust details on each product and give visitors the ability to share and write reviews of their own. Oh, and don’t forget to have at least one internal link in each product description heading to a top level navigation item. And be smart about your content. If you have thousands of URL’s, don’t have the same introductory paragraph on every product page. Mix it up a bit or you will face duplicate content penalties!
Make Design & Accessibility a Priority
If you own a website and haven’t heard about the Americans with Disabilities Act and recent ADA compliance laws that took effect in 2012 you should stop immediately and get up to speed on an issue that is costing brands millions of dollars as we speak. If you currently do not have a responsive website, please for the love of all things big and small start researching it today! Having a responsive site will ensure that your user experience will at least be tolerable on any device and will buy you time to plan and execute a new mobile build. Check out this awesome list of eCommerce sites to get some ideas.

Have a Comparison Engine           
Zebra will be looking for this so make sure you have it! It goes back to the usability thing, giving viewers the ability to do their shopping comparisons while still on your site will have a positive effect on your conversions and will increase the chances of good reviews.

Include Markups for Your Products
This one very important to note. If you are unsure as to the nature and implementation of Schema then go and start researching it right away.

Add Google Authorship to Your Website & Claim Your Content
Authorship markup is the method to display authorship information in search results for the content you create. It is a way for G.O.O.G.LE to verify a real individual created the specific content and is claiming it. Although Authorship isn’t labeled as a ranking factor yet, it should be very important to “Author Rank” which is an aspect that Google appears to be implementing in their algorithm.

Add Product Videos
Companies such as have made video a priority in an effort to increase  conversions and in this 2012 article Laurie Williams, of talks about the company’s current and future plans to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to product videos. One item to note is to make sure you create a company YouTube page with all of your product videos. To ensure your get some G.O.O.G.L.E love, transcribe and close caption your videos.

Have a “Live Chat”
Adding an additional level of convenience for the user is never a bad thing. Live chat can add that personal touch to the shopping experience and have positive effects on your conversions and, of course, your bottom line.

Pay Attention to Page Speed & Load Times
Slow load times can cost retailers untold amounts of Benjamins.  A recent KissMetrics Study found that a 1 second delay in page response can result in a 7% reduction in conversions. If an eCommerce site is making $100,000 per day, a 1 second page delay could potentially cost you $2.5 million in lost sales every year! The same study found that 47% of consumers expect a web page to load in 2 seconds or less while 40% of people abandon a website that takes more than 3 seconds to load. Having faster load times should be an underlying priority with anything you do on your website.

Have Clear & Concise Company Policies
One sure thing that G.O.O.G.L.E Zebra will be eyeing for is your company policies, internally and towards consumers. Make sure you have an easy to find Privacy Policy, Terms & Conditions, Shipping & Return, and anything else you think is relevant to the consumer and or the law.

Become a “G.O.O.G.L.E Trusted Store”
This is a convenient little way to ensure some safety when Zebra comes stampeding through in a few months. If you become a “Trusted Store” you will probably survive the initial Zebra onslaught and get through aftermath relatively unscathed. Not to say that this is a get out jail free card or anything but it will sure help.

Pay Attention to Reviews! Yelp Does!
Here is my bold prediction regarding Zebra and reviews. I believe the number of reviews your store receives and the quality of those scores will be a huge factor when Zebra rolls out. G.O.O.G.L.E.’s recent purchase of Zagat after Yelp told them to get lost is a great look into their mindset. Some believe that “quality” of the review has 2 parts. One is the actual rating given by the reviewer, but also the reviewer’s authority and trustworthiness as deemed by G.O.O.G.L.E. Just like the Yelp filter system  I believe that if a reviewer is more active within the Google ecosystem their review will carry more weight, resulting in higher highs and lower lower lows for your store.

Are you an eCommerce store owner? How are you preparing for the Zebra update? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!

Michael Campolattano

Michael Campolattano

Director of Search Marketing at .Com Marketing
Michael Campolattano
Michael Campolattano

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  • Great stuff guy!

    Some of the first information I have read in regards to the “zebra”

    Will be interesting to see how it plays out.

    How do you think this will affect smaller sites that have a shopping cart attached and or linked from their URL – like: ?

    Your pal,
    Chenzo links to their shopping cart platform:

  • Vert thanks to this informative post, just learned a lot. I have an e-commerce store but still under construction. The most of the guidelines my site compliant but still have space to improve, i really do not know how google detect a site is a e-store or just normal site, btw, do you mean target keyword rich in title is no longer helpful as always?!

  • Thanks for this info. I’m definitely going to tell these to my team. I would also like to see how this rolls out and affect the e-commerce community. Do you think Google will still prefer local to international e-commerce sites even when this update rolls out?

