eBay’s search results mysteriously take a hit as Google ramps up its own ecommerce offerings


google-keeping-ebay-downAt the end of last month, we reported on Vivint, a smart home company, which found itself delisted from search for four months shortly after Google bought Nest and the two companies became rivals. Vivint had violated Google’s search rules, but complained about being given little guidance on righting its wrongs and argued that a complete lack of transparency left it essentially fishing in the dark to get back in Google’s good graces.

Google buys company A, company A’s competitor immediately ends up blocked from search for an unusually severe amount of time. It looks bad.

But as Google’s Matt Cutts and its collected Internet sycophants argued to us, Vivint violated the laws. There’s nothing to see here. Google is totally transparent. TOTALLY.

Except, well, uhhh… now, as Google ramps up its own Google Shopping options, another of its competitors found themselves falling afoul of Google’s mysterious search rules.

Only this time it wasn’t some Utah-based upstart. It was eBay.

Google has two algorithms that crawl the Internet looking at content. Panda analyzes content, penalizing sites that are rife with duplicate, spammy content; Penguin looks for spammy links.

On May 20 on Twitter, Google’s Head of Webspam eBay’s Matt Cutts announced an update to Panda — edition 4.0 — on his Twitter page. eBay’s organic search positioning immediately went into free fall and in the almost month since the update, has not recovered.

According to analytics site SEMRush, in April eBay had 8.4 million search terms placed in Google’s top 100. In May it had 7.8 million. This month, it has just 5.4 million.

But it’s also less about how many search terms eBay has in the top 100, than where those search terms fall. In April, eBay placed in the top five of Google’s search results for 3.5 million terms. Now it is in the top five for just 1.1 million queries. It was placed on the first page of Google’s result for 5.4 million search terms in May, but now makes the top ten for just 2.5 million terms.

It’s a punishment for eBay that has competitive advantage for Google. It has been upgrading its Shopping option, phasing out antiquated product listing ads in favor of Google Shopping display boxes, where Google is either getting paid for selling, or advertising the product. It started doing this in beta last October, and will have completed the switch over by August.

Foxtail Marketing’s Mike Templeman says that eBay’s place in Google search results fell for as many as 80 percent of its search terms after the Panda 4.0 update. The Panda algorithm analyzes the quality of content on each web page and eBay’s site is built heavily upon product pages which are often flimsy and without a lot of original content. But that’s just the nature of eBay, he adds, and other e-commerce sellers. Amazon was also hit, to a lesser extent.

“eBay wasn’t doing anything wrong. Google just changed the rules,” Templeman says. “It leaves eBay with two options, it forces them to spend more money on Google ads or they can rewrite all of their content.”

Search for an iPhone 5s on Google. Its own shopping box filled with paid links comes up prominently. Amazon’s product listing for iPhone comes up on page two. eBay’s is nowhere to be seen. The company is already one of the biggest purchasers of Google’s Product Listing Advertisements, but if it wants to keep getting higher up, it will keep having to pay.

Google teased to Recode after people first noticed eBay’s plummet that it wasn’t the Panda algorithm, but a manual action that stung eBay. A Google spokesperson told Pando that “we do occasionally take manual action” but wouldn’t confirm if such a thing had taken place.

Instead they toed the company line. “We typically don’t get into details on specific sites,” the spokesperson said.

For SEO experts looking on, it was another worrying example of how much commercial influence Google’s search results have and how they can be used to its advantage, whether deliberate or not.

Disruptive Advertising’s Jacob Baadsgaard saw eBay’s search demotion as a direct e-commerce play by Google. As eBay and Amazon have risen to new heights as sellers, Google’s own decade old platform has been stagnant.

“As Google gets stronger and stronger they have huge impact being the gatekeeper to a lot of the traffic on the Internet,” Baadsgaard says.

Which is troubling, that anti-competitive pall that sits over this all. Google Search is a large sledgehammer it gets to wield and it has no imperative to publish its own search rules.

“In the SEO space no likes to ruffle Google’s feathers,” Foxtail’s Mike Templeman says. “If they dig deep it feels like they could find a problem with anyone’s site.”

eBay and Google’s Head of Webspam Matt Cutts did not respond to requests for comment.  

