Don't Worry - You Don't Need to Learn Anything New (Yet)
Etsy is continuing to change search in a variety of ways since mid-2017, including through machine learning processes (often referred to as AI search - artificial intelligence). Progress is very slow, but this seems like a good time to:
- update previous developments,
- explain a few of the recent tests, and
- comment on some of the current rumours.
I will also include some tips for adapting to the new reality. You can get caught up with older changes due to the machine learning experiments in this post from November.
note: Changes we Currently Know About May not be permanent
Please remember that even though some of the new ways search is working have been around for several months, they may not be permanent. Etsy admin have hinted that some effects may change as the machine learning process continues and the new AI figures things out. Most often, they have said this about "clumping" (see below), but it could also apply to weirdness like the lack of title-tag phrase relevancy in small, non-competitive searches (discussed below as well).
So, don't immediately assume that any new or different things you see in search are permanent shifts, or are the result of the AI, unless Etsy says so. And even then, be aware that they may change their minds.
Previous Etsy search developments - What's Happening now?
1. Exact Phrase Matching Still Isn't Working in Non-competitive Searches
One of the basic rules of the Etsy relevancy search has always been that having the exact phrase searched in both title and tags will rank you higher than listings that simply have all the words somewhere. Since last fall, that hasn't been true in searches where few listings have both title and tags fully optimized, what I call "non-competitive searches". It still applies in large, generic searches where tons of listings have the search phrase the buyer used, however, so you should still continue to phrase matching as an SEO strategy right now.
Example: the first several pages of the search "stone earrings" all have the exact phrase "stone earrings" in the title and the tags; out of just over a quarter million items in that search, over 45,000 listings have that exact phrase somewhere in the title or tags (you can check this by searching the term in quotes). You cannot rank for "stone earrings" sitewide without having it in both the title and tags.
But when you narrow down that search to "stone earrings sterling silver" (a recommended phrase from the search bar), the vast majority of the top ranked items do not have the exact phrase in the title; many do not even have the phrase "stone earrings" in the title. Even though there are over 61,000 items in that search result, only 311 had that exact phrase "stone earrings sterling silver" at the time I did the search. So, there isn't much competition for the phrase, and phrase matching does not work for it right now.
I expect this to continue for at least a while longer, and it is possible that Etsy will end up giving less weight to exact phrases as time goes on, including in larger searches. However, they could also eventually go back to exact phrase matching having more weight in smaller searches as well, even if they reduce it a bit in larger ones. This is not necessarily a permanent change. What can I do? - Nothing different at the moment, since it is very possible that this will not continue. Phrase matching still applies in competitive searches. If it is made permanent, it will mean no more worrying about matching tag phrases to the less-competitive title phrases you use, but you wouldn't want to make that transition now, just in case things switch back.
2. Contextual Results Based on your country settings
I wrote about rankings being based on the country settings (not the "ship to" filter settings, as they are with "localized" searches**) in November, using the examples "blue jays" and "football". Currently, I am not able to reproduce those results, although I am seeing some odd ranking situations when comparing results shipping to different countries.
**[Localization (aka regionalization) means that when the "ship to" filter is set to Canada, Australia or an EU country, items shipping from those countries tend to rank better in larger searches, although there is little difference in smaller, non-competitive searches. I explain that better here.]
For example, my top-ranked item in a given search might change between several different countries. If I have three listings that appear for "big blue widget", the top ranked one in Canada may not be the same as in the UK or the US. Sometimes the differences are dramatic, with an item on page 1 in the US not appearing in the top 10 pages in Canada. (With Canadian localization, if all the other ranking factors were the same, my items should appear the same or higher here, for the same search.) I am seeing this for all countries, not just localized ones.
So, it does appear that Etsy is recording the buyer behaviours that make up the listing quality score differently for each country now, and that listing rankings in various countries will slowly diverge if this continues. We don't know if this is a test or not, or a way of collecting data for the AI. I will let you know if it changes. What can I do? - Take my advice from November (that I've given for years, actually) to stop obsessing over ranking. While results aren't personalized to each buyer just yet, they will be varying more and more as time goes on; this is only one example of how search will transform over the next year or two.
