Practical Ecommerce

Google’s ‘Farmer’ Algorithm and What It Means for Ecommerce SEO

A massive change to Google’s search engine ranking algorithm has recently improved query results, while having a negative effect on businesses that had been “gaming” the system or reusing others’ content.

The so-called “Farmer” algorithm update went into effect in late February and affected some 11.8 percent of Google search queries in the United States.

Weeding Out Bad SEO Tactics

Google actually makes about 500 changes to its search-results ranking algorithm — the step-by-step instructions its computers carry out each time search results are displayed — each year as it constantly does battle against search engine optimization (SEO) tactics aimed at “gaming” the algorithm, rather than producing content useful to consumers.

The Farmer update was presumably aimed at content farms, those that produce low-quality information or republish content for the purpose of generating revenue that is often in the form of advertising.

“This update is designed to reduce rankings for low-quality sites — sites which are low-value add for users, copy content from other websites or sites that are just not very useful,” wrote Google Fellow Amit Singhal and results-spam guru Matt Cutts on The Official Google Blog. “At the same time, it will provide better rankings for high-quality sites — sites with original content and information such as research, in-depth reports, thoughtful analysis and so on.”

The Farmer update is having a positive effect on many search results. For example, according to a report from Search Engine Land, generally low-quality sites like Associated Content and Suite 101, and content aggregators — such as The Find, which aggregates content from ecommerce sites — all saw significant losses in search results visibility as a result of the Farmer update. Instead of finding multiple pages of results that link to essentially the same content, Google users should be seeing more relevant results now.

3 Things for Merchants to Consider

This update also makes it clear that Google is emphasizing unique and high-quality results — as it should. For online merchants, this fact has three potential impacts.

First, it may no longer be good enough — if it ever was good enough — to copy and republish manufacturer descriptions.

As an example, consider the Schleich Knight’s Castle toy. The product description on the manufacturer’s site reads:

“Realistic in design, the Knight’s castle is a refuge for your favorite Schleich Knights. Saving the castle from a brutal attack, you can manipulate the castle design to suit your imagination. With endless possibilities, this castle brings imaginative play to your home.”

The Knight's Castle from the Schleich site.

The Knight’s Castle from the Schleich site.

This same description appears verbatim on some 195 ecommerce sites. How would any reasonable person expect Google to rank merchants using the same copied content, except to favor the original?

Approximately 195 online merchants copy the castle's description exactly from the manufacturer's site.

Approximately 195 online merchants copy the castle’s description exactly from the manufacturer’s site.

Second, merchants may need to produce more unique, product-related content to boost traffic. This fact should have been obvious before Google’s Farmer update made it almost mandatory. But if ecommerce marketers want to attract customers, they need to provide an interesting and informative shopping experience.

For example, consider how REI provides unique and complete product descriptions, reviews, and even product videos to support many of its products.

REI provides complete product information, reviews, and videos for many of its products.

REI provides complete product information, reviews, and videos for many of its products.

Likewise, notice how Williams-Sonoma includes rich, detailed product descriptions, videos, and even recipes on its product detail pages.

Williams-Sonoma includes recipes on many of its product detail pages.

Williams-Sonoma includes recipes on many of its product detail pages.

Third, merchants should avoid any form of SEO that does not focus on good, well-organized content. This means using good HTML structure — CSS layout versus tables — content semantics like proper title and header tags, and generally trying to make a page easy for human readers while avoid other less scrupulous SEO tactics that try to anticipate the Google algorithm or even guess at what the Google bot can or cannot read.

If you need proof, consider that in addition to the Farmer update, Google recently sanctioned J.C. Penney for allegedly manipulating paid links in an effort to improve its search-results rank.

Summing Up

The Google Farmer update produces better search results. But, at the same time, it requires site owners, including online merchants, to provide rich and useful content. Ecommerce marketers should produce good and unique content, while deemphasizing any SEO tactics aimed at “gaming” legitimate search results.

Armando Roggio

Armando Roggio

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  1. Jesse Zimmerman March 8, 2011 Reply

    i’m glad to see that Google is taking the steps to weed out these low quality content duplicating sites. This article is music to my ears and all of the other SEO professionals who do things the right way.

    It is great to see that people are being penalized for taking the easy way out.

  2. bouncehouse March 8, 2011 Reply

    Copy and pasting manufacturer’s product description is hard enough, having to create a unique product description for each product being offered will put a lot of pressure to online merchants. With average conversion rate hovering at lower 2%, smaller merchants will have tough time surviving ecommerce battle.

  3. Armando Roggio March 8, 2011 Reply

    Everyone in this business should be able to take a few minutes and come up with a unique product description — one that fits your brand as well as describes the product.

    I did 28 such descriptions this morning.

  4. Louis Camassa March 9, 2011 Reply

    Another alternative to you writing unique content is to focus on motivating customers to generate the content for you. For example; reviews, pictures, videos, recipes, and articles.

    Reviews will add unique content from your customers which will not only help your SEO strategy, but help increase your conversion rate. Send an email after the order to entice customers to make a review. Hold a giveaway each month to the most helpful reviewer. Use more advanced review systems that allow your customers to rate and categorize the products.

