Taking digital offline: Lessons in SEO from the high street
Real estate in the Google search results is similar to real estate on the physical high street. It’s a place where brands are able to advertise their products and services, drawing customers in to make their final purchases.
So does this mean that what we see on the high street might reflect the changes we are starting to see in search engines too?
Recently I attended an Outreach Digital event, where Gareth Cartman spoke about how much of SEO is just understanding customer experience better. The talk used an analogy of how businesses fight Panda in real life (more about that later), but it got me thinking about how we see the tweaks Google make to their algorithm in everyday life. With thousands of updates and adaptations to the algorithm each year, the best way for an SEO to get ahead of the game is to be able to predict the next large changes and future-proof their websites.
Jumping back to Gareth’s talk at Outreach Digital, the story started with an example of real life Panda; where the quality of the experience of the user impacted their likelihood to buy.
Imagine you’ve been browsing for new shoes. When you rock up at the store of a brand you’d found online, you find that the front door is broken, there’s rubbish strewn around the shop floor, and the shop attendants look like they’ve just rolled out of bed. It wouldn’t exactly inspire faith to purchase from the store.
If you put this example, which I’m sure we’ve all experienced, into the digital world then who would buy from a seemingly poor quality site? When positioned like this, the fact you should be creating the very best content on your site to support it seems obvious.
Taking the other most famous Google update into a real life situation, let’s look at links and Penguin. Whilst we all see links as the way to travel from one website to another, in principle, it’s a recommendation being offered to the user. This endorsement isn’t uncommon to the behaviour we see on a daily basis on the high street.
Think about the last time you were handed a flyer on the street from ‘the best bar in town’ or ‘the greatest value’ store on the high street. Did you trust it? Ultimately, if we can see that the person is being directly paid to encourage footfall to a store, then it is in our nature to understand the value exchange here and that their recommendation may not be completely genuine.
Now picture yourself in one of your favourite stores, where the product you’re desperate for is out of stock and will take a few weeks to come in. Kindly the shop assistant may suggest popping down the road to an alternative store; “Perfect” you think as you head off to get your product from the other store, which did turn out to meet your needs. In this situation, you’ve been given a great customer experience from the initial store, despite their stock levels, and you still managed to complete the objective of your shopping trip. And now, you probably wouldn’t hesitate to recommend either of these stores to your friends.
A genuine, honest endorsement (or link) is something that users appreciate and adds value to their overall experience. This simple rule is one to be applied to your own link profile online; Add value to the users in an upfront manner and you’re more likely to avoid any form of negative impact on performance.
Pigeon was the update that took on local search, creating a better experience for users when they’re looking for a product or service close to them. This is exactly what we see when browsing a high street or a shopping centre. If you’re looking at the interactive map in a large centre and it directs you three floors away just to get a coffee, you’ll be far less impressed when you find out there was a Starbucks just behind you.
Apply this to just a chat with your friends. Being told about the most amazing restaurant they’ve eaten at recently is only interesting if you can then engage and go to that restaurant yourself. If they’re referencing a place which is in another country, or a long drive away, your interest instantly becomes much more passive, if not frustrated at not being given a recommendation of any use.
From a user experience perspective, it is a natural extension to the service of the Google High Street that you should first see the choices of the places nearby to you.
When we warned of Mobilegeddon approaching, the majority of websites rushed to improve their experience when on a smaller device. Ensuring each page fit well within multiple screen sizes, and the usability of the site was not compromised. But should we have seen this coming?
To distill the mobile update down from the digital and into a trend that is seen offline, look at the way a store is organised. For those of us that maybe spend a bit too much time shopping, you’ll know that some stores are much more enjoyable to shop in than others. It’s easier to find what you’re looking for if everything is spaced apart and in a logical order. Stores with space to walk between the rails of products, where the purchase process is then one simple point are much more likely to sell their stock.
This is exactly the same as the changes people were making to their mobile sites; ensuring that what they were trying to fit within the screen was displayed in the best way possible. Guaranteeing that the purchase process was just a couple of clicks, rather than an elongated process which could put users off.
The biggest shift in high street purchasing in recent years has been the increase in the number of self service tills we’re seeing in stores. As shops trade off the face to face experience, for accelerating the purchase process (and cutting their staffing costs) it is clear that the pace at which someone can finish a transaction is important. This isn’t a great shock when you think about your own shopping trips – a massive queue is off putting, likewise for big crowds which will slow you down when you’re browsing in the store.
It is only natural then that when we are shopping online we want the same experience. If a website is slow to load and allow us to start our browsing, then it’s likely we’ll just go to the next best alternative. Seeing a whole list of similar search results means we can see that there is competition out there and options we can go to, therefore users can be pickier about the experience they have. This means that speed, amongst other things, is key to keeping users on side.
What’s next for search engines?
So can we predict the future of Google’s updates by looking at past high street customer experience trends? Probably not. This isn’t an argument for how blind we’ve been all these years to the patterns Google is following, it’s merely an acknowledgement that the emphasis Google puts upon the user experience on site is coming from empirical evidence within the high street.