Etsy’s Push To Get More Sellers Offering Free Shipping to American Buyers Is Now Part Of The Search Algorithm, But It Isn’t As Powerful As Some Sellers Feared
Etsy’s announcement that items that ship for free will get “priority placement” in US search results upset many shop owners who felt they would be buried in search if they continued to charge for shipping, but so far the reality has not been as bleak as some had predicted. While there are no guarantees that this search change will continue working the same way, two weeks of this revised algorithm is enough time to get a strong idea of how it works now. Let me outline what me and my team of volunteers found.
In most searches, the top 24 items that are not paid ads (aka Promoted Listings) will either ship for free or have free shipping with a minimum order of $35 USD or less. This means that only half of the first page is reserved for items without shipping charges. The main exception is searches where there are fewer than 24 items that ship free; in very small searches of half a page or so, even the top-ranked item may not ship free. [Update (Sept. 6): Etsy sent out an email today saying that the top 48 listings in a search - the whole first page - will now be reserved for priority placement.]
Adding free shipping did not automatically mean your items moved up in ranking when the algorithm change kicked in on July 30th. Since Etsy search results change frequently now, some of the items the test team tracked actually moved down, even if they had free shipping activated. However, I added free US shipping to a few listings after July 30th and all did move up a bit, at least at first.
As I expected beforehand, items that already did well in search seem to see the biggest benefit from switching to free shipping.
There is currently no difference between an item that always ships free and items that have the $35 free shipping “guarantee”; you don’t rank higher by offering one instead of the other.
Note that digital download items are included in the priority placement spots even though they do not have a free shipping “badge” or a “free shipping eligible” notice underneath.
As mentioned above, the Promoted Listings slots do not have to ship free to be at the top of the page, so paying for Etsy search advertising is one way to secure a higher slot. However, some ads are now costing more they used to be as sellers experiment with this tactic, so it may not be affordable for many. This also may stop working as when Etsy combines Promoted Listings with Google Shopping Ads later in August. (There is more discussion and detail on the new “Etsy Ads” here.)
As can happen when Etsy alters the search algorithm, some sets of results shifted a lot, and many people are reporting more “clumping” (when several listings from the same shop appear on an early page of a search). If very few sellers are offering free shipping for a particular type of item, those who do could get more of those top 24 priority positions. The flip side is that if listings that used to appear at the top of certain queries do not offer free shipping, they may end up clustered on the bottom half of the first page.
Some searches have more irrelevant items at the top than they used to, but that is also normal whenever Etsy changes the algorithm, and usually sorts itself out within one to two months.
Items from outside of the US are just as able to receive priority placement as US listings are. Furthermore, I’ve not seen any major shifts in non-US searches, so while free shipping may have a small part of other countries’ algorithms, only Canada has pages and pages of free shipping in big searches. Countries outside of the US, haven’t changed much yet, but do not count on it staying that way indefinitely.
So, that is how everything worked as of the first day, July 30th. However, a few days later, some people saw one item that didn’t ship for free sliding into the top 24 slots, almost always in slot 24. Take a look at the search screenshot kindly provided by Ashley of Digitaldoodlebug to see what I mean. (Note that one of the other regular search results is a digital download, so it does ship free even though it doesn’t have a badge.)
I personally checked over 100 searches in the first few days of this new algorithm element, and I did not see this happening until several days in, even when other people did see it. As of August 14th, I am now finding it in a minority of searches, but rarely when logged into my main Etsy account.
What is happening here? you may ask. A very good question, one I do not know the answer to. It could be:
personalization (which Etsy is finally using more often in search these days, after years of promising it)
an intended feature of the algorithm, where items that perform well can move up into the “priority placement” rows in the top half of page 1.
At first, I was leaning towards the last possibility being true, since it made sense that Etsy would want to reward a top-selling item with slightly better placement if it made them more money. However, it has been happening for a week, and these items are not moving up further, and it is not always the same item in that final slot. I’m reserving judgement on this phenomenon right now, until I see more examples. [Update (Sept 6): I’ve stopped seeing this now that Etsy has moved to 48 slots of priority placement, except in small searches, and only in my main account, so it could be personalization. If you see any other examples, please let me know!]
This, and all of the priority placement positions, could change at any time. Etsy may decide next week to fill the entire first page with items that ship free, or they could add a few rows at the top of every single page in large searches. I suspect that if they were going to move to fewer than 24 places reserved for free shipping, they would have already done it by now, but we can’t be sure they won’t do that tomorrow, either.)
So, do not assume that what you see today will continue for the rest of the year. In fact, we know there are other search changes coming which could affect this new factor, in addition to the possibility that Etsy will change how the “guarantee” works. They don’t plan on promoting the “guarantee” to American buyers until September, and could make further changes then.
Your best approach at the moment is to do what I always suggest:
optimize for plenty of small searches so that you have a better chance of being seen
do not rely on Etsy search for all of your Etsy sales
do not rely on Etsy for all of your income
do not spend too much time learning how to game this new algorithm, because it is going to change
Why do I keep saying things will change? Because Etsy has made it clear they want more free shipping, and this is only the US introduction of their tactics aimed at getting it. They will be featuring more items that have shipping included, and will probably also be linking to searches with the free shipping filter already checked. If you are like me and haven’t seen any dramatic impact yet, do not assume that our luck will continue.
Furthermore, Etsy has told me that the listing quality score part of the algorithm will soon involve more elements, with photo quality likely to be a factor. (I have been testing for this but haven’t found direct evidence yet; it will likely have little weight overall.) They said to expect more details by the end of the summer. Etsy is also getting more involved with shops that have what Etsy deems to be customer service issues, and the types of issues that lead to an email seem really stringent. They’ve promised to release more information, and I would not be surprised to see more negative ratings like this to be added to search. I could be wrong, of course!
[Update (Aug. 15): they are already testing various promotional banners and prompts for the $35 minimum order free shipping guarantee, although most visitors are not seeing them yet. I saw a thin dark blue banner across the top of the entire page on my laptop, and Angela from Arrowsarah sent me the phone screenshot shown here - thank you! They are going to push this a lot, to try to direct people away from the main search pages to a page where the results are all items that ship free with a $35 minimum order.]
So, expect more of my blog posts this fall, as Etsy search continues to evolve. If you see or hear anything interesting, please send me an email through the link on the top right, send me a convo on Etsy, DM me on Twitter, or send me a message on Tumblr (where you can read more short posts about SEO, ecommerce platforms, and other small business topics you are probably interested in.) Questions about this post? Please comment below.
Updated September 6th, 2019