Google trust signals and the eBay penalty

  • 1
  • January 12, 2015
Matthew Jackson

Matthew Jackson

Planning Director

At Branded3, we have been championing the concept of a great user experience; creating websites firstly for the user but with search engine friendly features, for the last 10 years.

If you can create a website that users love, then Google will love it as well. Google is looking for more and more signals to help it build up a picture of whether users, and it, can trust a website.

To build that trust can take some time but it can be very easy to lose if websites and brands do things that Google doesn’t like. Penalties have been handed out to a lot of websites in the last year because Google no longer trusts the signals that the site is sending.

For those who do not know, eBay was hit with a penalty in May 2014, reportedly costing up to $200 million in lost revenue and knocking a large amount of value off its share price.

A lot of SEO professionals have written about the eBay penalty so you can read what some of those people think in these sorts of articles. It was even reported that someone close to eBay or Google had confirmed that the penalty was a manual action. But these articles – although good in explaining a few reasons why the site has been dropped – don’t cover a lot of the trust issues that are really at the heart of why a site like this would be underperforming and at risk of penalty in the first place.

These trust signals do not come from traditional SEO metrics (links, PageRank, Domain Authority) but instead from less tangible factors that Google could, should and probably is incorporating in its algorithms.

The Google quality rating guidelines that were leaked in 2014 even suggest that Google is trying to define Expertise, Authoritativeness and Trustworthiness (E.A.T) by using its quality raters.

These suggestions that the quality raters make are being fed back into the algorithms so Google can build up a quality trust signal to use in the ranking algorithms.

But what is ‘trust’ to Google, how can we build it up and how could eBay have been affected by these signals?

Link Trust

Links have always been a big part of Google’s algorithms, a link to your site is a vote for you; a vote for you means someone trusts you. But what if the voting system is rigged? Historically SEOs manipulated links to try and affect rankings and there are still a large number of people trying to do this.

Google has become much better at developing algorithms to detect manipulative links including manual penalties and the Penguin algorithm update, including the most recent 3.0 update. Now if Google doesn’t trust your links, rather than the links just not counting, they can actively harm you.

Since eBay has apparently received a manual penalty then we know that links are a big problem for them. There are a lot of sites that link to eBay, Moz is currently suggesting around 79,000 domains linking to the UK site alone.

It is difficult to properly discuss the eBay link profile as we do not know which links have been disavowed already and most third-party link tools don’t show us half the number of links that Google and Bing webmaster tools would be able to give us. But clearly they need to review their link history and current link practises to ensure that they can get rid of the manual action and not be at risk from future updates.

However, there are other “link” issues that could have resulted in Google investigating further and beginning to lose trust in the site. The eBay affiliate scheme was one such story in the past that is well worth reading about, however this is just one side of the story told by someone arrested by the FBI – so we have to use a little caution when reading these reports! But activity like this will be heard by Google and Google’s algorithm, again starting to reduce the trust that Google shows the site.

Link activity is not just something you need to think about now, you need to understand your historic activity and how this could affect Google’s trust levels of your site. If you are in any doubt you need to disavow and potentially remove links to ensure Google can continue to trust your link profile.

Content Quality Trust

Google’s Panda algorithm has been active for well over three years now. Initially released to remove content farms from search results and reduce the impact of sites with poor quality, low value, thin content, the algorithm has undoubtedly developed to look for many other signals within content on sites.

If your content is not of value to users or is not reliable then again these quality trust signals can feed back into how Google perceives your site.

In eBay’s case most people will think of the brief descriptions for each item uploaded by the users. These descriptions may well have been added to other sites when users try and sell.

For example, a lot of the descriptions on eBay can be found on sites like Gumtree and Craigslist. Yes this can often be thin low quality and duplicated, but Google is likely to be aware of this sort of content. There are lots of listings sites out there and some do very well and often user generated content is a great way to increase the content on your site.

But there are other areas on eBay that could be much more harmful. For instance, the “guides” section that eBay is publishing could be sending some really bad trust signals to Google.

There are some reasonable articles on there but there are a lot more poor quality user generated content on this section of the site which has turned it into another ezine articles directory style site.

Article directory sites have been hit in the past with the Panda update because of the seriously large amounts of poor quality content and eBay is again going to start losing Google’s trust if it continues to allow these articles to be published.

For example why does this article published at the beginning of October have any reason to exist on the internet let alone exist on eBay’s website? It is likely that this article was placed on eBay to try and improve the number of links to a seller’s product pages, or perhaps to artificially improve the rating of the seller.

There is no user value in this post and there are hundreds of other articles like it in this section of the site. Rishi Lakhani posted an analysis of some of eBay’s “Black hat pages” if you are interested in more content trust issues.

Again, as with links; there are hundreds of articles that need to be reviewed and potentially removed, updated or improved. While there are some useful articles in there, it is likely that the overall amount of poor pages are likely to be reducing the trust that Google has in these pages so is unlikely to rank these pages and maybe more sections of the site. These pages could also put eBay at risk of being hit by a Panda update if they have not already.

User Experience Trust

Google has for a long while been trying to show that the site with the best user experience, the best design, the best user journey will be the site that they return at the top of their results.

