Shipping Price Is Now a Search Factor, But Most of the Rest of Their Guide Is Either Old News or Not Yet Happening
Last Wednesday, Etsy released a new and supposedly comprehensive guide to its search algorithm, and as is often the case, it created more confusion than clarity. With one bombshell surprise, a confirmation of many older factors, and some flat-out wrong statements, “The Ultimate Guide to Etsy Search” should be read very carefully, and its statements tested wherever possible. Of course, I know you don’t have time for that, so I’ve done it all for you! The following blog post covers what you need to know.
What’s New - The Push for Lower Shipping Charges, With a Few Other Tidbits
LOWER SHIPPING PRICES: Ever since Josh Silverman took over as CEO in May 2017, we’ve continuously heard about the virtues of low shipping charges, and how Etsy sellers hurt themselves by charging accurate mailing fees. His podcast in July (transcript here) stressed that “[buyers] see no reason why they should pay more for shipping on Etsy than anywhere else”, contrary to what many Etsy sellers and employees might think. He went on:
“[Etsy buyers told us they] don't know the postage service rates and they don't care about what the actual cost of shipping is. ... buyers said that they were 50% less likely to buy an item if they thought that the price of shipping was even a little bit more expensive than they were used to, and they were very unlikely to ever come back." [emphasis added]
While some sellers vehemently disagree with this assertion, Silverman’s statements are backed up by other research. Furthermore, with Etsy spending more on advertising and bringing in new buyers faster than ever before, it’s likely more true now than when they did the research. Those outside shoppers finding an item through Google ads don’t necessarily know about the site’s history and ethos.
To convince sellers to reduce their shipping fees, Etsy now tells us that “Etsy Search factors shipping price into search ranking. Lowering your shipping prices makes your items more likely to rank higher in search.” Read that again, carefully. They didn’t say you had to offer free shipping (although they mentioned elsewhere that “[o]ffering free shipping could improve your search ranking even more”), or even super-cheap shipping. They said that items with lower shipping prices are “more likely” to rank well, not that they are guaranteed to do so.
Through testing, I did not find even a small effect from reducing shipping charges or offering free shipping on listings, at least in the short term. Since last fall, I have been tracking the performance of a small number of listings in my jewellery shop that offered free shipping, and at best there was a tiny uptick in search views recently, but not across all of the listings. Last week, I changed numerous other items in several ways to test various possible scenarios: raising shipping, doubling shipping, reducing shipping, and offering free shipping, both with and without raising the item price. The only tests that showed a close to consistent ranking change were the ones where I raised shipping a large amount, to more than double Etsy’s suggested average domestic rate, and even those results were not statistically significant, although almost all of the listings dropped in all of the test searches. A few of the items that I increased shipping on actually rose in some searches, so this factor does not appear to be large, if it currently exists at all.
However, I do assume it will become a larger component of the algorithm in the future, because cheap shipping is the direction Etsy is heading in. Also, based on Etsy and other research, reducing shipping by adding it to the item price will likely increase sales for some types of sellers on some items, which will increase their search scores, meaning this has already become an indirect search factor.
Like most other search factors (and business tools in general), each shop owner will need to make decisions that suit their business plans, not Etsy’s. Most Etsy search bumps and penalties are pretty small, so you can afford to ignore a few that will not work for your items and brand, especially when your direct competitors are in the same situation. If everyone gets a penalty for high mailing costs, you all still end up equal. Be aware, though, that Etsy isn’t going to have a change of heart here; they are going to continue to push free shipping in particular, and not just through search.
Could Etsy make this more palatable for sellers, and even more fair? Yes, they could easily come up with a more realistic metric than the average shipping cost across the whole category (shown on the right). A full bookshelf costs a lot more to mail than a candle holder, but they can both be in the same top level category. Sending bookshelf sellers the message on the right just makes Etsy look clueless, and clueless isn’t going to help convince sellers to reduce their shipping prices.
Summary: If shipping prices are already in the algorithm, the impact is very small, according to my testing. If your domestic competition ships for less, however, that could hurt you both in search and in general, because Etsy is going to keep promoting free shipping.