    Pictures – its pretty straight forward to setup a photo contest. If applicable for your products, create a campaign that allows customers to upload pictures of them using/wearing/engaging with your products. See an example at: the customers upload the photos and associate the products used. This photo then gets added to the product page and the photo contest gallery! You can use the same concept for videos.

    Recipes – using the same type of contest/campaign system as the pictures and videos, setup a contest for customers to upload their favorite recipe using your products. Again, this will be cross referenced on the recipe page and on the product page.

    Articles – if you are writing and posting blog articles, associate the products you are writing about to your blog article and vice-versa. You can setup a integration with your blog platform and your ecommerce system so blogs can be cross referenced.

    Be creative in generating unique content for your products; use your customers to help!

  5. brustici March 10, 2011 Reply

    It’s about time on-line merchants to wake up and "add value" to customer experience with product descriptions and develop selling copy that reflects their business. The copy and paste of manufacture descriptions behavior is just looking for the easy way. Starting, growing and maintaining a business is hard work. Roll up your sleeves and get to work.

    Here is a simple suggestions I’ve asked many ecommerce businesses, do you know why people are looking for this product? Can you visualize what type of person they are? Give a name to your ideal customer and spend a few moments coming up with a profile. Then write a response to that first question as though they are your ideal customer and use that as the basis of your product description.

    Here’s a timesaving tip if you have SKUs in the thousands. You can even structure auto build’s of descriptions if you do this homework properly.

  6. Shemeck March 10, 2011 Reply

    Agree with all above, just quick question which may help merchants to valuate their content:

    Is there any site which can help determinate that content of my pages is unique or give me a feedback how many sites carry the same description?

    I really like the clear statement in the article: "This same description appears verbatim on some 195 ecommerce sites."

    That simply note gives a strong signal that the action should be taken. I believe that many merchants are trying to create something one in a kind. However many of them simply don’t know that some parts of description should be revised because tons of other merchants did similar job.

  7. richard gilliland March 10, 2011 Reply

    We recently experienced a triple increase in traffic. I am wondering if this recent update has something to do with it.

  8. Greg Percifield March 10, 2011 Reply

    The unfortunate assumption that has been made is that merchants are copying and pasting data for their product descriptions, and not taking the time to create their own original content.

    I operate a sheet music store. Our descriptions are a requirement by the publishing company. Although we host the data on our own database, these descriptions and product attributes are imported and updated from weekly files that the publishing company insists we (and all their vendors) use.

    We carry over 200,000 unique products, and we’ve been hit hard by the farmer update.

    I’m not one to say we should sit back and cry foul to Google. After all, there is no chance that they are going to change their algorithm because of some unhappy merchants.

    However, I don’t like the notion that we broke the rules. I would have been please if Google broadened their understanding of what is perceived as duplicate content.

    Our storefront has a 7 year history. We provide quality service, and when it comes to descriptions for product content, we follow the same rules that everyone else follows.

    The question now is how can we fix it, if we are obligated to provide this duplicate content? Hopefully, with more original content that precedes the required product descriptions, we will see some vast improvements.

  9. Greg Jameson March 10, 2011 Reply

    I’ve been suggesting this to my clients for years. Unique content and added value is what sells. The merchant is the salesperson, so sell them on what you have to offer, don’t just regurgitate what someone else has already said.

    If a customer walks into your store, they can read the label themselves, but they may still need help deciding on a particular product – it is up to you as a merchant to give them enough information to make a buying decision.

    @GregPercifield: Do they prevent you from adding your own insights, observations, and recommendations to the canned content?

  10. Steve Owens March 15, 2011 Reply

    @Greg Percifield

    I suggest that you try to educate your publishing company about the changes at Google. Then get them to contact Google on all their resellers’ behalf. It would be more effective than just your store wallowing in the virtual farmer’s mud. Maybe between Google the publisher and their vendors something can be done.

  11. Owala March 29, 2011 Reply

    I just came across this topic today. In my opinion the duplicate content discussion is not entirely thought through yet.

    Duplicate content, if somebody is stealing content off my website and recycles it for his product, yes. But if I am writing an article and it is publish a number of times with my name on it , that is – I find – ok. You have your sources, I have mine.

    If I am selling insurance online, I believe the insurance company would not be too happy if I changed their product description.

    If I am an author I like to have my book in more than online bookshop and I would object that they changed my cover text. That is like asking me which library is allowed to put my book on the shelf, well just the one down the road and as many as we can find worldwide.
    I would choose the latter.

    There I see the weakness of the discussion…

  12. Greg Jameson April 13, 2011 Reply

    @Owala – you are correct, which is why I suggest adding personal experiences about a product to the description, rather than re-writing it. As a professional representing a particular product, I should be able to offer my own advice, thus you add unique content and value to the standard pitch.

  13. Gena Cornett May 15, 2011 Reply

    Here is a quesiton that I haven’t seen addressed. How much of a product description needs to be unique? For example, if I have a line of widgets that are all the same size, shape, and material, but the design varies for each widget – can I just write unique content for the description of each widget’s design while leaving the other basic information the same for each widget, or will that still be seen as too much duplicate content on each page?