Location Filters & Customer Service Can Now Affect "Most Relevant" Search Ranking
Etsy surprised sellers with two major changes to the search algorithm this fall, both coming while some shops were already reporting increased traffic and sales due to the holiday season. The first is a change that makes Australian and United Kingdom shops "slightly more prominent" to searchers from those countries. The second, coming in the first week of November, reportedly adds various "customer experience" elements to the ranking factors in the relevancy search. At the same time, Etsy took the time to clarify major elements of the "most relevant" search algorithm, providing the most specific details they have offered to sellers since this version of the relevancy search was launched in the summer of 2011.
Change #1 - Shop Location Factor for Australia & the UK
This change came to light when members in the UK & Australia, among others, started reporting skewed results, with only shops from the countries in question showing up near the top. Different people were also reporting different results, leading me to believe these were tests. It turns out that Etsy had already changed the search regarding the UK & Australia but was also testing other countries at that time.
Etsy does not show the skewed search results to everyone in those countries; instead, they use the "Ship To" filter on the bottom left as the trigger for showing more in-country sellers at the top of searches. While Etsy stated that they are only making local sellers "slightly more prominent" in the results, in reality, the prominence varies quite a bit depending on the specific search. If I set my "Ship To" filter to Australia & search a generic term such as "earrings", I see dozens of pages with only Australian sellers - no one from other countries shows up in the top 35 pages at least. However, if I search for "abalone earrings", a much smaller search, there are sellers from the US in the second row on the first page of results. NOTE - the ads (aka promoted listings) are not currently filtered, so of course Etsy can make some money by selling you a spot on pages that would otherwise be reserved for UK or Australian sellers.
Of course, Etsy has already has a perfectly good "Shop Location" filter, if people want to only see items from a certain country or area, so why did Etsy make this change? They claim people in these countries want to buy more locally, due to shipping fees, taxes etc., but can't explain why they just do not promote the "Shop Location" filter instead. I do think that the additional ad fees they earn from sellers desperate to be seen in another country are likely a big part of this change. For that reason, I expect they will find ways to expand this to other countries next year.
A few other notes:
- At this time, they are not testing this in any other countries, nor did they test it in the US, although some US sellers claim that their regional sales indicate otherwise (but no one has been able to show skewed results when searching from the US).
- Your items will not show up in the correct country/region when a searcher uses the "Ship To" or "Shop Location" filters unless you properly set your account's location per Etsy's instructions. Do not type your whole location in; make sure you select an option from Etsy's drop down suggestions.
- We don't know how many people are searching with the "Ship To" filter on in these countries, because Etsy has removed the reference values that we could track in Google Analytics.
- Digital download items are currently included in this change, but Etsy plans on removing them, allowing digital downloads from all countries to be seen even when the "Ship To" filter is set in Australia and the UK.
What can sellers do to adapt? As mentioned, the current version of this filter only has a large impact in very generic searches. Aiming for plenty of niche searches when optimizing your listings can ameliorate any loss of views.
Change #2 - Customer Experience, Intellectual Property Infringements
Following in the steps of eBay, Etsy will now use elements such as feedback, open cases and even intellectual property claims against a shop owner as part of the ranking algorithm. The announcement stated, in part:
"...we will now include customer experience as a factor in search placement, in addition to whether a shop is in good standing based on Etsy’s policies. Now, positive reviews, completed About pages and completed shop Policies can help your placement in search. On the other hand, recent cases and intellectual property-infringement issues can result in lower placement. New shops without reviews can improve their ranking by filling out their About page and Policies. "
It's not completely clear to me whether About pages and filled-out policies will help established shops with feedback, or if they are just a proxy for positive reviews for newer shops. My SEO shop did not have an About page, but adding one did nothing for my search rankings, nor did marking a few old orders as shipped.
Etsy staff did clarify that these changes only took effect on November 4th, and that negative factors such as an opened case would be considered in ratio to the shop's number of recent sales. For reviews, they consider review average instead of just the number of bad or good reviews, which helps protect larger shops who, almost inevitably, will end up with a few disgruntled customers or low reviews even if they do everything right, simply based on volume. Etsy staffer Jaime DeLanghe also provided a few more details here.
Although most of these factors are difficult to test, it appears that you need more than just a few cases or bad reviews to see your search ranking affected; I have not seen many reports of sellers dropping dramatically after having problems. Low reviews seem to be considered on a shop-wide basis as opposed to a by-item basis, although admittedly we don't have enough examples yet to be sure of anything; very few sellers seem to have experienced a loss in ranking because of this change.
Most of these new search factors are probably welcome to a majority of sellers in abstract, since shops with lousy customer service are a perennial concern on a shared marketplace. The review average factor is a concern for newer shops, however, and it may end up leading to more new sellers abandoning shops after they receive just one bad review. We can only hope that Etsy will not make any major changes to the case system that will lead to a huge rash of mistaken cases being filed as they did a few years back, or the effects may be devastating.
What can sellers do to adapt? The glib answer would be, make sure you have great customer service, and don't use other people's intellectual property. But what happens if you have a run of bad luck, and your search results take a hit? There are really no good answers, other than doing your best to fix the problems for your customers, and working to diversify your revenue streams so you are less dependent on sales from Etsy search, both of which are actions I also recommended before this algorithm update.
Where is Etsy Search Headed Next?
These are the first two significant changes to the Etsy search algorithm in a long time, in that they actually affect ranking as opposed to elements such as the number of items per shop per page. It seems highly unlikely that Etsy will stop here with location-based ranking, and I have been expecting more personalized results in searches for a while now. I will be quite surprised if we do not see more changes in 2016. Don't assume that everything will stay the same.
On the other hand, this new openness about the factors used to decide ranking is quite refreshing, and may help sellers who have been confused with how search works. It should certainly stem the tide of inaccurate rumours that seem to plague the Etsy forum. I hope that all of the sellers who claim they "gave up" on SEO because it was too confusing will give it another shot, now that Etsy has confirmed more of the factors governing placement.
Etsy Success will be releasing one of their "fireside chats" on their You Tube Channel on Friday November 20th, answering questions about the search algorithm, including the recent changes. I will update this post with more information if it is warranted.