After weeks of bugs that led most members to suspect major changes were coming, Etsy announced a new design for sellers' shop home pages on March 15th, 2016, with a full three weeks' warning before it goes live April 5th. You would need a whole website to collect and dissect the opinions and complaints about the new design, so I will instead skip directly to my specialty: how the changes affect search engine optimization (SEO), both on and off Etsy.
There are four main areas you need to know about:
1) Hiding sales totals: one addition that has been long requested by some sellers, the ability to remove the Sold orders page from the shop home page did create some concern that sold listings would no longer bring in traffic from Google and other outside sources. Fortunately, each individual sold item page will still be visible to visitors if they have a direct link to it: from Google, a blog, their favourites or even a bookmark in their browser. The only difference from today is that sellers will have the option to hide the pages which show each item sold by date. This may make it a little more difficult for others to copy a shop's most popular products.
2) Five new shop sections: each shop can now use up to 15 separate sections (up from 10) to organize their items, although it is still not possible to place a listing in more than one section. While these new section titles are additional keywords that Google and other search engines can read, they won't do much to help a shop home page move higher on Google for most searches, as they do not receive any special value from Google.
3) Shop Announcement is now optional: Etsy announced that the shop announcement field could be hidden, by which they actually meant "could be deleted". Since Etsy currently uses the Shop Announcement field as the meta description for Google and other search engines - the part of the web page often excerpted on search engine results pages (SERPs) - deleting it would make it harder to compel searchers to click on an Etsy shop link from the SERPs. After some of us raised this concern, Etsy changed the coding so that the meta descriptions will now read:
"Browse unique items from [shopname] on Etsy, a global marketplace of handmade, vintage and creative goods"
and then refused to answer any questions about the change - see the posts here under the staff member's claims about SEO improvements.
Meta descriptions are no longer important for ranking on search engines; their value today lies in compelling searchers to visit your website. Moz, the company that did Etsy's SEO redesign back in 2009 (which made Etsy shop announcements double as meta descriptions for the first time), describes the role of meta descriptions as follows: "[they] are extremely important in gaining user click-through from SERPs. These short paragraphs are a webmaster’s opportunity to advertise content to searchers and to let them know exactly whether the given page contains the information they're looking for."
This Etsy change removes each shop's ability to present themselves to their target markets as they know best. The new meta description is simply an ad for Etsy as a website, completely belying Etsy's claim that the new design will "give you the tools you need to tell your unique story". There is no way "to express your brand in a way that makes sense for your business" when Etsy completely strips all uniqueness from each shop's links on outside search engines. The fact that staff refuse to discuss or explain this, unlike many other changes that are part of this redesign, shows that they were hoping to slip this erasure of individual shops' branding through without anyone noticing.
Etsy could easily remove the shop announcement from the new home page design and still give sellers the ability to fill out a meta description field; many website builders offer meta descriptions that are not visible on the page. Management chose instead to put generic Etsy branding in the place of individual seller branding. This is in line with Etsy's approach in the last few years: making sure the Etsy stamp is seen on as many outside links to Etsy shops/listings as possible, at the expense of the individual sellers. (For a recent example, check out the orange E "tags" on Shop Updates, which were primarily designed for social media promotion.) Expect to see more "generification" - morphing specific shops into the generic Etsy whole - in upcoming changes. And definitely expect to see upcoming changes!
UPDATE: Etsy completed the rollout of the new design today, but Google has already begun reflecting the changes in the SERPs. While many shops are showing up with Etsy's generic blurb as their snippet, Google is also showing various combinations of listing titles, parts of shop announcements, and even a few section titles in the SERP snippets for some shops. Most of the shops who are currently not showing the generic Etsy line in the SERPs are older shops, larger shops with more on their home page, and shops with a good web presence. There is no guarantee that Google will continue to do this, however, especially once it realizes that all of these pages have changed permanently. Also, you cannot control what Google does choose to show if it doesn't show the generic Etsy line; it will choose from any listings and elements on the page, as opposed to the previous almost blanket use of shop announcements as the snippet.
(Note - the shop announcement will still be readable by Google and other search engines, but it won't get any special weight from Google in particular, and is very unlikely to be the entire snippet Google shows in its SERPs, although other search engines such as Bing and DuckDuckGo may show any text they consider relevant)
4) Shops Using Etsy's "Simplified" Policies Get a Small Bump in Etsy Search: Part of the shop home page redesign includes a new simplified policy template, which will appear at the bottom of each shop home page instead of on a separate "Policies" page as it does now. This template has been a flashpoint for most of the anger surrounding the redesign, in part because it does not comply with many countries' laws, and, when introduced, did not reflect the circumstances of many types of sellers, including digital download shops (who have no shipping times or Customs issues to mention). Etsy also caught flack for prepopulating the EU-required seller information form with members' names and addresses, but have since reversed that action.
But the biggest complaint has been that, despite the poor wording and actual illegality for some jurisdictions, Etsy wants every shop to use this template, and will therefore reward sellers who adopt it with "a slightly higher boost in search", to go along with the small boost you already receive for having policies written out at all.
In response to the complaints, Etsy has modified the "Shipping" section so digital sellers can remove it, and has introduced a special template for German shops, since Germany's commerce laws are quite different from most other countries. However, they have not modified some of the questioned language, nor have they removed the search boost for shops using these policies - that boost will kick in once the new design rolls out April 5th.
Etsy first added the "Customer and Marketplace Experience" elements to its search algorithm in November, and admin claim this new addition to those factors is very slight. Given that most observers have not been able to detect significant effects from the November algorithm changes, I suspect they are not misleading sellers on this point. However, it remains to be seen what the cumulative effect of multiple "slight boosts" will be, given that Etsy seems to be adding new search factors all the time, and some of them are not going to be adopted by some established sellers. A shop that follows Etsy on each of these factors could end up with a much larger boost over a shop that adopts none of them.
To test the effect of this algorithmic change, I will not be using the new policy template in my jewellery shop, and will carefully track my search standing with various types of queries both before and after the new home page launch. I will update this blog post next week with a summary of my observations. Update: as of April 14th, I am not seeing any real drops in relevancy; I summarize my observations here.
What Will Etsy's Next Changes Be?
I expect that Etsy will continue to tweak this design and adjust some of the major sticking points, such as the wording of the policy template, over the next month or so. It is possible that some of the less-widely known changes, such as the disappearance of the meta description, will create a surge of complaints after the launch, and Etsy may choose to respond to those concerns. Some complaints have already caused Etsy to retreat from their plans, so more change is possible. I do not expect they will remove the policy-search boost, however.
Sellers should look for a new listing page this year, as the current one is now going to clash with the shop home pages; Etsy has not announced any plans for that development, but it could happen fairly quickly, once the home page is debugged. I also anticipate we will continue to see more "carrot & stick" attempts to get shop owners to follow Etsy's preferred methods of operation, and to use more Etsy products such as Direct Checkout and shipping labels. The small benefits for following Etsy's brand dictates, and the punishments for refusing to do so, will increasingly become standard operation for the company, as it continues to grow and try to keep stockholders happy with larger gross profits. Etsy still remains a viable platform for small business, but no one should expect that platform to be stable over the next year or so, as Etsy rapidly evolves into a different type of company.
UPDATE, April 6: It appears that some of the impetus for this redesign was the launch of Etsy's "Pattern" option for Etsy shops.