[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]



Icahn vs. eBay’s board of directors, round… oh, who can keep track?



Carl Icahn has continued his efforts to separate eBay and PayPal by publishing yet another open letter alleging fiduciary misconduct by the company’s board of directors. [Disclosure: Icahn’s complaints focus on Marc Andreessen, a personal investor in Pando.] The letter is simply the latest development in Icahn’s back-and-forth with eBay that includes a number of open letters, public statements, and interviews with the press.

The conflict has actually become quite formulaic. First Icahn publishes an invective open letter repeating claims he’s already made; then eBay responds with a measured response to those claims; and then the entire process repeats itself, until Icahn gets his way or gives up. The only variations involve the number of underlined words Icahn includes in his letter and the person responding on eBay’s behalf.

But that doesn’t mean that the popcorn-worthy battle between the two has become boring. In fact, if the opening statement on Icahn’s latest letter is to be believed, things might soon become pretty interesting — and might inspire some to actually microwave some popcorn:

eBay has challenged us to focus on honest, accurate debate. We do not believe eBay is serious about this. However, yesterday CNBC offered a public forum for that debate. We immediately told CNBC we would be happy to do it, but we doubt eBay will accept its own challenge. We will soon find out. At this moment, not surprising to us, eBay has not responded. We eagerly await their reply.

A television appearance might be the best thing for eBay shareholders, even if neither side agrees on PayPal’s future. Icahn boosted Apple’s stock price with a single tweet; making his case and arguing with eBay’s board of directors on live television might do the same for eBay.

Reactions from around the Web

Reuters’ Breaking Views columnist Robert Cyran supports Icahn’s efforts:

EBay’s users and online auctions have helped PayPal grow. That’s important, because payment networks become more useful for both buyers and sellers the larger they become. The most recent example was mobile. In 2010, 80 percent of PayPal’s nascent mobile business came from eBay apps. Three years later, PayPal’s mobile payments volume had increased more than fortyfold, to $ 27 billion.

EBay argues that separating the two would rip PayPal from this rich source of business. It points out that 30 percent of new PayPal users come from eBay. If anything, though, this shows that PayPal has grown too big for its parent. A majority of its new customers come from outside eBay’s walls. Giving the unit independence might attract even more. Retailers like Amazon might be more willing to work with PayPal if it weren’t owned by an e-commerce rival.

Forbes’ Steve Bertoni reports that Icahn and eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, who supports the board of directors on a statement published to eBay’s website, have made billions off the spat:

Ebay shares have soared since Icahn released an open letter attacking the company on February 24th. Since the first letter, eBay shares have jumped more than 7.5% percent. That’s resulted in a paper gain of about $ 450 million for Omidyar, eBay’s founder, chairman and–with more than 105 million shares–eBay’s largest stake holder.

Icahn, who owns about 2% of eBay, has made roughly $ 108 million since releasing his letter to Ebay Share holders in which he accused eBay’s board members (Marc Andreessen and Scott Cook) of placing their interests ahead of shareholders, and competing directly against eBay. Icahn wants two board seats, and is pressing eBay to spin off its  fast-growing PayPal division.

MarketWatch’s Rex Crum compares Icahn to Muhammad Ali:

Maybe Carl Icahn is both a boxing and history buff?

After all, it was 50 years ago this week [Feb. 25, to be precise] that Muhammad Ali, who was then known as Cassius Clay, went into the ring in Miami and defeated the heavyweight champ of the world, Sonny Listen, in a six-round TKO.

Why else would Icahn use this week, in particular, to start a knockdown, drag-out brawl with e-commerce giant eBay?

Pando weighs in

I wrote about the spat between Icahn and eBay’s board on Monday and noted the irony in the billionaire investor’s accusations:

In other words, Icahn, a vulture capitalist-slash-activist investor who purchases large portions of companies before bullying them into “unlocking shareholder value” at the company’s expense, is condemning members of eBay’s board for allegedly using their position to make money at the detriment of the company. That’s irony that could be cut with a dull knife someone stole from their great-grandmother and then turned around and sold on eBay.

[Image courtesy Insider Monkey]