“CITIZEN SCORE” UPDATE: Remember the “citizen score” I told you about in June? Perhaps because sellers persistently mocked the name, it has already been changed, to the “Customer and Market Experience Score”. Most parts of the score are not new, but Etsy did reveal a bit more than they have in the past:
one bad review has only “a tiny effect” on search ranking
cases customers file against your shop hurt your search ranking for 4 months only
all of the factors get different weights
they are phasing out the forum email warning penalty discussed in my last blog post (no word on if any existing warnings will still last for the entire 12 months they previously mentioned)
I am glad to see they are getting rid of the forum penalty aspect, as a person who runs afoul of Etsy’s strict forum rules is not necessarily going to provide a bad customer experience. None of the rest is surprising, and since most large shops get poor reviews and cases opened occasionally, it isn’t unfair - we will all have to deal with it occasionally. I don’t see this score hurting you much unless you have many problems piling up, as evidenced by the large number of listings with review ratings under 5 stars that still rank well. Etsy put far more emphasis on keywords, photos, and buyer behaviour than on the customer service factors in its new Guide, so don’t get too hung up on this.
LISTING QUALITY SCORE INCLUDES THE CART?: We’ve known for years that buyer behaviour such as clicking, favouriting or buying a listing contributes to search ranking. However, one of the new short videos released last week also refers to items being added to a cart. Check out the video on the left starting around 1:10 , where the staffer explains that how many people “add it to their cart or make a purchase” from search results is part of a listing’s quality score.
Furthermore, note that the search guide chapter on conversions states that “we look at things like clicks, favourites and purchases” when calculating the listing quality score [emphasis added]. That means there are other factors they aren’t mentioning, possibly opening an item more than once, adding it to a list, or sharing it to social media. But they are careful to emphasize that views and sales are the two most important parts of this score, so that is where seller focus is best spent.
I’ve long suspected that adding items to the cart was part of listing quality, but my testing has been inconclusive, probably because it is really not a large piece of the score. While it is interesting that Etsy revealed this, it’s not something I am concerned about.
What’s Untrue (or not yet happening) - why you shouldn’t believe everything in this guide
NOT ALL ATTRIBUTES & VARIATIONS ARE SEARCHABLE!: I’ve been telling you for over a year now that some attributes and variations are not searchable, meaning that if you search for your items using words that are only in certain attributes or variations, your item may not appear. In November, I expressed confusion about why some were used and some weren’t. Heck, I reported some missing ones as long ago as in June 2017, and never received any information or resolution from Etsy. At first, I assumed it was just a very slow roll out. Adding everything at once would have massively disrupted the search results, as that would involve (in some cases) more than doubling the words any given listing could be found under. However, it has been 18 months now, with little progress in the last year, so I have been wondering what was taking so long.
It was only when a recent bug involving all categories and attributes drew forum attention that it became clear: it is mostly one word attributes and variations that are searchable right now; almost all attributes with more than one word or number are missing from search. E.g., the Recipient attributes “women” and “men” come up in search, but “unisex adults” does not. I’ve used the last option on many of my dinosaur fossil pendants, but as shown in the screenshot at the top of this post, I get no results when when searching “dinosaur pendant unisex” within Calgary .
This creates bizarre situations where sellers’ visibility can be limited. For example, if you search for a made-to-order ring, listings that use Etsy’s ring size variations will appear for specific whole sizes, but not for half sizes. The ring on the right (from MyWiredImagination, and used here with the owner’s permission) appears in the results if you search for a size 7, but not if you search for size 7 1/2, despite using the Etsy-provided variations for ring sizes.
Now, as completely illogical as this is, it would not be a huge problem if Etsy was upfront about it, so shop owners would know to add “1/2” to their titles, or “unisex” to their tags. Sadly, repeatedly throughout this Guide, Etsy tells us that “[y]ou don’t need to add tags that are exact matches for attributes you’ve already added” and “your listing will appear in the results” if you use the buyer’s search terms in your titles, tags, categories, attributes and variations. Etsy staff are well aware that this is not true, from the numerous Bugs threads and questions to Support, but they released these statements anyway.
