Zebra Google Update

by Guest Author on December 13, 2013

New Update Takes Aim at E-Commerce


Prepare yourself:  Google is on the verge of passing off yet another potentially destructive algorithm update creature as a friendly, user-driven and its name is Zebra.

For those whose very livelihood depends on their position in Google search rankings, these modifications can spell certain death.  The launch of recent updates had significant effects on some business’s website rankings.  Recent updates known as Penguin, Panda,& Hummingbird reconfigured Google’s search algorithm to devalue sites that had bad links or weren’t adding fresh content often enough.

Many businesses that experienced update fallout responded by breaking open the emergency piggy bank to purchase paid advertising, in hopes that this increased visibility would offset plummeting rankings.

Google always claims that their updates are completely user-driven and serve to deliver better search results.  If that’s true, then we can accept the pain that updates cause, knowing that they have a higher purpose.

Despite Google’s principled assertions, one can’t help but wonder if it’s mere coincidence that the updates so handsomely benefit the company behind them.  To critical users, it seems questionable that each modification results in more advertising purchases.

Zebra, the rumored e-commerce update has yet to be released, but is already provoking suspicion from online merchants who wonder how much they’ll have to pony up to stay visible this time.  The most forward-thinking of e-sellers is already planning extreme site makeovers that they hope will please the great and powerful G.

Google’s Shopping Roots

Online shopping has been on Google’s radar for over a decade.  It all started with Froogle, the cleverly-named comparative shopping tool that debuted in 2002.  It was pretty straightforward back then.  All it did was corral products from sites that Google already accessed and present them to you with the facts.  It was organic, unbiased and non-judgmental.  No online stores were slipping cash under the table for higher visibility.

The reason for this approach was at the core of the company’s philosophy.  When Google was just an idealistic youth, it genuinely strove to be the best and most democratic search engine around – it wouldn’t sell out and it couldn’t be bought.

In fact, when the company went public in 2004, they released the so-called “Don’t be Evil” manifesto, which delivered a high-minded message about their central values.  In it, they expressly stated their position on paid search results: “We believe it is important for everyone to have access to the best information and research, not only to the information people pay for you to see.”

This holier-than-thou stance endured until 2012, at which point Froogle died, taking with it Google’s noble bearing.  Out with Froogle and in with Google Shopping, which offered online merchants the chance to pay for listings.

Was this a classic case of a self-serving flip-flop or an attempt to further benefit the user?  Obviously, Google claimed the latter, saying that the paid listings would causes search results to be populated by the big name, trustworthy vendors that users sought most.  No mention, however, of the small, independent vendors that might not be able to afford the added cost.

The outcome?  Search result pages that are visually overwhelmed with sponsored results.  As you know, when you search for anything that can be bought (even if you aren’t looking to buy it) you’re inundated with ads.  The page is visually overwhelmed by both standard pay-per-click advertising as well as sponsored shopping listings.

As you might imagine, these ads and sponsored listings mostly come from the big guys.  Corporate companies with big coffers are easily able to pay for exposure, whereas boutique sites might not have the capital, which Google essentially punishes them for.

Is this creating a better experience for the consumer, or just more revenue for Google?  I suspect that its younger self might call this grownup version a sell-out.

Birth of Zebra

In further attempts to optimize the online shopping experience, Google is planning another update.  According to Matt Cutts’s announcement at this year’s SXSW, they are making strides to cut out low-quality shopping sites.

This begs the question:  what is a low-quality e-commerce site?  It’s a loaded question in that there are many factors that contribute to the quality of an online merchant, many of which are quite subjective.

Google has identified numerous features that contribute to a site’s quality and will use those factors as yardsticks to measure all e-commerce websites.  However, one consequence is that sites that have hard-won top ranking positions could lose status if they don’t measure up…even if they’ve done well without the features that Google deems necessary.

E-commerce sites that are already successful may feel resistant to changing just to please Google.  If it ain’t broke, why fix it?  But, once Zebra bounds out of the gate, it may cause new breaks that weren’t there before.

Businesses who are not prepared to pay for visibility should begin making way for the update now.  After all, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

1. Customer Experience

  • The shopping cart icon should be featured on all pages and needs to update every time a customer adds a new item.
  • Customers must be able to write reviews that are visible to all users.  Go further by creating forums where customers can communicate with one another.
  • Feature wish lists and gift registries to maximize the ways customers can use your site.

2. Customer Service

  • Implement live chat to give shoppers immediate support and show Google how responsive you are to customers.
  • Be vigilant about making sure that your checkout system includes a shipping calculator that reflects current and accurate costs.
  • If you don’t already, send customers shipping notices and allow them to track a package’s location at every step.
  • Show customers a physical address to communicate legitimacy and give shoppers a place to send returns.

3. Website Design

  • It’s critical that your site is built to be functional on mobile devices as well as assistive devices that enable access for disabled users.
  • Beef up your product descriptions in order to give customers the best possible idea of what they’re buying.  Take a note from Zappos and feature videos that show product features in action.
  • Google values you and your site more if they see that you’re fully integrated and active on all of their platforms.  Become a Google Trusted Store to get the official stamp of approval.  Also, as content becomes more important, make sure that all writing on your site or sites where you’re featured is attributed to you through Google authorship.

Fortunately, implementing these changes on your site is a win-win.  Making improvements may or may not be enough to get Zebra’s approval, but you can be sure that your customers will appreciate the added features.  Shoppers have a lot of choice when it comes to online vendors and they’ll be more likely to choose you if your site is easy to use and responsive to their needs.

Unfortunately, not all businesses have the money to make some of these costly improvements to their sites.  That means that small mom and pop shops who can’t hire a fancy web design company to integrate live chat and produce slick product videos may suffer, despite the fact that they offer unique products at a great price.

The benefits and consequences of Zebra are yet to be seen.  It could raise the bar for all web merchants or it could tank small companies that can’t keep up with Google’s ever-increasing demands.

Furthermore, some skeptics question Google’s motivations and wonder if the likely consequences are just the side effect of the search engine’s desire to profit from their popularity.  Whatever the answer, it’s clear that an e-vendor’s success depends largely on their admission into G’s in-crowd.

As the proverbial leader of the pack, Google can make or break you with one word to its loyal followers.

About the Author

Brian BurtBrian Burt, a leader in Chicago web design and national web marketing, created WebRev Marketing and Design in 2008. His passion for the industry and his ability to stay ahead of the curve of ever-changing marketing trends have led to the company’s growing success in the field. Brian is constantly on the lookout for new techniques and technology that will benefit his clients and interest his readers. Find more info at WebRev Marketing & Design or by connecting with Brian on Google+.

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  • Daniel

    wow, great article, and the first I’ve heard about it, thanks!

    • Cmortensen

      Hey Daniel, thanks for giving us feedback! Glad you found this helpful.