Until now most websites have been following a broad set of search and content optimisation rules to help drive a good performance in Google searches, around content, links, technical factors and so on. Now it turns out that those generalised guidelines alone are no longer as effective as they once were.

Today, Google has a much better understanding of the search intent suggested by the words that people enter into the search box, including whether they relate to the retail, travel, finance or other verticals. And it rewards pages that most closely satisfy the specific requirements of searchers within each sector.

To uncover the specific rules for online retailers, Searchmetrics analysed the top 20 search results for over 6,000 keywords and phrases that are commonly used in retail queries.

What it discovered was that – perhaps not so surprisingly – Google tends to reward sites that deliver a good online customer experience. Specifically, we found that higher ranking retail sites tend to be the ones that give shoppers an easy, usually ad-free experience in which they find what they want quickly and can check out fast.

Based on our analysis, here are six important learnings about the new rules for helping your online retail or e-commerce site improve its Google visibility.

1. Well-structured internal links

Well-structured internal links and menus are important for any site because they make it easier for visitors to find the information they need. For retail sites, however, they are fundamental as they help shoppers easily locate and browse through products, find related items and view associated details. The research reveals that pages listed in the top 10 search results for online retail queries have 70% more internal links than those for general search queries.

2. Visible checkout

As you might expect, when searchers show an intent to make online purchases, Google tends to reward sites that help them do it quickly and easily. Part of this is ensuring that they don’t have to hunt around to find the checkout. So for retail search queries, the research indicates that 56% of results that rank on Google’s first page have an online checkout that can be instantly seen above the fold, without having to scroll down the page. For more general search queries, the rate is just 23%.

3. Images are key

Pages with smaller file sizes usually load quicker and contribute to a better user experience, which is why Google generally tends to rank them higher. But for retail sites, the search engine seems to appreciate that visitors value being able to view more product images and information, to compare multiple products within a category, for example. We found that in the top 10 results for online retail queries, file sizes are 30% larger on average than for general queries.

4. Saying ‘no’ to advertising

One disadvantage of retail sites monetising their pages by selling ads and promotions is the possibility of distracting visitors who come to their site with a specific purchase in mind. Google seems to recognise this potential drawback, which could be why just 3% of sites that rank within the first ten results for online retail searches carry Google AdSense advertising. For general search queries, it’s 9%.

5. Using bullet points

Online shoppers prefer to visit well-structured pages which use lists and bullet points to organise information and quickly scan and compare product features. This could explain why 62% of the top 20 Google results for retail-focused searches include at least one unordered (bullet point) list – and why in the first 10 results the lists include around 70% more bullets than are found within lists displayed in response to general search queries.

5. Pass on video 

While embedded videos are found in almost half (49%) of pages that appear in the top 10 Google results for general search queries, it does not appear to be quite as important for online retail searches where it only appears in 35%. It absolutely makes sense to include video somewhere on your retail site (product videos, unboxing, product tests, comparisons with the competition and so on). However, the study indicates that for online retail queries, Google seems to give a little more weight to results that include catalogue style listings showing many small product images and descriptions that shoppers can easily compare.

It’s now becoming clear that marketers – whether in retail or other verticals – must quickly embrace the fact that focusing on generalised, universally applicable search ranking factors is no longer enough to drive the best search performance.

The new rules of search and content optimisation dictate that they have to take a more focused approach based on specific considerations associated with their own industry.