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]



With new offerings from Facebook and Skype, interesting things are finally happening with video chat


SpaceX Snapchat

Video communications just got a lot more interesting.

Facebook today added new video-sharing features to its Facebook Messenger app. (The new feature is available only in the iPhone app for now, but an Android version is coming.) The app doesn’t allow for live communications — users must record a video and then share it with their friends — but the addition shows Facebook’s commitment to improving Messenger.

That’s not the only video-related news revealed today. Skype also announced it has brought free group video calling to Windows, Mac, and Xbox One. The feature allows up to 10 people to communicate with each other in a single video chat, and was previously only part of the service’s premium offering, which costs $ 8.99 for an entire month or $ 4.99 for a single day.

Both releases follow increased competition from other messaging services. Line is expected to add voice-calling features to its popular mobile messaging service, and WhatsApp plans to do the same. Google has built its chat service directly into the Android operating system; Apple has done the same with its own communications service. It’s a crowded, crowded market.

That’s a good thing. A crowded market hoping to out-innovate incumbents and wannabe “disrupters” alike is better than a near-empty market where bloated software that works only half the time is the only viable option. It’s about time someone made video interesting again.

Reactions from around the Web

Wired considers Skype’s announcement part of Microsoft’s battle with Google:

The Skype announcement is a smaller move. But it’s part of the same trend. As with free Windows and free Microsoft developers tools, the jury is still out on whether the company’s new approach will prove successful. But some are already praising Microsoft’s move. For several commenters on Hacker News — one of the main online hangouts for the Silicon Valley cognoscenti — the move could push more people towards Skype and away from Google+. “Everyone I know hates switching to [Google+] for group calls,” one commenter wrote. “We have to use Skype to guide people through the G+ interface and get them on a group call.”

“I never realized it but my parents get really uncomfortable when I try to walk them over how to set up Google Hangout, and most of the time the conversation just continues on Skype and we drop the experiment,” wrote another.

Pando weighs in

Pando’s Carmel DeAmicis explained why there’s room for more than Skype and Google Hangouts in the video communications market:

We’re in the video conferencing 2.0 era, and companies are starting to innovate on the original Skype/Cisco products.

A few factors have converged at the same time to make video conferencing rise in popularity. For one thing, most computers and smartphones are now built with high resolution two-way cameras. For another, Internet connections have improved the video transmission process — although it may not seem that way when your Skype call drops for the millionth time.

Lastly and most importantly, the YouTube generation raised on video is growing up. They’re very comfortable with video consumption and creation. Many of them are armed with smart phones, and communicating through video is second nature to them.

I wrote about Glide, a startup hoping to replace video chat with video “texting”:

The trouble, to hear Glide CEO Ari Roisman tell it, is that we’re using synchronous video communications tools in an asynchronous world. We’re used to responding to an email or Facebook message whenever it’s most convenient for us. Having to make ourselves available at exactly the same time as the person we’re talking to feels, and in some ways is, anachronistic.

Roisman hopes to change that with Glide, which allows users to share video that can be watched in real-time or whenever they’ve got a spare moment. (The company refers to this as “live or later” in its promotional materials.) The service, which is available on the iPhone and Android smartphones, is today announcing a rapid increase in its daily active users and the amount of video they’re sharing. “Video texting,” as Roisman calls it, might actually become a thing.

Pando alum Erin Griffith wrote about Skype-owned GroupMe’s journey from startup darling to me-too messaging service in October 2013. In the report, GroupMe’s founders claim that the service’s low user count isn’t really a big deal:

Even combined with Skype’s 250 million monthly users, GroupMe’s four million monthly active users is a far cry from the billion users Martocci promised after the sale. It’s also a far cry from the hundreds of millions that WhatsApp, Line and WeChat have.

The GroupMe founders are quick to point out that these other services don’t focus on groups, an area which GroupMe dominates. “We are for groups, that is our fundamental distinction,” Hecht says. “That has been enough of a distinction, and that will persist. I don’t think we’re going up against the others because we didn’t ever have one-to-one messaging.”

[illustration by Hallie Bateman for Pando]