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3 Important Ecommerce Trends To Watch

The web is shifting rapidly, again. Search has seen accelerated growth over the last two years, at a quicker clip than any time over the last ten. This has been fueled primarily by innovations at Google. However, Bing is also pushing innovation rapidly and was cited by Google CEO Eric Schmidt as, their “biggest problem” and competitor. Schmidt conceded to the Wall Street Journal that, “Bing is a well run, highly competitive search engine.” While Google is dominating market share, you can bet they are keenly watching Microsoft’s every move in search.

Perhaps more importantly, however, the web population has driven innovation with an increasingly diverse set of needs. Social media has become dominated, particularly in the latter part of 2010, by Facebook and Twitter. But the popularity of these social sites (the latter of which would rather call itself an “information network” than a social network) are clearly a reflection of users’ changing needs. It remains to be seen how things will shake out on the web: will a few giants rule? Or will the web remain a level playing field in the same manner it has since the late 1990s?

No one wants to see competing giants like Apple, Google, Facebook and Microsoft vying for marketshare at the expense of what’s best for users. But we are entering a new era on the web, an important one. Here are 3 important trends to watch in 2011.

Consumer Focus Is On Price

Certainly what is important to consumers has changed dramatically over the past several years. The web has become identified somewhat as a deals frontier where price is king and comparison shopping is fast. For ecommerce companies looking to stay competitive, price is one way to differentiate; however this is getting more difficult. While brand strength has typically had a powerful spillover online, consumers are moving away from brand loyalty towards price loyalty. Search engine optimization strategies have long benefited from Google’s algorithmic brand bias. Google’s Schmidt has stated that, “brands are how you sort out the cesspool” of the web, where spam proliferates and Google depends on relevant results for its business model (in search, at least).

However, especially over the last two years, consumer trends prove that shopping demand is not driven by brand as much as it used to be. Today, consumers online are looking for deals, discounts, incentives, free shipping and coupons. We have yet to see how this will impact SEO. The truism certainly resonates here, however, that search engines follow users.

Data released by comScore in Q3 2010 showed that shopping from different retailers, and buying diverse brands (including generic), have increased 12% and 10% respectively since Q3 2008.

online shoppers today gravitate towards lowest cost, not necessarily known brands.

While Google has aggressively attempted to disintermediate comparison shopping engines (CSEs) such as Shopping.com, and offers its own competing product in Google shopping, CSEs have actually gained ground over the past two years. This reflects the growing trend in users looking for deals and discounts online before purchasing.

CSEs have gained unique visitors by 30% since Q3 2008.

Core to this trend is the pronounced desire for free shipping by online shoppers. While historically free shipping has been a strong differentiator (used successfully by companies such as Zappos for years), today nearly 51% of online shoppers are at least “somewhat likely” to cancel their entire order if free shipping is not provided. In addition, 70% of online shoppers are willing to pay no more than $4.99 for shipping. These are important trends that online retailers would be wise to take action on.

70% of shoppers will only pay $4.99 or less for shipping.

For ecommerce sites not willing or able to compete on price, it is essential they differentiate another way. Price discounts are effective, however, frequent shopper incentives (Amazon Prime, Zappos VIP, for example) can work well, as can special promotions. If price and shipping discounts are not feasible, ecommerce teams must ask themselves how the business will stand out. Does your customer service go above and beyond? Do you offer a rich user experience that stands above the rest? 2011 will be about standing out in the crowd.

In a holiday retail power move, Walmart announced free shipping with no online minimum purchase requirements for the 2010 holiday season.

Riding The Next Wave: Video & Visual Search

Numerous studies have shown the power of video and rich images to enhance our ability to process information quickly. While the web originally was almost completely text-based (HTML to be precise), that is changing. By some measures YouTube is the second largest search engine in the world, and it’s no surprise: people prefer to consume certain types of information in video format, and high-quality video support in modern browsers is the standard. Success with video is not limited to “My Dog is Crazy!!” types of throwaway content, either; ecommerce can benefit markedly from video work.

Statistics cited by Bing note that web visitors are able to process information up to 30% more rapidly when it’s provided in a combination of video and text, rather than text alone. Additionally, 65% of us are visual learners, and more likely to digest information and learn from it, in a visual form. Most types of ecommerce, notably apparel and products suited to emotional and personal tastes, excel with visual additions.

There is no doubt that video can be powerful on the web as a conversion tool, as well. A comScore study revealed that when video was included in the shopping experience, visitors were 64% more likely to purchase than without it, and stayed on the site for an additional 2 minutes.

Video power: ecommerce sites should use video to drive sales.

Aside from the on-site shopping experience benefits, video is an extremely productive asset in the SEO toolbox, as well. Video optimization and syndication offer valuable opportunities to gain additional visibility on sites such as YouTube, Vimeo, Facebook and the blended search results featured in Google, Bing, and Yahoo!.