3. "Clumping": Still seeing Multiple items from the same shop on page 1
In my last update, I mentioned that Etsy had removed the diversity factor (which prevented a shop from having more than one item on the first page of a big search) from their list of search criteria, and staff confirmed that seeing multiples on a page was not a bug. See the screenshot at the top of this post for an example. At this time, "clumping" (as this phenomenon has been nicknamed) is continuing, but some sellers report that Etsy has told them it is not a permanent situation.
It's been happening for nearly eight months now, so it obviously isn't hurting Etsy's income much - in fact, sales were up quite a bit during the fourth quarter. So, while many people feel that showing multiples is bad for buyers, apparently Etsy buyers are okay with it overall. What can I do? Again, there isn't much you can do other than the usual optimization tips I recommend, especially using lots of diverse keywords in your tags. Search rankings can shift overnight now, and will vary by time and place, so you can't expect to stay on page 1 even if clumping goes away again.
4. Attributes and Variations: Progress Still stalled
In November, I mentioned that some but not all of the attributes have been added to search (meaning that you can find listings in search that only have the search term in the attributes). There hasn't been much progress here; in fact, some of the attributes are no longer searchable within your own shop, even though they do work within Etsy search results (for example, the jewellery recipients "men" and "women").
Custom colours and custom variations are still not searchable, even though we were told back in November 2016 on the beta testing team that they would eventually be included. I've not seen any evidence of Etsy testing them, nor have I heard of staff stating that they were no longer considering this improvement.
However, Etsy has been making changes to the Holiday attributes, removing certain ones from some categories. In various complaint threads by sellers who feel that their category should have a specific holiday, Etsy has been clarifying how the Holiday attributes should be used:
"...holiday attributes are not for when you'd gift someone an item, but rather where you'd wear or use the item."
This is a fairly big change in directions. Previously, sellers had been told to use attributes wherever they applied, leading many shops to use major holidays on any items that could be given as gifts. The narrower usage makes sense, but since you can still add these days to your titles and tags, this isn't going to stop articles from showing up in every search related to a holiday. What Can I Do? - keep adding attributes where they apply, and start removing the Holiday ones you are now using incorrectly. I will be surprised if we don't see more attributes showing up as filters by October.
Recent Etsy Search Tests of Note
I know I usually say to ignore most tests, but these ones all demonstrate how Etsy wants search to work in the future, so they are worth commenting on. It's possible we will never see anything like them again, but I sincerely doubt that.
Image Recognition Test - Etsy Tries to Correct Poor seller SEO, and Fails
At the end of January 2018, Etsy announced a new image recognition search test on its test page. They have erased all records of this experiment from the page (instead of providing the test results as they do with most listed tests), but someone saved the original text here:
What we’re testing: We’re testing image recognition technology to see how it might be used to improve search results on Etsy. This technology will look at your first listing photo and identify additional relevant search terms, helping to match your listing to more relevant searches. ... we’ll update you here on the results.
I did not find a single example where this test worked, although I am sure there must have been a few. What I found, again and again, were completely irrelevant items being inserted into fairly basic searches, usually at the end. The above screenshot is an example; the software inserted cuff links and bracelets into a search for earrings, based on what the photo looked like. The cuff links do look a lot like the earrings sold by the same seller, but that doesn't make them earrings.
If it worked even part of the time, though, this would be a great addition to search for newer sellers who don't yet know how to list. You know the listings I mean - the ones with something like "Rhapsody in Blue" for a title, no attributes, and only the Jewelry category as a tag. Etsy has stated that they want to make listing easier on sellers, without so much worrying about getting the exact correct title and tags (see here at around the 13:30 mark, for example), so I would expect this sort of development to be a high priority.
