Online Merchants Beware: The Google Zebra Update Is Coming

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The Zebra update is fast approaching…are you ready? I am! As owner of an internet marketing agency it’s important that I keep up with everything Google. With all the changes, updates to Google best practices, updates to their algorithm, updates to their blogs… it seems like I am wasting half my day reading, worrying and preparing for the next upheaval in the SEO community. Just trying to figure out what is true and what is not true and figuring out what to do or not do is a full time job.

For online business owners and especially merchants, Google updates can mean the difference between tons of traffic or no traffic, tons of sales or no sales. With Penguin and Panda still in the fore front, news is constantly brewing about more updates to come. Much of this is speculation, and some of it is just plain false information, so be careful. Oh and by the way, there is no Zebra update…yet!

The State Of Change at Google

This past month as SXSW in Austin, TX, Google’s Matt Cutts announced that the Panda algorithm will be more of a rolling update that will be implemented automatically and gradually, instead of by manual refresh. For website owners this means that changes will be much less noticeable and easier to digest (We hope!). Penguin, on the other hand, will soon be our next big headache. As a matter of fact, also while at SXSW in Austin, Matt Cutts stated that there will be a large Penguin update in 2013 that he thinks will be one of the more talked about Google algorithm updates this year. He reported that Google’s search quality team is working on a major update to the Penguin algorithm, which he called very significant and I am sure the full effects will be clear to website owners when the new update is final. Unfortunately, Google hasn’t released any details about the next generation Penguin, (Penguin 4).

Merchants Beware, The Zebra is Coming

Google’s Matt Cutts wasn’t done with announcements and he shared with us yet another important update at SXSW in Austin, Texas, this past month. Matt said, and I quote,

“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.”

Webmasters have dubbed this update the “Merchant Quality Update”, but I’ve dubbed it “The Zebra”. Although Matt Cutts didn’t say how Google will detect these “bad merchants”, we have an idea of who and what they are going to target, so let’s look at a couple things you need to do as an online merchant to avoid “The Zebra Penalty”.

Merchant Reviews 

For some time there has been speculation as to whether Google uses reviews to distinguish good companies from bad ones. To do this Google would have to be able to determine the tone of reviews online and be able to come up with a consensus on a company. Well, I’m here to tell you that evidence already points to Google being capable of doing just that. Google already shows seller ratings in AdWords ads. These ratings are based on customer reviews collected by Google Product Search, which collects reviews, including Google Wallet reviews, from many different sources on the internet. So merchants with bad quality reviews, watch out, you’d better get your act together, take care of your client and hope the reviews swing the other way.

Search Quality Guidelines

Earlier this year, Google published their Search Quality Guidelines for the first time. Last updated in November 2012, the guidelines also hint at what Google is looking for in a quality merchant. Under the heading “Recognizing true merchants” they list the following.

  • 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.

While Google emphasizes that a merchant doesn’t need to meet all these criteria to comply, it’s probably a good idea to do an inventory of the list above and make sure you meet all of the quality guidelines listed.

Google Shopping’s Trusted Stores Program

Merchants affiliated with Google’s Trusted Stores program must meet certain criteria, such as having at least five hundred transactions per month, with ninety percent of deliveries happening on time, and providing excellent customer service.

For smaller merchants, this may not apply but for larger merchants, you may want to look into Google’s Trusted Stores Program.

Your Physical Location 

Location, location, location is becoming increasingly important. Despite the popularity of online shopping, many consumers are more comfortable doing business with an online store that has a physical location, where they can address their complaints or visit in person if the need arises. Now, this is just speculation but, having a physical location nearby might be a plus point for Google.

These five points are what online business merchants should focus on for the time being. They can help you to improve your website and provide a better online buying experience to consumers. This way you will be ready when Google rolls out “The Zebra” for online merchants.