So, why is Etsy misleading sellers about how to optimize their listings right now? We can only speculate, since they have not addressed this issue. Some other suggestions in the guide seem to be looking towards the future instead of accurately explaining the present, and that could be true here - they may still have plans to add these attributes to search, possibly even in the next few months. They are also likely using these unsearchable attributes in various experiments with the machine learning processes in search, and the more people add, the more Etsy can experiment.
Of course, the problem is that people have already taken Etsy at its word on this topic, and some have removed words from tags because they falsely think they can be found under the attribute instead. Those sellers have harmed their shops by making their listings less visible, right before the busiest shopping season of the year, simply by believing Etsy was telling the truth. If that makes you angry, let Etsy know how you feel by contacting Support, or posting in the Bugs forum. Ask them why search isn’t working like their brand-new Guide says it does.
Summary: contrary to the new Guide, not all attributes and variations are searchable, especially if they are longer than one word. Test the ones you are relying on as I did above, to see if they are searchable or not. [UPDATE Oct. 24: A short closed Bugs post reports that Etsy “recently discovered” that not attributes were showing up in search, and they are working on it. No idea if this is the same issue I have been reporting to them since June 2017, but since I can’t find any other changes to attribute searchability at this time, it may be they are finally looking at this. If so, it is appalling that they would state this was “recently discovered”, because other sellers as well as myself have told them numerous times over the past 16 months.]
ARE SHORTER TITLES PART OF THE ALGORITHM NOW?: When Etsy first introduced the relevancy search in 2011, shortening your title could usually help you rank better for the remaining phrases, but that diminished a lot in the last several years. Despite that, Etsy has recently been pushing for shorter and less-stuffed titles, and so have I, because they are recommended by Google, and they are easier for customers to read, which should lead to more clicks and sales.
Nothing has changed. The Guide does not expressly state that shorter titles will help you rank higher, and I haven’t detected any recent changes here. This might change in the future, and this could be an instance of Etsy warning us ahead of time, but chopping your titles in half will not bump all of your listings further up the search rankings. I’m still recommending titles between 70-100 characters, but not because that is an algorithm factor. It simply makes sense for Google and the human eye.
MISSPELLINGS: The keywords chapter of the Guide states: “Etsy search redirects shoppers to the correct results if they make a common mistake so you shouldn’t misspell keywords on purpose to reach shoppers who’ve made a tiny typo.” This is partially true, and search has gotten a lot better at it in the past few years. However, there are still many common misspellings that do not get autocorrected, and at the moment, you can still benefit from adding those. Test to see what happens when you enter some of these words in the search bar, and maybe use a few misspellings when you are running out of tag ideas, but don’t do this too much, as search will likely continue to add new typos in the future. (Tip: the same is true of words with different English and American spellings; Etsy picks up the most common ones, but not all of them.)
What We Already Knew, OR HASN’T CHANGED: Vacation Mode, EXACT MATCH, Descriptions
This part will briefly touch on things that we already knew and that Etsy confirmed, including some points I have seen confusion over in the Etsy forum. (and yes, I continue to test things like this to make sure that everything is current!)
VACATION MODE CAN AFFECT YOUR SEARCH RANKINGS: I believe this was a first - Etsy admitting that using vacation mode can affect where you rank in search. Chapter 1 of the Guide states:
“Sometimes you need to take a much-needed break, but when you return from holiday mode, you might not see the same traffic to your shop from search as before you went away. That’s because we’re gathering information about how buyers interact with other listings, while your listing quality scores stay the same. Once you return from holiday mode and your listings are appearing in search results again, we’ll start to gather up-to-date information about how shoppers are interacting with your listings.”
This has always been true, but likely has more impact these days given the greater number of listings we are competing with. It’s also true if you deactivate listings, so don’t do that just to avoid losing ranking; vacation mode is better because your pages still appear when people click on favourites, Google links, blog links, etc.
