The recent news out of SXSW is that Google wants to “protect” searchers from clicking on sites from “low quality experience merchants”. How they’ll do that is up for speculation.
Danny Sullivan reported from a panel he moderated at the Austin conference, called “How to Rank Better in Google & Bing”. Matt Cutts, Google’s mouth-piece to the search marketing industry, took a question from an online merchant complaining that bad competitors outranked him. Cutts told him that Google may soon rollout some new secret sauce algorithm that will help them understand a “good” merchant from a “bad” one. Sullivan’s article, Bad Merchant? Google May Drop Your Rankings Later This Year, offers a quick tease of what may be coming.
According to Cutts,
“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.”
Reviews Don’t Count
Way back in the winter of 2010 Google’s search for social signals for our picks of web sites we like began to include user reviews. It seemed like a good idea until crummy SEO’s added fake reviews to their list of stupid SEO tricks like fake blog comments, fake Twitter accounts and purchasing Facebook “likes”. I’m going to guess that Google realized that some signals aren’t authentic and they went back to the whiteboard to tweak that idea.
In the meantime, a legitimate business owner seeking to compete with competitors must duke it out with merchants that cheat or have a meaty budget to throw at it.
User Experience is No Easy Solution
My immediate reaction to Google’s dilemma was to toot the usability horn as the miracle algorithm. In my mind, a “good” merchant is one who goes out of their way to make their web site visitors happy. Customer service online is a sure-fire way of getting repeat sales, referrals, and conversions, right? One to achieve this is to build a web site that’s easy to use and usable by everybody.
In my utopian dream world of search results, only the top ranked online merchants would be those who make it possible for special needs users to purchase from them. That includes someone with an injured hand, tremors from disease or anxiety over hearing bad news, and the huge world population of eye glass and reading glasses wearers. I would award points too easy to learn and use forms and shopping carts, impeccably designed product pages and an uncomplicated task process such as finding a sales representative phone number or business address.
In other words, web sites that passed accessibility and usability standards would naturally rank higher because their customers had a delightful and productive experience there. How Google would be able to figure out which merchants place an emphasis on customer experience and those who don’t is something I haven’t worked out yet.
And Why Bother?
It’s bad enough that a local or new small business has to do battle with famous brands to rank well naturally. Is it any wonder many of them feel forced to look for a sly SEO skilled in the art of marketing illusions? Just for fun I decided to see how user friendly and accessible some of the top Fortune 500 companies are, since they seem to have no trouble sitting on their rank thrones.
I looked at Merck, Valero Energy, Harley-Davidson, Discover Financial, MetLife, Walmart, Best Buy, Newegg, Target and Victoria’s Secret to see if they would pass my favorite usability and accessibility criteria. None of them did.
Each of them had one or more of the following:
- Tiny font size
- Poor color contrasts
- Slideshow, with no user controls
- Sound, with no warning so it surprises you, especially if your sound volume is up
- Blue colored text against blue background
- Gray colored text against gray background
- Very light gray or blue colored text in a tiny font size
- Light gray colored text for content against white background
- Orange or green buttons with white text label (fails color contrasts)
- Script-driven pages
- No text
- Image intense
- Inability to tell the difference between a heading, sub-heading or a link because they each are the same color and/or font size.
Target’s content never uses capital letters. This has been viewed as a fad in some usability circles for years.
General Motors scared the heck out of me, first because sound appeared out of nowhere and then their rather clever, gigantic images slide into view. The images are so large I literally felt sick to my stomach, as if I was getting motion sickness.
You can try it yourself – View the car driving up into your lap experience (http://www.gm.com/brand_landing_pages/gmc.html#/2013+Terrain). I could only get it to work in Chrome and IE9. You will need Flash.
I concluded that Google will continue to reward famous brands because they have to, regardless of whether or not they are a “bad” merchant because Google’s definition of “bad” has nothing to do with whether or not all of us can use those websites.