Bernadette Coleman
Bernadette Coleman is the CEO of Advice Local, an award winning technology and Inc 500 digital agency. Bernadette is passionate about all things digital including... Read Full Bio
Bernadette Coleman
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  • Abdi Mohammed

    Zebra update – funny. But on a more serious note, the points on ‘search quality guidelines’ is a bit odd. I get the point about having a physical address, return policy etc but some of the others are a little questionable. What if a site does dot use Fedex? And why are they promoting that company, albeit unintentionally…

  • Alexander Miklin

    I knew it! Search “Google Zebra”

  • Deepanker

    Online Merchants should start checking their website.. Google never forgives 😀

  • Lukáš Pítra

    While I agree with SOME of the points on the True Merchant Quality list, I can’t really see how would Google incorporate these into search algorhitm. Especially in Europe, where many of Google products and feature aren’t nearly as popular and widespread as in the US.

  • WSOlist

    Panda, panguin and now zebra, another black and white animal.
    It’s time they after those site that produce duplicate content using merchant feeds.

  • Atul Jain

    Thanks for sharing this update with all of us.



  • Kajal G

    Glad To Read This Article, because It is a BIG alert for online merchandise. Some of E-Commerce SEO experts thinks that Google Penguin – Panda only penalized to the sites who are working on organic method like – Link Building. They says that “Google will never affects us because we are working on E-Commerce websites!!” They buy links, likes, and also user’s reviews.

    But they didn’t understand that Google wants only high quality sites in top 10 for Best user experience. They didn’t understand that Google works for Real User & not for SEO guys. So if you have quality in your site and your work then you will definitely defeat all the updation of Google. Give best content or product to your real user & Google will automatically finds you… Do SEO Work for your users, not for Google! Think about how to give your best to your customer.

  • Jeff Sauer

    It will be interesting to see how they can enforce the search quality guidelines. Some of these requirements are very nebulous and hard to programmatically enforce.

    Seems like if anything, this is a win for shopping cart software makers. They better make sure each of these options are available in their software to compete.

  • Ashish Chaubey

    This kind of updates from Google is needed because of its there is lots of duplicate results are finding regularly on the search engines. We need must unique results for our queries.

  • Ydeveloper

    I am also waiting for this update. There are many low quality results from bad merchants are being top on Google, this could be removed or penalized. The reviews will play a most important role in considering the ranking for a particular merchant. So, the ecommerce merchants as well as developers must ready for updating their site if it’s doesn’t follow quality measures require to run an online store.

  • Tory Reiss

    So when is this going to happen? What’s the difference between Panda and Zebra?

  • Michail Dimitriou

    Nice, an other update to help big players, and also google itself,. No affiliation with google? THAT IS PENALTY, small and poor store owner!

  • Kenneth Villegas

    I don’t think this will happen! But if this will happen, well merchant should always be prepared because you’ll never know, Google will strike your website without knowing it. lol

  • Keyword Removed

    Rolling updates ughhhh here we go. You think since SEO’s pretty much built Google that they would treat us better! They make it increasingly more and more difficult to stay on the whitehat side… least for me it’s getting harder and harder to resist the temptation of the darkside!!

  • Asma Abbasi

    While I agree with SOME of the points on the True Merchant Quality list, I can’t really see how would Google incorporate these into search algorhitm. Especially in Europe, where many of Google products and feature aren’t nearly as popular and widespread as in the US.

  • Het Shah

    Google Zebra – Coming Soon!!! Nice Article.

    Really Big Alert by Google…it’s really interesting to see how Google will apply that Algo. for E-Commerce. because it’s not easy task for Google too. there are many no. of online stores and have good position. not wait and watch when, where and hoe Google implement Google Zebra!!!

    and as per my opinion to all please grab Google Trusted Store as soon as possible. this is an advantages.

    • Kajal G

      Nothing Is Impossible For Google!! (In past it happened for content based sites) Some says Google playing with SEO and some says Google misusing the power of it’s monopoly. But the fact is that whole SEO Industry dependent on it ( till the Father of Google will come 😀 ). And all site owners (General / E-commerce) MUST follow the Google’s Algorithm. Do Best – Get Best!

      • Het Shah

        Yes Kajal,

        You are right! but the now a days scenario gone change, nothing is right for SEO, or other word we can say SEO is DEAD. due to Panda, Penguin and Zebra, there is many big website (E-Com Store) fluctuated with their higher tanking, and now they face many problem to generate organic visitors!

        but the thing is they all are followed the google algorithm and facing the problem, so it is hard to say who to follow!

