This article reflects on how the 2018 August Google algorithm update affected one of our e-commerce websites, and we take a look back at the steps we took to tackle this update.
For most of our websites, we do not worry too much about Google algorithm updates, because we always try to follow the basic Google Webmaster Guidelines & create well structured, original content.
But in August 2018 Google released a massive core update that focused far more on User Experience & not simply on SEO techniques. It has been dubbed the ‘Medic Update’ but it can affect websites in any area.
One e-commerce website that we built was hit fairly hard by this update, but only for a certain category of products, which made it quite interesting. And after a bit of detective work, looking at why one category of products was different to others, we were eventually able to determine what the main problems were.
The specific problem
The e-commerce website in question is a very busy Glitter Tattoos website that sells tattoo stencils, face paint stencils, face paints & glitter. And only the Glitter products were affected. All other products remained in the top 10 on Google, but during September 2018, the glitter products had completely vanished from Google search results.
Before August / September 2018, this website was in the top 10 for all major keywords & products, so we were certain that it was affected by the Google algorithm update… we just had to find out what the specific problems were.
It was important to handle our website updates carefully, so we didn’t affect the rankings for the other products. And it can be a lengthy process, because after each major website update, we needed to wait for 3 to 4 weeks to see how our latest update had affected our rankings.
The steps we took:
Checked Google Search Console / Webmaster Tools
Google Search Console (formerly Webmaster Tools) is the first place you should look. It will tell you if there are any major issues on your website – such as duplicate page titles, or duplicate META Descriptions.
On a large e-commerce website it is very easy to neglect the page titles, creating a unique title for every product. There were one or two issues that we needed to fix, which were mainly caused by Tags… which we discuss further down.
Created unique product descriptions
Many of the Glitter products had pretty bare product descriptions… some were completely identical, except for the product titles. So we created a more detailed, unique description for each glitter product, describing the colours in each glitter more accurately.
This is obviously a positive change that will help the website in the long run, but after 3 to 4 weeks it didn’t improve our rankings at all. So we had to investigate further.
Removed unnecessary TAGS
Using Tags can be very useful & good for SEO. But when we looked at the Tags that had accumulated over the previous 2 or 3 years, we saw a large number of Tags that were actually conflicting with product categories. For example, we had a product category called ‘Cosmetic Glitter’ and we also found a Tag called ‘Cosmetic Glitter’ on a number of products, which created duplicate page titles on the Archive pages.
So we removed all unnecessary Tags, only leaving Tags that were completely unique & provided an actual function… by grouping together similar products.
We believe that the removal of unnecessary Tags was one of the major factors in this whole process, but there were still other issues that needed to be fixed before the rankings fully recovered.
Updated product category structure
Because it was only the single category of products that was dipping on Google, we looked at what was different about how they were set up on the website. We noticed that all of the main products had a top-level category, but the Glitter products were a sub-category of Glitter Tattoos. So the URLs were like this:
So we updated the category structure, giving the Glitter products their own top-level category. So the URLs now looked like this:
We also created 301 redirects for the old URLs, pointing them to the new URLs, so we wouldn’t cause too much disruption or lose any value from external links.
We don’t believe that changing the URL structure made any difference to the eventual outcome, because there were a number of other sub-category product ranges that were completely unaffected, but we wanted to remove any differences between the main product categories to be sure.
Removed Up-Sell / Cross-Sell Products
We found that the business owner had gone through a large number of products adding cross-sell / up-sell products. This is a great way to get additional sales, but it is also a problem if some products go out of stock or are discontinued. With over 2000 products on this website, it is easy to lose track of all cross-sell products.
We found a number of cross-sell products that had been discontinued, which effectively created a broken link. So we had to search every single product and remove all cross-sell products.
If you do run a large e-commerce website, it’s best to avoid these cross-sell products, unless you are confident that you will remember to remove them if a product goes out of stock, maybe six months down the line.
Removed Out of Stock products
On further investigation, we also realised that there were 94 ‘out of stock’ products, 86 of which were Glitter products. The website was set up to hide ‘out of stock’ products from the front-end catalogue, but the URLs were still live & visible to Google. And as the August Google algorithm update was reportedly about User Experience, we figured that this could be a major factor.
We removed all ‘out of stock’ products from the website by un-publishing them / changing them to Draft products. We could still bring these products back in the future, but we took them off the website completely, hiding them from Google.
We believe that Google saw these ‘out of stock’ products as bad for User Experience – like in the real world, if you went into a shop & there were lots of empty shelves, it leaves a bad impression.
Renamed the Bioglitter Products
Our very last update was to re-name a sub-category of products from ‘Bioglitter’ to ‘Bio-Glitter’. The owner was very keen to use the term ‘bioglitter’ in the product titles, because that was the name of the actual brand. But we persuaded them to change the names to ‘bio-glitter’, because…
- Looking at Google Trends, there is significantly more traffic for people searching for ‘bio glitter’ than ‘bioglitter’ – see here
- ‘Bioglitter’ is not an actual word in the English language, so a search engine will not recognise it.
- Also, having around 16 products in this range, naming the products ‘bioglitter’ removes 16 products from the website containing the keyword ‘glitter’ in the title.
We changed all product titles in this range back to ‘Bio-Glitter’ – but also used the term ‘bioglitter’ in the product descriptions, so they eventually achieved high rankings for both search terms.
After renaming these products, all Glitter products started to come back onto the top search results after 3 to 4 weeks. And along with the previous improvements we had already made, the glitter products climbed up to higher than they were before the August update.
It took about four months to fix theses issues, after each update we had to wait 3 to 4 weeks to see if it had brought us back onto Google. For a large e-commerce website this is normal, and unavoidable really. So don’t panic! You need to do each update methodically, then wait to see how the latest update has affected the rankings.
Each website will be an individual case, so don’t just copy what someone else has done, you need to examine your website & think… “what could possibly be a ‘user experience’ issue?” Very often it will be an accumulation of small SEO errors, not one major problem, and you may not see any results until all errors are fixed – which is why it can take a long time.
There are no mystical SEO techniques involved, what it boils down to is being meticulous. Every single product, page, category or tag in a website should have a unique title – each product or page should have unique descriptions / content. There should be no broken links within a website. Keep a close eye on product inventory, don’t allow lots of products to remain out of stock for too long. And the larger the website is, the more meticulous & careful you need to be.
When Google makes a major Algorithm update, remember that everyone in the World is in the same boat. The Algorithm rules are a highly guarded secret, so all you can do is experiment & observe. It’s a trial & error process, but knowing what changes are required will be an educated guess.
Google is making constant updates to it’s algorithm rules, with the ultimate goal of being fair & filtering out any sneaky SEO tricks… so the best thing anyone can do is just keep things simple, well structured & follow the basic guidelines… then you never need to worry about these updates!
Many of these issues were created by the business owner making updates to their own website – such as adding Tags & cross-sell products, neglecting stock management, re-naming products etc. – not being aware of the SEO issues they were causing. So it’s important to show them what had to be fixed during this whole process, so they understand what they should & shouldn’t do in the future.
You could also search Google for the term ‘Google algorithm updates’ and read a number of articles about the topic. We found that if you get an overview of the problem from a number of different sources, you get a good idea of what needs to be done to tackle the problem.
We found this article very useful & accurate: GSQi Analysis and Findings