Search filter test: all jewellery attributes used as filters
When Etsy introduced listing attributes to sellers in February 2017, we were told they would be used as search filters, as well as be searchable terms. With the exception of a few common attributes such as colour, and some housewares products such as rugs, this hasn't been happening yet. But on March 14, I caught all of the attributes for necklaces in use as filters. As you can see from the collage on the right, the list runs down half the page before you even expand any options.
Was this a search test, or just a programming mistake? Hard to say, but it was gone fairly quickly, so maybe it was an engineering error - it certainly wouldn't be the first time code leaked out well before Etsy intended it to.
So, we don't know if we are ever going to see a page like the one I am describing, and we don't know for sure that they are only going to use attributes to populate those filters. (In previous testing of search filtering, Etsy has looked at titles and tags as well, but not for every listing.) So, if you don't add attributes to your listings when they apply, you run the risk of not being found in a filtered search, should this ever go live. This is why I keep recommending everyone select appropriate attributes on every listing they work for.
Conversion Test: Imperial to Metric, based on buyer location settings
Another development I've been waiting over a year for is the automatic conversion between metric and imperial measurements, which we were promised all the way back on the attribute and variation prototype team in November 2016. How it would work: anyone listing something like a bracelet could list the length in metric (centimetres), and someone in the US would see the variation option in imperial (inches); it would also work the same way in reverse. This is a long-needed addition to regional customization on Etsy, and I am really looking forward to it.
Well, I saw it in early December! Variations and attributes that show up on the top right of a listing page were converted, if the viewer used a different system than the shop's. Unfortunately, the conversion was to two decimal places, so you had weird values such as 53.34 cm (21 inches). Also, it showed up in listings but wasn't searchable, as variations & length attributes haven't yet been added to search yet.
This would be a big help to sellers who don't already do conversions for their customers, but possibly a corresponding disadvantage to those of us who do list in both systems, since Etsy will be taking away our competitive edge. It's impossible to say how much impact it will have until this feature is in use for quite a while. There's been no word on when we can expect this to appear again, or if they still intend for it to be permanent some day.
Current rumours & theories: areas to watch for the rest of this year
We see many rumours, and even flat-out incorrect statements, about Etsy search, probably more so than usual in the past year. I thought this would be a good place to deal with some of the recent ones.
Does a listing's category matter to its search ranking?
Several sellers have reported that having items in a different category than the majority of similar items on Etsy can mean your item will rank poorly, compared to those in the "correct" category or subcategory. I had observed some search pages earlier this year which seemed follow this rule. But is it true?
Short answer: I am still not certain if it is a direct factor, but it certainly is an indirect factor, since customers can click on a category or subcategory on the left after doing a search, eliminating listings in other categories.
Long answer: After quite a bit of testing and discussing this with other sellers, I am leaning towards saying that a listing's category doesn't usually have a direct impact on its ranking in search, but there may be exceptions, and this could change in the future.
To test this, I took several different types of items out of their normal categories, and placed them in less-accurate ones. The search ranking did not change immediately, nor were there definitive changes in ranking when I left listings in the wrong categories for several weeks - some went up and some went down, which is normal behaviour right now for most listings.
In some cases, a listing could legitimately belong in two subcategories (e.g., crystal pendant necklaces could fall under "Pendant" or under "Crystal Necklace"), so I tested items like this as well. I am still following one listing of mine which appeared to drop substantially about one week after the edits, and moving it back to its original subcategory seems to have moved it up again somewhat, but that could be a coincidence. I witnessed more ranking changes than usual around this time, across the site, and some of the items from other sellers that were in incorrect categories and had low rankings have now moved up as well. So, my testing is inconclusive so far.
I think, with some possible exceptions, that most of what we are seeing is the buyer behaviour element interacting with the algorithm, due to being found in the category filters on the left. Clicks, favourites and sales from search are still included in the algorithm, so showing up in fewer filtered searches could reduce a listing's quality score.
But I would not be surprised to see a rule such as this introduced in the future, once the first steps in the machine learning process are over. It makes sense for many types of items, such as the famous "laundry basket" example I discussed in my previous post, so it is a potential algorithm revision we should all be watching for.
Is Etsy adding words to listings?
