A possible change to the way Google ranks merchants on its results pages might make multi-channel selling on marketplaces or comparison shopping engines important.
During a recent panel discussion at the South by Southwest (SXSW) Conference and Festival, Matt Cutts, who is the head of Google's Webspam team, told attendees that Google might make a change to its search algorithm this year that would consider merchant quality.
"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."
Cutts' remark was made in response to a question. An online retailer in the SXSW audience was concerned that a bad competitor managed to rank better on some search results pages, according to Danny Sullivan, editor of Search Engine Land, who moderated the "How to Rank Better in Google & Bing" panel.
Merchant Quality Score Could Hurt Small Business
Although very little is known about how Google would rank merchants or weed out "low quality" sellers, a change to the search company's ranking algorithms will almost certainly have implications for small or even mid-sized online stores.
As an example, a merchant quality score might favor established brands like Amazon, Walmart, or Best Buy over small, online-only retailers. New ecommerce start-ups might have a greater challenge ranking. And a seller with only a handful of reviews could find that negative comments have a significant impact on ranking and, therefore, on site traffic.
Marketplaces, Comparison Shopping Engines, Google Shopping Should Help
Depending on how the "launch" Cutts described works, listing or selling products on marketplaces — like Amazon or Rakuten (formerly Buy.com) — could become significantly more important for small ecommerce sellers.
Thousands of retailers already sell through marketplaces. These retailers typically have their own sites or even physical stores, but profit from the millions of visitors that sites like Amazon enjoy.
In a scenario where it is potentially harder for some sellers to rank on Google directly, posting products on a marketplace could become a proxy of sorts. In fact, some online stores are doing this now, since it is already relatively difficult for new businesses to rank well for some competitive shopping terms. Imagine, as an example, how difficult it is now for a brand new Internet store to rank on Google for terms like "t-shirt" or "golf club."
Price comparison engines like Shopzilla, Nextag, or PriceGrabber could also be used to attract new customers, if and when, Google updated its algorithms. These services may charge fees for listings or clicks, but are an excellent way for retailers to acquire new customers, regardless of how a Google merchant quality score affected rankings.
Finally, providing Google Shopping with a complete product feed should also help to improve a store's page rank when and if Google begins adding a merchant quality score to its algorithms. In fact, in an interview with Search Engine Watch, Andrew Davis director of marketing at CPC Strategy, suggested that the quality, the completeness, and the frequency of updates to a Google Shopping feed would likely be part of any merchant-related change Google makes.
Improved Search Results Will Ultimately be Good for Ecommerce
Each time Google changes how it ranks sites, there are small businesses that claim the change was unfair or that it adversely affected them. But in the end, Google, like any good company wants to please its customers. Improving the way merchants are ranked, so that those sellers that don't do a good job, don't show up is good for consumers and good for retailers.
As mentioned above, Cutts' comments were in response to a concerned retailer whose presumably bad competitor was somehow ranking better. Cutts, when describing this potential launch, was aiming to ensure a merchant that good businesses would rise to the top of Google search results pages.
Even now, before any Google update, adding products to marketplaces, comparison sites, and Google Shopping should improve traffic and sales, and when Google does change the way it ranks retailers, the content on these sites may help offset any negative impact.