  • Ash

    I find this kind of update feasibly impossible to implement by programming and algorithm update. Because as you already mentioned that from the Google given guidelines for good merchant all the points are not compulsory so who will decide which points are necessary and which can be optional?
    Also having no of sales might be not possible. it can be scenario due to one reason or another, good website is not making enough sells so that can’t be the criteria for penalty.
    And if we talk about negative review, that is completely imaginary i guess because everyone knows reviews can be given by anyone and sometimes webmasters do not have control over what others are leaving in review. If negative reviews start affecting as penalties then competitors can get any sites down by giving or buying negative reviews for the competitor sites., and checking the genuinity of review can not be possible programmatic.
    So logically any algo update with such criteria is impossible until and unless Google staff is free and they check each and every sites and reviews and other factors and give manual penalty

  • carl

    We all need to brace up for whats coming,
    Thanks for sharing this updates.

  • Same

    We can’t not predict the penguin update, but we know the principle that it is great content that attract links, social shares and votes, so the key is to focus on building great content and outreach strategies to diversify the traffic source and by practice white hat methods the SEO traffic will come automatically .

  • Randy Smith

    Hmmm I’ll be impressed with Google’s new ability to stop spammers just as soon as I stop seeing black hat SEO sites in the first page of the search results every time I do research on the subject. If Google can’t prevent people from using their own search engine to abuse the system that openly, then any of their strategies working that well just seems unrealistic. I simply see this as a soon to be failed attempt to use a small number of people of people to police a huge one (Google employees vs. Worldwide internet users). I wonder what the workaround will be this time?

    The problem here is their BUSINESS MODEL. When you have a centralized service like Google, run by a small fraction of the internet, used by so many people, and you throw in a huge profit motive for to cheat, there is no update that will stop abuse effectively. This is an arms race, and Google can’t win by modifying a few rules in the search algorithm. Show me A.I. or some other major development, and I will change my tune. Till then I cross my fingers, try to do what’s safe, and hope Google doesn’t screw us over too badly… Good Luck all!

  • Maheen Ali

    So when is this going to happen? What’s the difference between Panda and Zebra?

  • Scott

    I have read few articles on google zebra they are referring that it will more affected on social networks,
    Too many retweets with keywords included around a link
    Facebook updates with too many shares from people not in your industry
    Any Google+ shares as this will look spammy (Google+ is a graveyard right, so any activity looks suspicious?!)
    Owning a Pinterest page – brands only use these for SEO benefit no?

  • Nirav Vyas

    It’s time the social web started cleaning itself up, The Zebra Update is coming…

  • ReSEOlve

    nice post and i think the animals should be more scary like the dragon who will come and breath fire on your website if you dare try and out game them this would put more people of from spamming and black hat i think rather then a nice cuddly panda and sweet penguin 😉

  • Prem

    Nice post. Loved reading it. Let’s see what “”Zebra Update” will do!

  • Diwakar Banerjee

    How many update Google will do earlier i have seen EMD update but i have seen so many sites still ranking with same domain. And now Zebra but i think it is still a confusion for everyone.

  • Randy Smith

    Looks like the Zebra got lost. Or Google got bored with naming their quarterly attempt to keep the internet on their toes. And still no PR update. Designers who started this year are out in the cold- their numbers say PR0, even if their metrics don’t., And no official announcement means they can’t even say “who cares? PR is dead”. No update to the PR soon, and they may as well kill it…

    • SeoZebra

      They’ve lost me, because I’ve successfully escaped from their secret laboratory! 🙂

  • Yusri Big

    Panda hit on-site elements. Penguin focus on off-site issues. and Zebra focus on social media
    1 In Zebra update we should avoid excess link/post sharing with unknown person(users)
    2 Won’t share link with other profile, not related your post link address or circle.
    3 Won’t post on specific time period( as 10 to 20 minutes) link robots.
    4 Won’t make multiple account’s for same business site or address.
    5 Won’t share multiple links with the users who are connected to you, they should also share that link with their own friend circle.