  • jon

    that why we need social media traffic , is so stupid if we depend only google traffic ,, the social media traffic is powerfull

  • starting to sweat! do we have a date for this update. i didn’t see one.

    • There is no confirmed date of any update but the writing is on the wall and any SEO that’s even half way aware knows something will happen. Just focus on building a better UX and you will always be in good hands.

  • I have been doing even more research and come to find out – this seems to be an urban legend within the SEO community.

    At the same time – the hints and pointers are still a huge help – but no one and or any of the research I have pulled confirms anything of the sort.

    This “zebra” talk has been going around since the beginning of the year.


  • Great insight to Zebra update and a must read article for all e-commerce owners.

  • I’m really surprise to hear that Google’s upcoming update “Zebra” is all about cleaning eCommerce scam. Couple of month before I heard that “Zebra” will be for Social Media sites?

  • Great update, it seems like new Zebra update would be much beneficial to end users. Google is great with that.

  • This is again Google is playing with small sized ecommerce owners. I do not understand why Google is doing monopoly to the internet and nobody around the world stands against it. As my suggestion forget this update and try to get social traffic more. Its main aim is to drag everybody to its adwords program which is not possible by every ecommerce owners who are just starting the business.

  • Awesome! This will really revolutionize the way eCommerce sites work. I have worked on Prestashop, Magento and Opencart! But never made sure about the schema tags. This time I got to know the importance of it. And majority of the eCommerce sites are never penalized so far. Guess that phase will change after Zebra. Tensed and worried about some clients who don’t understand why quality content is so important!

    But luckily there are few intelligent people who understand these updates post launch. This will surely help in protecting the client’s website in future. Also I was discussing the same with my people yesterday. I thought Zebra would take down on Social media, but this comes out as a complete surprise! ZzzzzZ

  • Warda

    I’m managing two eCommerce sites and thanks for writing this awesome post. I start will the preparations as soon as I can. When is ZEBRA update comping?

  • Hi,
    this update will be relased only in USA or also in Europe?


  • This just isn’t correct?

    There’s been no confirmed Google Zebra update and I’m pretty sure it all started as a joke about Google loving to name their updates after black & white animals? Where is it that you got these facts from?

    • Roel Bobis

      That right matthew! haha

    • Matthew you are 100% correct – as from what I have seen and discussion amongst expert SEO’s is that it did start as a joke and hovers around the web still with legend.


      • This is the kind of article that makes webmasters panic into making changes on their site. Someone should really remove this article…

    • Whether you call it Zebra or not, Cutts did say, in March, that a merchant rating-based update was on the way –

  • Jack Norell

    Great tips on making a better, more search friendly e-commerce site.

    The Zebra update is probably bunk though, even back in July, the rumors were over a year old, so they’re 18 months or more now. We should have seen something come out of Google since then.

    There was a speculative G+ post by Jonathon Colman back on 26 April 2012 that kicked all this off, more in this post by Tommy Landry:

    Good post, but I’d be pretty shocked if this turns out to be a real update coming. There will, of course, be updates that will send shockwaves through the SEO profession.

  • Cool writeup. Zebra… oh man. With all these changes SEO feels like a lost cause. It is obvious that all these updates aren’t as much geared to improve quality (it’s only a by-product). They’re up to make each website user have at least some PPC budget. Undoubtedly, this will make the G-men richer and more powerful than everrrr!
    People of the free web: Diversify! 🙂

  • Careful, SEOs, there is no such thing as Google Zebra, and it was just a joke (as Matthew points out above) originally on the Koozai blog.
    It’s a shame because the advice in this article is actually perfectly valid, and deserves to be taken seriously now, and not for some made-up future algorithm update, of which we can all make suppositions.

  • I have a data-heavy whitepaper coming out with the conclusion that there is no evidence that Google Seller Ratings or Trusted Store participation has or will become an organic ranking factor. (28% of current sites with high organic visibility across 15 markets have no Seller rating (many because they are not merchants) and only 7-11% of sites with high organic visibility participate in the Trusted Store program). It is more likely Google’s “Zebra” update will (continue to) use PageSpeed and factors like schema markup as a proxy for merchant quality.

  • Erica

    “don’t forget to have at least one internal link in each product description heading to a top level navigation item”

    Won’t this result in an over optimization penalty? My product catalog is over 7,000 items. Each product page has breadcrumbs (going back to the top level category) and a top navigation (with my top level categories). What benefit is including a link within the item description? It seems like overkill to me.

  • Whether the google zebra were true or not, the tips that given are quite useful after all.

