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What to Learn from the eBay Google Penalty

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articleimage355What to Learn from the eBay Google Penalty

Back in May, eBay was hit was a manual penalty from Google that knocked the site down in the search rankings. At first, the penalty appeared to be automated and a result of the Panda 4.0 rollout. The timing would suggest as much. However, further reporting by Re/code revealed that a manual action was likely the culprit for the rankings drop.

The Panda updates are designed to boost sites with high quality content and demote those with low-quality or duplicate content. According to Re/code, people following the Panda update noticed that several eBay pages were bumped off the search results shortly after rollout. But the tell-tale sign it was a manual action had to do with what pages were affected. You see, an automatic penalty due to Panda would’ve resulted in all of eBay disappearing from the search results. Instead, just individual pages were wiped, indicating a manual action was to blame.

But what does all of this mean for you, the regular, everyday site owner? There are several lessons to be learned from the eBay fiasco. Let’s take a look at each in greater detail.

Big Sites Aren’t Immune to Bad SEO

articleimage355Big Sites Aren't Immune to Bad SEO

eBay has been around for how many years now? The specifics don’t matter. Let’s just say it’s been around a long time. And a lot of people would assume that since it’s beenaround for such a long time, it would never run into any problems with its SEO strategy. So, this Google penalty should be one loud, “guess again,” to those who ascribe to that line of thinking.

It doesn’t matter how big your site is or how well established it is — if you do something that Google views as spammy or low quality, you will get penalized for it eventually.

I would think most site owners would find that fact comforting. The idea that the big name brands out there have to play by the same rules as everybody else has a stabilizing effect. No one can opt out of the Google Webmaster Guidelines. No one is above it. Not eBay. Not Amazon. Not any number of other big sites out there.

Gateway or Doorway Pages Are a No-No

Many of the pages knocked from the rankings had “bhp” in the URL, according to a RefuGeeks report. In fact, 90k of the 120k bumped had this subcategory in their URLs. These URLs aren’t linked to normally within the eBay site structure and instead are only directly accessible through Google search results. These are starting pages made specifically for search engine users.

Now, there isn’t anything wrong with this on the surface, and it’s certainly not all that shady, but it does seem like eBay did a bit of overkill with this tactic. The pages themselves are very optimized — in totally legit fashion, mind you — and are obviously meant to carry the full weight of the site.

Someone in the comments on the Refugeeks report notes that Google seems to be ignoring the majority of the “bhp” directory now, “which was really a host for doorway pages.” And another commenter claimed that the pages in this directory are related to an eBay content marketing push to create buying guides with tons of links to “bhp” pages within the content.

All that being said, you’re probably wondering how this relates to the average site owner who doesn’t have hundreds of thousands of pages to deal with. The answer is quite simple, actually: too much of anything can be bad. Though eBay had a decent strategy here, they tried to do too much too fast with no real control for quality. The content on these pages was okay but certainly not high-quality. And that’s what Google is looking for now. High quality content that is obviously created for readers. Not search engines.

SEO is Serious Business

articleimage355SEO is Serious Busines

According to Search Engine Land, eBay suggested it might have lost around $200 million in revenue thanks to this SEO snafu as of July 2014.

This juicy tidbit was revealed during an earnings call with Bob Swan, eBay’s chief financial officer. Specifically, he said that eBay was receiving less traffic from Google, which has affected revenue and growth for the auction business. Swan then said that the company is focusing on getting eBay users “reengaged” through the use of “couponing, seller incentives and increased marketing spend…”

eBay has yet to address specifically what the SEO issue is but, as the analysis compiled above shows, it seems pretty clear at this point. One thing the company does admit is that fixing the SEO issues will take a long time and will likely cost a lot of money.

Finally, Swan adjusted the eBay’s high end revenue estimate from $18.5 billion to $18.3 billion. Not all of that can be blamed on a drop in SEO traffic, but it seems a good chunk of it can.

At this point in time, eBay is leaning toward paid search as its method of digging itself out of the SEO hole. But I realize that’s not a viable solution for everyone. If you’re a small company with a relatively small advertising budget, investing in paid search might not work.

To the average site owner, eBay’s run in with Google should act as a gigantic warning sign. SEO is serious business. Really. It’s not something that can be taken lightly or ignored. It’s essential. And as eBay has swiftly found out, SEO errors can leave you hurting in a major way.

Now imagine if the same type of penalty had been incurred on a small business? eBay is a huge company with plenty of revenue and other business ventures to keep it afloat, even in times of struggle. But if you’re small, having a Google penalty levied against you could literally mean the downfall of your business. No traffic = no sales. A million times, ouch.

Moving Forward

The most important thing you can learn from eBay’s SEO penalty is to use it as an example of what not to do. No, eBay’s SEO problems weren’t all that egregious but that just goes to show how specific and precise your search engine optimization efforts need to be. To avoid an eBay-style debacle, you can:

  • Keep up to date with the latest SEO trends
  • Monitor for new algorithm updates
  • Learn by example • Follow the Google Webmaster Guidelines
  • Focus on building high quality content

Those takeaways should help to keep your site atop the search engine ranks for the long term.

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James Parsons

I'm an avid blogger on SEO, social media, and design. When I'm not working with the awesome guys at AudienceBloom, I'm writing for my personal blog at JamesParsons.com or working on my next big project.

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