Visual searching and browsing are other areas to be keenly concerned with. Today’s bandwidth increases and web technology allow a more visual style and approach to search, which provides visitors with tools that are more efficient for shopping and comparing products. Bing has explored this area and released its visual search beta site, bing.com/visualsearch:

Bing’s innovate visual search tool.

Google, too, is keenly interested in visual search because of the advantages in user experience that it introduces. Before the holiday season in 2010, Google announced the launch of Boutiques.com, a site which “…uses computer vision and machine learning technology to visually analyze your taste and match it to items you would like.” But Boutiques.com goes one step further than visual search, and creates a focus on “curation” and the ability for visitors to design their own looks based on popular fashion, people and trends.

Google’s Boutiques.com puts visual search and curation at the forefront.

Amazon, too, has recently announced visual search for its shoe business.

Innovative ecommerce companies need to be looking to areas such as video and visual search to stay on the cutting-edge of consumer demand. On top of practical user experience improvements, offering rich browsing and navigation options opens up a big world of SEO. Google, Bing and yet unknown search engines of the future will continue to develop increasingly sophisticated visual search offerings.

Trends In Technical SEO

When Google Instant was announced, half of the SEO community panicked. We didn’t. Instead, we set about testing the impact Instant was having on our ecommerce clients, and found (to our surprise) that it has had very little noticeable effect. However, Instant does have the ability to change the way searchers use Google, so in time this may be a bigger topic.

We looked at the frequency with which Google sent referrals based on search query length. The assumption was the long-tail would be deteriorated as searchers naturally clicked on the first offerings by Instant, which are normally 1-3 terms in length. That is not the case. Sampling about 600,000 search visits from Google across a dozen ecommerce clients four weeks before Instant (which launched on September 8, 2010) and four weeks after, the results showed very little, if any, impact in query length:

Google Instant has not had an impact on search behavior, as of yet.

While there is a slight increase in 1 and 2 word queries after Instant (in red), 3 word queries have risen. There is a slight decrease in 4 word queries, but the data shows a relatively flat change across the entire profile of term length. (The above graph was generated using Seer Interactive’s most excellent Excel spreadsheet.)

In our experience, Google’s so called “May Day” algorithm change has had a much more pronounced, even profound, impact on SEO. Ecommerce companies will do well to focus on offering unique, high-quality content and resources, as well as custom-written product text (where feasible) in answer to the quality standards May Day imposes. Even more importantly, large ecommerce sites need to be fast.

Bing, on the other hand, is still trying to play catch-up with Google’s superior technology, especially when it comes to crawling and indexing speed and efficiency. Bing will officially support the rel canonical meta tag, which handles duplicate content issues, in January or February of 2011, a full two years after Google announced its support. With the launch, Bing will be unable to offer support for cross-domain rel canonical implementations, however, and we doubt that support will ever be coming.

The rel canonical meta tag was designed to alleviate duplicate content issues caused by myriad scenarios where a permanent redirect, or 301, was not the correct choice. Unfortunately, Bing is still quite slow to handle 301s properly, and requires up to two or three crawls to successfully update their index. This is a serious problem when moving URLs, and it’s also an issue when dealing with duplicate content. The best tool to use at Bing for duplicate content is their parameter handling tool, available in the Bing Webmaster Toolbox (a free tool similar to Google’s Webmaster Tools).

Technical SEO issues caused by ecommerce sorting, pagination and faceted navigation features will continue to create performance headaches in organic search. It is essential that SEO teams tackle this problem strategically and with the correct approach; too often we’ve seen the result of a poor rel canonical implementation that costs ecommerce sites time and money, because it creates, rather than solves, the problem at hand. Parameter handling, rel canonical, meta noindex, and several other techniques are all potential candidates and their precise use is essential in handling duplicate content.

Google has recently announced the support for a source attribution meta tag that will solve duplication issues for publishers. This may have impact for ecommerce sites, as well, and we’ll continue to watch this area.

In Summary

While Google is the top dog and should be of primary focus in SEO, Bing is an important component of a well-ordered, strategic campaign. In addition to incremental increases in traffic from Bing, ecommerce sites can expect a much more shopping-prone demographic: numbers released by Microsoft state that Bing users are 11% more likely to buy than Google users, and 31% more likely to purchase than the web’s general user. It is a decidedly “shoppy” demographic that ecommerce companies should not ignore. Stay tuned for a future article where I’ll focus on SEO for Bing specifically.

Trends in ecommerce and SEO continue to surprise. Staying on top of consumer shopping behavior with discounts and free shipping, offering rich product pages and video, and embracing the coming wave of visual search, will pay dividends. Additionally, ecommerce teams should pay special attention to duplicate content issues, especially at the product and search levels, and with faceted navigations. This will continue to be an important component of SEO in 2011.

Here’s to a successful 2011 and beyond!

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Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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