Search engines are programmed to reward relevance and popularity, and are striving to algorithmically determine quality as well. Ecommerce sites are programmed to sell product to customers as efficiently as possible while offering a positive brand experience. Ecommerce sites often strive for quick search-engine-optimization wins, which can be easily mistaken for SEO shortcuts that should be avoided.
Companies with little brand equity may be able to afford to try shortcut solutions that could work well in the short-term but can be exposed and penalized as time goes on. These companies tend to have hundreds of domains that they can test on, push the limits on, and then abandon if they burn down. Most ecommerce sites can’t afford a model like that. Companies that value their brand equity need to avoid SEO shortcuts that can potentially result in search-result dampening or even getting banned from search results entirely.
It’s critical to remember that organic search marketing is entirely dependent on organic search engines and their definitions of value and quality. It doesn’t matter how fantastic the product is, how hard the company tries or how earnestly the marketing team wants to succeed in SEO. The search engines make the rules.
It’s up to site owners to decide whether to play by those rules for slower growing, long-term success or to look for a way around the rules to short-term success and higher risk.
But which strategies are high-risk shortcuts that should be avoided? Sometimes it’s hard to tell, but as Google’s head of webspam Matt Cutts said recently in an interview with SEO industry leader Eric Enge, “The main thing is that people should avoid looking for shortcuts. In competitive market areas there has always been a need to figure out how to differentiate yourself, and nothing has changed today.”
SEO Shortcut 1: Buying Links
J.C. Penney was publically penalized last year by Google for buying links. Search engines despise paid links because they prey on the algorithmic dependency on links as signals of quality. If a site has earned many links it must be high quality, right? Not if those links are paid for or given in exchange for product, reciprocal links or other favors. As a result, Google in particular has developed algorithmic innovations to identify and devalue links from link rings, link farms, link exchanges and paid link schemes. Sure, there are some paid links available that haven’t been devalued yet, but how long will they have value and what will happen when they’re discovered? The risk is greater than the short-term reward.
SEO Shortcut 2: Stock Product Descriptions
Ecommerce sites often depend upon product descriptions created by the manufacturer. However, when many sites sell products from the same manufacturer, those product descriptions become an engrained source of duplicate content. To be clear, stock descriptions will not incur a penalty. At the same time, search engines reward unique content. Nothing is less unique than a product description used by thousands of sites. Options include rewriting stock descriptions to be unique, or engaging customers to rate and review products to contribute their own unique content to the product pages.
SEO Shortcut 3: Content Sections
Ecommerce sites often confuse the need for unique content with the creating separate content sections. Slapping a couple of dozen articles together and just linking to them from the footer is not an effective way to harness the power of content marketing. Search engines can easily detect a cul-de-sac of articles hung on the periphery of a site as an SEO shortcut. The same strategy can be used more effectively integrated into the core of the site. The product and category pages are the ones that can convert, and thus are the ones that need to rank. Use that content to augment the ecommerce pages rather than sequestering it in its own section unlinked and unloved.
SEO Shortcut 4: Fake Profiles
Some link building companies will develop small sites and social profiles that exist only to link to their clients’ content. Unfortunately, search engines can easily determine when a mass of profiles on Pinterest and Twitter and small three-page blogs have been discovered that all link back to the same site. It’s an attempt to funnel links to the client site, even when the profiles link to the blogs that in turn link to the client sites. Search engines have been able to detect link spam like this for years.
SEO Shortcut 5: Low-Value Linking
Speaking of link spam, other types of low-value linking definitely count as SEO shortcuts. Inserting carbon-copy comments in blogs with links back to a site are an obvious example. Other shortcuts include off-topic directories, thin articles on article submission sites, low-news-value press releases, and other link sources that have low value to customers.
The bottom line is that creating and promoting content of value takes time and effort. Strategies that shortcut the time and effort should be examined closely to be sure that they really do have value to consumers, as well as SEO value.
Interestingly, all of these SEO shortcuts except for the first paid link example can be repurposed as legitimate SEO strategies if the focus is shifted from SEO shortcut to adding user value. For example, well written articles can have great SEO benefit when promoted via best-practices content marketing strategies, but the same articles could languish with no added SEO value when dumped into an SEO article submission site.
The apparent intent is important in SEO. Can a strategy be misconstrued as an SEO shortcut or an attempt to skirt the rules? If so, it’s not a strategy that ecommerce sites that value their brand equity should feel safe about pursuing. Be very clear, though, that it’s not the company’s perception of the strategy’s intent, it’s the search engines’ algorithmic perception that truly matters to a site’s ability to drive organic search traffic and sales.