I would recommend watching some of the videos from our Leeds seminar which talk more about user engagement signals that Google is using. But again Google is starting to pick up on trust signals around this, using factors such as bounce back to search rates in conjunction with traditional bounce rates, to improve its results.

eBay’s desktop user experience is still rather stuck back in the late 2000’s. Have you ever tried to set up an account and sell something, it’s quite challenging even for a tech savvy user. I only ever used eBay once and found it very difficult to sell an item. Even after my item had sold it was impossible to find out the next steps, how to arrange payment and how to contact the buyer. eBay could make the process so much easier.

The app makes life a lot easier as the user experience is much better but this approach needs applying to the desktop and mobile versions as this is currently where Google will get the majority of their ranking information from.

Google is starting to use more app data within its results and will continue to push more mobile ranking factors so this will help eBay.

Because I don’t use eBay much I did a quick straw poll in our office which showed that there were some people who love eBay, some who just use it for price comparison purposes, but the majority of people who really liked eBay use the app version.

“I find eBay better than Amazon! Especially the fast payment with PayPal!”

“All the help stuff is buried and out of date. The navigation changes if you venture into content pages and it looks like it’s from a much older version of the site.”

“I can never save searches on the app, or maybe I haven’t figured out how to do it!”

“The website isn’t as user friendly if I’m honest. I think it’s something to do with the layout and I often can’t find what I’m looking for on the page e.g. seller details.”

eBay does appear to be starting to look at ways to improve its site.

Testing new designs on eBay

But compare this to the number of changes that sites such as Amazon are making, for example, increased its revenue by 1% for every 100 milliseconds of load time improvement, they also make UX changes to navigation that are so small most users don’t notice but it makes a massive difference to the user experience.

If you can improve your site incrementally, especially for sites with large amounts of traffic like eBay, you are likely to make massive gains in revenue and ultimately Google can see these improvements. These changes can help Google understand the investment being made in your website, which can lead to more trust that you are creating a great website experience.

User Credibility Trust

User trust, which is separate from Google Trust, is an element that Google is likely trying to tie into its algorithm. How trustworthy is this site? Should users be buying from this company? Will people be ripped off?

For a normal ecommerce website, Google will likely use signals like social noise and review websites to build up a picture of how trustworthy people feel the site is. However for eBay, this is different. The amount a user trusts eBay is irrelevant, the real element of trust is how much do you trust the individual sellers.

Users have to rely on the fact that a seller will send the product to them which may or may not happen. eBay have done a lot with seller ratings and the buyer guarantees, but how much Google can ultimately trust them as a reliable source is debatable and if eBay do nothing to get rid of questionable sellers then Google is less likely to trust the site enough to keep sending search traffic to the site.

Creating case studies, testimonials, user review programs, customer relation/retention management programs, can all help to boost your own credibility and the more trustworthy users think you are, the more this passes back into what Google can hear.

Security Trust

Security is something that everyone worries about online, is that site secure, should I give them my details, can I give them money? If you were worried about being mugged you wouldn’t walk down a dark alley so why if you thought you were going to be mugged online would you continue on a site?

There has been a recent spate of security issues that have occurred across the eBay site. This has ranged from leaked passwords to gateway pages that could be used for malicious purposes.

This might not seem a reason for search performance to be affected but why not? Google actively looks for sites that contain malware and informs users and webmasters of this, as well as removing a huge amount of spam from its index every minute. You can in fact see some of the spam and hacked pages it’s actively removing on their how search works pages.

eBay WMT

So if Google is telling users about this then it will have ways of looking at other potential risks such as security risks/flaws, potential scams, misleading advertising, mis-selling, and other immoral or illegal activity and then incorporating this in its algorithms.

Google will be aware of the security issues on the eBay website so this will affect Google’s trust in the website. These security flaws will have been addressed by eBay and procedures tightened up quickly but it is going to be more difficult to clean up how Google views the company’s security.

eBay’s Future

eBay is a massive brand, it has lots of authority and Google will undoubtedly want to keep showing eBay results. There is value in those eBay search results, whether it is because it has unique products on the site, a different price option, or just because they add some variation to the search results. People still like eBay, and search for it a lot, even if the search interest is dropping compared to other big sites.

eBay interest

However, if eBay wants to continue to get search traffic from Google, it needs to build back trust in the website through cleaning up the link profile, cleaning up poor quality content and building on their website experience. By creating a good quality website with great user experience then the site will perform well again.

The Future of Google Trust

Google is continuing to improve its ranking signals and more importantly develop the signals that are less metric driven, less tangible ranking factors.

Ranking is no longer just down to the number of links a website has, but is more about the experience that those websites deliver and the quality of the user’s experiences with those websites.

Developing Google’s trust in your website and your brand is a difficult process and losing that trust can be very easily done. We have mentioned just a few signals that Google is looking at to build a picture of trust. There are going to be more of these factors and different factors covering different topics.

Google’s engineers are very clever so more trust signals will be developed. Don’t think of your website as a series of numbers or code, think of it as an employee. Can you, your users and ultimately Google trust your most valuable employee?

Branded3’s Search Due Diligence service can help brands understand how at risk they might be of losing that trust that Google has built up in the website. If you rely a lot on traffic from Google to your website get in touch and we would be happy to assess your trust signals.