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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