Etsy Will Give Items That Ship Free “Priority Placement” in US Search Results; A Lot Remains Unclear
As you have probably already heard, Etsy announced that as of July 30, 2019, items that ship for free to the United States, either by themselves or in orders over $35 USD, will get “priority placement” in US searches. This blog post is not about whether or not this is a good idea; I’ve already warned you in the past that Etsy would continue to push free shipping and that we should all expect more of this in the future. As I wrote in January, “…make your peace with free shipping now, because it isn’t going away. You don’t have to use it, but you do have to accept that Etsy will.”
Instead, I am going to get into the details that have been released so far, so that we can all be prepared for this algorithm change. Note that I can’t give much optimization advice yet, as my team and I will need to test this once it goes live on the 30th. I will write another blog post once testing is complete; sign up here to receive all of my blog posts by email so you will be up to date.
Etsy put out a lot of information with this press release, including the video I have linked to, an updated Ultimate Guide to Shipping, which contains sections on strategies for non-US shops, and tips for businesses who offer large or heavy items. They did 3 days of questions and answers in a massive forum thread. You don’t have time to sift through all of this, so I did it for you.
What they failed to mention in the vast amount of material they put out with this announcement is that Canada has had free shipping items at the top of generic searches since the end of January 2019. Back then, I speculated that Canada might be a testing ground, or the beginning of a very slow roll out, and it turns out it may have been both. Since we haven’t noticed Etsy testing this in US searches up until now [Update (July 15): there was a small test in late May-early June, which mostly reserved the top 3 rows of US search for free shipping listings/shops, and didn’t necessarily give shoppers the most relevant results.] the Canadian data will likely be extremely useful to them. However, that does not mean that US searches will look like the Canadian ones on July 30th; we don’t know if they will use the same algorithm weights in the US. In fact, CEO Josh Silverman stated that the change “…means that shoppers in the US will primarily see items that ship free and shops that guarantee free shipping on orders of $35 or more in the top and most visible rows of search”, which could mean that there will be fewer items with free shipping on the first few pages of US generic searches than we see in Canada.
So, let’s go over the facts, keeping the speculation to a minimum.
Things we know:
there are two ways to make your listings eligible for “priority placement” in US searches on the 30th: you can have free shipping to the US on one or more listings, or you can use their new $35 total order shipping guarantee tool to give US buyers free shipping on all orders over $35.
any listing with no shipping charge for US buyers will get the search boost, regardless of what country it ships from. Sellers outside of the US are included, but buyers in other countries are not.
free shipping minimums must be created with their “guarantee” tool to be eligible for priority search placement. So, if you want to offer free shipping to customers who purchase at least $35 USD of goods in your shop, you will only get the search boost through the new guarantee tool, which is still rolling out. Using the old Sales and Coupons settings to offer a free shipping sale with a minimum will not work for priority search placement on July 30th .
the $35 order tool will only change shipping prices for American buyers; everyone else will still pay for your set shipping rates. The $35 minimum purchase is calculated before tax but after any other sales discounts or coupons. [Update (July 21, 2019): this last point is now in dispute, as Etsy Support staff are now telling sellers that the guarantee will use the original price of the item, not a sale price. Stay tuned for further updates.]
the $35 guarantee tool takes effect as soon as you enable it, but the search benefits do not kick in until the 30th. You are also able to turn the guarantee tool off.
Promoted Listings will not be included in this change; items can still appear at the very top of search ads even if they charge for shipping.
you can still offer a shipping upgrade for a fee; only the base shipping price must be free for your listings to be included.
digital downloads are eligible for priority placement, but still won’t be included in the old free shipping search filters.
The smart pricing tool will help people with items over $35 USD adjust listing prices to compensate for the free shipping offer, but it will not be available to non-US sellers until August. Etsy will demonstrate how to use the smart pricing tool on Facebook Live on July 16. [Update (July 18): link to demo and the question and answer thread on this tool in the forum.]
the other elements of Etsy’s search algorithm will remain in effect; this is just one search factor. In other words, free shipping won’t automatically guarantee you top placement. [Pro tip: if you only want to offer free shipping on some items come July 30, consider the ones that already do very well in search, as listings that get very few search hits today likely won’t magically rise to the top row by offering free shipping.] Remember that the smaller the search result, the easier it will likely be to be found if you do not have free shipping.
this initiative will also affect Etsy promotions. “We’ll also begin to prioritize these items wherever Etsy advertises in the US—in email marketing, social media, and television ads.” Most people seem to be ignoring this point, perhaps because they do not realize how much traffic comes from Etsy advertising. I expect, for example, that all of the search links in the US version of Editors Picks will now go to shops with the free shipping guarantee. [Update (July 18): Etsy staff have confirmed via email that “prioritize” does not mean that shops without free shipping will never be promoted in emails, social media or on television. It just means that listings that ship free to the US, & shops with the $35 free shipping “guarantee”, will be more likely to be promoted.]