  • Putting all these supposed Zebra assumptions aside…..I think the question we all want answered is ‘What does G.O.O.G.L.E stand for?’.

  • You thought Google was indexing your ecommerce site for free? Nah bro, they’re just the tech equivalent of a drug dealer. Once you’re hooked you gotta pay. And by pay I mean get sucked into their advertising model or DIE!

  • Jeff

    Just admit that SEO is dying and Google is giving preference to their whitelisted and anointed friends from their Internet Association lobby group. Small businesses are being run through the shredder regardless of what they do. Basically everything noted in this post does not apply to any website that has not been first anointed by Google. In general, Google is leaving small businesses one option to be found in Google Search and that is with Adwords.

    We have all witnessed a number of SEO companies close and SEO pros leaving the industry after many years. The reason they are leaving is that they can see the writing on the wall. I’m just shocked that so many people want to pretend its business as usual when we are all facing the consequences of having one company in primary control of ecommerce.

    Maybe instead of joining all of Google’s other services in hopes of being anointed we should question why government regulators and politicians have allowed one company to control so much of the $1 trillion ecommerce industry and 1/3 of all global online advertising. If we fail to ask these questions and seek responsible solutions, Google’s grip on ecommerce will only grow even stronger.

  • Funny when haters come out and bash others. First let me say to may and anyone else who hate. Regardless of when our what algorithms updates come out improving your ecommerce site’s UX is never bad or wrong. The recommendations in this article can only benefit a stores user journey. I dare anyone to tell me that improving the consumer journey is a bad thing. None of the above items and their sources are negative. So if you don’t believe that a good user experience is a good thing for a site than please write your own article and post up why.

  • Whenever I see Google updates portrayed as mean spirited or some sort of war, I question the validity of the information in that post.

    SEO exists because of search engines sending free traffic to sites and regardless of their motives, the changes are what keeps SEO’s busy and clients begging for more.

    When I owned an ecommerce site, the last thing I wante wa for my PPC ads and quality content to get buried in the spammy directory listing that were popular at the time.

    I’m all for getting a leg up on the competition or deploying a tactics that improves my ability to be seen by those who I can offer service to. Thankfully, Google has been cleaning up the SEO spam and ranking quality higher (in most cases).

  • This post is an exemplar of why SEJ is not viewed as “legitimate” among industry professionals.

  • Jon Gregoire

    Where did you get all this information Michael?

    I havent seen anything at all from Google to confirm this…

  • I think given the cartoon character and the Agents of Shield references that taking the beginning of this post to be anything more than a parody is a great stretch. No where does Michael claim that this info is coming from Google. He does however bring up some good points, especially on the changes in ecommerce serps.

    Now, formatting aside, the tips on transforming an ecommerce marketplace into a sustainable business with an online presence that’s more than just product listings is spot on advice (to be taken on a case by case basis as everyone should know that open recommendations are not the gospel).

    The SEO industry, especially those in eCommerce, have been expecting something like this for a while ( )

    If there is a Zebra update or not, or whatever it will be called, or the slow rollout of changes … that’s not the point. The point is to adapt or die.

    • Agreed my stance is simple. That even if the mere mention of an update cause webmasters to update their UX and improve the consumer journey then the idea of mystical Zebra did it’s job without ever having to roll out. Thanks for taking the time to post.

  • I think that regardless of us having fun with Zebra or any other animal it’s important to remember as webmasters the underlying core of the message is, care about improving your store’s UX and making the consumer journey one that is engaging and hassle free. So no matter the updates in the future having this stuff on your mind will always keep you safe

  • There is no confirmed date of any update but the writing is on the wall and any SEO that’s even half way aware knows something will happen. Just focus on building a better UX and you will always be in good hands.

  • It’s funny to me how far people take Google update paranoia. “Oh this update didn’t come out on date A but on date B” and “Oh this update wasn’t confirmed so that automatically makes all the good points about doing SEO well you’re making irrelevant”… and people then go ahead and demand that an article about a present, past or future update needs to be removed because “it may cause confusion”. Gentlemen, even PAST updates are still causing confusion and many of Google’s statements about its algorithms can have multiple meanings… so why bash on an author that is sharing his opinion about a potential update? Isn’t he entitled to have his own opinion, just like you are?

    A little speculation and theorizing helps the SEO community because it has a tendency to look back (main question: what happened?) instead of forward (the in my opinion more interesting question of what COULD happen in the future?) Frankly, we need more discussion about the future.

  • michael milstead

    well too bad for me and the 16,000 websites that link to me are considered spam now and I never wanted and I never did a link campaign due to my content was great and for over 10 years I enjoyed great traffic and sales now all done google does not even list me any more