Marketing & Advertising

Ecommerce Search Marketing Evolves

A few years ago, small ecommerce business owners invested a good part of their marketing budgets on search engine optimization. Their goal was typically to obtain the highest possible search rankings, to capture as much organic traffic as possible. Many businesses used that as their core tactic for search engines. Organic traffic was considered free.

If they did a good job, they had a shot at the first page of Google’s search results, where the majority of clicks occur. They could even break into the coveted top five positions, above the fold. A strategy might have been to drive 70 percent of search traffic from organic listings.

Organic Traffic Risky

But seasoned merchants know they can quickly be dumped off the first page of Google with an algorithm change. If you’ve ever changed platforms or the navigational structure of your store, it’s likely your rankings suffered. Things like personalized search results, local results, and suggested keywords have also altered the search landscape. Many merchants, therefore, invested more money in pay-per-click advertising to maintain their search traffic.

In the last 12 months, it’s become obvious to me that Google is mainly an advertising platform. You may as well just pay for Product Listing Ads or PPC ads if you want to be seen. If you are a local business, you may have potential leverage with the local listings, but that will require some other types of investment with Google social and local platforms.

‘Running Shoes’ Example

Google is focusing its user experience on companies that pay for ads for popular search terms, or are local. Consider, for example, the broad search term “running shoes.”

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Running shoes search results example.

Running shoes search results example.

The screen shot above goes below the fold. We can see three PPC text ads that include premium features like phone numbers, store rankings on Google+, and sitelinks. We see eight Product Listing Ads. These are generally the highest converting links on a page for shoppers. We also see a map for five local running shoe stores along with links and reviews. We see only three organic search results, and one is a local business with a Google score of 27 out of 30.

Clearly, companies that have invested in ads or in Google local listings and Google+ have benefited. What about all other companies with great SEO? They are buried at the bottom of the page. Google has stacked the odds that you will click on the results at the top of the page and above the fold. That increases Google’s revenue.

‘Trout Flies’ Example

Next, consider “trout flies,” a more niche search.

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"Trout flies" search results example.

"Trout flies" search results example.

If your store sells fishing flies, you may be rewarded more for your SEO efforts. There are Product Listing Ads — PLAs — at the top right, but not as many as for “running shoes.” There are PPC ads, but they are on the right side. We see five or six organic results above the fold. We also see image results, which could a good place to optimize. In short, if you were selling trout flies, you might consider a premium text ad targeting “trout flies.”

‘Cheap Polarized Sunglasses for Men’ Example

Finally, consider the term “cheap polarized sunglasses for men.”

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"Cheap polarized sunglasses for men" search results.

"Cheap polarized sunglasses for men" search results.

As with the “trout flies” search, we see a few organic results below the PLAs. Notice the depth and quality of the single ad that is shown on the page. It is optimized for “polarized sunglasses for men,” includes a 5 star ranking with 800+ reviews, and site links to the most popular related navigation paths. Most clicks for “cheap polarized sunglasses for men” likely go to that ad. The searchers likely do not read the organic results below the PLAs.

What Does It Mean?

If I were running an ecommerce business — I sold my online jewelry business last year, after owning it for ten years — I would invest in PLAs and PPC campaigns. I would closely watch my results and return on investment, especially on broad terms.

Segment and target your campaigns as much as possible to present results that are highly personalized to the search terms you have chosen. Target longtail keywords with rich ads that will dominate the page, as in the sunglasses example above. Invest in landing pages that are optimized for the search terms. Conduct A/B testing on different ads and landing pages.

Consumers are more comfortable clicking on ads now than in the past. Part of the reason is the ads are high quality and generally take shoppers to relevant products. Organic results are frequently not as concise and don’t necessarily take consumers to the optimal locations for shopping. The means more clicks on text and PLA ads. It may also mean more money for merchants, as the conversion rates are typically higher from those ads than organic clicks.

Don’t Ignore SEO

Ecommerce merchants should not ignore SEO. But they should not count on organic search to deliver 70 percent of their traffic with a 3 or 4 percent conversion rate. Merchants should still provide good content for their products and site category pages because that‘s what shoppers want to see when they come to a site. It will increase the chances of closing the sale.

If you have solid organic search rankings for your products and see a high conversation rate from that traffic, stay the course. But plan for PPC ads. If Google makes changes that reduce your revenue, you can quickly step in with paid campaigns to offset the lost traffic.

You’ll still want backlinks from affiliates, blogs, and social media. But, don’t do it just for SEO. Leverage those links as referrals from multiple channels. Realize that the content you post on Facebook may influence a future purchase. Don’t just view it as a targeted link.


Diversify your store’s traffic as much as possible. Invest in advertising, but measure the ROI. Make sure you think beyond the cost of a single acquisition and consider the lifetime value of a customer. If you sell cheap sunglasses, for example, ask if a sale is a one-time purchase or a potential repeat buyer. If it’s one time, consider passing on the ads for that search term. But if you sell products like polarized sunglasses for men, the advertising investment to get to the top of the page may be worth it.

Dale Traxler
Dale Traxler
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