Things we want to know but don’t know (yet):
what does “priority placement” really mean? They’ve said it is different than the normal shipping boost that has supposedly been part of the algorithm since last year, but have not given more detail, other than the quote about “the top and most visible rows of search”.
why won’t the “smart pricing” tool be available outside of the United States until August? Since Etsy has also announced that they will be introducing country-specific sales options and will be doing more promotion and ads in non-US countries in the fall, and admits that we may need more tools for offering different prices in different countries, it does look like they fully expect that at least some non-American shops will suffer once this search change takes place. Shops outside of the United States have always had a disadvantage compared to US sellers, and Etsy is intentionally compounding it by transforming the algorithm before giving all of their tool solutions to all sellers.
why can’t sellers use the free shipping sale option we already have in the Sales & Coupons section of the shop manager to give US buyers free shipping on orders over $35? Possibly because we can’t use it to set a sale for just one country other than your own, so that would only work for shops that want to give every other country they sell to a free shipping deal as well.
does the statement about advertising include the Google and Google Shopping ads Etsy pays for? They did not mention search ads in their statement about promotions, and they ignored my question on this point in the Q&A thread. [Update (July 18): in an email to me, Etsy staff stated that the Google Shopping ads that Etsy buys for us are not affected by this change.] If it does, that likely means they will end up spending more than they used to on ads for those shops with free shipping in the US, since many of us who received traffic from Google Shopping ads would be removed as of July 30. Etsy has stated that those ads are their best performers, so they will have to feel very secure that the free shipping shops will be able to pick up the slack after removing so many other listings. Then again, they said “prioritize”, which does not necessarily mean that they will only promote listings with free shipping.
is it against the law in any jurisdictions to follow Etsy’s advice of combining shipping prices into the item price? Maybe, although I don’t necessarily agree it is in Canada, depending on how you do it. France’s law only applies to books, and only those shipped within France. I strongly suggest anyone worried about this consult legal advice in your jurisdiction. Note that Etsy’s solution for any illegality is to come up with another way to offer free shipping, which in essence means eating the cost and reducing your profit.
Things To Watch For:
an Etsy staffer has told me that more search changes are coming by the end of the summer; they will possibly include photo quality and more personalized results than we have seen across the board up until now. This free shipping prioritization might end up rolling out all at the same time as those changes, or at least as tests for those changes, making it more difficult to separate out the true effect of this free shipping prioritization.
Etsy said they will start increasing promotion and advertising in non-US countries in September, at the same time they start promoting the free shipping deals to American buyers. They’ve also previously said they want to give us more advertising and promotion opportunities, so I will not be surprised if increased Etsy ads involve increased ads that sellers pay for at the same time.
Don’t panic! While we do not know exactly how this is going to work, Etsy cannot afford to completely hide shops without free shipping to the US, so listings that have mailing costs will still be found in search. They want you to have shipping included in all of your listing prices, so they will really be pushy about this, but they also know that can’t happen, for a variety of reasons. For example, if you can’t ship free because your items cost $40 to ship within the US, then your competition will be in the same situation, and free shipping getting priority ranking will not matter.
Canadian searches have shown free shipping items for more than the first 25 pages of big, competitive searches since the end of January, yet a shop like mine, with only 6% of listings shipping to Canada for free (many as tests), has had no loss of Canadian sales.
Test this for yourselves, but also watch for people like myself to do testing and report in after this goes live on July 30. I have assembled a special team of sellers from around the world, and we will be designing a variety of tests, including both listings with and without free shipping, from US and non-US sellers. I will blog once we have full results, but will also update this post a bit, so keep checking in.
wait for the bugs to be worked out of the tools before using them, if at all possible. There is no benefit to using them before July 30th, as you can use the existing sales and coupons function to do a free shipping sale today if you want.
Remember the things I always say: 1) don’t rely on Etsy alone for your business income; 2) don’t rely on Etsy search alone for your Etsy income; and most importantly 3) don’t rely on ranking in the big, general searches for the bulk of your Etsy search sales. Make sure you are optimized for lots of niche (aka long tail) searches, as they constitute the majority of ecommerce sales. The sellers this will hurt the most are folks who can’t ship for free (including many sellers outside of the US) but who still think that the most common searches are the ones that will work best for them.
I’ve had sales in the past 30 days from searches with as few as 24 results. In examples like this, ranking by free shipping will not matter much. On that note, my goal in the next few weeks is to release my long-promised guide on keyword research (with a focus on niche keywords), and a new basic post on the other search algorithm elements.
We all knew this was coming, and it is not the end. Accept that this is how Etsy functions now, and make your business plans accordingly.
Updated July 21st, 2019