Not every shop will experience this effect, however. As I have stated many times, this depends on a lot of factors, some of which have nothing to do with search. The shops most likely to take a hit here are those that get daily sales from search, especially if those sales come from ranking in generic searches. (Let me remind you that those big searches are not guaranteed, and you should not rely on them for the bulk of your income.) If you drive most of your own traffic from outside of Etsy, have a large repeat buyer base, or sell small impulse items that don’t have much competition, you might not lose any traffic at all when you return.
Most sellers who have had this happen find that their items will bounce back fairly quickly, and that listing new items and driving some of our own traffic came jumpstart your shop upon return. So don’t avoid vacation mode if you need to use it, but do be aware of the potential effects.
YOU STILL NEED AN EXACT PHRASE MATCH IN COMPETITIVE SEARCHES: Chapter 1 was very clear on this point: “If those keywords are an exact match for the query, your listing may be ranked higher in results because it’s seen as more relevant to the search”, with “keywords” being “tags, titles, categories and attributes.” (They also repeat this point in the query matching video.) I’ve tested this again since the Guide came out, and it is still true for competitive searches, i.e, the ones where many people have the exact phrases in both titles and tags. For the past year or so, this has not been true in non-competitive searches, possibly due to the machine learning that is going on.
Exact phrases in tags still matter as well, matching the title phrase, but have less strength on their own. Tags get less weight in general than they did 18 months ago, and this was most noticeable when I was testing title and tag matches in searches with Canada (where Canadian items will often be ranked higher in big searches due to regionalization). Removing an exact phrase match from the tags had little effect in a Canadian search, while it dropped listings quite a few pages in US searches.
So if you want to be found in large US searches, match your important title phrases in the tags. And as I have explained for years now, “[i]f the keyword phrase you want to target is longer than 20 characters, adding multiple phrasal tags containing those terms can still help you match with those searches.”
THINGS THAT DON’T AFFECT SEARCH RANKING: Again, nothing new here, but some of these points are frequently questioned, especially by newer sellers, so it is important to note that the following factors are not part of Etsy’s search:
“Where a phrase is used in your title” - I first told you this was confirmed in June, but for some reason they still haven’t fixed the old Help files on this point. Remember, though, that shoppers can see very little of the title in the search results, and Google does give a bit of extra weight to the first part of the title, so I would suggest making sure it clearly describes your product, even though it is not an algorithm factor.
punctuation: “You can use punctuation and some symbols in your titles to separate phrases and Etsy search will still be able to read each of those phrases to see if they match with a shopper’s search.” (and no, you don’t need spaces after the punctuation for this to work; Etsy fixed that in 2012)
description. “Etsy Search does not scan descriptions for search ranking purposes, but search engines like Google will sometimes look at them.” I’ve seen a few people insisting that Etsy now uses the description for ranking, but that simply isn’t true, and you can easily check it if you don’t trust me. I suspect that some people are getting confused by examples where the search word isn’t found in the titles or tags, but as I explained in previous blog posts, Etsy is currently using several AI techniques to test matching listings to phrases without all the words. In those examples, the searched terms/phrases are almost never in the description either; Etsy is making that association in other ways.
WHAT DO I DO NEXT? HOW SHOULD I OPTIMIZE MY SHOP NOW?
As I detailed above, not much has changed in Etsy search just yet. Most of this Guide just confirmed what we already knew, and the one new element (shipping charges) does not seem to have much weight today. So, if you have been following my advice up until now, you don’t necessarily need to change anything at this time. However, be aware that things such as high shipping costs and rambling titles have been proven to put off some consumers, so you shouldn’t automatically ignore Etsy’s suggestions, either.
That said, Etsy is continuing to make changes to the appearance of the search pages (free shipping trucks, best seller badges etc.), and is also slowly altering the weight of various elements of the algorithm, all of which can affect shops quite dramatically in some cases. If you are ranking well at the top of big popular searches right now, do not expect that to continue indefinitely. There could easily be some larger changes on the horizon, so keep diversifying your keywords to show up in many small searches as well as the bigger ones.
Did I miss something in this blog post? Please leave a comment below, and I will answer your question, or email me using the link in the top right corner, or convo me in my SEO shop.
UPDATED October 24, 2018