Note: this is a different situation from Etsy adding attributes and sub-categories to people's listings, which has been happening for a while now. In this section, I am talking about adding words to the title or to tags.
This possibility first arose in this thread mid-February in the Etsy forum, with a few sellers complaining that Etsy had added gift terms to their titles or tags. Some posters claimed they knew others this had happened to as well, all on pet items. I believe the shop owner who started that thread when she says she did not add gift phrases to her shop, since the goods are made to fit each dog, and therefore require exact measurements.
Although I asked around, I only found one other case, and it was not for pet items, nor did it involve gift phrases. Angie from ThrowItForward contacted me with examples from her shop's tags, which she says she did not add herself. I found cached versions of some listings from December 2017 with the added tags, so they had remained this way for at least two and a half months. All of the added tags were not capitalized in her usual style, and were not the type she generally uses, but all of them made sense for the listings. While some could have been taken from the attributes or even the description, one in particular really stood out: the tag "blond boy photo" on a vintage sepia photograph. The word "blond" is not mentioned anywhere else in the listing, not even in the description, but the photo is of a toddler with very fair hair.
It doesn't seem possible that all of these sellers are mistaken about these phrases being added without their knowledge or consent, unless there is some bizarre amnesia going around involving dogs and gifts. So if they didn't add them, who did, and how? I see at least three possibilities:
- an Etsy employee added them manually
- an algorithm added them, most likely by taking phrases from other products that come up as "similar" listings, or in some cases the item description, or
- some were added as part of image recognition testing, using phrases from similar listings.
I think option number 2 is mostly likely, although image recognition could easily be involved in the blond boy example. It's possible that all three options have happened.
More importantly, why was this done, and will it happen again? Etsy would want to do this for the same reason they did the image recognition test discussed earlier: to add terms that are missing from products, to make them more searchable, Done properly, it is obviously something that could help some sellers, but done poorly, it could add irrelevant items to search, or even create angry customers who were expecting a different item in the mail.
Despite the risks, it is going to happen again, although perhaps in a different form. (What may change is seeing the search terms on the listing page; they could instead do what they did with the image recognition test and make the added terms searchable but invisible to everyone.) Etsy is really concerned with improving the searchability of shop owners who do a worse-than-average job of adding various keywords to their products, and with making sure that buyers can always find the best product for them. Etsy is going to find a way to do this, so it is up to us to watch to see if it hurts or helps.
Do you have any further examples of this behaviour? Please post them in the comments section on this blog, or shoot me an email.
Item descriptions are still not searchable
You can test this - search for a word that is only in a description. You can't find it in Etsy search, right? So, the description isn't searchable.
Now, I am not saying that Etsy has never tested this (so you may have seen it in the past several months), and they may decide to make descriptions searchable again in the future, but right now, do not assume that words in your description will help you be found on Etsy, because they won't.
I think this rumour has mostly arisen because people do not realize that some of the hidden attributes are searchable; that accounts for almost all specific examples I have seen people claim. Other examples might have come from the image recognition testing mentioned above, or similar tests. But please understand, Etsy has not said anything about the description being searchable, and in fact admin told the attendees at the recent Etsy Canada meetings that descriptions are not used in Etsy search.
I'll let you know immediately if anything changes, I promise. (and please do the same for me, my friends!)
What's Up Next for Etsy search?
We don't know anything for certain, because Etsy sometimes plans on making changes that don't end up happening. But they have given us a lot of good hints as to where search is headed, as you can see from the above examples. In no particular order
- expect more divergence in search results from different locations, at different times, and for different types of users, and maybe even true personalization by member (which we definitely do not have yet)
- look for Etsy to keep trying to make SEO easier (in some cases by doing it for us)
- watch for more attributes, variations, and filter use in search
- get ready for one, and perhaps several, large shifts in search ranking, before the 2018 holiday season
Have any questions, or any observations you want to share? Please make a comment below, send me an email (click the envelope on the top right of the page), or send me an Etsy conversation. I will update this blog post as situations develop.
Updated April 11, 2018.